Fairlie Atkinson with her students

Where and when did your photography journey start?

I think it started when I moved to South Korea in 2002 and became quite snap happy with my film camera. I was obsessed with the idea of being able to capture what I saw and preserve it so I didn’t forget it.

I was also keen to bore relatives with hundreds of photos in a vain attempt at showing where I had been. I wanted to share my experience of Asian architecture, cuisine, street culture, and landscapes with those back at home.

I was, however, very disappointed with what I captured. While I may have gotten the composition right, I always felt I had lacked capturing the colour or texture of the moment. This continued when I moved to the Middle East where I tried mobile device photography. It wasn’t until I was gifted a Nikon D3300 from a friend when I moved back to New Zealand a few years ago, that I began to see there was the possibility of actually being able to manipulate my camera to capture what my eyes saw. I am still learning and experimenting, but I am loving the journey.

Nature, and especially bird photography is important to you now, tell us about that...

I blame genetics. My grandmother and my father and now me, have created gardens that are designed to encourage our native birds to thrive. We have all planted native plants such as kowhai trees and flax that attract and feed our birds. My father has also built us some sugar water feeders for the nectar feeders, and in the winter we supplement their food source with these.

It gives me enormous pleasure to watch everything from the tiny waxeyes to the large comical kereru and everything in between enjoying our gardens. The birdsong is the first thing I hear in the morning and the last, as we have a resident ruru who calls to his mate around bedtime every night. It’s our small contribution to our environment, and to the unique birdlife that flourishes in New Zealand.

Birds are really tricky to capture most of the times as they fly away too fast! Any tips for beginner photographers?

Tui bird by Fairlie Atkinson

Honestly, I have moments where I wish I had become fascinated with still life photography instead! But I can say...

  • Stay still, and stay hidden.
  • A lens with a decent focal length is useful. I love my telephoto lens, but have also captured some good images with my Nikkor 70mm-300mm.
  • Use continuous focus mode (they don’t stop moving!).
  • A fast shutter speed is essential (usually 1/1000 or above).
  • I like a wide aperture for bird portraiture to separate the background from the subject, but if you want to capture the back drop you will need to narrow this.

You say in your Excio profile you are donating some of your earnings and images to reserves, how did that start?

When I first started photographing native birds, I looked to our local reserves to try and capture birds like kea and kaka that I couldn’t necessarily travel to see.

I started sending my images to Nga Manu Nature Reserve in Waikanae, and Staglands in Upper Hutt every time I visited. Then, once I got to know a few of the staff at Nga Manu, we discussed the possibility of doing an exhibition during the Kāpiti Arts Trail.

Once I began to sell images I had taken at the reserve, I felt it would only be right to donate a percentage of the proceeds to the reserve. It’s not much in the scheme of things but every bit helps our conservation efforts across New Zealand. If we didn’t have breeding and rehabilitation centres for our native species then there would be no opportunities to photograph them other than in the wild which can be very difficult if you don’t have the time or money to travel. So, it has become my small way of giving something back.

The reserves are always grateful for images as this means they don’t have to spend time or money on getting someone to do it for them for advertising and promotion. I have a folder I dump images into every time I visit so they can use what they like. I don’t put a watermark on it or require any credit for the images. I also have some images up on the walls at Nga Manu Nature Reserve and Staglands. I encourage other local photographers to do the same.

Nga Manu series by Fairlie Atkinson
Nga Manu series by Fairlie Atkinson
Nga Manu series by Fairlie Atkinson

Do you do post-processing on your photos and if yes, what software do you use?

Yes, I do for my bird portraits. I use Photoshop to digitally paint the background. I colour match the background to the plumage of the bird or I use a colour such as black to create contrast and emphasis.

For my other images I tend to use Photoshop to crop and lift shadow or blur and soften a background. I try to edit my non portrait images as little as possible, or only in ways that will enhance the subject.

We know you are a full-time photography teacher. What are the 5 most important things you teach your students in photography?

1. You can’t Photoshop a bad photo into a good photo, so try and take a good photo and use Photoshop to enhance it.

2. Play. Play with light, play with camera settings, play with different subject matter. You don’t know what you might learn or do unless you experiment.

3. Gather inspiration. You can learn a lot from established photographers and their practice. It is inspiring to scroll through Excio, or flick through NZP Magazine and other photography based media and read about what other photographers are doing. It can be a good jumping off point or inspiration for our own practice, especially when we are just starting out and trying out different mediums. From there it is easier to find your own voice.

4. Visual story telling. What elements do you need in an image to tell a story? And what principles of design can you leverage to tell your story? Movement? Pattern? Proportion? Colour? Contrast? How are you going to connect those elements in a single photo or a series? It is essential to understand these elements and principals in order to be able to tell a story that is comprehensible and impactful to the viewer.

5. Photography as an NCEA subject is very hard. It takes a huge amount of time to plan, shoot, re-shoot and edit enough images to put together a portfolio for the external exam. Students often think it will be an easy subject, and find out very quickly that in order to pass they need a decent work ethic. I tell them if they want an easy option to take physics! Talent is not enough, and time is needed to develop the skills and produce work good enough to pass. Like any skill, photography requires practice for you to improve.

Junior Photogrpahy Club in action by Fairlie Atkinson

How did you find about Excio and NZPhotographer Magazine?

When I first started teaching photography I was looking for a New Zealand based magazine to use in my classroom for students to get a good look at what New Zealand photographers are doing and how their practice is influenced by where we live.

NZP Magazine and the Nikon community were, for me, the go to places followed by the discovery of Excio.

I love getting the ‘what’s new in our community’ email from Excio. A recent feature got me thinking about macro photography and texture, and this led to a session on macro photography and how to showcase patterns in nature, and in man made objects with my junior photography club at school.

What do you think in general about photo societies and communities/clubs? What would you recommend to people who want to join to get the most out of the experience?

I really think this depends on the person. I am not a big joiner of face-to-face clubs as I have an extremely busy life, but I love online communities. I am a member of quite a few bird photography Facebook groups where we share photos and tips for locations and camera settings.

I know many people enjoy their local chapters of the PSNZ and I am a member so that I can see what workshops and competitions are coming up that might be of interest.

Choose the right fit for you - Do you learn best face to face through talking or doing? If so join your local club. If you like to experiment in your own time, there are loads of online communities out there.                        

Your photo "Disgruntled Bellbird" on Excio has reached 64K+ views! How does it feel?

Honestly, honoured. What a lucky person I am to be able to showcase my images of our native NZ birds with a global community. Thanks to Excio that image has had more exposure than it ever had on Facebook or Instagram.

You can see more of Fairlie's photographs by following her on Excio or by visiting her portfolio here.

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