What it's like being a blind photographer
My name is Jesse Balshaw and I’m a vision impaired/blind photographer from Melbourne.
I have gone through my entire life with low vision near blindness. From the simplest tasks around the house, to traveling and walking down the street and not knowing if the footpath is flat or clear of obstructions, many things we take for granted on a day-to-day basis can be an issue for me. It’s even worse at night when I really don’t know what’s ahead of me.
A lot of people ask why I chose photography. Really, I seriously like it. I find I love learning the ‘How To's’ and those advanced skills, and then being able to go out and do them on my own or with friends.
What I see
For the most part, I don’t see definition between colours and patterns. Mainly they are on the same plane, with no distance or separation. For me, identifying smaller objects on the ground is practically impossible, and a few weeks ago I even had the bruises to prove it. So when it comes to photography, I focus on what I want the end result to be and choose my shot very carefully.
When I go around to all the places I’ve been and stayed, I don’t necessarily think about how I want to take the shot I think about how I want it to be at the end. You can’t predict the weather, or how the day is going to be, so I take it one step at a time.
I’ve learnt about landscapes and cityscapes, which is tricky since, you know, my eyesight isn’t great. But there are so many other types of photography genres to be learned like Architecture, Food, Portrait, and Studio Lighting Photography, which I love learning about. For me learning something new is an awesome feeling and having the courage and drive to succeed just makes it fun.
How I shoot
The first thing I was told when I started learning photography was that the lens is an extension of your eye. So that’s how I compose a scene. I take the shot through a very small field of vision, less than 10 degrees, which is tunnel vision: I have zero peripheral vision here folks!
With low vision, identifying a scene is tricky to explain properly. When I arrive at a location I look around as much as possible, slowly, to try and get a 3D style map in my head of all that’s around the area. I have to admit I mastered this skill early in life, as I have been vision impaired for a long time now.
This 3D mapping technique has its advantages. I use it in all my photography, all the time. If I see something that can be used to set a scene, I use it. So I try to scout beforehand as much as possible.
In the past I have competed as a vision impaired archer, and that experience has allowed me to be able to hold the camera in a specific way. I hold the camera with my left elbow center to my chest and use my right hand to press down on the shutter button. Some people might ask why I don't use back focus on my camera: well, it doesn’t really help me, so I don’t use it often.
For landscapes, I use a tripod, and I have a lot of lenses. I mean a lot! This helps me achieve a sharp image. I also use Autofocus, mainly because I can’t trust my eyesight to focus and adjust quickly enough, but I don’t rely on AF alone, so I have the camera on Manual Mode.
Having complete control over my settings is important to me as I concentrate on getting contrast in my image and not exposure. This ensures I can bring back my exposure in post production afterwards.
Speaking of post production, for editing I had to build my own PC, with a 27” Dell 2K resolution monitor that’s calibrated. I use Adobe Lightroom mostly and Photoshop as needed. Editing can at times be interesting, but I take my time editing every image one at a time.
I first started with the Nikon D3200 with the 18-55mm lens, and after a while, I upgraded to a Nikon D7200 body plus a few more lenses. Today I use a Sigma 24-70mm f2.8, Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 and Nikon 50mm f1.8.
Growing up with my family became challenging at times and going through school even more so. I found school incredibly difficult, even with support from the teacher’s aids. But I do nothing in life if not kick my own ass and rise to the occasion. Life for me is all about one step at a time. If I go too fast, I’m gonna miss a lot of fun. So I take my time and learn everything I can. Right or wrong.
And, as if being basically blind isn’t enough, I’ve had about nineteen odd heart procedures since day one. So I’ve had some issues. That doesn’t mean I’m going to let things stop me.
In the past I have entered competitions where I have scored high marks, including the Mono Award 2019 where I achieved “Highly Commended” on multiple entries, as well as from other competitions though the Australian Photographic Society, which I’m so grateful to have received from the judges.
So I have plans. I’m going to keep going. Build my portfolio. Publish a bookshelf of books full of my own photos. Develop and teach my own techniques. Publish books and articles that can hopefully inspire others that may have their own issues and obstacles.
If you'd like to see more of my work, you can follow my Facebook page here.