Monthly Archives: October 2011

Familiarity…but no contempt.

They say that familiarity breeds contempt but even though I have been running Birds of Prey photography workshop days now either under my own name or more recently through Natures Images for almost seven years I can genuinely say that I still enjoy them hugely.

Cheep the Great Grey Owl is a bird I’ve worked with throughout that period of time and she’s an absolute star when it comes to offering flight photography opportunities such as this: I’ve seen images of her in all sorts of camera club displays when I’ve been on the talk or slideshow circuit and why not – it’s a dramatic image and a great experience.

The perhaps uninspiringly named Busby has been on the scene since I started too but can still offer great opportunities when the lighting, setting and his natural instinct to lift his wings all fall into place once again.

New birds can come such as these recently arrived Hobby and the most naturally curious Barn Owl, and that offers the opportunity to learn their new idiosyncrasies, just how they position themselves and what sort of lighting or location will do them best justice photographically.

And just occasionally the weather will throw up something totally different which not only brings new inspirations but also the chance to experiment with slower shutter speeds and darker backgrounds to emphasise the spray as this female Merlin shakes the steady rain off her feathers and the young Peregrine seeks to sit out the downpour too.

All of these images have been taken in the last few weeks either on a Natures Images workshop or weekend break and have proved a salutory reminder what these sorts of days have to offer over and above the obvious in terms of great image opportunities.  Many people turn their noses up at working with captive subjects such as these but in terms of a photographic learning ground if you’re relatively new to the art then the time this genre allows you to really get to grips with the little things that make the difference to your images is only going to etch it into your brain when you find yourself having to respond instantaneously in the true wild.

For the more seasoned photographer though, and especially the old stager who organises the days (yours truly that is) then sessions here are in many ways a microcosm of just what working in this game is really all about.  It may appear (and at times actually be) a bit glamorous and I for one get to some amazing places and to see and work with some amazing subjects and that’s the output that the world at large sees. The vast majority of it though is about looking for something new from what you think you’ve already covered, thinking about what might work better, spending time looking for the nuances and characteristics of your subject that you want to express in your images, being able to recognise and respond to the opportunities that the weather conditions offer you and remembring that it’s great to be out with your camera rather than stuck in the office!   Birds of Prey workshops remind me of all of this every time I run one and that’s why although I may be very familiar with them they get respect and enjoyment in terms of how I treat them, not contempt.

Timelapse Gannets

I’ve really got into the video and related side of things this year and will be putting it to good use in up and coming slideshows, talks and an array of commercial projects I’ve got in the pipeline too.

One of the fun things this area offers is timelapse photography and some subjects just lend themselves to this type of photography – these Gannets hanging on the breeze on this summers Natures Images Seabird Spectacular trip in southern Ireland were just crying out for this approach.

There’s a word of warning with this sequence too though: make sure your sensor is properly clean as sorting out the dust and other associated spots on over 600 images was just too much of an horrendous prospect that I just left them in as this was only a bit of fun anyway!  If anyone knows a way of batch processing such cleanups them I’m all ears!!

We cover timelapse photography and editing as part of our Video training weekend too – full details here:

False dawn

I read with dismay last week of a Great White Shark attack in False Bay, South Africa.  Dismay as the headlines were once again focussed on the aggression of the shark missing the fact that the beach had been closed and very clear advice given not to swim off what is a very popular surfing beach at Fish Hoek – and these were consciously ignored.  Why is it that we are surprised as a species when we go into the realms of others that they just don’t conform to our rules all the time?

False Bay is a beautiful but harsh environment, and I was fortunate to spend some time there this summer.  Nestling to the east of the Cape of Good Hope it offers some dramatic coastline and when the wind blows some awesome waves too.

Along it’s shoreline are the only mainland breeding colonies of the fast diminishing African Penguin, and the threatened African Black Oystercatchers can be found on the sandy beaches too, their lot improving thanks to the ban of 4 wheel drive vehicles there now.

Head out into the bay itself early in the morning and not only are there some beautiful sunrises to be seen but the real drama of the place unfolds.

It’s a time when the Cape Fur Seals are returning from night-time feeding sorties, heading back to the sanctuary of the huge colony to be found on a wave beaten rock almost central to the bay and appropriately named Seal Island.

At this time of year in particular there is a greater percentage of young seals in the sorties and as the groups return from their feeding they often struggle to keep up and can become isolated.

Their vulnerability is to the predator at the top of this particular food chain and who has been drawn here for just these few key months of the year based on knowledge and experience that these hunting opportunities are at their most fruitful now; the Great White Shark.

I spent a number of mornings in the waters off Seal Island in the company of undoubted expert (and a pretty decent photographer too) Chris Fallows, and his understanding of just how the predation here works is based on years of simply being there each and every day that the weather allows.  The first hour of the day is when most of the action is likely to take place and unlike any other form of photography that I’ve undertaken before there was simply no predictability as to what was going to happen where in a fairly large expanse of water too.

The clue is often in the surrounding Gulls – they seem to know when an attack is imminent or happening and sudden movements of them in a particular direction would see our boat turn and head at great speed to the site: a real adrenalin rush and one where a good sense of balance is very necessary too.

Attacks when they happen are challenging to photograph but the drama is unquestionable, and watching a small seal dodging the thrusts of a shark countless times his size is uncomfortably absorbing drama.  Statistically seals do have the upper hand and if they survive the first rush from the depths below by the shark then their manouverability is that much the greater and they tend to make it away, often though bearing some dramatic scars.

As I spent more mornings out there and whilst my natural instincts were very much on the side of the seal, I became increasingly in awe of the Great Whites – not only their extraordinary hunting capabilities, but their grace and unbelievable power. This last appreciation though was only fully realised on my final morning when the daily tow of a decoy seal behind the boat (only undertaken after the main hunting period and for a short amount of time) resulted in two breach attacks.

It’s hard to describe the adrenalin rush that this brings or the speed and power that you are witnessing, especially after a longish spell of concentration through your camera lens on the bobbing decoy and absolutely no warning or indication as to when (or if) anything is going to happen.  I consider my reactions to be pretty decent but from first frame to last with a Canon 1D Mk4 that shoots at 10 frames a second there were only 6 frames in each burst – less than a second for a 3 or 4 metre long animal to lift itself clear of the water having pinpointed a target in the process and then landed back: truly awesome.

As well as being an amazing experience (and fantastic if challenging photographically…and yes there will be a Natures Images trip there soon) it’s a salutory reminder that this is the part of the world where given a level set of circumstances the Great White Shark is dominant.  The fact that we fail to recognise that at times or more callously look to use the powers that we have to exploit this magnificent creature and its relations so relentlessly in the name of a food delicacy is more of a reflection on us as a species I’m afraid.