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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.

Wonderful White Sands

Just where does the time go? I simply can’t believe a month has gone by since I last posted on here – mind you we have had the snow and I’ve been to Scotland, Greece and as for catching up with last years processing…..

That said one of the most memorable places I managed to spend a short time at during a trip to New Mexico which was principally focussed on Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes, was White Sands National Monument: an extraordinary and quite unique desert landscape to the west of Alamogordo that I had long wanted to visit and top of my pile as I endeavour to catch up.

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This dune field is one of the largest in the United States covering nearly three hundred square miles but is truly unique in that it instead of the more normal quartz based sands it is composed solely of gypsum, a different texture altogether and pure white in appearance.  Dissolved gypsum from the mountain ranges either side of the Tularosa basin where the dunes are is carried into the occasionally present Lake Lucero which is dry during the summer months each year.  The gypsum crystalises in the dry lakebed and strong winds blow them into the wonderful expanse of dunes that make up the area.

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The wind plays a key role in shaping and changing not just the dune field as a whole but creating the lovely ripples and patterns that make it so photogenic: I’ve seen it described as the wind made visible which is a great concept.

Add in some of the plant life such as these soaptree yuccas that are surprisingly frequent here especially as you head to the fringes of the main dune area and you have even more photographic subject matter to work with.

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During the heart of the day when the sun is high there’s a harshness to the dunes that their inherent brightness exaggerates but enter the last hour of the day and the light that looks to tie plant and dune together has the warmth that really adds another element again.

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I can’t resist silhouettes as well so this particular plant just had to be photographed from the other direction too – taking great care not to add my size 10 footprints into the sand on the way round!

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Throughout the trip we were blessed with some amazing sunrises and sunsets – New Mexico is always good for these at this time of year in my experience but this week was exceptional.  White Sands is still an area for regular missile testing by the US military and a mere 60 miles or so from the famous Trinity site where the first atomic bombs were tested during the second world war but the peace and tranquility of the place as the chilly night air started to fall but the colours started to rise couldn’t have offered more of a contrast

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All that remained as the final colours faded was a subtle shift in white balance to accentuate the cooling that was happening.

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A bewitching location that absolutely lived up to my expectations photographically and one I certainly hope will be able to offer even more files to my processing pile in the future too!

Indoor Delights

I think I can see the light at  the end of the tunnel of office based work that seems to have dominated the last few weeks. The sights, sounds and colours of autumn are shortly going to get me outdoors on a more regular basis again, but among the recent indoor activities was a day running another Studio Macro Workshop for Natures Images at the studios of The Flash Centre in Birmingham.

I have run 2 or 3 of these days every year for the last 4 or 5 years now and thanks to Stuart and his ever growing and changing menagerie we are getting more and more colourful and dramatic subjects to work with every time it seems: this Northern Spotted Grasshopper (a resident of Thailand) is a typical example.

One of the aspects of working in the studio environment is the opportunity to really consider the different elements that go into making an image work – changing the setting and changing the background are fully under your control and being able to see the subtle and at times quite dramatic impact this can have on the final image is a great reminder as to how important these elements are wherever you are photographing.  This high-key Fire-Bellied Toad, the head-on White’s Tree Frog and appropriately placed Gray’s Tree Frog show their subjects off in completely different ways.

The next consideration is how to use the lighting options we have at our disposal to add another element, and this pair of images of an Amazon Milk Frog are a perfect example of the opportunity to think creatively and use the lighting to your advantage – low and side-lit on a dark-ish background to best represent the rainforest or backlit through a leaf for something completely different.

The same applies to this pair of images of a Giant Asian Mantis – one in a classic studio setting and on exactly the same branch using coloured backlighting for a dramatic and impactful silhouette – it was good to see Neil Parker’s image taken on this workshop being used as a double-paged spread in Digital Camera Magazine last month too.

We’ve even created an area allowing us to work with water in the studio too now with eye-level images of Frogs in the weed an enjoyable highlight!

All in all it’s a great learning environment as as you can hopefully see a chance to really get in touch with the creative side of your photography which can only help when back in the great outdoors and working with nature’s changeable lighting, backgrounds and subjects too.

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.

This time last year….

I’ve enjoyed August this year for a different reason to last.  This year it has been a month of r and r after a pretty much non-stop spell since 2012 began – and well appreciated it has been on my part too. Last year it was almost all spent travelling in southern Africa and as seems to be increasingly the case these days unless the images have a very specific purpose that they are heading off for, I still have a considerable amount of Gb still to look at let alone process from the 4 weeks on the road then.

Given that the same is on the cards for this time next year too I have started to catch up with some of the images before they simply get superseded and in particular some of the floral highlights.

As a country South Africa is globally important for it’s flowers and plant life – the southern cape fynbos habitat representing the smallest of only six floral kingdoms in the world and found only here.  I certainly found them colourful and also good perches for the birdlife I might find myself more naturally drawn towards such as this Southern Double Collared Sunbird.

Head further north on the way to Namibia though and you pass through the Namaqualand region in Northern Cape province – famous for it’s fantastic show of flowers in the Spring months.  The timing was just about right for this so we planned a couple of nights stop over both heading north as well as south again a couple of weeks later as the precise timing of the displays depends very much on when precisely the first winter rains fell and we couldn’t be sure when this would be when we were making plans several months earlier.  Last year proved though to be one of the best for many in terms of both quantity and also just how early the fantastic sweeps of colour, in particular the bright orange Namaqua Daisies, were to be found all around the region.

Simply driving on the main N7 trunk road you couldn’t fail to be awestruck by the sweeping vistas of colour – at it’s peak in the middle hours of the day when all the flowers would be fully open and pointing towards the sun – and marvel at how they provided such a dramatic contrast to the otherwise bare rock of the surrounding habitat. The fact that the ubiquitous water pumps were able to provide additional man-made element to some compositions is a reminder of just how dry an environment this is and how sparse it looks for the remaining 11 or so months of the year.

Photographing here is certainly about the big vista – judicious use of a polariser and dropping down to ground level added some different angles to work with too.

Having said that I particularly enjoyed the close-up, narrow depth of field and solid blocks of colour approach in some of the Spring woodland flower photography I did at home earlier in the year so this array of species and shades gave me the opportunity to try to adapt some of that here too – it was just a bit more uncomfortable on the elbows on rocky scree like this compared to the mud and leaves of an oak woodland!

Seeing and photographing amazing scenes like this is a good reminder that nature photography is about so much more than birds and mammals, and although they will always remain favourites of mine then continuing to broaden my approach will be as much of an equal priority for sure, and we’re certainly coming into a good season to be doing so here in the UK now too: bring on autumn!

Compositional clues

I found myself processing a few images this afternoon in the mass of loose ends I’m trying to ensure are all tied up before I head off to Svalbard for the next 3 weeks (yes….a terrible chore but someone has to do it!).  Nothing particular mind-blowing image-wise, but I found myself sorting out some Guillemot images from a recent trip to The Farnes.

Guillemots were not the main reason I was there – you’ll guess what it was based on the previous post – but when I saw this one enjoying a good preen then it was too much of a temptation not to grab a shot.

There’s some nice behaviour going on and I’ve taken the classic approach to composition giving the bird plenty of space to be looking into as far as it’s general body position and shape is concerned. Sure enough a few moments later the preening stopped and the classic image that makes for a design editors dream popped up too based on the same compositional approach.

Loads of space for copy on the left (imagine a double-page spread), a nice clean background (perfect for copy to sit on) and space across the top for a headline too!

But then it was the image I like best: it conforms to all the above in terms of composition and design usage but because it breaks the rules just that one little bit by having the bird looking out of the image whilst it’s feet and body look in it has a natural tension that works in a different way altogether.

It’s minor observations and this sort of thinking when it comes to composing your images, seeing them before they happen and waiting for the moment, that I really enjoy and look for even when it’s a couple of minutes distraction by a bird that I love but wasn’t there to photograph: hopefully there’ll be some of Brunnich’s Guillemots to process when I’m back from Svalbard too!

Amazing Orca

Sometimes in this profession, which I am lucky enough to undertake, there are times where things are most definitely about the experience as much as the images.  I always knew that my latest trip was going to be full of learning experiences, simply by the very nature of the fact that I was staying with the Punta Norte Orca Research team and the venue (and therefore photographic opportunity) was the only beach in the world where at the right time of the year these magnificent animals will deliberately strand themselves on the shore to hunt young Sealion pups: if you’re a regular wildlife watcher on television you’re bound to have seen some of the footage.  I was hungry for insights into their behaviour, hunting strategies and simply how this seldom seen species behaves from the team here led by Juan Copello, one of the world’s leading Orca experts.  What I hadn’t expected though was an additional learning experience (well more of a reminder really) of the need for patience – and most extraordinarily this too came from the Orcas. Staying with the research team the pattern for the day was pretty fixed – out at 7am prompt with lunch pack and camera gear in tow (along with plenty of warm clothing as the wind here can be particularly penetrating) to head to the light house from where the whole of the north facing beaches, to which we had access by dint of the fact that Juan’s family own them all, were in view to look out for the telltale dorsal fin or blown waterspouts to announce the presence of Orca.  With radio contact to the ranger at small public viewing area round the corner (setup to overlook the beach rather than access it) we had full insight as to whether there were any signs of life.

Here was lesson number one in the art of patience.  It has been a more challenging year for Orca activity than many – still plenty of activity but more sporadic and with long periods of nothing (I think it was over 20 consecutive days in the normally busiest month of March).  But there is much more to this experience and opportunity than simply the mere presence of Orca.  Tides need to be right (3 hours either side of high tide) there need to be Sealions and pups obviously but in key locations where the shape of the reef around the shoreline allows access for the Orcas, and the pups need to be actually in the water.  In fact the ideal location is where 2 distinct groups are in close proximity meaning that when they are swimming they are crossing the beach as they move between them.  And then there’s the wind.  If it’s too strong, and particularly from the north, then the amount of wave noise reduces the effectiveness of the Orca’s echo location capabilities as well as reducing the amount of pups in the water too.  Add in the photographers desire for perfect lighting and sun direction and you’ll see that a huge number of elements need to slot into place – and thus the need for patience! Once Orca were in the area (and we achieved this statistic every day) it was a question of choosing which area of beach to drive frantically down to and get carefully in position near to the appropriate Sealion group without disturbing them, and then waiting to see if we’d made the right call, and whether all the other elements necessary were going to fall in our favour.

These spells with the Sealions gave great photographic opportunities with the pups either busy and playful or joining the juveniles and mothers in learning the finer arts of sleeping.  Their natural curiosity (and the benefit of the careful approach) meant that they would often wander up very close indeed occasionally boot sniffing to really suss us out!

For the first couple of days this was as good as it got photographically – Orca have an amazing ability to be both incredibly hard to find in the first place and lose in an instant it seems – although the arrival of the occasional Guanaco to our waiting location at the lighthouse, the regularly gliding Turkey Vultures, the last lingering Magellinic Penguin young from the huge 100,000+ colony here, the occasional scuttling by of a Hairy Armadillo and this rather cute family of tuco tuco’s  certainly did there bit to ensure that a Patagonian portfolio was beginning to develop.

But while wind and tide were in our favour it remained a waiting game for the Orca and half way through the trip the first close-up opportunity came.  Conditions were tricky for Saul and the yet to be named sub-adult male (a new arrival this season) as there was a fair bit of strong wave activity to hinder, and the light was incredibly difficult photographically, but the experience of sitting on the beach seeing their dorsal fins occasionally appear in the small bay between the reefs and their awareness of the opportunities that the pups were or weren’t offering them as potential prey was exhilarating.  One successful hunt achieved (and shared with the 2 others waiting further offshore) and one unsuccessful as the conditions worsened and they were gone: breathless stuff, an amazing privilege to be so involved in but little to show photographically.

A perfect day followed in terms of the weather but only a distant Orca sighting, the wind went in completely the wrong direction the next during which a pair patrolled the entire coastline in front of us looking for an impromptu chance but decided the odds were clearly against them and moved on elsewhere – sealion pups are after all just one of their supermarket shelves to choose from! The last day came (with the worst weather forecast too as we retired the night before) but the signs were that anticipated storm was taking longer to arrive as we once again headed to the lighthouse for our 7am rendezvous.  Conditions were indeed looking good, the diffused sun gradually moving into a better angle as the morning progressed and then a sighting!  A well-drilled dash in the landrovers, a sprint then careful approach past the Sealions into position on the beach and then the undoubtedly high point of the week over the subsequent hour.  3 attacks from the female Antu, ironically though none successful as the pup escaped her clutches as she turned to get off the beach in this first sequence.

The following video footage, shot on a camera phone is the same attack as the still images and really adds to give a sense of just what is going on, how close and involved our location was, as well as just how everything unfolds in an instant.

Watching her patience as she waited as out of sight as her frame and need for air allowed for pups to be in an approachable spot to hunt was indeed the salutary reminder that this is the only approach necessary in the natural world as a participant or an observer.  Are they the best images of this extraordinary behaviour – no way; that takes years to achieve with luck and all the other factors required falling into place.  Am I pleased with them professionally and personally – absolutely.  Will I be back – most definitely. And was this a trip where the experience and learning were as important as anything else – well for this photographer most definitely too.

My thanks too to Juan and the team – you have an amazing place which you know and are managing in the most appropriate and sustainable way and don’t let that change. Also thanks to Peter, Cliff, Dave, Mark and Tom who joined me on our trip – I hope (although I’m pretty certain of it) that your enjoyment of the experience and your resultant images matches mine.