Tag Archives: photography

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…..

Frustrating for Fungi

One of the highlights of autumn each year is the fantastic array of fungi in our woodlands – something I’ve always enjoyed photographing as it’s a different approach and style to the norm of my work.

As well as having a number of local haunts that have worked well over the years I have also run a workshop at a great location in the south-east on precisely the same day of the year for the last half dozen or so now.

This year was the hardest I’ve ever known though – normally there are fungi in abundance in late October/early November but this really has been a bizarre autumn – warm, dry and frustrating for fungi and fungi photographers alike.

There was still enough to make it an enjoyable day with a good nuber of earthballs, a couple of very fresh fly agarics and some nice bunches of sulphur tufts too (although someone had decided to put a boot through the nicest bunch I’d spent the previous afternoon discovering…thanks whoever that was!) but as in so many ways this autumn I don’t think 2011 will be going down as my favourite fungi year for sure.  Good job you learn to roll with things in this line and look forward to next year eh?!

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: http://www.natures-images.co.uk/pages/holidays/video-training-weekends.php

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.