Snapping it up

17th February 2006 at 00:00
Cameras are versatile tools. Martin Bowman shows how, for a young photographer, a school trip can be a window of opportunity

"Taking photographs is easy!" Digital cameras with auto-focus, auto-wind and auto everything are almost idiot-proof, so surely all you have to do, once you've taken up position, is point and shoot? Why, anyone could do it! However, why not encourage a little more thought, composition and competition on the next field trip or school visit?

These excursions to stimulate minds could be even more exciting for today's budding young photographers if they are turned into a shoot - combined with a treasure hunt - to find, identify and then photograph an object, artefact or structure from a given set of clues.

Subjects might include a famous person buried in the graveyard behind the church, a memorial or architectural treasure, a helmet or pikestaff in a military museum or an historic painting in a National Trust building. It could even be a themed restaurant, or a house that was once used by the military but is now an office block or shop.

What started out as perhaps just another field trip is transformed into a sense of adventure and a road to discovery which could spawn future careers in Egyptology, exploration, safari travel, wildlife or front-line photography.

American Second World War photographer Robert Capa of Life magazine once said: "If your photos are not good enough you are not close enough." He ought to know. Capa went in with the initial assault on Omaha Beach on D-Day. It's a special feeling being a fly-on-the-wall action cameraman.

Most would give their eye-teeth to fly in a Lancaster, a B-52 or a C-130 Hercules, or formate with the Red Arrows, but it is putting yourself in harm's way and, if your luck is out, you're one of the flies that gets squashed. Capa's luck finally ran out in Indo-China in the 1950s when he was killed by a land mine.

I am frequently asked how I get the chance to fly in such beautiful aircraft and photograph them. The short answer is, "always ask". Even on terra firma one has to be careful while photographing. Bear in mind that taking photographs in certain places can be forbidden. In Egypt's Valley of the Kings, even with the camera on 1600 ASA to avoid the give-away flash and a fish eye attached for maximum coverage, the unwary visitor to Rameses' tomb can still be evicted.

However, trips to attractions such as the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth, Duxford, the American cemetery at Madingley near Cambridge or an Iron Age village, medieval fort or Roman villa, offer trouble-free shooting. Luck sometimes plays a part but you also have to be alert to opportunities. An aircraft or military vehicle starting up is often the optimum time to shoot, as the smoke is dramatic and it turns the inert object into a living thing. Then, when the piston-engined fighter's propeller is turning like a whirling dervish, show your students how to slow their shutter speeds to 130th of a second or slower and create a "disc" effect rather than static blades.

Reflection shots using available puddles and shining tarmac are great for that mirror image. Proud veterans with their medals gleaming in the sun, stationary aircraft, menacing looking weaponry, castles and keeps and historical city streets can be transformed into images rather than just a picture. Get your students to zero in on just the medals, or cap and badge, or take a head shot for a memorable portrait.

Instead of photographing that prominent memorial head-on or close up, you could suggest stepping back and - after everyone else has gone - shooting it from under the sign, or through a gap in the hedge to frame it (the close up of the inscription is the "record shot" and your caption material).

Or you could demonstrate how to shoot right into the sun for a silhouette effect, or how to position their shadows in the shot for a ghostly presence. Half-timbered street scenes and city walls can be transformed by employing reflections of the subject in a stream, moat or river.

Another oft-asked question is about what techniques I use and what my secrets are. No one camera is better than another. The ability to "see" the shot is the most important attribute. Photography is all about capturing the moment. Tell your students to be different and not one of the 99 out of a 100.

Martin Bowman is an author and photographer Photography tips Impress on students that preparation is vitally important and give them the following tips on technique:

* You can't beat experience, so, if in doubt, ask someone who knows.

* Don't be afraid to crop a shot rather than trying to capture the whole vista. Alternatively, get in closer and use a wide-angled or fisheye lens to get a different slant on the scene. Close-ups of nicknames or colourful logos on vehicles and aircraft make shots more poignant.

* If your flesh-and-blood subject has old photos, memorabilia or uniforms, ask if you can make them into a montage. Carefully lay the snaps, an old watch or other archive items on the uniform or spotted silk scarf and snap away. It all adds detail and colour to the shot and ultimately has more impact.

* If shooting historical re-enactment groups, try to ensure they look authentic. Avoid modern backdrops - go for a degree of realism every time.

* If your subject is a young sentry, tell him not to smile - he's been on duty for six hours and is feeling tired and hungry.

* Avoid anachronisms. Use a tree or shrub to blot out that car or "no entry" sign. Digitise out any offending TV aerials and satellite dishes.

* Try converting digital images to sepia (if they are First World War) or black-and-white (Second World War).

* Be really different. Lasso the main part of your subject and convert it to black-and-white, leaving the background in colour, or vice versa, to give an impression of time travel.

* Post-shoot analysis, experimentation and refinement can be addressed in class. Those students whose shots are voted the best photographically would receive, say, a book token or even a cup on prize day.

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