A version of this article first appeared on February 9, 2017 in the Daily Record and The Herald
By Nick Drainey
We think nothing of taking hundreds of snaps on our iPhones or digital cameras in the hope that at least a few will be worthy of use on social media, as a lap top wallpaper or even in the old fashioned picture frame on the wall.
But does that mean photography is getting easier? Not according to Rod Wheelans who at 70 is about to become president of one of the leading camera clubs in Britain which will take part in a prestigious festival of nature film and photography.
Good reflexes, a certain amount of patience and a quality camera are what’s needed to take a really good nature photograph, says Mr Wheelans, a former fellow of the Royal Photographic Society.
Dumfries Camera Club will be showing off its work at the Wild Film Festival Scotland which takes place in Dumfries in March. The first event of its kind in the UK, it will celebrate the natural world through film, photography and discussion, and bring together internationally renowned photographers and film makers.
Mr Wheelans, who is about to become president of the club, which is itself 70 years old this year, says the members are rightly proud of what they do: “There are over a 1,000 camera clubs in Great Britain and we are definitely in the top ten.”
He adds that nature photography is more popular than ever, helped by the proliferation of nature reserves and hides which make animals easier to see.
“We have a lot of variety of work but in the past four or five years nature work has become almost dominant. Ten years ago we maybe only had a couple of nature people and they were more nature lovers rather than photographers – one of our members said they were ‘more interested in the birds, the photographs are the trophies of the hunt’. These people were building their own hides and sitting in them for hours on end, days on end but there is less need for that now.”
One of the recent highlights of the club’s work has been a photograph of a sparrowhawk catching a bird in flight, taken by outgoing president Mick Durham. It was highly commended in The British Wildlife Photographer Awards 2016 and will be included in the BWPA exhibition at Gracefield Arts Centre as part of the festival.
Mr Wheelans says the way the picture was taken sounds like a piece of good fortune but it was actually a tricky shot.
He says: “He took it in his back garden which makes it sound like he walked down his garden and took the shot but that is not quite how it happened. He has a hide in the garden – his wife says she was having his mail redirected there because he was never in the house. He saw this sparrowhawk passing his garden when it grabbed a bird out of the air right in front of him and he got two or three shots.
“Yes, it is luck but as a lot of famous people have said, the more you practise, the luckier you get.”
The club’s exhibition – Creatures of the Nith – focuses on the wildlife on the river which flows through Dumfries.
Mr Wheelans says that good equipment is vital to capture good wildlife shots but that “considerable investment” still doesn’t guarantee a superb picture.
He says: “You also need to understand how the creatures behave and you also need very good reflexes to catch the shot, and there is a lot of patience involved. It is not as easy as it looks, you still need a fair bit of skill to get the shots – a hundred people can go to a site but a hundred people don’t come away with prize winning shots.”
Mr Wheelans had his first camera at the age of seven when his father won it at a fair near Edinburgh. But he jokes: “I didn’t become a serious photographer until I was 11 – I went up through the normal things like Brownie 127 and I had an SLR by the time I was 13. I just went around snapping all the pictures and then taking the film to the chemist.”
In those days of film he says he had to be careful when pressing the shutter button: “I took pictures of everything really – the family, the house, the place we were, the dog, I didn’t care what it was. You made a film last then. It is a discipline that you don’t think of now – you thought ‘I can’t take two shots of this because I can’t afford another film’.”
But he says the changes have not necessarily made it easier to take a good shot.
He says: “People, particularly in some subjects like nature, machine gun (the shutter). A bird is flying in and you put it on 10 or 20 frames a second and just rattle away. You take maybe a thousand pictures where you would once have taken two. It is what the cameras are capable of now, something we never dreamed of.
“I am hesitant to say it is easier. It is just you can do things now that you couldn’t do (in the past). You still have to make the thing sharp and you still have to catch it.”
When it comes to other club members, Mr Wheelans’ wife, Anne Greiner, provides his sternest competition. They are both Masters of the Photographic Alliance of Great Britain and Mr Wheelans, who is retired but worked for BT before becoming a studio and wedding photographer in his 50s, says: “I think she has the edge on me, she has an eye for the quirky. She beats me in the club competitions fairly regularly.”
Ed Forrest, Project Manager for the Southern Upland Partnership which has led the partnership of local wildlife groups which set up the Wild Film Festival Scotland, said: “There are so many people out there who love wildlife films and photography, so it’s high time they had chance to revel in some of the best around. We are very much looking forward to welcoming them to join us for this great new festival in Dumfries.”
*The Wild Film Festival Scotland takes place in Dumfries Between March 24 and 26. For more information go to www.wildfilmfestivalscotland.co.uk.