Tag Archives: Finland

Working with northern light

For many here in the northern hemisphere, the summer is a challenging time photographically. With the sun almost directly overhead throughout these longest days of the year it becomes necessary to adjust the body clock significantly – early starts and late finishes to work with the best the light has to offer become the norm in a search to avoid harshness.

Head further north and the sun barely sets (if ever once you get deep inside the arctic circle) and then that magical light lasts for much longer and it becomes necessary to switch the body clock around completely and work through the night while resting in the day.

After a brief hint of this (known locally as the ‘simmer din’) when in the Shetlands in late June, I headed to northern Finland earlier this month to work with some of their resident predators, among the hardest mammals to find in Europe. While it is wrong to call wolves, wolverine or bears strictly nocturnal the fact is that the night-time hours are when they are at their most active, especially at this time of the year when it still offers enough light for them.

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Blog-2Wind the clock back just a few years and both these images would have been unthinkable in terms of their clarity.  They are both shot on ISO 3200 and in the case of the wolf image (photographed at approaching 1am) it still only generated a shutter speed of 1/80 of a second!  The wonder of modern digital SLR’s really does allow good quality images to be produced even in these twilight hours.

In days gone by these sorts of low level light conditions would have meant experimenting with slow shutter speeds in a search for creativity, and this is an approach that I have to say I do still enjoy accepting that these images of a wolf gliding through the boreal forest or wolverine scampering along a log are not everyones cup of tea.

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The Wolverine captured in the rich warm light of earlier in the evening is probably much more to peoples taste but the motion blurred effect still appeals to me more.

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When given the chance though, on the very last evening of the Natures Images trip I was running, to work in a site I know well and throughout the evening given a much earlier arrival time of the bears there that night, the chance to really experiment with the late evening and night-time light was one that I really enjoyed.

First of all there was the classic rich warm almost red glow to the light that comes in the last half an hour before it finally sets.

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The low light also gives a opportunity to play with under-exposure to emphasise the highlights it creates as well.

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When the sun has literally just set there often remains a hint of residual pink on the elements at the top of a scene as well, such as these trees.

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When a couple of young bears came around the side of the hide then the opportunity for even more classic back-lighting and silhouettes was presented.

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Once the sun had finally set and the Finnish equivalent of the aforementioned simmer dim took over, it was back to the 3200 ISO as subtle whips of night-time mist curled around the edges of the pool.

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An amazing night, a highlight of the summer so far, and a reminder that when it comes down to it in this game it is always all about light – and, of course, just how you work with it.

Seasons change in their scenery

Those of you who are Simon and Garfunkel fans (or even The Bangles as they did their own cover version as well) might recognise this line from their song A Hazy Shade of Winter.  I am not long back from a fortnight in Finland, a trip that was very much planned with some winter imagery in mind.  Finland however had a mild spell in February and as a consequence things were just that bit further ahead than normal, and as a result this became a trip of two seasons – there were still some cold conditions though (-28 degrees celsius the overnight low), along with some heavy snowfalls (20 cm in one day) and some mild afternoons and heading south some fields showing that winter was over for the year. The result was an unusual array of opportunities that reflect just how nature begins to change as the season of Spring beckons.

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The Whooper Swan is Finland’s national bird, and one I spent a great deal of time working with in Japan earlier this year. These two were in a winter setting that immediately took me back there – along with their familiar calls.

They are however just returning here after wintering further south in Europe and so far more attractive to them were the fields and farmlands where Spring was already in place and they could look to refuel before the final push to the north of the country a few weeks later for breeding.  I really enjoyed photographing these beautiful birds in this different setting.

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These Spring like conditions also created opportunities to work with the light and colours in a forest hide in the Oulanka National Park too – subtle lighting around this Great Spotted Woodpecker and classic backlighting on this Siberian Jay among the highlights.

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In these conditions I wasn’t hopeful that the main target for the hide, Golden Eagle, would actually turn up.  With the weather this mild, the female will already be on the nest and the male less interested in visiting his winter feed site.  I needn’t have worried though as he did turn up: and again when returning to the hide a couple of days later when the weather had turned wintery again, falling snow completely changing the feel of the whole place as you can see from these images taken over the two days.

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This changeable couple of days also worked well when spending time with a pair of Black-bellied Dipper who were busy pairing up and checking out local nest boxes as they planned for the imminent season ahead.  Falling snow and slow shutter speeds all added to the variety of opportunity.

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A personal priority for the trip was to spend some quality time with one of my favourite birds – Black Grouse.  The lekking season had already started in earnest thanks to the mild spell and so I enjoyed a total of 6 mornings being settled into the hide by 5am in anticipation of their dawn arrival and displays. The first 3 of these were at a lek site near Kuusamo – just inside Lapland, and still very snowy and cold so it was no huge surprise when the first day was a no show.  The second was more successful but the birds chose to lek just a little over a large snow ridge: very enjoyable but only a few images were possible, the spraying snow from their wings as they squabbled particularly appealed to me.

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The final morning here was absolutely perfect in terms of light and conditions, but sadly another no show: quite a sunrise mind which more than made up for it!

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The final 3 mornings were a few hours south at a lek near Oulu and here the snow was patchy but clear; cold mornings meant heavy frost coverage and some fantastic light with which to photograph the amazing antics of these endearing birds as they strutted their stuff and undertook the occasion sparring match with a fellow lekker.

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A great experience, and one that was matched on my final evening in the Oulu area when quite by chance we happened across a Great Grey Owl hunting in some fields near the road.  It was late and the light was not fantastic but the high ISO capabilities of the 1Dx really helped out and again; although not award-winning images, it was a very special hour spent with this simply gorgeous bird, the first seen in the whole Oulu area for the last 30 days so a really fortunate find.

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The final leg of the trip took me across to the town of Lieksa near the Russian border to spend 3 long days (15 hours at a time) in a hide in the hope of seeing the extremely elusive and rare Wolverine.  Here the snow had very much taken a back seat and Spring was taking over and Wolverine females will already have young kits in their dens so any sightings are to be much appreciated given their increased wariness at this time.  We were blessed with a couple of good visits quite close to the hide, some climbing (which as you can see confirmed she was feeding young) and on the final day a flurry of snow which to me was a fitting end to the nature of my overall trip.

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I had had a whole load of pre-conceived images in my mind when planning to run these two trips. The more travelling with my camera I do though I have come not to expect anything and simply look to go with the flow – work hard on the decision making (and thanks to Antti and Era respectively on this front too) but leave nature to create the opportunities.  Once again she didn’t let me or my guests on the two trips down, revealing some very different images to those I had perhaps thought of some 12 months back.  Clearly she knows best after all!

Bears…Round 1

When I was putting the finishing touches to my trip commitments for 2013 it dawned on me that this was going to be what my now no longer teenage son might call a ‘bear good year’.  European Brown Bears in Finland, Grizzlies in Alaska and Polar Bears in Canada all in the same calendar year is certainly something that really whetted my photographic appetite.

To kick this off, I spent last week in the taiga forests of northern Finland, close to the Russian border with my good friends at Martinselkonen who I have visited and worked with for a number of years now, and if the rest of my bear sortees live up to this first week then I’ve got even more to look forward to than I could have hoped for.

It is actually three years since I last visited the bears here in Finland, so I was keen to see what had changed if anything in this time.  One of my favourite hide settings in the past was by a small pool area: this has been moved to a new pool location with beautiful pristine trees and swamp surroundings, but although the evening light on my first night there was stunning there was just enough of a breeze to ripple the water: the setting was still picturesque enough to work with mind.

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Almost immediately the sun had set and the silence of the empty taiga had really set in (aside from the odd call of Greenshank or far off nesting Cranes), the breeze finally gave up it’s effort and as a result as other bears visited during the so-called hours of darkness, the reflections were almost crystal clear.

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I was really grateful for my new Canon 1Dx at this point – I was having to shoot at ISO 3200 which I have seldom been happy to do before, but the resulting images were as clean and detailed as I could have wished for, so when an ever-watchful mother and cubs passed through around 3am it meant I was still able to photograph the undoubted highlight of the night.

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One of the nicer settings here is what is dubbed the swamp.  In reality this is an area of classic wetland bog – peat based, covered in moss and interspersed with grasses, bog cotton and the occasional silver birch or conifer in an are surrounded by forest.  It’s an area of open ground through which several bears will routinely pass during the course of the night.

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It’s also a habitat in which the bears look very much at home, especially in patches of fresh spring growth, but its downside is a surfeit of mosquitos which bothered the bears as much as me it seemed – my first night here was so hot that I was down to t-shirt and shorts in the hide which was not a pretty sight at all but clearly the many bites I had by the morning may mean I underestimate my appeal, even if it is only to midges!  I also didn’t have the same claws on offer to swipe them away as this young female did.

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Given there presence at the pond the previous night I was really hoping that some of the cubs that were around in good numbers this year might put in an appearance and sure enough a cautious Mum eventually appeared out of the forest, naughty youngsters in tow and already up to their high jinks in the background.

Blog-8Mind you as they walked passed the hide the inscrutable blend of cuteness and cheek was immediately apparent.

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Whenever they were around they simply couldn’t help but have fun – whether it was a poking out of the tongue (albeit using Mum as a safety shield) or just larking around with each other and splashing up as much water as they could muster in their play.

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There were some yearling cubs around as well at times and they too were just as naughty as the little ones so clearly it takes a while to grow up for Bears too!

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When however a large male appeared on the scene though then mother and cubs, after an initial and speedy assessment of things, would generally beast a hasty retreat into the forest so the cubs could take to the safety of the trees there.  When this happened during the so-called night it offered the chance to play around with slower shutter speeds which is a style I have always liked: the streaks of the cotton grass really add to the sense of their pace and urgency.

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On my final night though I was able to get an even closer appreciation of the size, strength and power of the male bears and just why the small cubs have to flee like this.  I was offered the chance to use what is dubbed the suicide hide.  In essence there is a ground level opening to photograph using short or wide-angle lenses and requires you to lie in the hide effectively looking up at extremely close bears.  It was too good an opportunity to miss and as I lay there watching this male at home in his habitat just some 5 metres or so away then any concerns over mosquitos were completely dispelled: the words are often over-used but it was a truly amazing experience which I can only hope the images can do justice to.

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This youngster just settled down in front of me: like all the bears he was well aware of my presence without any doubt – they could all see the lens move, hear the shutter going and probably my heart beating too.

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The setting was pristine and the evening light at times perfect and the shorter lens really allowed the setting to dominate whilst allowing the bear to remain a significant part of the image too.

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Of course the night here just had to be summed up by the cubs though – as they frolicked around the chance to capture some ground level portraits using a 70-200mm lens allowed for an intimacy and feel that I have not been able to achieve in the past.

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So round one…tick.  If rounds two and three can match it really will have been that bear good year.

Arctic Highlights

Although the dramatic displays of the Northern Lights I shared in my last blog post were reason enough to head to the far north of Scandinavia this winter, truth be told they were always a potential bonus rather than the main reason for the visit.

As someone who has always been fascinated by the variety as well as individual characteristics of birds, there have always been certain species that I have long wanted to initially get the chance to see and also spend some time with photographically.  Last summer it was the Harlequin Ducks in Iceland that ticked that particular box but the other equally colourful and unusual member of the European duck family needs a trip to the far northern fjords of Norway in the winter months to find, and that is the King Eider.  Their heads are one of the most unusually shaped of any bird and the dramatic colours are instantly impactful too.  In the winter months they gather in large rafts, along with their close relations Common and Stellar’s Eider, in the harbours where there is a touch more shelter and also food to be found around the piers in the form of sea-urchins.

This particular image was one of only a handful I managed propelling myself around the harbour in one of the more unusual hides I have had the pleasure (if that’s the right word in this instance) of using: trying to steer this using a battery powered silent motor and photograph using a 500mm on a tripod while the tide and wind are doing their bit to hinder rather than help was an interesting hour or so! Thanks for the picture of my struggles Nigel!

We were spending the day with a local fisherman who has become quite an entrepreneur in the field of duck photography opportunities, and along with this trial hide, he also had a floating pontoon in calmer waters which allowed for some equally low profile images of  the Eiders and also Long-Tailed Duck: one of the few birds I actually think looks smarter in their winter plumage.

What a dramatic change that the presence of the lovely low winter sun can make when it appears too!  This floating pontoon also offered the opportunity to add some interesting colours to the water by virtue of the harbour buildings around, and they certainly created some additional impact to the images.

So much so that even when we were checking out other harbours for signs of duck rafts I found myself drawn to using the colours and patterns to add something different to an otherwise everyday image of this Kittiwake.

Back to the ducks though, and our last act with them consisted of some time in the boat attempting flight shots – fortunately when the sun was out as fast shutter speeds really do help when you’re bouncing around as much as we were for these as well as the fact it really does bring the richness of their colours out!

The harbour towns revealed another photographic opportunity too in the form of newly arrived Kittiwakes re-establishing their nest sites for the forthcoming breeding season: a bizarre sight given the temperatures and the fact that it was only early March, but I guess prime spots on buildings like these are much sought after: they also leant themselves to a black and white interpretation.

Away from the coast the other arctic highlights we had come to spend some time with were some of the harder to find let alone photograph birds of these northern reaches of the boreal forest, and especially Pine Grosbeak, also newly returned to the area for the season to come after wintering further south in the country.  Looking something like a large and chunky Crossbill I was genuinely surprised at just how big they actually were, but in that lovely arctic winter light the feeding station we had visited gave plenty of close-up opportunities for the equally colourful males and females.

As a reminder as to just how far north we were (and close to the Russian port of Murmansk) the other highlights of the time here were a rather windswept Siberian Jay and the incredibly quick and flighty Siberian Tit.  These plump but speedy birds barely sat still for a milli-second it seemed so it took some considerable time and setting up to finally achieve a couple of images that we were all happy with: well worth it though,and we were only ever a few seconds walk from the warmth of coffee on almost permanent tap where we were staying too!

Add those magnificent Northern Light displays into the mix and you can see why I can’t wait for another visit here again next winter running Natures Images Arctic Winter trip!

Night Lights

In some ways it feels a bit surreal finally getting the chance to catch up on some of this winter’s photography while it’s 20+ degrees outside and it’s only March, but when the weather was colder and I was further north in recent months one of the genres of photography that I found myself becoming increasingly engaged in was night and low light work.  Mind you with some of the settings and in particular Aurora Borealis opportunities I have just had it would be hard not too!

During the course of an excellent week in the Cairngorms in January we took full advantage of the fantastically clear conditions by engaging in some evening and dead of night photography.

Here you can see Nigel making the most of the clear conditions to capture an image that (had he turned his camera about 45 degrees to the right) might have looked something like this:

There are certain key elements to this type of night photography and if it’s clear pinpoints of stars that you are after as a rough guide on a 24-70mm lens you really don’t want an exposure of much more than 20 seconds or so. There is a precise calculation for this by the way but I’m all for simplicity of thinking!  What this means is that you need to trust the high ISO capability of your SLR and shoot reasonably wide open in terms of aperture (this was around f4). You must trust your histogram too as your camera’s screen will make things look much brighter than they have really been recorded given it’s the only real light source out there! A really good tripod, mirror lockup and cable release (or self-timer) are also key.

The same steadiness of hand came into play when we tried out some low light shots of the ice formations on one of the nearby streams as well.

Here though it was a question of looking for the right sort of slow shutter speed to give the level of blur in the water that looked most appealing (this was around 30 seconds or so) and in order to emphasise the coldness of the shot and setting a cool white balance was set manually. I just loved some of the detail that could be found in the ice here!

Earlier this month I spent a week in Northern Finland and Norway and stayed in a location that has to be one of the best I’ve been to for opportunities to photograph that wonderful spectacle that is the Aurora borealis or Northern Lights.  I was really pleased to have honed my approach to this type of photography already this winter as when the opportunities came (and boy did they come – we had 4 clear nights and some amazing displays) I wear able to slot into the groove and thinking straight away.

There has been a lot of media coverage and interest in this awesome phenomenon this year as it has been unusually visible in parts of Scotland too, but what makes northern Finland so special in my opinion is that not only is it so light pollution free but it’s weather systems are unaffected by maritime influence so the chances of the lights showing are increased.  All of these images were only on level 3 in terms of potential intensity – it goes up to 9 or 10 I believe.

What all of this meant was plenty of opportunity to experiment with looking for big sweeping motions, deciding if landscape or portrait orientation worked best and also playing around with white balance as well.

All of the images bar this last one were taken on a relatively cool white balance, this one however on the warmer setting I tend to use for my wildlife work – I like the greener effect it gives to the lights themselves but am not so keen on what it does to the snow. It’s a matter of preference though so good to be on your game enough to try things out and when you have found a style and approach that’s working then it’s simply a question of standing back and revelling in what nature has to throw at you too.

Although it’s not the main purpose of the trip (I’m not sure how Northern Lights really can be as it’s so weather dependant) I will be staying at the same place again for 4 nights as part of the new Arctic Winter trip with Natures Images next March so if you fancy the potential to practice your night light photography…..