Wednesday, 26 December 2007

On the benefits of slowing down

Well, I'm back from the Falkland Islands. The wildlife there is so prolific and tame that I excitedly shot well over 4,000 photographs. After an initial scan through I must confess to be slightly disappointed. There are several good shots in there that I am very happy with - but there are vast numbers which are just not quite good enough. I can't help wondering if I'd taken less photos, but spent a little longer setting them up whether I'd have more shots that I'm happy with. Anyway. Live and learn!

In the meantime here are a couple of highlights. Maybe not the best shots - but the two which meant the most at the time.

This was the first king penguin I saw. It turned up, unexpectedly, on Sealion Island on my second morning there. There is no king penguin colony on Sealion, so this one was probably a bit lost.

Chinstrap Penguins don't breed on the Falklands and are only rarely seen there. From the outset I had declared my intent to see one, but to be honest I wasn't really expecting to. I came across this Chinstrap penguin on Volunteer Beach whilst I was attempting to photograph a group of king penguins taking to the water. At first I thought it was a magellanic chick - but as it walked towards me I realised it was a chinstrap. I was so excited I'm amazed I managed to hold the camera steady...

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

On wildlife photography in the Falklands

One word. Wow!

This place is amazing. Six(!) species of penguin all seen and photographed. Albatross in huge quantities. Elephant Seals and Sealions. Night Herons and Caracara. All competing for your attention and for the most part so tame a long lens is not really required. The weather has been kind too - some warm days and a lot of really great light.

Pictures will follow - but internet access is not great here...

Friday, 7 December 2007

On security and the photographer

Having a large white lens on one´s camera always seems to attract attention. Usually the wrong kind. Security guards really don´t like them for some reason. So I was a tad nervous about getting through Heathrow airport with two in my hand luggage. They were more concerned that I was also carring a tiny plastic bag which broke the "one bag rule". Fortunely this was easily resolved by putting the apple it contained in one coat pocket and the danish pastry in the other!

Charles de Gaule was a different story. Security there was a bit belligerent. The opening gambit was "You have a knife!" which of course I didn´t. That was before they´d even scanned annything. As soon I revealed I was carrying camera gear my rucksack had to be completely unpacked and each item passed through individually. I also had to remove my shoes and my belt. After scanning it all they stood and watched me carefully repack the rucksack before escorting me to a desk not five paces away.Here they made me unpack the rucksack again. Each item was checked by hand. There was a long debate in French which I took from the body language to be about whether or not the plates I have on my lenses constitute a lethal weapon. These, by the way, are beautifully-machined pieces of metal used to slide the lens quickly on and off a tripod head. They are blunter than the average baguette.

After that, without as much as a "by your leave", one of them picked up the rucksack - with my camera now back in it - and walked off with it. Naturally I was bit bothered by this. It turned out they just wanted to rescan it, because the hand search had not shown up everything they thought they´d seen on the x-ray. They just didn´t feel the need to tell me that.

After another long debate between themselves, I was finally allowed through. I still can´t decide whether they were genuinely concerned or whether it was just a slow evening and they were a bit bored.

The flight was uneventful. If I had been so inclined I could have inflicted serious bodily harm with the stale in-flight bread rolls. There was a beautiful sunrise over Brazil, and some stunning views of the Andes, and I´m now safely at my hotel in Chile. Tomorrow morning I fly on to the Falklands. Hurrah!

Sunday, 2 December 2007

On almost being there...

Well the last couple of months have been a bit of a wash out from a wildlife photography point of view. Too little free time and not enough weather. But never mind. The Falklands trip is all but upon me. I depart on Thursday and arrive in Stanley on Saturday. Not sure if I'm more excited than nervous! It all seems a bit surreal.

Not sure what the internet access will be like when I get there, but I will try and pop up a blog post once I get there. We shall see...

Saturday, 20 October 2007

On busyness and skittishness...

It's been a long while since I made it out with a camera. Life just gets too busy sometimes. Today, however, I could not have wished for a better day. Low sunshine, glorious leaf cover and lots going on. The wildlife, however, seemed oddly skittish today. Almost nothing would stay still long enough for me to take a photo. But I still enjoyed being out.

The one bird that was at least partially co-operative was this little wren. He was messing about in some rushes and kept popping up to say hello. Sadly some noisy joggers ran right past, and despite my signal to keep quiet managed to scare even him away. Never mind. I'm relatively content with this shot.

Countdown to Falklands trip: 48 days.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

On just being there...

Sometimes it's not about the pictures. Just being in a place and seeing things with your own eyes is sufficient. Yesterday I spent an hour or more in a hide at Fowlmere watching a pair of Marsh Harriers in a tree. The harriers were beautiful, and the light was stunning - but they were just too far away for my lens. Seeing them through binoculars was a treat. After an hour or so, a third one joined them, and they took to the wing. Majestic.

I did manage a couple of shots of them in flight - but none of them are great; they still didn't come close enough for that. Nevertheless, I thought I'd post one up in penance for the lack of shots in recent weeks. In my defence, the weather has been foul, and I've been pretty busy - but I miss getting out there and taking photos...

Countdown to Falklands trip: 87 days.

Monday, 30 July 2007

On the exuberance of youth...

Young animals are always fun, not least because they have less fear than their adult counterparts and the fact that they are cute too makes them photogenic. This weekend I was entertained by a group of young wagtails. I swear there was a pair of grey wagtails who enticed me to stop, change lenses and set myself up, just to fly off as I was ready to start shooting. Nevertheless I did manage the following shot of a rather more helpful juvenile pied wagtail who stayed around to check me out...

Countdown to Falklands trip: 130 days.

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

On the cost of procastination...

Leaving things to the last minute has become something of a habit. The benefits in terms of increased efficiency, and more free time have largely outweighed the occasional increase in stress levels. Except of course when there are real costs to be incurred.

Airlines, bless them, sell their cheapest seats first. I've never been totally sure why this is, since presumably there is no reason why any seat in the same class should be cheaper than any other. Okay, so there is an incentive to book early and I suppose a slight tendency to spread the load as people choose to fly a day or so later to get cheaper seats. On average, however, I would expect it makes no real difference to the loading or take-up, as people fly when they need to and book when they are aware of that need.

In my case, putting off booking for several months has cost me £60 - a not insignificant sum - and my booking is hardly last minute. Choosing to return on one of the busiest flying days of the year (Christmas Eve) is the main factor here. The question now becomes was that £60 worth the extra peace of mind I have gained by tying a few things down before booking, or should I have booked earlier (and used the money on camera gear)? I guess I'll never know...

The good news is my Falklands holiday is now all booked, apart from two nights accomadation in Chile. It looks like I'm definately on my way!

Countdown to Falklands trip: 136 days.

Saturday, 7 July 2007

On targets of opportunity

Well, as anyone who has been following the tennis will know - it has been a wet summer this year. Today, however, we finally had a day when good weather coincided with a completely free saturday, so I set off in search of buzzards. It was a fabulous day, and I did manage to find three buzzards - but they were photographically uncooperative, so I had to content myself with lesser targets.

A chance encounter with a wren (another uncooperateive species) yielded a halfway decent shot. And the yellowhammer was a completely unexpected bonus. Not the best day's work - but after a spell with so few images, extremely satisfying...

Countdown to Falklands trip: 154 days.

Monday, 11 June 2007

On the absence of time...

Time is a funny thing. It races by when you're busy and drags when you're not. Which means that there is never enough of it in the right places, and far too much in the wrong ones - or so it seems. All of which in esence means, I have not been out with my camera in far too long, and I miss it. And to be honest, there is no excuse; I've allowed myself to lose sight of the things that really make me alive, and accepted pale substitutes. If I can't make time for the things I love, no-one else will...

Countdown to Falklands trip: 180 days to go

Sunday, 20 May 2007

On joy in unexpected places...

Last week I walked a section of the South West Coast Path with a friend of mine. To keep the weight of my pack down, I took the painful decision to travel without a long lens. This meant also deciding not to regret the various missed opportunities, but rather to enjoy the wildlife with my eyes rather than my camera. It also meant that our cross-country speed was much improved!

For the best wildlife encounter of the week, however, no long lens was required. Two badgers visited the patio of our B&B and came close enough for a decent shot even with my 17-85mm lens. I've never been this close to a wild badger, let alone photographed one. So, forty minutes of quality badger time was an unexpected joy - a handful of decent shots a thoroughly unexpected bonus. I had a silly grin on my face for most of the next morning...

Countdown to Falklands trip: 202 days to go

Saturday, 28 April 2007

On the early bird...

There is no doubt early mornings are the best times for wildlife photography. Even if you don't come back with anything, there is something magical about being out whilst the world is empty and still. It was a slow dawn this morning, and I was up with the lark. The trickle of amber light, gradually emerging from hazy cloud to gild the bracken.


The skylarks seemed to enjoy it too. I was surprised how close they let me get. Admittedly I was down on my front, crawling slowly, commando style towards them - they seemed more intrigued than bothered by my behaviour. Another pair of trousers well and truly ruined - but I think this pair of photos more than makes up for it!


Countdown to Falklands trip: 224 days to go

Friday, 13 April 2007

On the stupidity of one size fits all...

In trying to arrange travel insurance I ring a well known insurance company. My call is taken by an Indian gentleman. I wonder if it is an off-shore call-centre? He is pleasant and friendly enough but, like most call-centre operators, he is tied to his script. At the point where I tell him that the £1500 baggage cover (with £400 pound maximum single item limit) is not enough he does not know what to do and continues relentlessly with the script. There is no option to talk to anyone else or customise the policy.

One of the problem with the modern world is that there are too many choices which are no choice at all. There are scores of travel insurance companies offering policies with nearly identical limits. As far as I can ascertain no-one offers anything different! I would be happy to pay more for a bespoke policy which covered my actual needs.

So now I'm looking at doing specialist camera insurance and travel insurance as separate entities. Ho hum...

Countdown to Falklands trip: 239 days to go

Sunday, 25 March 2007

On the joy of fleeting moments

Long Tailed Tit

It's hard to define favourite things - there is just too much choice - but long-tailed tits do have a special place in my heart. They are such cheeky looking birds - I always enjoy my encounters with them. Today was particularly satisfying...

This is one of a pair I encountered this afternoon industriously collecting nesting materials. For the most part they stayed deep in the trees, and when they did venture out it was seldom in sunlight. So I was delighted when this bird settled here. It waited just long enough for me to squeeze off two shots - the second sadly has just a blur of wing...

Countdown to Falklands trip: 258 days

Sunday, 18 March 2007

On photographic firsts

One of the great thrills of wildlife photography is getting a picture of a bird or animal you've not taken before. Last friday I managed two such.

The first was a goldfinch. Having spent an hour in a hide hoping in vain for a kingfisher (but seeing almost nothing!), I emerged to find the area behind the hide alive with goldfinches and long-tailed tits. It seems to be common that all the action happens behind the hide - I saw my first pair of Merlins under similar circumstances.

The goldfinches were a bit of tease; choosing to stay largely in the shadow, hiding behind branches and staying high up - which made for awkward angles with my ballhead. After half an hour or so, however, I managed the following.


The second was a little grebe. I've seen them before, but not under conditions that allowed a shot. They were also playful, prefering to stay in the rushes, and emerge only briefly. My early shots were all disappointing. However, a little patience yielded a halfway decent shot (with the hope of more to come in future) and they were most amusing birds to watch.

Little Grebe

With a lot more species still to shoot here's hoping I have a lot more days like this one!

Countdown to Falklands trip: 265 days

Tuesday, 13 March 2007

On lens envy

This weekend saw the happy confluence of good light and - that rare and precious commodity a free weekend - so I took the opportunity to head out with my camera. The morning passed amiably enough at Church Woods RSPB reserve near Slough. It had it's fair share of small birds, but they were being shy and opportunities were not forthcoming. Telling myself that the day was after all just reconnaissance - a useful cop-out for a zero image day - I headed on into the Chilterns.

Finally I found myself once more at Ibstone and was, once again, blown away by the numbers and sheer beauty of the Red Kites. I spent a happy couple of hours in their presence, before returning to my car, where I found two fellow photographers. These guys had all the gear. Both had Nikon full-frame bodies mounted on top-end Gitzo legs with Wimberley gimbal heads. As for lenses, one had a 600mm f/4 and the other a 400mm f/2.8 - big, black with front elements the size of dinner plates! I felt a flare of lens envy. Either one of those lenses alone represents more investment than my total camera set-up, and having spent the afternoon attempting had-held flight-shots I coveted the extra shutter-speed such lenses would have given.

Red Kite

When I got my pictures home though, I was not displeased with what I'd taken. I recalled an article from Luminous Landscape. My 400mm lens may be two stops slower, but at less than a quarter of the weight I definitely had the edge on them in terms of mobility that day.

Countdown to Falklands trip: 270 days to go

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

On film vs digital

On Sunday I went along to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Exhibition at the Natural History Museum. This has become something of an annual pilgrimage for me. It is always a beautiful and inspirational collection and this year was no exception. There are some stunning pictures on display.

Two things, however, did surprise me. The first was the number of winners which were on film. Out of just over two-hundred images, I counted just eight. Hardly surprising? Perhaps - but just two years ago the ratio was almost entirely the opposite way round. It seems in two short years, digital has all but seen off film in the realms of Wildlife Photography.

So what of the result? I'm not entirely sure. The pictures were stunning, there is no doubt of that. Yet somehow, I felt that the general standard had dropped, by the tiniest amount. The effect of film? Me becoming inoculated to high-quality wildlife photography? Just a minor blip? I don't know.

What I do know is that two years ago I was inspired by the vibrant colours of Fujichrome Velvia to buy some. Two years later most of it is still my fridge. Digital is just too darn convenient, and even the ultra-vibrant colour of Velvia cannot lure me away from it.

The second surprise was the number of shots from taken on the Falklands. I forget now exactly how many there were - five or six I would guess. The numbers are not that important, it was more the inspiration to me. Those images sum up some of what I hope to see later this year. In the meantime, as the rainy weekends continue and wildlife photography seems far away, I have to content myself with mocking up the following in my bedroom. Okay - it's not quite Andy Rouse, but what the heck. I had fun!


Countdown to Falklands trip: 276 days to go

Monday, 26 February 2007

On light and weather

One of the recurring mantras of photography is the need for interesting light. And its generally true. A stunning location on a dull day all too often means a dull shot, whilst fantastic light in an below-average location can still yield a stunning image. Having taken many thousand dull photographs one becomes something of a light snob. My camera rarely leaves its bag on an uninteresting day. In fact, in recent months I have tended to not even bother go out with the camera on an overcast day, unless there is some other reason to do so.

Last week, however, I had arranged to meet a friend to walk round the future site of the 2012 Olympic games, and as it turned out it was a very dull day. Despite that I managed some halfway decent pictures. I mostly stuck with the abstracts. Close cropped, minimalist shots with no sky. Some of these worked quite well.


Given the location I wasn't expecting anything noteworthy on a wildlife theme. So imagine my surprise when, halfway through the day, a heron graced us with his presence. Fortunately I'd just swapped my 17-85mm for a 70-200mm, but everything else was wrong. The camera was set up for one-shot, not the continuous auto-focus I'd normally select for flight shots. The IS on the lens was not in panning mode. Quite why the aperture was f/3.5 I confess I have no idea. Nevertheless, as the heron flew by I squeezed off a single shot. I wasn't really expecting anything, but when I got it back, I found it was pin sharp (got to love that EF70-200 IS!). And yes, the light is not great, but (for me at least) the photo still works.

Heron in flight

Maybe in future I'll be less of a snob...

Countdown to Falkands trip: 285 days to go

Sunday, 25 February 2007

On customer service

So I'm trying to find out flight information and I wander into Thomas Cook in Kingston. It seems like a reasonable move to me, after all they are a travel agent. Sadly, however, I am served by a dead-eyed Saturday girl, who is clearly dreaming of being elsewhere and who informs me "We've just got a new flight system, and I don't know how to use it". She takes my phone number - someone will call me later. Only of course they don't.

But then round the corner it is a different story. STA travel, and I am served by Jen. Smart, knowledgeable, chatty, interested in my requirements. Twenty minutes later I have the information I need. When I get around to booking my flights, I know where I'm going back to.

Countdown to Falkands trip: 286 days to go