Noelle Bennett

Noelle takes photographs because it’s what she loves to do. She’s not a landscape photographer or a nature photographer or a street photographer - Noelle is somebody who simply wishes to share her view of the world, her way of seeing. In this interview, we find out about the photos she entered into CUPOTY’s ‘Two Of A Kind’ themed challenge, and the lengths she went to when capturing her top-finalist photo of two magnificent King shags.

Tell us about your finalist image titled ‘Hey! What’s that?’ What’s the story behind it and how did you achieve the shot?

The main inspiration for this image came from the birds themselves. They are quite a big bird and that wonderfully dark head seems to accentuate the intense bright blue of the eye and the sulphur yellow of the caruncles.

Because the only way to get to a place where you can view these birds, and because I was going to have to photograph them from a boat, I really needed a calm day with as little wind as possible and as calm water as we could manage since we’d be reasonably close to a rocky shoreline. As anybody who has spent any time in the Marlborough Sounds would tell you, the Sounds are pretty good at wind! We reasoned that winter might give us the best opportunity for taking images of the King shags due to the generally gentle breezes and slight seas.

Weather aside, we didn’t know if any birds would be there, or if they were, whether they would be in a position where we could easily photograph them - These birds don’t have one particular spot that they always perch in so we would need a lot of luck to pull the photo trip off successfully!

The day dawned calm and clear with a cloudless blue sky and wall-to-wall sunshine so we certainly had most of what we wanted. The brilliant sunshine had the potential to be slightly problematic with the brilliant white of the plumage and the blue sky could potentially be a bit boring, but those were things that could be solved relatively easily.

So, armed with my trusty DC-G9 and its 100-400mm (200-800mm FFE) telephoto lens to ensure we could keep the boat and the rocks well separated from each other, we headed out into Queen Charlotte Sound, heading for the bay where we were pretty certain we would find the King shags. The birds had clearly read the script because as we turned into the bay we could see them sitting on the rocky ridge, with the brilliant blue sky as a backdrop.

I wanted to keep the ISO as low as I could to minimise the noise but I also wanted to make sure I had sufficient speed to compensate for the movement of the boat. True, it was a lovely calm day, but there was still just enough of a swell running to be a little bit of a nuisance. With a speed of 1/1600 sec and a focal length of 250mm (500mm FFE), I set the camera to burst mode and started shooting. The King shags were far enough away from us not to be upset by our presence and so largely ignored what we were doing.

Having taken a good few images, we then just took time to simply sit and watch these gorgeous birds before heading back to shore.

How did you come up with the final edited image?

As I mentioned above, we had a cloudless blue sky when we went to take these images which I guess was a product of our desire to have a calm winter’s day. Whilst that might sound ideal, I knew I wanted something with a little more drama to really add something to the image. Of course, if I’d had real drama in the sky, we’d probably have also had more drama on the boat than would have been helpful for taking images! So, the finished piece (as is much of my work) is actually a composite.

Everything I use in the image has been produced by me, I never use third-party backgrounds or textures. In fact, almost without exception, my composites are created using the original which I duplicate and manipulate using such things as Gaussian blur and altering HSL levels and selective colour to create additional layers with less detail. Depending on how this part of the process turns out, I may flip those layers vertically or horizontally and I might also enlarge them. I’m always looking for shapes that I can use to add drama and additional feeling to the image. It’s really hard to describe but very obvious when you see it. I’ll then use blend modes and changes in opacity to produce what I am searching for, before painting through the elements of the original image that I wish to keep. Again, it’s really hard to describe but I just know when it’s right.

Each image that I create behaves differently. In this case, I had three layers - the original one and then the two I manipulated. Some images might have only one layer and others may have three or four. It does sound a bit complicated but it’s something I actually enjoy doing as I love seeing what emerges as the process continues. Of course, not all images work and that can be frustrating but you always know when an image has worked. At that point, it’s really important to save it and put it away for a little while. Come back and look at it the following day or even in a couple of days’ time. If you’re still pleased with it, you’ve cracked it and that is an awesome feeling.

What can you tell us about these birds?

King shags are really magnificent birds. I wonder how many people know that they are endemic to New Zealand. Not only are they found nowhere else in the world except New Zealand, but they are actually found nowhere else in New Zealand except the Marlborough Sounds. This is a situation that has not changed in over 240 years. Sadly, restricted distribution like this makes a species more vulnerable because if anything were to happen in that place, the species could well suffer catastrophically. It’s the conservation equivalent of ‘putting all your eggs in one basket’.

Rather unsurprisingly, King shags are rarely seen although a little research does narrow down the best areas to look for them. Having said that, it is still possible to see them - so long as you have access to a boat! And because they tend to prefer to inhabit rocky areas that adds in an extra wee challenge. Not only do you have the constant movement of a boat on water to contend with and the problems that presents when you’re trying to get a good sharp image, but you also need to be very mindful that rocks and boats don’t go together very well. Add all those facts together and you realise just how special it all makes these birds! How could I resist wanting to photograph them!

How did you select which photograph/s to submit for the competition?

The subject for the challenge, which was two of a kind, actually made the choice reasonably straightforward. The submission limit for the challenge was three images and so I chose to submit three. Realistically I knew the other two were not as strong as ‘Hey! What’s that?’ but I worried that submitting an image of two birds may have been seen as a bit boring and perhaps lacking in any technical challenge. One of my other images was of a pair of common blue butterflies and the second one was a pair of blue damselflies. I know I could have stuck with just entering the one image I believed to be the strongest image, but if you don’t try you don’t know, so I’m not sorry I entered the three.

How did you find the process of entering such a popular competition, was it easy?

The process for submitting was actually very straightforward. The instructions on the website are clear and easy to follow and all the processes worked well. In the competitions I’ve entered with CUPOTY there haven’t been any absolutes in terms of when the judging will be complete and when the results will be notified but the organisers are really good at email communication and make sure they notify you when the results are going to be released. They don’t email the results to the competitors, instead choosing to let everybody know at the same time via the website and their social media outlets. Personally, I like that way of working although being in a much different time zone to the organisers can prolong the wait!

What does it feel like to be a finalist in a challenge competition run by CUPOTY?

I think it’s fair to say I was absolutely stunned but so excited. I had been shortlisted in the Animals section of CUPOTY 03 and I was completely blown away by that. I didn’t expect to get that far and certainly didn’t think I’d be a finalist so I wasn’t at all disappointed when I didn’t progress from the shortlist. When I was initially notified that I’d been shortlisted in the CUPOTY Two of a Kind Challenge I was equally elated and, like the previous time, had absolutely no expectations that I would get any further. The shortlisted images were all so stunning. I certainly didn’t envy the judges having to choose between them. But oh, the euphoria of finding out you’re a finalist is really indescribable. As I write this a week on, I’m still buzzing!

What tips can you share with other members about entering photography competitions?

If you are seriously thinking about entering a photography competition, I would say just go for it. If you don’t, there will always be an element of ‘What if...’ But be realistic. Look at the categories carefully. Look at the images that have been shortlisted and have won in previous years in the competition you are seeking to enter. Ask yourself whether your images measure up to the quality that you are seeing... and be honest. Consider the images you have and then choose the ones that your instinct suggests to you. Before you enter your image, check for obvious issues like haloing as a result of perhaps over-sharpening or blown-out highlights. Work on those so that the image is as good as you can make it. Then submit. Some people might ask others to have a look at the images and ask for their feedback before they submit but personally, I have only done that a couple of times and it caused me a great deal of confusion especially when that person’s views were at odds with my own and they began to suggest submitting different images. But most of all, do it because you choose to, because it feels right to you.

Remember, competitions aren’t for everybody. If you do enter competitions and you don’t get the results you hoped for, that doesn’t mean that your photography is no good. It simply means that the people who were judging at that point in time preferred other images to yours.

What else can you share from your experience with the competition?

I am completely self-taught when it comes to photography and see entering competitions as a way to gain additional feedback. They have helped me learn so much and there’s no denying that it does my self-esteem the power of good when I get positive results! That, in turn, provides me with the impetus to try different genres and techniques, to learn new things, and then to see how those are received. So from my perspective, competitions have helped me grow. They are not always positive experiences. Sometimes the results you hoped for just don’t materialise. But that can also be a really valuable learning experience albeit a harder one to take.

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