Why? Where? When? How?
Why? Where? When? How?
It's the age old question that I get asked all the time when people find out that I am a photographer. I hope to answer the curiosity of why I started, how I developed my style and where my journey is taking me here in my first blog.
I have been shooting floral portraits and landscapes for the past 5 years but the journey to where I am now, both photographically and emotionally, has been a roller coaster ride. As a mother of 4, including twins, I have the challenge of fitting my photography work in around the school day, children’s activities and family life, which must come first. Although I have always been taken with image making it was in 2008 that my creativity was brought to the fore once again. I had an absolute need to be creative, do something for myself, only myself, that would take my mind away from the day to day mental hell I had descended into.
Since 2003 my family has been living away from the UK, taken first to Singapore and then, since 2010 to The Netherlands by my husband’s job. The general view of expat life can be misleading. There is a preconceived notion of expats enjoying a holiday lifestyle with cocktail parties and pools, exotic travel, fast cars and tax havens. Though that may be true for some, the majority of us are simply trying to live our day to day lives exactly like everyone else - we just happen to be in another part of the world. The trials and tribulations of parenthood, balancing work and home life whilst in a new place, struggling with cultural differences (which when on a 2 week vacation may seem charming, 6 months in they can become a source of significant frustration) all whilst away from friends and family is hard. You also learn very quickly to not build good, solid relationships with people as the transient nature of expat life is that people move on all the time and it just hurts too much when they leave to get too close.
In 2008 I had a complete breakdown brought on by a combination of factors, not least exhaustion, personal health problems, serious worries regarding the children’s education and a handful of good friends left. Irrational was my middle name. Resilient I was not. I could not function as a person, a mother or a wife. Depression is a cruel beast that plays with and taunts your mind, creeping up on you until you don’t know what’s hit you. Small seemingly insignificant things become huge hurdles, so much so that you feel like you can’t get through the day. Emotionally you become like stone, numb to everything going on around you. Disengaged, you loose all interest in everything that should mean something to you. I was functioning on automatic pilot and somehow managed to put on a brave face to the outside world, keeping my own personal demons hidden away inside. After all, we were expats living the high life weren’t we? What should I have to complain about?
Part of the advice I was given during counseling was to find something to do for myself. Not for the children. Not for my husband. Just for me. Photography has been part of me for as long as I can remember. I’ve always loved the feel of a camera in my hands, the sound of the mirror slapping as I press the shutter, the magic of capturing a moment in time. Until that point my photography had no particular focus. As is probably quite common I was chief family photographer and also took some nice scenic images when on holiday. Earlier in the year, after finally buying a DSLR I had decided to take a weekend workshop with local Singaporean nature and bird photographer, John Arifin to brush up on my camera craft and had a moment of clarity. Part of the workshop took us to the Singapore Botanical Gardens and that was it, I was hooked. I returned to the gardens frequently and haunted florists looking for new flowers to photograph. I found that losing myself in the process of searching for the perfect bloom and composing a compelling image helped to clear my mind. I felt liberated and importantly, more at peace with myself.
Luckily for me Singapore Botanical Gardens is one of the world’s best. Their specialty is orchids and the National Orchid Garden is a sight to behold. Pathways full of stunning exotic flowers that can't fail to inspire. Although initially I photographed every and any flower I soon started to develop the idea of the flower in isolation. I wanted to make the beauty and form of the bloom sing out without distraction. At first I achieved this by using shallow depth of field, creating a bokeh effect behind the main bloom. On one occasion the background was not far enough away to recreate this effect but was quite dark, so I played with the image in editing, increasing the shadows and blacks to the point that they clipped. The effect made the orchid pop out at me and my style was born.
Whenever I had the chance I would return to the gardens but started to carry a black cloth and clothes pegs to achieve the same effect in-camera. The sight of me, an Ang Moh (colloquial Singaporean term for Caucasians) with camera, tripod and pegged cloth did elicit quite a lot of odd looks and comments from both locals and the coach loads of tourists that pass through the gardens every day. The effect created by the black background satisfied me far more as I truly feel that the image needs to be believable. I don't want people who view my images to think "how did she photoshop that background in?" The focus of my flower portraits is and should remain the flower itself. If the background is black it’s because I positioned a black backing cloth there, if it’s white I placed a white board behind. Also by isolating the flowers without having to worry about background distractions I could then increase the depth of field on the flowers themselves to really show off their incredible delicacy and beauty. At this point I was using my first DSLR, a Nikon D40X with kit lenses although soon I invested in the Nikon 105mm macro lens. The main challenge of working in the botanical gardens was managing to get a good angle on the flower, waiting for the breeze to die down and, being in the hot tropical sun, reducing contrast. Frequently I was juggling remote release, a reflector plus trying to shade the flower. Thank goodness for the clothes pegs holding the background cloth! Overcast, still days with diffuse light are ideal for flower photography but sometimes those days didn't coincide with the days I could get to the gardens. The same is true now.
Fitting in photography around the family became a priority for me. Days when I could not get away I would (and still do) use cut flowers from the florist. In many ways it is easier to create my style of image in a studio type set up. There is no breeze to contend with and the light is easier to control. Having said that I always use natural light in my images finding flash too harsh. My usual set up is close to a large window, front lit and occasionally utilizing a white reflector if necessary. When photographing the detail of flowers with a macro lens to get a sharp image front to back I frequently need to stop down to a very small aperture, creating long exposures which demand everything to be totally still. I often find myself holding my breath whilst making an exposure to make sure I don’t create any movement in the stem.
As my health improved I became more confident with my work and was hearing good noises from friends and family. Along with the floral portraits I was producing landscape images from both Singapore and our travels, not least a trip to the amazing Angkor Wat complex of temples in Cambodia. Then as now I have an affinity with monochrome and love to record the landscape in black and white. Interest increased in my work and I was selling canvases and prints to friends plus I started to exhibit regularly at a local craft fairs and my business has sprung from there.
From Singapore we moved to The Netherlands in spring 2010. The world famous Keukenhof tulip showcase gardens are a half hour drive from my home here. Since relocating back to Europe I have upgraded my kit twice, firstly to a Nikon D300 (now converted to infrared) then at the end of 2012 I invested in the full frame D700.
My favourite flowers have always been tulips. Visiting the bulbs fields in spring and walking through the Keukenhof gardens is heaven to me. The diversity of the forms of the blooms and the variety of colour is astounding. From single to double to frilled there is something for every taste. I can usually be found in the glasshouses along with my trusty tripod, camera and background cloths, photographing the show specimens each spring; there are always new varieties as well as the old favourites. Tourists abound at the gardens and I frequently hear the shutters of other photographers clicking away over my shoulder as they sneak a shot of my isolated flower. I also attempt to grow bulbs in the garden at home to photograph in a studio setup as the varieties sold by florists are fairly limited, though truth be told I don't really have green fingers! I try not to let my work become too formulaic and will experiment with different coloured backgrounds and closer, macro views with shallow depth of field to keep things fresh. Different flowers demand different treatment and I try to be sensitive to this.
Landscape photography has become increasingly important to me. Just like with flower imagery I find myself immersed in the process: the planning, scouting and finally the executing of images as I have imagined them in my mind's eye. It's vital that you do not rest on your laurels and never stop learning and to my delight I have had the benefit of attending landscape photography weekends in Dorset, Provence and Umbria with the imitable David Noton, a true master of landscape photography. Surrounded by magnificant locations with like-minded, inspirational and talented people one cannot help but develop and learn.
Getting out with my camera and immersing myself in both landscape and floral photography continues to be a great solace to me. I am truly blessed to have been able to grow as a photographer and pursue a new direction in life. Looking back I can now be thankful that I went through such a difficult time as it has opened a new chapter with new opportunities which I am grabbing with both hands.
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