In this series, we’re highlighting and celebrating Women in Photography. In this episode i chatted with Victoria Hillman, a 37 year old wildlife researcher and macro photographer from Frome in Somerset, England.
Marie Gardiner: You’ve followed an education and career path rooted in science and nature. Did that develop naturally to include photography?
Victoria Hillman: From a very early age I‘ve been interested in the natural world and always wanted to work in a nature/wildlife related field. At the time, the best way to do that was to have a good grounding in science and there was also a deeper fascination: I wanted to know how it all fitted together and worked.
I’ve always loved taking photos and capturing what I find, and over the years my scientific interest grew alongside my love of photography, to the point that the two are very much intertwined now. During my studies, I carried out several photo ID projects and this really helped cement the idea that I could be both a wildlife researcher and photographer and that it was the career I really wanted.
MG: What have been your biggest hurdles while honing your photography skills?
VH: Finding my own style and being confident and comfortable with it. Some of my subjects are popular photographic focuses, so finding new and different ways to capture them has been hard. It’s only in the last couple of years I’ve really started to go down the more creative path and I am really enjoying it and all the possibilities.
It can still be tricky at times, when others don’t quite understand what you’re trying to achieve or you come up against those that accept nothing but the more traditional nature photography where everything should be in focus and the foregrounds and backgrounds must be completely clear.
MG: Do you ever have a conflict between documenting something accurately and wanting to make it look aesthetically good as a photograph?
VH: Strangely, no. I do often take ID shots of my subjects then move onto more creative images but there are days when the creative side just isn’t happening and on those days I will concentrate on documenting behaviours and different species.
I never force the creative side of things, if it’s not happening I just survey and enjoy being out in nature and go back another day. Those kinds of days can be great for learning more about habitats and locations to use in the future, collecting ID photographs, and occasionally short video clips too.
MG: Do you think your background and education give you a different perspective when creating macro/nature images?
VH: Definitely, the one thing my science background has given me is a deeper understanding of my subjects and how they interact with their habitats, and in the ecosystem as a whole. Not only that, but it’s given me the skills to research my subjects which now plays just as big a part as going out and photographing them.
Now when I do go out with my camera, I fully immerse myself in the habitat and look for those tiny details or behaviours that are often overlooked in favour of a more traditional macro image.
MG: What’s in your kitbag?
VH: My main and favourite set-up is a Canon 5DMKiii with a Sigma 180mm f/2.8 macro lens. I use this for 90% of my work now. I do also carry a Canon 100mm f/2.8 macro lens, a set of three extension tubes (that I use very occasionally but looking at using more this coming year), a selection of LED lights (as I don’t use flash), and my tripod. Aside from this, I have the usual: spare batteries, memory cards, food, drink and in the summer months tick tweezers and sun cream!
MG: Have you made any mistakes?
VH: The biggest mistake I feel I‘ve made (and am glad to say it has now been rectified) is to photograph what I think people want to see rather than photographing for me. For a few years I would photograph anything and everything but in a way that I thought would sell, and the reality is that it just didn’t make me happy or satisfied or that I was really capturing my subject as it deserved.
I felt like my images were just like hundreds of others and there was nothing unique about them, but now I photograph from the heart and it has made a huge difference to my photography as a whole. Also I think not believing in myself restricted me in the past, it is hard to find a way through this and am sure there are many people who can relate to this feeling.
MG: Do you have particular rules and ethics you stick to when photographing?
VH: For me, the welfare of my subject and their surroundings always comes first, no matter what. I would rather miss an opportunity than cause any stress to my subjects or damage their habitat. All my images are as I find them, I will never garden around a subject, or move it to a better/cleaner location and I’m always very careful where I put my feet, my bag and myself.
You can capture great images of species in their natural habitats just by carefully picking your time of day – for example, if I’m photographing butterflies, it’s either around sunrise or around sunset, as they’re naturally roosting. For dragonflies and damselflies it’s also first thing in the morning and I would normally be done by 9am.
MG: You have a new book out, Forgotten Little Creatures – Congratulations! Tell us more…
VH: A little while ago I started to get interested in the smaller species we have around us: plants, invertebrates, amphibians and reptiles. I began to concentrate my research and photography on these rather than birds and mammals, and for a long time this new project was just called Project X.
As time went by, I started to notice the lack of coverage in the media and in competitions of these smaller species with birds and mammals often getting more exposure. Not only that, but also when images of amphibians appeared in the media they were staged, often using cruel and unethical methods just to create so called funny or cute images and these same images started winning competitions too.
In addition, there were many negative stories about some species, particularly snakes and spiders and this really inspired me to show people just how amazing, beautiful and important these smaller species are by combining creative photography with interesting historical and scientific facts.
A couple of years into the project it finally had a name: Forgotten Little Creatures, and at this point I had the aim of producing a book and exhibition that I hoped would inspire people of all ages to learn more about what we have around us, and maybe change some opinions of some species.
This first part of the project shows just what you can find close to where you live with everything being found and photographed within 40 miles of my home in Frome. From the research to the images, the book is entirely my own work (with help from the designer to put it together in the right format) and has taken a huge amount of effort to bring everything together.
The book itself has over 100 images, from carnivorous plants to cyanide moths, to teeny toads and is packed full of facts and stories. The equipment and shooting details for each image are included, but it’s not specifically aimed at photographers. It would appeal to anyone that has an interest in natural history or photography and it’s a book that I would hope anyone could pick up and enjoy.
About Women in Photography series writer, Marie Gardiner
Marie Gardiner is a photographer and published author (Sunderland, Industrial Giant: Recollections of Working Life). You can see more about Marie at her Website, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Missed the previous episode of Women in Photography? Check it out today: Women in Photography: An interview with Shannon Kalahan.