Serbian Birds Photo Tour Trip Report

Serbian Birds Photo Tour Trip Report

I’ve just returned from a successful Bird Photography Tour in Serbia with my two clients Ian and Alec. During the seven night all inclusive tour we used some excellent hides which really delivered, and we experienced incredibly consistent weather. We all managed some ‘firsts’ including the extravagant looking Hoopoe.!

A late night flight to Belgrade meant a quick stop over before being picked up the next morning. We were soon on the road, heading towards Subotica in the province of Vojvodina. Subotica is the most Northern city in Serbia, with many Hungarian influences. After checking into Hotel Galleria we were soon taken for our first hide session: the Tower Hide. Situated in flat, largely agricultural land this hide overlooks a number of small trees used by various breeding birds. This is a one-way glass hide which helps to reduce disturbance; the disadvantages are in loss of light – you lose around a stop. And yes, it can reduce sharpness a little, but with good light and good equipment I think it really is negligible. Nest boxes close to the hide allow amazing views of European Roller, Common Kestrel and Red footed Falcon. Perches have been expertly positioned, giving stunning backgrounds at a good distance for the majority of ‘wildlife’ lenses. During our first session we captured beautifully lit portraits and I managed to bag a decent flight shot of a Roller…  after failing miserably last year.! The hide gets very hot, but such is the nature of wildlife photography – it is a case of suffering for your art. The results are worth it! You can see some Roller Video Footage on my YouTube Channel

Shooting during this time of year means early starts and  the next morning we were out for 5.00am to try the Hoopoe hide. This was a real bonus, having only been set up this year by our hosts. I wasn’t too sure what to expect but it turned out to be one of my favourite hides. Myself and Alec settled into the bigger hide whilst Ian had a pop up hide to himself – both positioned at the same distance from the nesting Hoopoes. Between us we shot with a mixture of 400mm, 500mm and 600m  – all Canon gear.! The setting is just beautiful; perfect for the early morning light with a mixture of background colours and some semi-shade. After taking portraits we all had a go at flight shots, such was the frequency of the returning parent birds.

After a midday break and some lunch we headed for our next photography hide – the drinking pool. This is essentially a reflection pool situated within a woodland site, regularly used by a good selection of birds. The light here is best in the afternoon when the sun is directly behind. The great thing about this type of hide is you never know what’s going to turn up.! The record is around 15 species in one session and we did pretty well – reaching about 12. Both male and female Hawfinch were a delight as they came to drink and bathe; other birds included Tree pipit, male Blackcap, Jay and the beautiful Turtle Dove. The real highlight was when a juvenile Sparrowhawk came in!

After teasing us in the branches it finally dropped down and began to splash in the pool – just yards away! A magical encounter. The visit was a prolonged one… the longest I’ve ever watched a Sparrowhawk for. Whilst this is great if you’re a huge Sparrowhawk fan (like me!) it doesn’t help to attract the smaller birds.! Eventually the bird left and we got a few more images of various species before the light levels started to drop. Light levels aren’t really an issue for filming so I made sure to get some Video footage including this Bathing Jay!

Another early start and this time for pop-up hides at the Bee-eater colony. If you want to photograph colourful birds then you can’t do much better than a Bee-eater! Our host set up the hides, positioned strategically towards the slim perches and then we prepared ourselves. After a bit of a wait the birds were back, landing on the perches and dazzling us in the morning sun. The light was extraordinary – bright, but somehow with a different quality that didn’t seem quite as harsh as in the UK. We photographed a number of food passes, including one with a beautiful blue dragonfly.! The sounds of these birds were beautiful too – a lovely relaxed bubbling as they whizzed around the nest site. I also captured some Bee-eater Video Footage of the food passing.

Towards the end of the tour we visited Palic Lake. This area, designated as a protected nature reserve, is a tranquil haven for birds. Palic is home to a huge Pygmy Cormorant roost, a very interesting subject to photograph, with the dark shapes dotted around the white-washed trees. The tranquillity was only broken by the calls of Egrets and Herons that constantly flew past us over the reedbed. Unlike some reserves in the UK, here there is no struggling for tripod space – in fact, we barely saw a person during three hours. Great Reed Warblers were everywhere and we all managed to get something of this vocal bird.

The long days do take their toll so I had factored in a rest morning half way through. This was a good time to explore Subotica – a beautiful and relaxing city with friendly locals and some superb food.! During the week long trip we visited each hide twice, trying to capture something different. Me and Alec visited the drinking pool again and were quite taken aback when a huge Buzzard bungled itself in by the pool – one of the highlights of the week! On the last day, I went for back-lit Hoopoe shots whilst Alec and Ian tried the drinking pool again. This time they were treated to a male Sparrowhawk. I was gutted!!

This Serbian Photography Tour will run again in mid-May 2018. You can see more Serbian Wildlife on the Gallery Page at www.paulmiguel.co.uk  If you’re looking for a different destination with quality hides and a top class hotel, then this is the trip for you. Serbia really does offer very good value all round. Any questions about these bird holidays please feel free to email on paul@naturephotographycourses.co.uk or ring me on 07759485791. You may be interested in my other Small Group Nature Photography Tours

I’m looking forward to taking next years group already!

Paul Miguel

 

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Leeds Birdfair 2017

Leeds Birdfair 2017

I’ll be at Leeds Birdfair on 24th June at Rodley Nature Reserve. Come say hello and check out my range of Photography Prints and Greetings Cards – or just come and have a chat.! Looking forward to seeing lots of keen birders and meeting the other exhibitors too. This is the second Leeds Birdfair, established by Linda Jenkinson from Start Birding. Linda has an incredible knowledge of birds and runs a number of birdwatching courses for all levels. Hopefully this event will continue to grow and grow in future years. I’m very happy to be part of it.

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St Aidans Country Park to Open

St Aidans Country Park to Open

staidanscountryparkGreat news! I’m very happy to report that RSPB St. Aidans Country Park will now open on Monday 10th April. The site, between Leeds and Castleford in Yorkshire, has been cultivated into a world class nature reserve. I’ve been photographing here for the past three years, capturing stunning images of both the landscape and its wildlife. I regularly run Photography Workshops at St. Aidans, aimed at beginners. Few people know the site as well as I do, so why not come and take advantage of my local knowledge.

To see more images of St. Aidans visit the Gallery

For more Photography Workshops visit www.naturephotographycourses.co.uk 

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Why I Switched to Fixed Lenses

Why I Switched to Fixed Lenses
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Cow and Calf Rocks Ilkley Moor, Canon 1D Mark iv, 17-40mm f/4 lens at around 31mm

My work predominantly consists of Wildlife Photography but I also enjoy shooting landscapes along with generic countryside images suitable for stock. For years I used the Canon 17-40mm f/4 USM lens for my landscape photography. The results were good but the edge softness always annoyed me – particularly in the corners where at times I felt it too unacceptable. Although I had the facility to shoot at 17mm, the fact is – I never did! Simply due to the increased edge softness I always zoomed in to at least 21mm to improve things. Working professionally and submitting to discerning picture libraries I always strived to get the most out of the lens – trying to use it at a mid-range focal length where possible and keeping the aperture around f/11 to maximise image quality.

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I shot this image on Ilkley Moor with the Canon 17-40mm. I was happy with the overall composition but the original file shows softness at the edges and particularly in the corners. Shot with a Canon 1D Mark iv.

Upgrading to a Canon 1D X Mark i showed an improvement in my images but I still felt I needed to improve the landscape quality. I toyed with the idea of the Canon 16-35mm which has an excellent reputation and would no doubt be a step up. But I also thought long and hard about switching to a fixed wide angle. A good quality fixed lens should always be sharper than a zoom – and it does make sense. I’ve certainly found it to be the case in my experience. I already had a fixed 50mm f/1.8, giving excellent performance, so I considered switching my 17-40mm zoom for a fixed wide angle. Overall image quality was a consideration but there was perhaps a more important issue related to zoom lenses. Now, zoom lenses are great for many situations; they are flexible and mean you don’t have to stop, change lens and carry on with your shoot. But what they also do is: make you lazy! This might not apply to everyone, but for me certainly, a fixed lens is a better option and it makes me a better photographer. Why? Well, with zoom lenses you can put yourself in great surroundings and change focal point to find the best images. But’s that not how it should be: the art of Landscape Photography is to search for your images… and that means moving around.! Whilst I like to think I wasn’t falling into the trap, I probably was. Essentially I was staying more in one place and adjusting my zoom, rather than thinking about the look of the image (for a given focal length) and finding the composition to suit.

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After reviewing this image I wasn’t entirely happy due to the mid-frame rock which wasn’t separated enough from the background. I couldn’t help feeling that with a fixed lens I would have been forced to search out a better viewpoint.

So, after reading many reviews, I opted for a Canon 24mm 2.8 lens. I now had two main lenses for landscape photography: the 24mm and my 50mm, along with a 100mm macro as an extra option for picking out sections of the landscape. I was itching to try the 24mm quickly so within two days of receiving it I headed out for a night shoot with my good friend Nik Goulthorp. We visited Millenium Bridge, Castleford – an excellent place for night photography that offers a number of compositions. I attached the 24mm and set to work. With this fixed lens I had to keep moving around to find the best viewpoint; there was no room to tweak the zoom. I had to find the very best spot. To be honest, it was refreshing and I felt more like a true landscape photographer.

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Wide angle image of Millenium Bridge, shot with Canon 1D X and 24mm 2.8 lens.

 

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For this low down viewpoint the 24mm was just too wide for the best composition. I switched to the standard 50mm f/1.8 which provided a tighter and stronger image. It also gives fantastic image quality.

Even during this one initial shoot with the 24mm I could feel myself working harder; thinking more. With one focal length on the camera I was forced to think about the overall composition and discover the best viewpoint. In fact, it’s taken me back to the old days when I used to shoot with a Bronica ETRS medium format camera – a beautiful piece of equipment. Back then, I would carry just two fixed lenses – a wide angle and a standard. I would then set about finding the best compositions that would work best for these lenses. Many of theses images found their way into calendars and a few Dalesman front covers too. Time will tell, but I think I will begin to work better with my new combination. I can’t wait til my next landscape shoot! Zoom lenses are not bad pieces of kit, just don’t fall into the trap of letting the lens do the work. The most important factor in creating the image is always – the photographer’s eye!!

Interested in joining me for a Photography Workshop? I’ve worked with hundreds of photographers over the years both in group workshops and on a One to One basis. Check out the range of Photography Courses  including the soon to be added Night Photography Workshops – planned for Autumn 2017!

 

 

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Robin on Spade Handle

Robin on Spade Handle

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.

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European Robin (Erithacus rubecula) adult, perched on spade handle in garden, West Yorkshire, England, February
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Photographing Harvest Mice

Photographing Harvest Mice

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.

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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.!

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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: alan.heeley1@btinternet.com

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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

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The Importance of Being There

The Importance of Being There

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.

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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.

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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

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Birds of Prey Photography Courses

Birds of Prey Photography Courses

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.bop02

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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.!

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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.

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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.

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If you are interested in joining one of theses Bird of Prey Photography Courses get in touch: paul@naturephotographycourses.co.uk  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.

 

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What’s Good for the Soul…

What’s Good for the Soul…

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.

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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.

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As contrast increased I moved further into the shade, finding a beautiful Oak gall – a colourful and interesting shape.

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Stepping back I could see the galls and leaves were creating a nice pattern, so I switched to a wider shot and composed vertically.

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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.

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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.

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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’.

www.paulmiguel.co.uk

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Photographing Autumn Woodlands

Photographing Autumn Woodlands

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The leaf colour by the water was stunning and I worked on some closer images using this clean backdrop.

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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.

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Another abstract but this time allowing the scum on the water to record as streaks whilst the autumn trees remained still.

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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.

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This woodland is a truly stunning location for autumn colours and I’ll be adding it to my list of Photography Workshops for 2016. More courses can be viewed at Nature Photography Courses

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