Tag Archives: wildlife

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.

Wild Shropshire

Well it’s finally here.  Many of you will know that for the last couple of years I’ve been working on a fairly substantial collaborative project with Shropshire Wildlife Trust in preparation for and ultimately celebration of thier 50th anniversary in 2012.  The cornerstone of the project is my very first book – self-published too – called Wild Shropshire and this week it arrived from the printers and it’s now out there selling – with a very positive initial uptake too my wholesaler advises me!

There’s much much more to the whole Wild Shropshire proposition than the book though and you can read all about the various talk, exhibitions and a brand new photographic competition we’re running for next year too on it’s own bespoke website www.wildshropshire.co.uk .  There’s a separate blog too which I’ll be updating with different stuff to here and I’m even being persuaded to wander into the realms of Facebook on there ….. shortly for that though!  Perhaps more importantly (or so my accountant reminds me) you can also order a copy of the book there – it won’t be available on Amazon and we’re only looking to distribute it locally too so that all the earnings (including contributions to Shropshire Wildlife Trust) look to stay locally within the county too.

At the heart of the whole project is a desire to highlight that in a county such as Shropshire, probably not the first on the wildlife hotspot radar, there is still an incredible array of diversity in terms of wildlife and habitat to be found: if you’re prepared to put the time in trying to find it.  My recent BWPA video award is a typical such example – the lake in question is in the middle of a Telford housing estate and for many not worth a second glance but for almost 2 months I was drawn every morning to record and observe the dramas of one family of Great Crested Grebes and their neighbouring Coots.  How many more such dramatic opportunities play themselves out every day near to your home?

We also want to encourage and inspire residents and visitors to the county to take some time to find their own bit of Wild Shropshire and record it on camera themselves – hence the photography competition which is open to all.

It’s been a great deal of work, has caused several sleepless nights (particularly filling in some of the more difficult gaps in terms of iconic and important species or habitats that I wanted to include) and there has been much help and support along the way from Ellie, Mike, and John and Sarah from SWT – many many thanks to you all, and without getting too far ahead of myself (and also proving that I’m a real glutton for punishment) the next book project is already well underway too!

Hope you find and enjoy this one.

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.