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Behind the Image

“I am a keen user of digital technology — the flexibility and quality far exceed that we obtained on film but I’m glad that I grew up in the analogue world.”  – Robin Williams


Green Crowned Brilliant Hummingbird
Robin Williams, PhD, MPhil, BSc, FRPS, FIMI, FBPA, FBIPP

Tell us about your professional background.

Photography has always been my Grande Passion. I started photography at the age of eight with a Box Brownie and processing in a temporarily converted bathroom darkroom. As a teenager I made good money selling picture postcards!

I obtained a College education in both Scientific and Medical Photography, graduating with Honors in both disciplines. I worked briefly as a scientific photographer at GEC Marconi then as a medical photographer at Addenbroke’s Hospital, Cambridge, and Westminster Medical School London, moving rapidly up the career ladder of medical photography to become Head of the largest Medical Illustration department in Europe – Charing Cross & Westminster Medical School, London.

I then moved to Australia in 1992 to take up the inaugural Professorial Chair in Photography and Head of the Department of Photography at RMIT University. I was a Professor of Photography for over 20 years and UNESCO Professor of Communications for the Asia-Pacific region for five years. As an academic leader I was promoted to the position of Dean of the Faculty of Art, Design and Communication. I finished my academic career with appointments in the Vice-Chancellor’s Offices of two Australian Universities.

Now retired, I’m pursuing my passion for photography as a landscape and nature photographer, but I continue my commitment to photographic education as a member of the Governing Council of the Photography Studies College in Australia and Chair of its Academic Board.

What photographers inspire or influence you?

Having spent over 50 years in photography I have to say that I have been influenced by too many photographers to mention individually, we all “stand on broad shoulders”. Having said that I must mention two people:  Dr. Peter Hansell who was one of a small group of pioneers in medical photography in the UK and my lifetime mentor and supporter and Lou Gibson from Eastman Kodak in Rochester who did more than anyone to promote advanced standards in medical photography globally – I am honoured to have counted him as a friend and advisor. They both made an enormous contribution to biomedical photography and to me personally: I miss them both sorely.

Tell us about this particular photograph.

I have always been fascinated by Hummingbirds – their tiny size, incredible speed and the ability to fly backwards – to me they have always been very exotic, not being found in Europe or Australia. On a recent trip to photograph the wildlife of Costa Rica I couldn’t resist the opportunity to capture some of these magnificent birds. There were two significant technical challenges: the feathers of most species are iridescent, but this requires wrap around lighting to demonstrate effectively, and secondly of course the wingbeats are so incredibly fast that you need high speed flash to stop the movement. We took a full set of high speed flashes (5 – complete with stands and remote syncs) into the Costa Rican jungle where we had set up nectar feeders to attract birds.

The camera was equipped with a long telephoto lens and fired manually from a safe distance by remote control when birds were close to the flowers. Needless to say a great deal of patience was required and a lot of frames exposed – we could never have done this on analogue film – it would have been prohibitively expensive. I am a keen user of digital technology – the flexibility and quality far exceed that we obtained on film but I’m glad that I grew up in the analogue world. Many of today’s students would have a better understanding of post capture processing if they understood the fundamentals of the D Log E curve!

Why did you select this specific image for the BioImages competition?

I was particularly pleased with the results from the Costa Rican expedition and many have commented very positively about my Hummingbird images so I was encouraged to enter. Entering competitions is a good way to ‘benchmark’ your work and does attract useful attention to your photography. Winning something is always nice, but we should remember that not winning does not necessarily mean we are not a good photographer. Given that the finalists in any photographic competition are usually technically competent it means that there is a great deal of personal bias on the part of judges with what wins. We are well to remember Rudyard Kipling’s advice that we should “meet triumph and disaster and treat them both as two imposters just the same.”

Any advice or comments to others?

Biomedical photography is one of the most rewarding careers that you can imagine. It combines technical competency, deep understanding of medicine or the natural world and a high degree of artistic ability. At the end of the day you have a feeling that you have made a contribution to humanity, unlike say the food, fashion or advertising photographer who just assisted to sell a product that no-one really needs. I would encourage anyone to enter the field, get qualified and push the boundaries.