What is it about a good camera that turns all of us into dickheads?
Spend a few hundred quid and suddenly we start acting as if we’re Robert Capa and as if the normal rules of society no longer apply to us.
I know because I’ve just traded up from my cheap-and-cheerful point-and-shoot to my first digital SLR. Most of my pictures are still shit, but I now annoy the hell out of people in the process of taking them.
The warning bells should have rung on my first outing with it at a colleague’s leaving do. Keen to get what the mags refer to as “perfect portraiture” (even avoiding red-eye would have been a breakthrough), I was soon merrily thrusting it in people’s faces, interrupting conversations and making people feel self-conscious and awkward. Did I care? Did I fuck. As far as I was concerned, I was a fully signed-up member of the paparazzi. Besides, I was in the zone by that point, pushing bystanders aside and requesting a “big smile” from all and sundry. I may have even asked the elderly lady from accounts to “work it”.
Then there was the old couple I stumbled across on a bench. To the wannabe photographer in me, that tableau spoke of love, companionship and holding back the relentless tide of age's passage. A simple vignette, I thought, that said so much. Trouble was, they didn't want to have their picture taken. They were having their sandwiches. Not that that deterred me. I made them. The guy eventually told me to “piss off and don't come back” but I had no intention of coming back.
Did I care? Did I fuck. As far as I was concerned, I was a fully signed-up member of the paparazzi.
I was onto the next thing – in the park where, one by one, I was ticking off the clichés. A bridge reflected in the water beneath it. A raindrop on a blade of grass. A bee on a stalk of lavender. I was particularly pleased with my three swans in a row. I mean, I’m sure no one had ever taken a picture of three waterbirds in a row before.
There was a problem, though. Most of my pictures have come out kind of, well, shit. I tried billing my early shots as abstract but no one fell for that.
I bought a long lens and just found I ended up with the same mediocre pictures except I could get them from further away.
I got a tripod and stood freezing my nuts off by a watermill. I got the part-blurred picture. Which would have been great, except the bit that came out blurred wasn’t the bit I was intending to.
I framed them, but merely ended up with rubbish pictures in a frame. I wondered whether giving them pretentious names would mask their deficiencies. There was ‘Seagull, 2011’ (as you might be able to guess, that was a seagull taken in 2011). Then there was ‘The Long Road Home’ (basically a straight bit of the A23). I was particularly proud of my 'Companionship Conquers Age’ shot (the old couple of the bench).
After years of telling myself my mediocre pictures were the product of a mediocre camera, I’m having to face the realisation that I might just not be a very good photographer.
I went out countless times, as instructed, in search of a “winter wonderland”. Sadly, Carshalton didn't have a great deal to offer in this respect.
And it shouldn’t be like this. The books and the magazines – and I’ve read dozens of them – make it all sound so simple.
So-called perfect portraiture has turned out to be a series of unflattering shots of people looking too fat or too thin or too red or too pale. I seem to have a particular knack for making bald people look as if they've got a halogen light attached to the top of their heads.
I’ve read about the so-called ‘rule of thirds’ numerous times. Tried playing with shutter speeds. Altered the aperture size. Banded the term ‘depth of field’ around as if merely saying it would improve my efforts. The net result: just a lot more not very good pictures.
I went out countless times, as instructed, in search of a “winter wonderland”. Sadly, Carshalton didn't have a great deal to offer in this respect. Don’t be disheartened, I told myself, recalling that the good photographer could find interesting and imaginative shots even in the most everyday environment. I joined a queue of about two dozen people trying to get that oh-so-original ice-on-the pond shot.
I’ve tried laying on the floor so I could, as advised by one book, “experiment with angles”. All I got was a bad back and a nasty stain on my shirt. The book didn’t warn me about dog shit, either.
My vocabulary has expanded in new and pretentious ways. I now band round phrases like F-stop and mega-pixels and cropping. I fear I may have even on one occasion referred to the “money shot” – you know, the extraordinary one that’ll be syndicated around the world and make my name and fortune. Then I remembered. I wasn’t at the Oscars and getting an up-skirt shot of Keira Knightley after she’d slipped off the stage. It was actually Christmas Day and I was taking a picture of my mum carving the turkey.
And as for capturing the fucking seasons, we all know what that means. Daffodils in spring; a fat bloke eating an ice-cream in summer; leaves in autumn and snow in winter. What is it about snow, particularly, that sends amateur photographers into a frenzy? Millions of shit pictures result from a few inches of snow.
Having swotted up on news photography, I was out in the street before you could say “You’ve still got your lens cap on” when a neighbour’s tree fell down, squashing a van.
I’ve devoured magazines, but it’s made sod all difference (sadly a feature headlined “The best location for nudes” was about where to position them, rather than an instructional account of where to find them). All reading them has done is spark more unreasonable and rash behaviour on my part.
Having swotted up on news photography, I was out in the street before you could say “You’ve still got your lens cap on” when a neighbour’s tree fell down, squashing a van. I glibly climbed over the fire brigade cordon to get closer and, when the fireman demanded I move back, I held up my camera as if to say: Don’t worry, I’m a photographer – it's not as if I'm a member of the public or anything. Clearly there’s some law at work here. The larger the lens, the more extreme the dickhead-like behaviour becomes.
As I reluctantly retreated, I also realised a good camera turns you into a bit of a bastard. I’d be lying if I didn’t say a bit of me thought: This would be a better picture if someone had been badly injured or killed by that tree.
Never mind. There’s plenty of other shots to chase. The person in a crowd with everyone around them slightly out of focus. A dog's nose. A high building. No one will have ever thought of those before.
In fact, right now there’s a woman walking past the house with a colourful umbrella. I don’t know her, but I might ask her to stand in the rain for a few minutes while I go and get my camera.
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