Processing some images for picture libraries I was quite drawn to this cheeky robin. You’d think this kind of image was easy but in reality there are few opportunities when everything comes together for perfect bird portraits. Photographed one crisp February morning, the quality of light made all the difference – along with a nice diffused background. The bird itself also managed to strike a good pose! Perhaps surprisingly this was the first time I had specifically aimed for this image.
Most of my wildlife photography is done in the wild but occasionally I’ll take advantage of some captive set-ups to add a new subject to my portfolio. Harvest mouse is a subject I’d wanted to photograph for a while so I took the opportunity to visit Alan Heeley, a wildlife photographer in Derbyshire. Alan keeps harvest mice and provides workshops for photographers who want to get high quality images of Britain’s smallest mammal.
I knew they were going to be tough but I was still surprised how fast they were! It really took about 15 minutes to get my eye in, by which time my images were starting to improve. We used a range of props, all natural looking, and an artificial background which worked well. The light was quite overcast but this made life easier, avoiding strong highlights and dark shadows. After a while we switched to a lighter background which I preferred and continued to vary the props – teasel, wheat stalks, flower heads and bramble were all used. Alan was really helpful in changing props and backgrounds – and giving tips on capturing the best images. He has a great sense of humour too so it’s always good fun.!
The harvest mice put on a great show, at times posing really well. Tripods are pretty useless here – due to the nature of these fast moving creatures you really need to shoot handheld so can move around and react quickly. I shot with a Canon 100mm macro lens which could fill the frame if necessary. The biggest difficulty was getting a high enough shutter speed with a good enough depth of field for sharpness. When getting in close, depth of field was tiny, even at my chosen aperture of f/9. I opted for an ISO of around 2000 to get good settings and with the lighter background noise was minimal on my Canon 1D Mark iv.
It was certainly a fun session – exhausting too as it takes a lot of concentration with such quick animals. If you want to photograph these adorable little animals email Alan: firstname.lastname@example.org
The bramble was my favourite setting and this mouse was a right poser! Wonderful to spend a couple of hours with these tiny mammals. A big thanks to Alan Heeley – you can see more of his work at Alan Heeley Wildlife Photography
It’s barely past 5.00am and I’m standing ankle deep in water next to my tripod, waiting patiently for the sun to climb above the tree-lined horizon. Already I can tell that I’ve made a good decision: the predicted early morning mist is clinging to the shallow pool and swirling in the soft breeze; the sky is largely clear but with the added touch of low cloud straight ahead. My composition is wide, to encompass the urban surroundings of this fascinating place. I’m happy with the foreground – the low sun will highlight the plants, revealing texture and form. I take a test shot before the sun rises but know the resulting image is flat; lifeless. It needs the light. The light will transform everything.
Gradually the sun begins to break, shining through the mist and casting its warm glow upon my carefully composed scene. I continue to shoot for the next ten minutes watching minute shifts in light and shade and subtle changes to the moving mist. Quickly it becomes too bright to continue and I know that the first exposures were the best. I pack up my gear and search for different photo opportunities in stronger light.
There are many ingredients that create a successful nature photograph but perhaps the biggest is actually ‘being there’. This does not mean simply turning up and shooting – it means a careful, considered approach to put you in the right place at the right time. With enough research you can visualise your image and arrive at the perfect hour in the best weather conditions. I often think how many nature and landscape photographs I have on file, but how many are truly good ones? It’s almost always the case that the most compelling of images are those that were carefully thought, crafted and executed. A little effort can go a long way…
Technical info: Canon 1D Mark iv; Canon 17-40mm lens at around 20mm, 1/6 second at f14, ISO 100, Cokin strong ND grad, mirror lock up, Induro Tripod
A great way of getting into wildlife photography is to practice on captive subjects such as birds of prey. I don’t consider this as ‘cheating’. In the wild you often have to react quickly and know your settings inside out to get the best out of any given opportunity. Bird of prey workshops offer you the chance to learn the skills necessary – in natural surroundings and often with variable weather conditions. Working with SMJ Falconry in Oxenhope, Yorkshire we have access to wonderful surroundings including moorland edge with gritstone boulders and heather.
The male merlin is one of my favourite birds. This particular merlin is incredibly relaxed around photographers and often preens for us.
We also like to make use of prey. This peregrine was photographed with a quail. It soon ripped into the bird with feathers flying, making for images with real impact.!
Flight photography is always a test – not just of the photographer but also the equipment. Our barn owl is perfect for straight flights and we can usually repeat this a good number of times.
Willow, the female red kite is quite a star. We usually let her fly around the valley before photographing as she comes in to the food. The beauty of this location is in being able to get flight shots against the hillside rather than just sky.
If you are interested in joining one of theses Bird of Prey Photography Courses get in touch: email@example.com Further photo workshops can be found at www.naturephotographycourses.co.uk All the birds at SMJ Falconry are in remarkable condition and it’s obvious that this family run business put a lot of effort into the birds’ welfare.
I recently led a Photography Workshop at Bempton Cliffs on the East Yorkshire coast. Upon arrival we were greeted by the thickest of sea mists with terrible visibility. I was pretty sure it would lift by the afternoon, but the fact is – it didn’t! So, rather than complain about what could not be changed, we persevered with our bird photography. It certainly gave opportunities for something different – which is never easy to do at Bempton. The histogram for our images was almost in one place due to the short dynamic range.
The most difficult part was focussing. Regardless of lens speed, autofocus was having an absolute nightmare trying to lock onto wishy washy targets against a wishy washy background. I found the juvenile gannets slightly easier as the camera was able to lock on better due to their mottled plumage. The wind was also a real challenge. A strong easterly breeze kept the birds buffeted about and throwing sea spray onto our lenses. Yes, this was definitely a challenge!! As always its a case of keep trying and we all managed some reasonably sharp flight images including the additional guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes.
A little closer to our cameras was this lovely pair of razorbills. Occasionally the sea fog thinned enough to capture some detail in the birds as in this shot here. A nice change from the constant grey fog.
Thanks to my clients Louise and Martin who braved the conditions and embraced the challenge. It would have been all too easy to give up entirely..! As it happens I’m actually quite happy with some of the images and certainly gives me ideas for the future. If you’re interested in joining me on future workshops check out my Photography Course at Bempton Cliffs
Such is my love of photographing wildlife that when I turn my attention to other subjects it can feel like a complete shift in mind set. But there’s no doubt that this can be a good thing. I’d purposefully set out early to concentrate on macro images close to home with a few ideas in mind. I find close up photography is often led by my own instinct and it takes me while to ‘get my eye in’. When first approaching a flourishing stand of Oak trees I found it difficult to separate the buds and to see the best photo opportunities. But, fifteen minutes or so later, after carefully searching through the branches I was beginning to satisfying my own creative intent.
Light is a key driver in all photography and certainly in macro work. Working in partial shade I could capture good colour in the freshly unfurling leaves. Within half an hour contrast was increasing rapidly due the rising sun and I was unable to capture the detail effectively as at first light.
As contrast increased I moved further into the shade, finding a beautiful Oak gall – a colourful and interesting shape.
Stepping back I could see the galls and leaves were creating a nice pattern, so I switched to a wider shot and composed vertically.
I continued to search, using my instincts. The catkins drew my attention, not only due to their stunning shapes and colour but also the way they stood out from the clean grey background. For this shot I got in even closer, increasing my aperture and taking a number of shots to ensure a pin sharp result.
Realising that it was now becoming too bright to do justice to any more macro images, I looked for some different views of the Oak branches against the blue sky.
I was happy with the images I’d taken in a short space of time. But more importantly I felt like I’d done something purely for me. And this is the best part of photography – letting your creative juices flow, unshackled by necessity; direction led not by what I ‘should’ be taking, but rather by what my soul ‘needs’.
It’s during late October and early November that I try to squeeze in an autumn woodland shoot. For my style of photography I find this time to be the best as it usually coincides with more gaps in the trees and more leaf litter on the woodland floor. This particular woodland in West Yorkshire is one that I have visited once before – back in the days of film! When visiting a relatively new location I find that it pays to keep an open mind and not be too rigid in your picture-taking.
The majority of the afternoon consisted of overcast conditions which suited me fine – it made things much simpler and I could record wide scenes without too much contrast.
The low light inevitably meant slow shutter speeds and this was perfect for creating movement in the water. I personally love the effect of these long shutter speeds.
For all the images I used a polarising filter. The effect can be surprisingly striking: even in heavily overcast conditions a quick twist of the filter and the colours really leap out – with both greens and oranges becoming equally vibrant.
This was particularly true when photographing this magnificent beech tree by the water’s edge. I kept checking the effect of the filter, rotating it a few times to make sure it was having maximum effect. Exposure wise, the meter was fairly accurate. If anything I underexposed slightly for some shots.
As a professional photographer I often have specific markets in mind and whilst this is generally a good thing, it can stifle creativity. When I finally checked on the time I realised I’d been in the wood for nearly 2 hours. My first thought was how quickly the time had flown, but then something else gradually dawned on me. In all that time – I hadn’t really thought about the picture-taking. Sure, I’d considered the composition and all the technicalities of maximising sharpness and depth of field, but in all that time I hadn’t consciously thought about what I was photographing or why. Everything I had been doing was simply guided by instinct; intuition. All those little tweaks of position, angle; the play of light – they were all done with feel – as I strived to create something that satisfied me, and nobody else. There’s no doubt in my mind that this is when we achieve our most rewarding images.
Now that I felt I was getting ‘under the skin’ of this special place I turned my attention towards the water and let my instincts work on creating more abstract images.
The leaf colour by the water was stunning and I worked on some closer images using this clean backdrop.
The leaves were barely staying still due to the light breeze so I deliberately used a slower shutter speed to create movement and much more abstract image of autumn colour.
Another abstract but this time allowing the scum on the water to record as streaks whilst the autumn trees remained still.
My last shots of the day were of the weir surrounded by autumn colour. By this point the light was failing and it was becoming too dull for good rendition of the colours.