Camera clubs conjure up images of retired folk with projectors in village halls. News editor Chris Cheesman finds out what's changed...
Type ‘PAGB’ into Google and a trade association for over-the-counter medicines pops up at the top of the search engine’s list.
Any initial concerns about camera club members popping pills are misplaced, however.
It turns out that this particular ‘PAGB’ is the home page of the Proprietary Association of Great Britain, a healthcare body, and not the Photographic Alliance of Great Britain, the umbrella group for photographic clubs.
Despite the ‘Great Britain’ tag, the PAGB actually represents camera clubs across the UK, its members being 15 ‘federations’ across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Membership within clubs is increasing, says the PAGB, which was set up 84 years ago and was once part of the Royal Photographic Society.
More than 1,000 clubs belong to the PAGB, each with an average of 30-35 members, which suggests there are more than 30,000 camera club members in the UK. This is no small number, especially considering that membership averaged in the mid-20s a decade ago, according to former PAGB president Peter Cheetham.
Competitions give members the chance to develop their skills. This image is by Roger Hance from Ipswich & District Photographic Society. It won a Gold Medal in the PAGB’s Inter-Federation Open Monochrome Competition 2014
Digital photography has boosted membership, says Cheetham, who belongs to Long Eaton Camera Club in Derbyshire. ‘Clubs that were obviously not interested in digital lost membership,’ he adds.
Among those to jump on the digital bandwagon was Chichester Camera Club in West Sussex. It is filled to the rafters, with 130 members and a waiting list of 53 – a number perhaps more akin to a posh golf club (but without the plush surroundings). Members meet at a local community centre, in nearby Tangmere.
Would-be members are urged to attend ‘extra-curricular’ groups, including one for Photoshop and Lightroom techniques.
On a national level, the digital revolution seems to have helped pull in younger recruits. ‘Five or 10 years ago, you went to lots of clubs and almost everyone in the audience was a pensioner,’ adds Cheetham.
More females are signing up, too, he observes. ‘At one time, you’d hear comments that the only ladies there were making the tea – that’s the real chauvinist side of it.
‘It was certainly very much a male-orientated thing. But that was because dad had the camera. Now we are in the situation where the kids have got them as well, although they may only be phones…
‘I go round to lots of clubs and I see a larger number of ladies – and they are not making the tea.’
Refreshments aside, what’s the hook? In an Amateur Photographer reader poll, a fifth of nearly 900 people who responded said they belong to a club because it helps improve both technical knowledge and technique.
Almost the same share (19%), however, said they did not belong to a camera club, as it was an old-fashioned concept.
Although Chichester has seen interest from younger members, some leave after enrolling, says publicity secretary Cath Walter, conceding that most members are retired.
Walter suggests that youngsters may possess an ‘I want it, and I want it now’ attitude, rather than ‘having patience to really learn and study’.
In AP’s online survey, 10% of readers said the social side of clubs was the big draw. AP website forum member El_Sid says he enjoys this aspect more as he has become more experienced with photography. For him, a club is also about seeing the work of other photographers at club presentations.
Clubs are not for everyone, though. Members must be prepared to have their work slated – in public. ‘There are people who think they are the best thing since sliced bread, so when someone says they are not, they don’t like it,’ says Cheetham.
AP forum member George W Johnson empathises with those who don’t want to put their pics on a pedestal. ‘I’ve always been too scared to join a camera club for fear of people laughing at my pictures,’ he wrote.
And who needs a club when amateurs have the AP chat room? suggests fellow forum user Spinno.
‘We’re from all walks of life’
Chichester concedes that even some people, who spend years on its waiting list, decide to throw in the towel once allowed through the doors.
‘Often, people perceive the club as being somewhere they can actually learn to take photographs – perhaps expecting to be taught how to use a camera, rather than improving their photography,’ says Walter.
Competitions are one way to boost skills. At the time of writing, the PAGB was gearing up to stage its annual inter-club Projected Digital Image (PDI) Club Championship at the University of Warwick in Coventry.
Club size means little on the road to glory, in a contest that started life as a slide competition in 1977. Last year’s PDI giant-killer was Wigan 10 Foto Club, which has just 13 members.
With pride at stake, the atmosphere can get a tad tense. ‘There’s always “I won a gold medal in Outer Mongolia”,’ says Cheetham, who chairs the contest’s organising committee.
For Chichester, competing with ‘like-minded’ clubs is a key part of PAGB membership. That said, Walter thinks more should be done to promote clubs nationally. ‘Camera club members are viewed a little like trainspotters,’ she adds.
‘Of course, there are the archetypal camera club members, festooned with equipment hanging from every belt loop like [Wild West gunman] Wyatt Earp.
‘But, for the most part, we’re just people from all walks of life…’
In spite of the less- than-glamorous tags, it seems that camera clubs are thriving.
Brief history of camera clubs
A shared interest in photography can be traced back to the early 1840s. The first club was formed by a few like-minded gentlemen in Edinburgh soon after the invention of photography in 1839. Sir David Brewster, a close friend of William Henry Fox Talbot had introduced these gents to the inventor’s calotype process, and had reportedly viewed Fox Talbot’s photogenic drawings as early as December 1839. The eight members of the Edinburgh Calotype Club included doctors and academics from Edinburgh and St Andrews. Fast-forward 170 years or so, and there are upwards of 1,000 clubs nationally, representing more than 30,000 members, according to the Photographic Alliance of Great Britain.