POINT and press. It’s never been easier to take a photograph these days since the advent of the digital camera. And when you’ve got space for 2,000 photos on your SD card, who cares if half of them are out of focus or over exposed? You can delete them on the computer when you get back home and keep a couple of the better ones.
Neil Denham, Anne Lawson, Fiona Armstrong McGee and Natalie Griffiths Van Der Mescht care. They are all members of North Tyne Photography Group and for them, taking a photograph is a carefully thought out process which results, not in a snapshot which gets lost on your hard drive, but something more comparable to a work of art.
There’s not only the subject matter and composition to think about, but the ISO (the level of sensitivity to light), the shutter speed, the aperture, and so on.
That extra care and attention to detail reminds Neil – a professional photographer who set up the group in 2012 – of the days of film cameras when photographers had a limited number of shots and had to make every one count.
“When you are working with film you are much more concerned about what you are taking because you have only got 36 or 24 shots,” he said.
“There is the skill in working out the light in the picture before you take the picture – and that goes for portraits and landscapes. With digital photography you can use Photoshop to change certain elements, but in film, you shoot what you get. You cannot change it later.”
Neil has managed to get hold of dark room equipment to allow club members to experience for themselves the wonders of developing their own photographs – all part of his aim to continually improve their skills.
“A lot of people have not experienced film first hand,” he said. “It is a magical experience in the dark room when you develop the paper on a tray and then watch the image come to life. It is more hand-made, for want of a better word.
“You have taken it yourself, composed it yourself, lit it yourself. It is quite magical when you have got your own set of pictures in an exhibition, which I am hoping we can do as a project with some of the group – an exhibition from film printed in the dark room.”
Based in Bellingham, Neil set up the group after people began asking him for advice on how to take photographs. An exhibition followed at the Cheviot Hotel in the village, where members meet on a monthly basis.
This was followed by a project called Our Future Heritage, in conjunction with Bellingham Heritage Centre. The photographers captured on camera everyday lives in the area, preserved as a record for future generations.
For Neil, the group gives him the opportunity to pass on his expansive knowledge and enthusiasm for photography which began when he was a schoolboy.
“When I was at Haydon Bridge High School my teacher, David Robertson, introduced me to the dark room and from there I did some work experience at the Hexham Courant and took a picture which got published in the paper,” he recalled.
Since then, Neil’s work has featured on the pages of national newspapers. After studying photography at college in Newcastle for a year, he moved to London where his career blossomed. He worked in studio photography for several years before embarking on an editorial photography course at Brighton University.
“You have got to do it and make a mess of it and learn and learn and learn. Eventually, you start to master it.”
“From there I started to get work on the Sunday supplements, like the Observer and the Independent and car magazines like Top Gear.” Neil remembers meeting, among other people, Spike Milligan and his photograph of the comedian was used on the front page of the Guardian after his death.
His roots always remained in Tynedale though and four years ago he moved back. “I had always missed Northumberland, having been born in Hexham,” he said.
“The South-East of England is not a patch on the fresh air and the countryside here. But I still work in London… it is an exciting place to be and it is nice photographing dinners at Parliament and various palaces.”
For Anne, Fiona and Natalie, their photographic skills have blossomed under Neil’s guiding hand. They all used digital cameras beforehand, and like most of us, never ventured beyond the automatic setting where the camera does all the thinking for you.
“It was a challenge to use the camera on the manual setting,” admitted Natalie. “The ISO, shutter speed, aperture… these are the three things which you control your exposure with.
“You have got to do it and make a mess of it and learn and learn and learn. Eventually, you start to master it. You understand that if you change one of these three things, that affects the other two.”
Farmer’s wife Anne, whose camera is often pointing in the direction of a prize bull, added: “I used to use the auto setting on my camera all the time. Since I’ve joined the group it has given me confidence. I never thought I would be taking part in an exhibition.”
Today, the three talk knowledgeably about white balance and how the different types of light can alter the photograph. It’s a far cry for Fiona from the days when she used an Instamatic to take pictures of her children.
“I decided to upgrade my camera to a Canon 50D and joined the group,” she said. “My first grandchild came along and I wanted to take better pictures than just snapshots. That was what triggered it and now my knowledge has started to grow through experience.”
Like Fiona, Natalie was always armed with a camera when photographing her daughters – and their horses – at showjumping events. For her, the group was an eye opener.
“Fiona said to come to the club and it expanded from there,” she said. “I was among other people who had the same interest, who had the enthusiasm, the same goals and ideas.
“I like photographing animals, horses obviously. I had never particularly tried photography properly, but then with Neil and his advice I am enjoying other things like the landscape now. I find it really challenging. It pushes you out of your comfort zone.”