Rachael Andrews is a visually impaired photographer who first used a camera purely as a practical tool to help her see everyday objects such as food labels.
While her camera was initially a helpful instrument for Andrews to navigate the sight loss she suffered during her 20s, she soon realized an artistic passion for photography.
Speaking to PetaPixel, British photographer Andrews, who has no useful sight in her left eye and no central vision in her right, explains how she goes about her photography work.
“My technique is to use manual focus, pre-focused to either the closest the lens will go or very near to it, fill the viewfinder with what I want to shoot and get the middle of it covered with the blank area in my central vision,” says Andrews.
“I can sometimes move my eye around to put the peripheral vision that I still have over the center of the image to check what’s there, but not always.”
“It depends on how big the subject is, how bright, if it’s moving or not, etc. Then using focus peaking I’ll move my eye to get a sense of the scene — it’s a smear at this point with no details — then I wait for the flash of the outline that confirms focus as I very slowly move the camera backwards or forwards, then I squeeze the shutter.”
Andrews will take hundreds of shots of the same scene in the hope that one will have the correct focus, something she only discovers later while editing.
“Sometimes in the edit, I’ll notice something like an insect that I didn’t know was in the shot or some other element, and if I’m really lucky this extra bonus will have worked out,” she says.
“But just as often there might be a dog’s nose or tail, a random piece of foliage, or some other thing in view that I didn’t notice at the time,” she continues. “I probably throw away 98% of shots. I might take 500 shots in one session of only a few things. I could never use film instead of digital — I’d be bankrupt within the week.”
Andrews tends to shoot most of her photos in her garden, as she’s familiar with the layout. However, she does also belong to a photography group that’s made up of fellow sight-impaired photographers guided by fully-sighted volunteers.
Editing and Equipment
When Andrews loads her images onto her computer, she studies each photograph with her face around four inches away from the screen. Moving her head and eyes, she takes in parts of the entire image and judges each portion making editing decisions as she goes.
“I can’t really tell if the finished image is sharp most of the time so I use defaults for sharpening plugins if I sense something needs it and hope,” she says.
Andrews uses a 32-inch monitor and utilizes a combination of VoiceOver screen reader, on-screen magnification, and extremely large fonts to help her.
Andrews, from Norwich, Norfolk, uses a Canon EOS R with a variety of mostly manual lenses.
“I particularly like vintage lenses and adapted projection lenses,” she explains.
“At the moment my two favorite lenses are a Carl Zeiss 35mm f/2.4 Flektogon, and a really beat-up Dallmeyer Max Lite projector lens that I’ve stuck into an M42 helicoid and some extension tubes with insulating tape.”
From Food Labels to Flowers
49-year-old Andrews favors shooting macro, especially flowers and insects. But unless a bug lands on her or fortuitously wanders into her viewfinder, she is unlikely to know the creature is there. Andrews also take pictures of her guide dog, retired guide dog, and her husband’s guide dog.
Andrews has come a long way since she bought a camera just so she can read labels on medication battles and so she could see her pet rats because she was no longer able to with her eyes alone.
“Photographs of things don’t move, unlike some of those things in real life. This means I can get time to actually get a sense of the whole thing after moving my eyes around the scene and making a composite in my head if you like,” she says.
“ Getting a digital camera was a purely practical solution to my vision loss in the beginning, nothing more. I had no previous interest in photography. But then I moved to a house with a garden that had flowers. I’ve always loved flowers and being out amongst nature, so it occurred to me that even if I couldn’t see much of the flowers in real life I could capture shots and view them later,” she explains.
“And then I realized I liked photographing these things as an artistic outlet rather than just ‘oh look, here’s a rose, so that’s what that one really looks like.'”
Photography as a Release
Andrews is a disability rights campaigner who works on legal cases which can be stressful so her camera work is a great release.
“Photography helps me let go of all the day-to-day troubles and lose myself in the beauty of nature, which sounds trite but I find it extremely beneficial to my mental health.
“It’s hard on my eyes, arms, and shoulders and often makes them sore, but I wouldn’t give it up even so.”
More of Andrews’ work can be seen on her Facebook.
Image credits: All photos by Rachael Andrews/Soft of Sight Photography.