For British photographer Jason Parnell-Brookes the theme of last year’s Open Award, ‘Change’, prompted him to dig into his archives and submit a candid and very moving image of his grandparents who were dealing with the progression of Alzheimer’s.
Here he opens up about how this personal image, which was never meant to see the light of day, ended up touring the world. He also offers up his advice for photographers looking to enter this year’s Nikon Photo Contest.
Photography: igniting a passion
My father, Graham, was into film photography and had a couple of old SLR cameras that he used to experiment with and encouraged me to do the same. The first time I remember holding a camera was on a short walk down the River Avon with my dad. I was six years old when he handed me a simple point-and-shoot film camera with 36 exposures. The goal was to photograph the trains at Bath Spa railway station, but I rattled off nearly every photo before I even got there. He had to take it off me to save a couple of frames for the trains.
The first photo I ever took was when I was four years old, though I don't remember it, and incidentally it was of my other grandmother, my mother and my uncle in their living room - funny how the setup was so similar to the image I won the award with! It was my mum, Sue, who got me my first compact digital camera and after reading the manual cover to cover, that sent me on this wonderful journey.
A very personal interpretation of ‘change’
I captured this winning portrait of my grandparents during a time when my grandmother, Alma, was caring for her husband of over 60 years, who was going through Alzheimer's. It was obviously a difficult change for her, but it was also bittersweet. Her husband had been quite violent in their 60 years of marriage due mostly, I think, to his PTSD from his service in the second world war. Now though, he was placid – back to the man he used to be before he went into service, when Alma married him.
Capturing a candid moment
I shot the image in manual mode on my Nikon D90 (the first DSLR capable of HD video recording). I positioned myself next to the window because window light has a beautiful, soft quality. I didn't talk to or pose my grandparents in any way, it was a completely candid moment. It was just before Christmas 2010 and you can see some decorations around the picture frames in the background. My grandfather was unaware of what was going on, wrapped up in a blanket on the sofa in the back of the room, and my nan had just put lunch on the table.
This shot was never meant to see the light of day, it was a personal photo destined for archiving and I only took it for posterity. After the awards ceremony I took a shot of my portrait, printed 3 metres high, displayed on the side of a building in front of Tokyo’s Shibuya crossing and showed it to my nan – she nearly fainted!
Focus and depth of field were key to the winning shot
The two most important aspects to making this shot work was focus and depth of field. In both cases I had to ensure that both Alma and Donald, my grandfather, were sharp, so I focused on Alma using autofocus and set an aperture of f/3.5 on my 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens. I captured it at 18mm which provided a long depth of field and I was lucky enough to handhold the shot at 1/60 sec yet still maintain a sharp shutter. However, you can see by Alma's slightly blurred hands (she was gesticulating to my dad) that any movement would blur at this exposure length. Luckily, their bodies and heads remained stationary during this image, hence why they're in focus.
Advice for this year’s entrants
The best advice I can give, having been on both sides of the table as an entrant and part of a judging panel, is to look at the past winner's entries. Take a look at the tone and subject matter, then link your best photos with the competition theme. Try not to be too literal with it. As long as you can link the theme to the image and it serves a purpose, you'll be fine. Ask for other people's opinions too – had it not been for my partner’s encouraging words, I would never have entered.
The importance of light and subject matter
The two most important aspects of photography, in my opinion, is light and subject matter. Read up on what makes good light, look for unique situations, and make sure you capture the most important part of the scene. Everything outside of the frame doesn't exist, so be purposeful with your composition.
If you're afraid to shoot on manual mode, try a semi-automatic mode such as aperture priority or shutter priority to let the camera adjust some settings for you. Alternatively, you could set aperture and shutter speed in manual mode and use Auto-ISO to get a good exposure.
My current equipment of choice
I've shot on the Nikon D750 for the longest time, and it was way ahead of its time when it first came out. But now, the Nikon Z 7 and the NIKKOR Z 85mm f/1.8 S is my perfect pairing. Both the body and lens are crazy sharp and preserve even the finest of details in an image. The 85mm focal length, paired with the wide aperture make it an ideal portrait lens, but it equally lends a unique filmic quality to anything you aim it at. Truly a special combination.
Find out more about this year’s Nikon Photo Contest and how to enter here https://www.nikon-photocontest.com/en/