Tag Archives: nature photography

A lesson in light

It seems that this is turning into an admin and preparation month: books to write, processing for commissioned projects to complete, and a couple of new projects and different dimensions to long-standing hides locally gradually getting in place and which will hopefully make the effort worthwhile as the autumn and winter finally arrive.

In amongst times though I’m still trying to catch up on some old unprocessed material from southern Africa last year and in the process found a folder from an ultimately enjoyable evening spent photographing Quiver Trees in southern Namibia, and a good and salutory lesson it proved in terms of both the importance of and the patience needed to wait for good light.

Quiver trees are an almost iconic landmark to be found when travelling in the northern Cape and southern Namibian region, although they are not actually trees.  Rather they are a member of the Aloe family and goth their more common name from the fact that their hollow branches are traditionally used by Bushmen as quivers for their arrows.  They survive in this arid region by a combination of a white reflective outer coating to their trunk and branches and leaves that act as storage units for what rainfall there is in the wet season.

We arrived at this unusually large collection as the afternoon was coming to a close and much to my initial disappointment a thick bank of cloud (the first we had seen in days) had rolled in as the day drew on meaning that although the setting and the magnificent plants were inspiring things just weren’t as I had hoped for.

Of course, as in all genres of outdoor photography, patience and the right light are the key to everything and I could see a thin band of clear sky on the horizon to the west so it was a question of sitting and waiting and hoping to be rewarded.

When the last rays of the days sun finally burst through the narrow window about an hour later the difference to the scene was simply stunning by comparison.

If ever a lesson were necessary to remind me of just how important light is this was it, and of course the presence of the cloud, a curse earlier, was now a blessing providing even more drama to the skies and the chance after the sun finally gave up the ghost for the day (it does drop ever so quickly here) to take full advantage of the colours created by silhouetting the trees, the last of these images being my personal favourite from the whole session.

When I eventually manage to get away from the shackles of the office to start the side of the job I love the best with camera in hand, unearthing this folder and reliving the emotional roller-coaster of the afternoon is a great reminder of the continued need for patience and working in the best light to do any subject justice, even as dramatic a one as these remarkable plants.

Heavenly Hermaness

There are few places in Britain for which it’s really worth sleeping in my car for, especially for a number of nights.  Situated at the top of Unst, the most northerly of the Shetland Isles, Hermaness is one of those.  Dozing off in the passenger seat with the call of Red-Throated Divers flying overhead and waking a few hours later the gentle call of a Golden Plover I would even say that just being there can be a genuine pleasure.

It can be harsh though – on my last visit the mist was so thick I could hardly see more than 10 feet in front of me and the long walk across the classic peat moorland that sits between the car park and the distant cliffs was a very grim and foreboding place indeed: and not much good for photography.

This time conditions were generally helpful though and the deep dark pools that intersperse the cotton grass speckled moorland were at their most picturesque.

It’s a habitat that houses the largest breeding population of Great Skua’s (or Bonxies as the locals call them, a name that has stuck with most birdwatchers) and at this time of the year, then end of the breeding season parental birds in ones or twos were to be seen dotted all around, making their usual loud calls as a warning to each other.

Every time another bird would fly anywhere close to their spot then up would go the wings in a threatening display and 90% of the time this would suffice although the occasional scuffle did occur, birds thudding into each other with great power.

Although they were still small in comparison even the youngsters seemed well practised in wing-raising behaviour too!

The real drama of Hermaness comes at the end of the moorland walk though, and the cliffs that lie there are among the most dramatic to be found in Britain: I’ve already left instruction for some of my ashes to spread there when I pass away so much does this place inspire me!  Nestling at the far northerly end of the sweeping coastline the lighthouse on the small island of Muckle Flugga represents the furthest north you can go in Britain.

Here other seabirds dominate proceedings and the large white areas on these outlying rocks represent huge and seemingly ever-expanding colonies of Gannets.  Getting closer to some of these on a bleak and windy evening really gives a sense of drama, the power of the sea and the fantastic isolation of this fabulous place – the streaks in the images are the constantly gliding Gannets moving through the slow shutter speed taken shots.

All of this was a magnificent bonus for me as I was really there for this summers last burst of Puffin photography – regular readers of the blog will know it’s been a project focus this year.  They were there in great numbers too and spending the early mornings and evenings alone with them in this dramatic location really does make Hermaness feel like a little bit of heaven.

Arctic Adventure…Part 1

I’m a few days back from an enjoyable, challenging and ultimately rewarding 3 week trip to the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard.  It seems that it’s done nothing but rain back here while I’ve been away (and since my return too) and compared to the sustained spells of high pressure that this remote location in the far north normally enjoys and has when I’ve been in the past, the weather gods were looking equally angrily on us.

That said I’d decided to place a lot more emphasis on capturing images that really gave a feel for the location rather than simply concentrating on the wildlife to be found there on this particular trip, and the grey skies leant themselves to a monochrome approach, whether enhanced through processing to that format like above, or left to the natural shades as below.

I was also keen to work on some stitched panoramics too – I know they won’t look their best on the size constraints of the web but it’s a format that really helps to get the size and nature of the mountains and glaciers across in my view – jagged peaks that caused the first Dutch explorers to name the main island here Spitsbergen.

When we did have some occasion to enjoy the beautiful tones that the midnight sun (it never sets here) has to offer we were always keen to take full advantage and the evening spent with this group of young male Walrus in front of a beautiful glacier will long remain with me – it’s an image I think really sums this place up.

We had timed this visit a few weeks earlier this year to give us a better chance of finding the areas in front of the glaciers still frozen over and increasing our chances of Polar Bear sitings, but as here in the UK it had been an unusually mild winter in Svalbard and already this ice had gone.  This process does however leave some beautifully shaped and colourful icebergs behind though and they are another key landscape feature I was keen to work with: this is the same ‘berg from  different angles and demonstrates just how the angle of lighting here can dramatically change an image.

A close look at this last image will show some signs of the seabird life that takes full advantage of their presence – either as a resting place or simply because they can act as a magnet for their food in the surrounding seas: we would regularly look to explore them for Kittiwakes and Fulmar especially.

The colours at times were simply stunning and leaving the subject small in the frame really allowed the landscape to dominate, and the same approach worked well when we spent a beautiful evening on a true gem of an island, full of tundra-based breeding birds including the elegant Red-Throated Diver.

It was also an approach I enjoyed trying out with the main target for the trip Polar Bears as well and this very simple composition is one that I particularly like.

I begun by saying it was a challenging trip because the weather wasn’t on our side, and this came to a real head when for the basis of comfort, safety and also in an attempt to ensure we could maximise photographic time we had to give up our original goal of heading to the pack ice that residers to the north of the archipelago.  It is traditionally the best place to see Bears, but with a combination of good luck, perseverance and patience we ended up enjoying some amazing encounters with in particular this extremely relaxed young male, and I’ll look to share some more images of him and also some more of the wildlife in a Part 2 to follow next week: there’s just too much to share in one post from a 3 week trip!!

Meeting things head-on!

No, this isn’t a post about an upbeat approach to life or a new form of positivity training, but I was feeling both upbeat and positive when I found that for the second consecutive month I’d had an image chosen from one of my image libraries to be used on the front cover of Birdwatching magazine (thanks again for letting me know Gary).

The interesting thing is that in neither instance were they rare or particularly “difficult” subjects to be looking to photograph – last month it was Long-Tailed Tits and this month (perhaps unsurprisingly) it was a Robin: both photographed at my local feeding setup but could equally have been done so in my garden as they both frequent it quite regularly.

It did get me thinking though as to just why they might have been chosen.  I’d like to say that it was because they were simply so stunning in terms of their execution that they were images destined for great things, but aside from some decent thought on composition and space for the designing process, made even easier by the selection of a nice clean background aided by a long lens, I can hardly claim any unique maserpieces here.

One thing did strike about this Robin shot though and that’s that it’s head-on: not always the preferred approach from a classical photographic or even a natural history perspective but it does give just that bit more sense of personality and character and in this instance the inquisitive and almost cheeky charateristics that Robins undoubtedly possess certainly comes leaping out at you.

It prompted me to have a look back through some old images for a number of other examples of this head-on style appeared that I have liked in the past and in some instances done well for me commercially as well as in competitions too: this haughty looking Hare was selected for the British Wildlife Photography Awards book last year and the Puffin was a cover shot on RSPB’s Birds a couple of years back too.

It’s food for thought in these hyper-competitive times when it comes to making any money at all out of your images, but maybe tackling your subjects head-on might just open up some new opportunities. What price this Black Guillemot somewhere soon?

Icelandic Gems

Well I’m behind again as far as posting is concerned, but in my defence I’ve been away once again (more of that in a future post) and have at least updated the Natures Images Blog between times too: well worth a visit if you’ve not been there yet as there’s stuff from all of our tour leaders to be found there as well as some different selections of my images!

There is of course much more to be seen and found in Iceland than water based birds, and most photographers visiting the country do so for the impressive and at times awesome landscape opportunities.  I don’t consider myself to be much more than a competent landscape photographer in comparison to my wildlife work but you almost can’t fail to capture something here, whether it’s one of the seemingly thousands of waterfalls, the beauty of the extreme isolation of the place or the amazing colours that the sulphorous activity at the core of the country can bring to the scene.

One of the beauties of travelling around the country is that almost wherever you stop there seems to be an opportunity to spend time with breeding waders at this time of year.  These are birds that are notoriously difficult to work with in terms of their general wariness (or scarcity) here in the UK but with some patience, sensible stalking and preparedness to wait until the moment is right then whether it’s Black-Tailed Godwits or Whimbrel on the moorlands or Ringed Plover and Oystercatcher by the shore then it’s time well spent, and very enjoyable too.

Last time I’d visited the country the wader I was most pleased to spend some time with, in part because simply listening to their call is so evocative of any moorland habitat, was the Golden Plover.  This trip they once again didn’t disappoint but with a fantastic twist in the form of a heavy snowfall as well – summer plumage and winter weather all in one: the pleasures of working in the far north neatly summarised.

As enjoyable and unusual as this was though it was another smaller and more dainty wader that really took my heart this trip – the Red-Necked Phalarope. Here in the UK, the odd winter vagrant apart, they are only to be found breeding in The Shetlands, and in by no means great numbers either.  They are fantastically confiding birds, more intent on busying themselves in their almost constant search for flies to eat it would seem or at this stage of the breeding season making sure that the female has found herself a good male to incubate her eggs and bring up the chicks – it’s a complete role reversal from the norm for this unusual birds.  When the beautiful Icelandic early morning light combined with a couple of perfectly still mornings conditions were near perfect to capture a little bit of their antics.

Iceland is a stunning country to visit and work in photographically – extremeley hard work in these summer months when the weather is in your favour as the nights are very short and the best light is to be found on either side of it so sleep comes in bite-sized chunks.  But interacting with nature and enjoying the experience both emotionally and photographically is what all nature photographers like best (much more so than the admin and office work that’s necessary) so I’ll never be one to baulk at a bit of tiredness when there are opportunities like this to be had.  It won’t be 5 years till I go back next time for sure!