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Perfecting the portfolio (Wildlife Photographer of the Year)

By: Michael Hugill, Category: At The Museum, Date: 22 May 2014

An interview with Connor Stefanison, winner of the Eric Hosking Portfolio Award in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year #8

Connor Stefanison (Canada) © Connor Stefanison (Canada) / Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2013

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What's happened since you won the Eric Hosking Portfolio Award (for entrants aged 18-26)?

It's been non-stop! I didn't think winning the award would be this big. I've been doing lots of interviews with local news outlets, magazines and TV stations, school newspapers and even a French magazine, and I've been invited to put on a small exhibition. Before this, I had sold only four prints (only one of which wasn't to a friend!). Now I'm signing and selling a lot more. And I'm still trying to do my degree. My 'to-do' list has never been so long.

How did you go about putting your winning portfolio together?

For this category, the images don't have to be in any kind of order, or show any kind of theme or story, so the first thing was simply to pick my very best shots. Once I'd got that down to a shortlist of around 20, I then started to think about other factors. I wanted to show a range of different techniques, for example. So I made sure my selection included shots taken with wide-angle, mid-range, as well as super telephoto lenses.

I also made sure that the images worked together in other ways, such as subject matter and colour. (I assumed that the judges probably wouldn't want all the images to look blue, for example.) I also thought about how the images might work as a set. They might be exhibited as single images, or they might be collaged together. But these are secondary considerations.

The most important thing, I think, is the quality of the shots. One 'whatever' image - even if it's of a fresher subject - can ruin the whole portfolio, even if the others are all great.

How much planning do you do?

I used to go out without any specific goal. Now, I always have an idea of what I want to achieve. If I have a particular idea, the first thing I do is look it up to see if it's been done before. With the loon, for example, I found lots of wide-angled images of birds on nests at sunset, but none of loons. So I set out to do that. Once I've got an image in mind, I'm pretty focused, I don't let myself get distracted. With the barred owl, I knew the composition I wanted after trying out several others, and even when the owl was flying in a different place, I stuck it out where I was until she eventually did what I'd hoped.

Has entering the competition changed your photography?

I know that I want my shots to be of a high enough standard to enter. That really stretches me photographically, and I often shoot with the competition in mind. It forces me to be more creative and ambitious, and I find myself trying things that I never did before.

Any tips for other entrants?

First, get a feel for what's already out there. I read lots of newsletters, books, forums, I look at lots of websites, and I get ideas about what hasn't yet been done. It's a good way to build your skills from what others have done, without copying them.

Second, find people who really know what they’re talking about when it comes to selecting great images. These could be photographers, magazine editors, or even people with a great artistic background. I put my image shortlist on a password-protected site and send the link to a couple of people for feedback. This is really important - they can have really strong opinions about including or leaving out some of the images, and it's really useful to have that external input. Sometimes it's hard to let go of an image because you have a strong emotional attachment to it, so you need someone who can be impartial. So I would strongly advise trying to find someone who can be a kind of mentor, particularly when it comes down to selecting the final images to submit, to give honest feedback. As an example, I didn't think my fox image was particularly original, but my friend insisted I put it in because it showed another photographic skill.

Third, the portfolio is a really good opportunity to show that you're not a 'one-trick-pony', so make the most of the chance to demonstrate that you have a diversity of skills. And keep trying. I won the third time I entered.

What's next?

I've just finished building my camera trap, so I'm trying that out at the moment on a local mini bobcat project, and I'm thinking about how to get some whole new perspectives on owls. I will of course be entering next year!

This interview originally appeared on the Natural History Museum's blog where it was posted by Rosie Pook, WPY Comms Officer.

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