BE THE CHAMP! - critter fiddling
'Many still want to continue to poke and prod and just want to know what level is socially acceptable'
THERE ARE MANY draws to the Dive Show, but the attraction that always pulls me back are the talks. As a photographer I tend to focus on the PhotoZone to see the latest images and pick up new ideas from some of the UK’s top talent.
Normally, I am wheeled out on stage too. But this year I was just another paying punter (yes, handing over my £14.50 on the door), which meant I could indulge myself and catch far more talks than usual. My old mucker Martin Edge explained the intricacies of the powerful technique of inward lighting and I marvelled at John Boyle’s footage of diving’s hottest pristine destination – the Gardens of the Queen in Cuba.
Alex Tattersall tackled the thorny subject of macro critter manipulation in his talk “Confessions of an Ex-Fiddler”, with his popular brand of self-deprecating humour, eye-catching images and blatant sales pitch.
He’s right to raise the issue too, which has reached something of crescendo in the underwater macro photography community that regularly dives the popular South-east Asian destinations.
The problem, as he explained, is that sometimes the wrong type of macro images are being held up as aspirational.
While tonnes of stunning pictures are taken by talented photographers in the right way, there is a small, but growing trend for pictures that can be taken only by manipulating and molesting subjects.
And when these win awards and hundreds of likes from fellow photographers, it encourages more and more to poke and prod their subjects into pleasing poses.
However, as solutions are debated, I feel that our community is getting too caught up in the detail. Arguments rage about how much is allowed with any given subject, which shows that many still want to continue to poke and prod and just want to know what level is socially acceptable.
For me the whole issue comes down to whether you respect nature (or not). And this current critter-fiddling malaise comes from exactly the same thoughtless attitude that makes some photographers lie all over the reef.
IT’S NOT ALL doom and gloom. The underwater photography community has progressed a lot down the years, as photographers constantly question how we should behave.
In the bad old days, photographers never considered their damage to the environment. Even the best publications from the 1970s advise us to wear thick trousers for protection, enabling you to “kneel, lie or hold onto the bottom by wrapping your arms or legs around coral”. Comments to make our fins curl today.
Back in 2003 the Marine Conservation Society approached influential members of the British Society of Underwater Photographers (including Paul Kay, Colin Doeg, Linda Pitkin, Martin Edge and myself) to draw up a Code of Conduct (it’s still on the BSoUP website).
Re-reading it today, the design is dated but the content is still pertinent and covers critter-fiddling neatly. Maybe it’s time for MCS to do a refresh?
But again the message can be summed up as “respect marine life and the marine environment”. In practice this means making this part of our photographic decision-making process: “Will that make a good subject? How should I light it? What settings should I use? Can I get the shot without spooking the subject or damaging life around it?”
SO IF THE SOLUTION is simple and nothing new, why do we have a problem? If you ask 100 underwater photographers about it, at least 99 will tell you that they totally respect the environment when taking pictures!
I believe that the vast majority do try to take pictures the right way. Most of the remainder mistakenly believe that the harassment they do is what everyone does. These are the ones in most urgent need of education.
Even worse, there are a few who say one thing and do another, lecturing all who will listen that critter-fiddling is a no-no and then continuing to do it themselves, when they think they can get away with it.
Invariably, these photographers are so obsessed with the importance of their own photography that they don’t care what gets trampled for the shot.
I have long concluded that egos are negatively buoyant, which explains why it is these same few who lie all over the corals too. Being so infatuated with themselves, I fear that only naming and shaming will change their ways, but even though many of us will happily criticise them in private, we’re too cowardly to confront these big names publicly.
AS TATTERS POINTED OUT at the weekend, most manipulation is the lazy way to get a better background.
Photographers are tempted to pick up or poke an animal into a better position so that it can be framed against a black background, usually placing it on top of something colourful at the same time. There is no doubt that these images are instantly eye-catching, but for me, their simplicity gives them short-lived appeal.
Much better than trying to copy this simple formula is to expand your photographic vision.
The rise in fiddling is driven by photographers lacking the imagination to create different types of macro image. So all that is left is to find rarer and rarer subjects to plonk into their simple composition. There is much more to macro than this.
Ironically, many of the fiddlers must miss fascinating natural behaviours by moving subjects as soon as they see them. Slow-moving nudibranchs are probably the most commonly molested, but these animals have very specific diets and, because they are slow-moving, most commonly live on their food, mate on their food and lay eggs on their food. Moving them to an apparently prettier background loses all this.
In conclusion, I should add some perspective: most of the time great pictures are taken without harming anything. And the benefit of pictures as posters for conservation is incalculably large.
Further, the marine environment faces many serious threats and underwater photographers moving shrimps slightly for a photo is not one of them.
But none of that is an excuse. Through their images, underwater photographers are able to communicate why the marine environment needs to be conserved. This should also ring true in their actions.
Delicate marine life can get damaged unintentionally, when your desire to get the shot exceeds (even momentarily) your diving ability. This does not just catch out relatively new divers, even seasoned photographers go wrong, pushing to get that much closer or rushing in to capture that elusive creature. We all make mistakes, but we don’t want to be making them regularly.
Touching, prodding and moving animals for the sake of a photo is widely, but not universally, scorned by underwater photographers. It is most prevalent in critter-diving destinations, where many species are slow-moving.
Most photographers produce winning images without resorting to these cruel tactics – be one of them.
When was the last time you turned down an interesting subject, such as a pygmy seahorse, because it was poorly positioned? You could see but you could not get the shot you wanted without risking damage to the reef?
If you’re struggling to remember, then perhaps you are pushing things too far.