This page will act as a photographic journal. What I'm using, why I like various bits of kit, how I set up certain shots. Stuff that on the whole would act as a massive turn-off for anyone not interested in wildlife photography. 

Red-footed Falcon cover

April 25, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

I've just found out that I've been fortunate enough to get the Birdwatch Magazine cover for May 2016, a portrait of a Red-footed Falcon that I photographed in Hungary in June of 2013. I obviously pay quite a lot of attention to cataloging and storing my best images, so it's usually an easy task to find files if it so happens that I have something that an editor is looking for. This particular image was taken on a week-long hide-based photo tour of the Hortobagy National Park a few summers ago via Sakertours. I'm actually not a fan of hides, I get very bored very quickly, but there is no denying that it presents unrivalled opportunities to get up close and personal with some stunning birds. My only previous magazine cover, also for Birdwatch, was I think roughly two years ago and was of some Bee-eaters from the same trip, so clearly this is telling me something! I actually think I'm a much better photographer now than I was three years ago, I have learnt heaps - not only technical knowledge but also I think I have a far better understanding of my subjects and what works and what doesn't, so perhaps it is time I went back to see if I can improve on some of the species where I didn't do so well.

Techie details: Canon EOS 5D MkIII with 500 f4L lens + 1.4x converter, tripod mounted at 1/800s, f5.6, ISO 800. Shot through glass in a hide where you had to wee in a bucket.

Florida waders - Grey Plover

February 22, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Grey Plover (or Black-bellied Plover in the local parlance) are very common on the beaches of the Gulf coast - so common that you sometimes have to force yourself to do something else! I don't necessarily always have that willpower so I've pulled together a series of illustrative shots - some of which I find nice and some of which grate! I'll try and explain why it is that I should not have pressed the shutter - going through your images and self-critiquing is an important part of getting better. You will never critique your own work as well or as harshly as somebody else, so every now and then I get a mate to help me with the paring process. It's hard work, but worthwhile. If however you don't have someone willing, or indeed skilled enough, then having a go yourself is a good place to start, just recognise it's not the real deal.

Head Angle - a slight turn in is always to my mind preferable. Compare the following two images that were more or less in sequence. The first is mostly parallel to the camera, whereas the second has the bird turning in slightly. I know what I like best, but to capture that often means just holding down the trigger actually. Back home you can select that one frame that has the pleasing angle, and then get rid of the rest - birds move quickly and digital is more or less free!

DDistractions - compare these two. The first has a bit of weed or something on the shoreline a few feet back that is right between the feet. It won't clone out easily - far simpler to wait to take the photo until the bird has taken a few more steps. Alternatively if you can move even a tiny bit without scaring the bird, depending how far back the offending item is you could get rid of it or make it a lot easier to clone away. In both of these images I actually find the darker lumps distracting no matter where they are positioned, and if I had more time on my hands I would get rid of all of it! The reason I have not bothered up until this point is that both images are very slightly over-exposed.....

But not as badly as this one! This is what happens when you blast away and don't check your histogram frequently enough. There are many things not to like about this image, the awkward leg angle being just one of them, but why worry too much about that when the whites are utterly fried and unrecoverable. I am talking of course about the area below the bill and then the lower chest. This was on the final morning of my second Florida trip when I finally had some decent light and I think got over-excited!

The next image is also completely blown, but the main subject is OK. The Egret in the background is fried, but I was exposing for a darker bird. This is a case of what might have been I think I like the symmetry, with the subject walking one way and the background going the other way, but in addition to blowing the Egret to bits I've also chopped the top of its head off. If only I had increased my shutter speed and raised the camera a fraction - easy to say now, less easy to do on the spot, but by calling it out I've given myself more of a chance next time. That's not to say I won't blow it again, but the thought will be there.

What about this one? Anything problematic here? I binned it, but it's not immediately obvious as to why. It survived quite a few passes before I spotted it and decided there was an issue.....

And finally a few shots that I prefer above all the others shown in this post, though none are perfect. The first is a bird smaller in the frame, but with parallel lines of water giving some structure. In the second I like the out of focus shells and pebbles, and the ripples in the water. I also like the way these fade to nothing and then become the background. My only critique really is that the bird is a little tight in the frame. The third is a fraction too bright, but not distractingly so. I like the pose.

For me though the pick of the bunch is this one. Why? The light. Do I want a head turn as per the second image in this blog post. Yes I do, but I'll take it!


Florida waders - a return - American Osytercatcher

February 21, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

I first went to Florida for bird photography in March 2015, however it was too short a trip really. I had an absolute ball in lovely light on the Gulf coast and vowed to come back again as soon as I could. That turned out to be only eight months later, last November, when I found enough time for a long weekend. I posted a gallery of that trip here, but never managed to get around to blogging about it and giving a little more detail about the various challenges I faced along the way, what I learned, what worked and what didn't.

The first to thing mention was the weather - not good in some ways, ideal in others. Part of the attraction in Florida is the wonderful light, and during my earlier trip I had a succession of wonderful mornings. Not so this time though! On arrival in the St Petersburg area I was met with a stiff breeze and grey cloud cover creating a dull situation. I was able to just about retain my standard 800 ISO, but the images just don't have the vibrancy of the last trip. I was able to lift them a bit in post-processing, but it was a bit disappointing. Ultimately however it meant that instead of having to pack up at 10am when even at this time of year the light is simply too harsh, I was able to photography birds all day long. On my final day at Fort Desoto, the weather perked up considerably - the wind died down and I got the beautiful light I had wanted. Irritatingly I actually then blew a lot of images on this final morning, including completely nerfing a fly-by white-morph Reddish Egret - sharp as you like but blown to smithereens! I gave myself a good talking to and pulled it together for the final hour or so, but a whole series of images went in the bin. Sure enough, by 10am the light was as good as hopeless and so I stopped and went birding elsewhere. You have to know when there's no point continuing, and in Florida it is difficult to call a halt to proceedings. Not only was I keen to make up for the lost time when I forgot to check my settings, but the birds were still all there, all parading around. But you have to call it quits in this situation.

Part of the problem as I see it was the difficulty of seeing the screen when I was so low to the ground I could barely see through the view-finder. Ironically enough, if I was stood up behind a full length tripod I would likely have noticed far more quickly that I wasn't shooting right, but when you're in the sand straining to twist your neck in ways that hurt a bit, you can lose sight of the basics. An important lesson, a shame I had to learn it (again!) in such perfect conditions. Some of my images from that morning are of course fine, others were salvageable, so it's not as if I came home empty handed. I'll share some of both the good and the bad in a later post. 

Enough of my travails however, here are a series of frames of American Oystercatcher which was a top target for this trip having been missed last time. This bird only came onto the beach at St Petersburg very late on once human activity had largely died down, and on one of the dull days. However its arrival coincided with the sun beginning to drop behind and somewhat below the pervasive layer of cloud that had screened it all day. I estimate the light improved by up to a stop and a half almost instantly, and before I knew it I was back to shooting at 1/2500s. However this being the Gulf coast the sun sets over the sea, which means if you want to be between the sun and the bird feeding on the surf you have to be IN the sea! I wasn't really up for that just before packing up, so had to wait for decent head turns. The following images were taken when the bird was slightly further up the beach, and have various out of focus bits of either buildings or foliage as backgrounds for a bit of contrast. I was right on the sun angle here, but I quickly realised I was preventing the bird from feeding by forcing it up the beach in order to get my angle and avoid getting wet. I retreated to one side and allowed it to come back down to the surf line.

In terms of what I mean my needing that extra smidgeon of light, compare the following two images. The first has the bird facing almost directly away from the sun, whereas the second has a slight head turn that lights up that fantastic eye a treat. In my opinion this saves images where a lot of the bird is poorly lit, as you are immediately attracted to the eye and the beak. Despite the action, really that first image has nothing going for it at all with only the mantle lit.

I probably spent about twenty minutes with this bird as the sun gradually got lower and lower, albeit without creating any sort of sunset whatsoever! Still, it was good to study it in such detail and finally get something on the CF card. Almost all the images are taken with the bare 500mm lens at f4, which indicates that the bird was pretty close. Shutter speed was as mentioned a constant 1/2500s, and some of the earlier images in the series actually see the camera set at f8 or f6.3 - there must have been a brief blaze of light!

As a postscript to my final day and the lovely morning light it brought, just as I was leaving an American photographer turned up in massive SUV and asked if there was anything about. He then proceeded to tell me about all his brand new kit for about ten minutes (everything newer than mine, everything larger!), and then headed off to the beach to take a series of likely worthless images in the blazing sun, shadows all over the place and simply uncontrollable whites!

Snow Bunting

October 05, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

For the first time in many months, possibly years, I actually used my extension tubes on a bird. The last time I can recall doing this was on a very very friendly Little Grebe at Rainham Marshes, but at that time I may have only had access to my 800mm which has a 6m minimum focus distance. My more modern 500mm lens has a 3.7m minimum, however for this Snow Bunting on the north Norfolk coast even that was too much. It was another of these wonderful wildlife moments of the sort that I enjoy so much. I get a thrill from managing to get up close to a bird without threatening it, but an even bigger thrill from encounters where the bird is simply fearless – usually an indication that it’s never seen a human before. This bird, the first of the winter season, was one of these latter and was quite happily feeding within two feet of people on Saturday. This is no exaggeration – two feet. Obviously that’s still way too close and I would have needed a Macro lens (wish I’d had one in my bag!). So as it was I had to hang back but quite often the bird simply hopped towards me. This is no bad thing as I got to spend as much time simply watching it at close range as it delicately prized seeds from coastal plants, as taking image after image of it. That’s not to say I didn’t take any, of course I did, but this was only when the bird flew or walked to less busy areas, or in some cases perched on some old war-era rubble. A number of people there with cameras (which let’s face it is most people these days) were firing off continuously, no matter where the bird was, but I was happy to hang back and wait for the most part as I knew I’d probably just bin anything where I didn’t have a largely clear background. I did however close in with the extension tube for a number of shots where I knew I could crop to just the bird’s head and forget about the rest of the frame.

To be honest though I did find it rather busy on the beach, with any number of people with the bird. I expected no less,  this is the Norfolk coast in autumn. To anyone who thinks people were crowding it, well yes they were but it didn’t alter the bird’s behavior at all and that’s the key thing. But it did alter mine as there were at times so many people that I couldn’t get the angles I wanted without getting somebody’s leg! I think it’s just a feature of birding almost anywhere in the south-east these days, it’s an increasingly popular hobby, information is everywhere and lots of people chase the news and want the best views they can get – especially those who have not seen a Snow Bunting before! Mind you, it might not just be the south-east – I saw a photo of a Little Bunting up at Spurn that was completely surrounded by at least a hundred people who were all there dipping bigger and better birds, and pager messages from there the previous day were explicitly asking that birders give tired migrants like the Pied Wheatear space to feed and rest and not pursue it around the rocks. And I’ve been on Shetland before where within half an hour of a Buff-bellied Pipit being found a number of minibuses with tour groups had turned up and there were probably 50 people on the beach looking at it. Every situation is different of course, and this Snow Bunting was just one of those silly birds you get from time to time  rather than an exhausted migrant, but all in all and satisfying as the bird was I felt a little uncomfortable being one of a crowd around it. I’d much rather it was just me and the bird, whether or not I have a camera, and no sight of the green horde anywhere! This is one of the reasons I now twitch less and travel more, as many of the places I go I’m the only person there. What I really need to do is seek out places in the UK that have nobody there – no birders, no joggers, no dog-walkers, no cyclists, no football players, nobody flying model airplane, no kids, no nobody. On this crowded island on which we live this is easier said than done of course, and bearing in mind that I live in London for now I may just need to accept that when I go out birding or on a photographic mission, for the most part I’m going to be just one of many. 

Close Bald Eagle encounter

July 27, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

I was trying to photograph Red-winged Blackbirds at Dungeness (in Washington State!) when suddenly it all kicked off at the small lakes just next to the river mouth. Ducks scattered, Pied-billed Grebes scampered for the reeds, and I soon saw why - a Bald Eagle was sweeping in low hoping for an unwary DUck as a meal. I'm not the greatest at birds in flight, but I do mostly understand exposure, and realised straight away that with my camera in manual mode and exposure set for mid-tones, that a bird against a white sky would be hopelessly blown. I'm not sure I got it quite right, but as I raised the camera away from the reeds and to the sky I was already dialling in a much faster shutter speed. Really it was just an instinctive twiddle of the dial towards where I thought it likely needed to be, and so 1/1000s at f5.6 for the Blackbirds became 1/2000s  at f5.6 for the Eagle. I have the superb autofocus of the 1D Mark IV camera to thank for the rest. But it got better, as within the mere three seconds that separate the first of the 13 images I took from the last, a feisty Brewer's Blackbird landed on the Eagle's back, gave it a good scratching and pecking, and then lifted off to safety. As I said, it was over in the seconds, the Eagle gaining height and departing to the east. I couldn't believe it when I looked at the back of the camera, and immediately backed up the images to the SD card that sits in a second slot. Looking at the images below, I can't see that the Eagle was bothered in the slightest - it didn't attempt to turn, didn't attempt to shake off its tiny foe, it just carried serenely on its way. Later on in the week I saw an Eagle get attacked by an Osprey, and that elicited an entirely different response, with the bird inverting itself in the air and extending its legs and claws up towards the smaller bird. Smart these Eagles! Anyway, I lucked out, and here are four of the 13 images that tell the story of that amazing moment.

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