Behind the Scenes of an International Photography Competition
In Conversation with Tracy Calder @ Close-up Photographer of the Year (CUPOTY)
For anyone not in the know, CUPOTY is a photography competition celebrating the close-up beauty and wonder of the world. It’s hard not to be inspired by the winning images and for someone who delights in the abstract and unusual views of the world it’s right up my street. And while the views might be tiny, the range of images is huge. From the goggle eyes of creepy crawlies to beautiful abstract pond reflections there’s something for everyone and very much worth popping over to www.cupoty.com for a look.
"I regularly visit a meadow near my hometown of Csongrád-Bokros, Hungary, observing the site in all seasons. The meadow is grazed by Hungarian grey cattle, which keeps the place in relatively good condition. One frosty winter’s morning I headed out to take some extreme macro shots at the surface of some frozen water that had pooled in the tracks left by a tractor. Crouching down, I spotted some yellow globular (Sminthurus maculatus) which feed in the sunrays reflected from the ice. I used LED torches to illuminate one of them, and came away with a picture that celebrates this tiny creature." Tamás Koncz-Bisztricz, Winner: Young Close-up Photographer of the Year 02.
I’ve often wondered how such competitions work behind the scenes so was delighted that CUPOTY co-founder Tracy Calder agreed to have a (virtual) chat with me. So without further ado…
Simon: Many thanks for taking the time out to speak with me. Let’s start at the beginning: it would be great to know more about your photographic background and what prompted you to set up CUPOTY?
TRACY - It’s a pleasure Simon, thanks so much for asking!
My passion for close-up photography began around 15 years ago when I picked up a macro lens and realised it was a portal to a whole new world of curves, shapes, colours and forms. It doesn’t matter if you’re photographing a cheese grater or a springtail, when you move in close the level of detail is spellbinding.
One of the joys of this style of photography is that it forces you to slow down and be more mindful of your surroundings. When I started out, I was working in the publishing industry full-time and this slow, calm approach to image-making helped me to relax. I was commissioned to write a book about macro photography in 2010, which gave me the perfect excuse to explore the field in more detail, and since then I’ve been hooked!
My husband and I came up with the idea for a competition celebrating the art of close-up, macro and micro photography back in 2015, but as we decided to do pretty-much everything ourselves – from designing the website to securing sponsors and press coverage – it took us the best part of three years to actually launch it! From the outset we wanted to encourage people to see the world anew – to notice the gentle curve of a tulip leaf or the way a small sand pattern can be mistaken for an aerial landscape. When we appreciate the small things, we begin to see how everything is interconnected and deserving of our respect and appreciation.
"Raft spiders (Dolomedes fimbriatus) can be found in bogs and pools, but they also inhabit the water margins of ditches, ponds and slow-moving streams. To catch prey – usually in the form of invertebrates trapped on the surface – they “walk” on water with their appendages outstretched, sensing vibrations that will help them to detect potential victims. I found this lovely specimen on the surface of a marshy pool in Plesheevo Lake National Park, Yaroslavl region, Russia. I really wanted to show the creature in its natural surroundings." Svetlana Ivanenko, Finalist: Animals.
ST: Did you have any expectations on how the competition was going to be received?
TC: We didn’t have any expectations really! Our main aim was to create a platform where people could share the wonder of the world via their images, and hopefully to create a community of encouragement.
I’ve assisted on the judging panel for a number of big photography competitions, so I had a pretty good idea of how many entries we might receive and the general standard, but I had no idea about the sheer amount of work involved! It’s all good fun, but there’s still so much we would like to do! First on the list is the new CUPOTY blog, which launches in a few weeks.
"This image was taken in the New Forest, Hampshire, on a dull day in October. Returning to the car after a walk I spent some time photographing a rather splendid beech tree that had caught my eye right there in the car park. I used in-camera multiple exposures to experiment with different textures. First I took some shots of the bark up close and then I captured an overlaying exposure looking up into the branches so that the leaves were superimposed in outline. The process took some time as I had to move around between exposures to get the different angles, and experiment with different blend modes to get the image I was after. I ended up with many different versions but chose this one to process." Cathryn Baldock, Shortlisted: Plants & Fungi.
ST: Macro, close-up and intimate landscape photography seem to be gaining more and more appeal - why do you think that is?
TC: Obviously, lockdown has played a big part in expanding the appeal of close-up photography – so many of us have been exploring our immediate surroundings in much more detail in the last 12 months – but I actually think it’s more than that. When we launched CUPOTY in 2018 I thought I might be the only one who experienced such a nourishing sense of calm and peace when studying subjects up close but hearing some of the stories from the CUPOTY community I really believe there is a connection between the two.
The novelist Pico Iyer once declared, ‘In an age of constant movement nothing is so urgent as sitting still,’ and I truly believe it. When we slow down to photograph an object or scene up close, we notice so much more. This increased awareness leads to a sense of gratitude.
"I spotted this eel larva off the island of Lembeh (Indonesia) during a blackwater dive. Blackwater diving is essentially diving at night in the open ocean, usually over deep or very deep water. Divers are surrounded by darkness, with only a lit downline as a visual reference. Peering through the darkness with your torch can be quite stressful the first time you do it, but it gets fascinating very quickly. What makes blackwater diving so magical is the abundance of rarely seen planktonic creatures you spot as they take part in one of the largest daily migrations of any animal on Earth. After sunset, small pelagic animals (like this larva) rise close to the surface to feed where the sunlight has allowed planktonic algae to grow. At sunrise, they dive into the depths and stay down there during the day to escape predators." Galice Hoarau, Overall Winner: Close-up Photographer of the Year 02.
ST: Great quote and so true, I’ve certainly found a great deal of peace in the quiet flow of taking close-up images. I think readers would also be interested in the ‘behind the scenes’ of running a photography competition. Part of the appeal and credibility of CUPOTY is in the expert panel you’ve assembled. How do you go about selecting the judging panel? https://www.cupoty.com/judges-1
TC: From the outset we wanted the CUPOTY judging panel to comprise a mix of conservationists, scientists, award-winning photographers and members of the publishing industry. Some of our most popular categories feature animals and plants, so it's crucial that the welfare of any living subjects is preserved. Sometimes it’s extremely hard to tell if an image has been captured in an ethical fashion, so we rely on our judges to spot any warning signs before we investigate further.
I’ve worked in photography magazines for more than 20 years now and I like nothing more than sharing other people’s stories, so it’s important to me that we secure as much press coverage for our entrants as possible. Amateur Photographer has been our media supporter from the outset, and last year entrants received more than 100 pages of coverage in titles such as The Guardian, The Telegraph and Roots NL. Our judging panel includes some extremely well-respected editorial staff, which helps us to bring images from the CUPOTY community to a truly global audience.
"My goal with this photo was to create art that challenges the viewer to look at the natural world with fresh eyes. I collected some miniature tulips from my garden and placed them on a lightbox. The vivid yellow centres were so striking that I decided to create a composition that would show both a side view and a centre view of the plants. The tulips were photographed and rotated at eight equidistant positions to complete a full rotation; it’s a technique that I call Precise Incremental Rotation. An in-camera multiple exposure of eight frames was used to create the effect. The characteristics of the tulips are really emphasised when rendered within the rotational symmetry of the mandala form. The curved green leaves make a great frame for the flower, while the centre of the design highlights the tulip’s anthers." Elizabeth Kazda, Winner: Plants & Fungi.
ST: Are the judges guided at all or left to their own devices in choosing the winning images? What’s their “brief”?
TC: Judges are assigned categories depending on their general area/s of specialisation and are requested to send in scores, which are then added to those of fellow judges. All of the pictures are judged anonymously but, where possible, we include the caption supplied by the photographer as this can help to highlight any particularly unusual animal or plant behaviour. The category winners are then sent to all the judges who then cast their vote for the overall winner.
"Callus remover (used to remove areas of thickened skin) is one of my favourite substances for crystallisation. I’ve been taking photographs of this substance for a long time now and almost always find something new to capture. On this occasion the crystals had formed into structures that reminded me of a Native American village with tents pitched all over the hills. Using polarised light offered me an unlimited variety of colours and shapes, which changed when I rotated the polariser. I looked for colours that helped define the shapes I wanted to emphasise. I rotated the camera until the composition felt balanced. Photographing crystals is relatively simple compared to living objects. The main challenge lies in showing crystals of the same substance in a different way." Marek Mis, 2nd Place: Micro.
ST: I do enjoy the captions, often providing a glimpse into the trials and tribulations the photographer has gone through in order to get their stunning image.
ST: In terms of numbers, how many entries are you seeing and how does that translate into shortlisted entries before you get to the Top 100? It must be so hard but how does the selection process work to whittle those numbers down?
TC: The competition is growing quickly – last year we received more than 6,500 entries from 52 countries, and the standard blew us away! When we begin the judging process, it feels like a total privilege to be shown the world in new and exciting ways. The initial stage takes longer than it probably should, because I have to stop every few minutes to Google something like, ‘Why do some beetles glow’ or ‘What does slime mould grow on’. I learn so much from the photographers involved and often can’t wait to hear more about how the pictures were taken.
"Trekking across the baking lava of the Kalapana lava field in Hawaii, was an experience not to be forgotten. Incredible organic structures of black, blue, gold and bronze seemed to overwhelm the senses, but eventually the increasing presence of sulphur dioxide and other acidic gases, acted as a reminder that I was walking on an erupting volcano. Heat was rising from every crack in the rock, and before my very eyes the rocks would turn orange and suddenly begin to flow. New land, rock and stone was being created just meters away from me. I had just seconds to capture this image of a lava flow setting into the form it would retain for millions of years. The glass-like rock was still glowing below the surface, but soon enough a new lava flow started centimetres from my feet and I was forced to retreat." Mark James Ford, Winner: Intimate Landscape.
ST: I often wonder whether a photographer’s entries are viewed as a group or are they all jumbled up in the categories. And when you get down to the final few do you look at a photographer’s body of work? Or is it as simple as each image being viewed on its own merits?
TC: The images are split into the categories decided by the entrant, so each photograph must stand on its own. Even when we get down to the final few we don’t take a whole body of work into account – although this will obviously change if we introduce a Portfolio category later down the line!
"Glass worms can vary in length from about half an inch to two inches. On the right side of this particular image you can see the large tracheal bubbles that serve as hydrostatic organs (or swim bladders). These bubbles allow the larvae to keep its horizontal position in the water column, while also helping to regulate the depth of its immersion. The bubbles are covered with dark pigment cells that can resize – if the cells expand due to absorption of light, the tracheal bubbles heat up and increase in volume, reducing the weight of the larvae and causing it to float up. To create the picture here I made a panorama of eight frames, each of which was focus stacked. To make the image as detailed (and aesthetically pleasing) as is possible I used darkfield and polarisation techniques." Andrei Savitsky, Winner: Micro.
ST: I certainly enjoy the challenge some photos provide (“Meteor” by Radomir Jakubowski sticks in my mind for example) - they can really test the viewer. You must get a wide assortment of sometimes hard to work out photos, anything weird and wonderful that sticks out?
TC: There have been so many weird and wonderful entries – each one adding to my knowledge and general sense of wonder! I absolutely love Melanie Collie’s shot Towards the Mountain from the Manmade category last year and Billie Hughes’ Sapphire Starfleet is another highlight. Anything that challenges my preconceived view of the world is very welcome!
"Photographing an object that only exists for a few seconds presents many challenges. Each part of the set-up, from the mixture of soap and water, to the camera position and lighting has to be adjusted carefully to ensure maximum control. Bubbles often burst before you have time to adjust the camera and focus. You need to be calm, have a lot of patience, and take plenty of pictures. What’s more, your focus points have to be spot on to achieve maximum depth and clarity." David Pearce, Finalist: Manmade.
ST: So true. I love the shots that make me think: “what on earth is that?!” Then the mind catches up and the subject slowly emerges. There’s a great sense of fun in those shots.
ST: Without wishing to start a fight…does the Calder husband and wife partnership always agree on the process?
TC: Ha, ha! This made me laugh: the short answer is yes, but the long answer is no! We nearly always agree on the process, but we often disagree on the finer details. Our skills are complementary, so that helps, and we’ve always been pretty good at finding common ground.
"I live in the middle of nature. My house is surrounded by meadows, and every spring the flowers bloom, welcoming a multitude of insects – especially butterflies. Among the most frequent visitors are fritillaries – I often see them resting on the flowers of Armeria arenaria, and feeding on the nectar. I wanted to capture the beautiful synergy between insect and plant so I arranged some flowers in a harmonious way, placed a white background behind them, and overexposed the image in-camera. The result is a pure photograph highlighting the simple beauty of butterflies and the plants that they depend on." Emelin Dupieux, Finalist: Young Close-up Photographer of the Year
ST: The final images selected are always stunning - do you think there are key ingredients to a CUPOTY winning image?
TC: Good question. I wouldn’t say there are key ingredients to a CUPOTY winning image, but I can certainly give a few pointers. 1. Don’t try to second-guess what the judges want to see. If you love something and your sense of wonder and excitement is communicated through your work then the chances are the judges will love it too.
2. You don’t have to travel far to find suitable subject matter. If you empty out your kitchen drawer, and explore each object with a childlike curiosity, you can often find enough to keep you occupied for days.
3. Make sure everything you intended to be sharp is absolutely pin-sharp. Close-up and macro photography can be technically challenging, with depth of field limited to just a few millimetres, but the viewer’s eye needs to know where to go first, and in what order to view the elements in the frame. Make it easy for them.
"I’m always on the hunt for ladybirds in my garden, so I was thrilled when I camera across this seven-spot variety climbing over the bud of an oriental poppy. I grabbed my camera and set it to continuous shooting mode. After taking several shots as the insect moved along the petal I finally got what I was looking for." Jacky Parker, Finalist: Insects.
ST: That’s great advice. And finally, what’s next?! Where do you see CUPOTY in 5 years time?
TC: Our guiding principle is to spread wonder and encourage people to see the world anew, and we really see this getting stronger as the years go by. Five years from now it would be great to have a touring exhibition and a series of books but, like everything we have done so far, we tend to do things a bit differently! The personal approach is at the heart of everything we do, and that often leads us down unexpected paths!
"The sense of energy at Canary Wharf in London is palpable. It’s not a place that is often associated with quiet contemplation, yet pausing for a moment reveals beauty and softness alongside the corporate architecture. The patterns and colours can be mesmerising as they change with the light and weather. With so much activity around, capturing these images requires a focus that isn’t immediately obvious to passersby – I can spend hours examining a small body of water, waiting for something out of the ordinary. I sometimes think I might be the only person who is still among the crowd. The more I stand and watch, the more I see, and yet the more I look the more I notice that “looking” is futile; it’s more about feeling and anticipating. This image was inspired by my childhood fascination with kaleidoscopes and spirographs, and the endless variation of colours and shapes they created." Mike Curry, Finalist: Intimate Landscape.
A huge thanks to Tracy for a really fun and insightful conversation. Entries for this year’s competition close 23rd May so take a look at their website and see what you can find to capture. Right, that’s all for now, I’m off out to find some leaf mould…
All the best,
CUPOTY 03 in association with Affinity Photo closes on 23rd May 2021. The overall winner will receive a cash prize of £2,500, while each category winner will take home £300, with the exception of Young CUPOTY who receives a SIGMA 105mm f2.8 DG DN MACRO Art lens (worth £700) and USB dock.