Ophrys Photography

Wildlife photography by John Devries, Kent UK. Inspirational images from nature.
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Blog 2012 continued

My local patch

In between trips to distant destinations I like to work my local patch repeatedly as familiar species can provide some great photo opportunities if they present themselves in great light or show interesting behaviour. You are more likely to witness this if you keep going back. Also repeatedly visiting a place can throw up a rare visitor, particularly in spring when migrant species may suddenly appear en route to their breeding grounds.

I suppose my local patch is really my rural garden which backs onto farmland, but beyond that I have a great nature reserve 30 minutes drive from home near Maidstone in Kent. This is home to many bird species and is pretty good for brown hares too. I often return in February and March in the hope of getting pictures of hares boxing. So far I have pictures of a variety of hare behaviour but still no boxing. Unlike rabbits, the hares are usually solitary but this year I managed to come across a pair in good light and I had high hopes for a bit of sparring.

Male hare shadow boxing

Mr first pair together

A bit of action ?

No - far too tiring

The next evening the light was not so good as I was having to shoot towards the sun, but the same or a similar pair were chasing each other around, albeit at a bit more of a distance.

Hares chasing each other - still no boxing though

So still no boxing hares then, but it's nice to have a challenge so I will keep trying.

One bonus of my persistence was bumping into a hunting short-eared owl (not literally).
When I first encountered the owl it was pretty distant but came much closer to my car at one point but I had the 1.4x converter fitted to my 500mm lens and I could not persuade the 1DmkIV to maintain autofocus on the owl as both the owl and the background were a pretty low contrast target. Autofocus relies on some contrast so most of my shots were blurred. Next time I will use the bare 500mm lens as the AF will work much better without having the extender fitted but I need the bird to fly close. These are my first flight shots of this fantastic bird but are not very exciting yet, so I now have a second challenge and a reason to keep visiting my local patch !

Short eared owl

Short-eared owl hunting.

Iceland and the Aurora borealis

It has been a lifelong ambition of mine to see the Northern lights (aurora borealis). The years 2012 and 2013 are predicted to be years of peak solar activity which should mean a good chance of seeing this elusive spectacle.

I booked a trip with Tatra Photography at the end of February to go to Iceland to have a go. We were lucky to see the lights on our first and last nights and got a few nice images. The remaining days were very poor weather-wise and we experienced thick cloud, heavy snow, rain and gale force winds on the other days. Thanks to an excellent group of people we didn't let the weather get us down and had a lot of fun regardless.

Church in Þingvellir National Park

Although the aurora came out pretty well in my photos due to the long exposures required, in reality it was comparatively weak and to be honest I was quite underwhelmed with what I saw. I'm sure that a top notch display would be awesome but it was not to be.

Iceland is a fantastic country to visit, it is wonderfully quiet once away from the capital Reykjavik which houses around 80% of the population. The opportunities for the landscape photographer are excellent (provided the light is good - which it wasn't for us). There are geysers, snowcapped mountains, icebergs, desolate lava flows, waterfalls and pretty churches.

Strokkur Geyser at the beginning of an eruption

The same geyser in mid spray - it reached about 60-90 feet in height every 5 minutes or so

Typical view of a lake, mountains and volcanic rocks

Things are much prettier when the sun shines

Our transport - we named it "The beast". It dealt with snow, ice and rough terrain with ease.

There is very little wildlife to be seen in Iceland at this time of year - August is the best month apparently. We did spot an arctic fox (the only resident mammal) a ptarmigan, a raft of Barrows goldeneye, a flock of snow buntings and fulmars and kittiwakes were beginning to nest on some cliffs.

Hints and tips


When visiting Iceland to photograph the aurora it is essential to take warm clothing. On our visit the weather was unseasonably warm, which is why there was so much cloud around, so clothing was not as critical as I was expecting. However, when standing around for hours on snow on a a clear night while photographing the aurora it still did get pretty cold. I bought a pair of Sorel Caribou Snow boots which I found to be excellent when combined with thick ski socks. I also bought a Rab jacket which was lined with a man-made down fabric called primaloft. The jacket is very light - so light in fact that I didn't trust it, so I took a paramo smock to throw over it had it not been up to the job. I needn't have worried, the jacket cost me just £108 from Cotswold Outdoor and it was superb. On my legs I wore a pair of ski salopettes over jeans and again these kept me warm as toast. On my hands I wore some thin thermal gloves so I could operate the camera and wore a pair of snow boarders mittens over the top when not taking pictures. I took packs of chemical hand and feet warmers, but brought them all back unused. I wore a fleece neck ring which nicely filled the gap between the jacket and a faux fur deerstalker style hat that appropriately became known as "the bunny". Finally, when really cold one night I wore a balaclava under the bunny to keep my face warm.

Photographing the aurora

A tripod is absolutely essential due to the long shutterspeeds but a cable release is not essential if exposures are as long as 15-30 secs.

The ideal lens for photographing the aurora would be a fast wide angle. The lights take up a lot of sky so a lens of around 16- 35mm focal length is desireable.The other critical factor is that the lens has a wide maximum aperture as the aurora is quite faint and requires long shutterspeeds to record it. If the exposure is too long, the aurora has time to move around and creates a diffuse blur of light instead of nice crisp patterns.

Let's imagine that you have an f4 lens (such as a Canon 17-40mm f4) and the correct exposure at say, 800 ISO is 30 seconds at the maximum aperture of f4, then if you changed to a 24mm f2.8 prime lens, then the exposure time would be halved to 15 secs at f2.8. An f1.4 or f1.2 lens would reduce the shutterspeeds even further. You could of course increase the ISO setting to reduce shutterspeed but you start walking a tightrope with noise in the image. I bought a cheap, used 24mm f2.8 prime lens off of Ebay (£130) before I went and it proved to be a great buy.

The next difficulty you encounter is focusing in the dark. If you have a building in the foreground, you will want this to be sharp, so you have a choice of either shining a torch light onto the building and trying to get the autofocus to lock or to use the camera's liveview to focus manually. I tried using my 17-40 lens set to infinity on the lens barrel but this was no good as it was not focussed correctly. The little 24mm f2.8 was much easier as I found I could just set it to infinity on any subject and just click away without rechecking focus. This cheap little lens became my lens of choice and served me very well.

Although you can use a crop camera, a full frame camera is an advantage as it gives a wider field of view and these tend to have better high iso noise performance. A Canon 5DmkII or Nikon D700/D3 would be great choices as they can be used at high ISO with little noise. The very latest cameras which are just being released (Canon 5DmkIII, 1DX, Nikon D4) should have even better noise performance and will enable higher shutterspeeds to freeze the aurora's motion as they can be used at even higher ISO. I could envisage these new cameras coupled with a fast lens enabling shutterspeeds as short as 2-3 seconds when photographing the aurora which will give results that cannot be achieved with the current technology.

I found that the camera could be set to Av mode most of the time as the camera can set exposures of up to 30 secs. I then checked the histogram and if under-exposing I could dial in some positive exposure compensation. If using exposures of longer than 30 secs it would be necessary to switch to Bulb mode and shoot for a timed exposure.

One last tip, if you have an unlit building as your foreground, it often looks a bit dark when the exposure is correct for the sky. I found that giving the building a quick burst of torch light gave a dramatic effect.

House - no torchlight

House "painted" with light

Many thanks to Matt Jevons of Tatra and Nick Jenkins (Tutor) for an excellent trip despite the weather. I would recommend Tatra very highly - they went beyond the call of duty in trying to get us into a suitable place to see the aurora on the difficult days and took us to some wonderful locations. The accommodation, meals, transport etc were all excellent. Be prepared to come back exhausted as there is not a lot of time for sleep on this trip !

Red kites

This month I returned to Gigrin Red Kite Feeding station and Rehabilitation Centre near Rhayader in Powys Mid Wales to photograph the red kites that have become a pretty famous attraction there.

I visited once before some years ago for a single day and the weather turned grey just as the birds were fed at 2pm (3pm from the last weekend in March apparently). Grey skies are not good for photographing the kites as they seldom land and they tend to look like cardboard cutouts against a near white background. This year I had three photography days on site to give myself a better chance of getting good weather. My success was still mixed. The first day was grey again despite a bright morning, the second day gave us an hour of bright but contrasty sunlight and the third day was also grey but the sun broke through very late in the day for a few minutes. This provided superb light but the birds had mostly drifted away from the food by that time ! I did get a nice shot of a buzzard in this light though..

The sight of 500 red kites in the air which dive and swoop on the meat that is provided for them is an incredible spectacle. Gigrin is run by Chris Powell who has been feeding the kites daily at 2pm for many years and the birds appear as if by magic just before this time. Chris uses a tractor to carry the meat and distributes it using a shovel.

Chris shoveling out food

There are a number of public hides and two special elevated photography towers that we used. The lower tower is £15 and the upper one £20 for the afternoon. The towers offer the benefit of being far less crowded and the fronts are open so it is possible to swing a big lens around on a Wimberley head with no restriction.

The hides taken from the tallest photographers hide

We used the upper hide twice and the lower tower once as we had already advanced booked them, but the lower tower was preferable when we visited due to the wind direction. The birds rarely landed and were swooping in for food in the direction of the lower tower. From the upper tower you tended to get images of the birds as they flew past rather than coming towards you. This could all change on another day however.

Buzzards in a pale and also dark form (colour morph) were also present as were lots of carrion crows and a few ravens. It was possible to photograph these but they were a little distant and a 500mm lens plus extender were required.

Buzzard swooping in for food

Raven in flight

A few of the red kites (also see March image(s) of the month for more kites. ...


One kite which had been ill and cared for in the rehabilitation centre was content to sit on the ground and stuff itself with meat until it was too heavy to take off.

Finally, there were a couple of the white (leucistic) colour versions of the red kite present. One had moulted a lot of primary feathers but one was still in good condition.

The only irritation from the photography perspective is that many kites now have horrible wing tags on them. This may be good for studying the birds but is annoying when you get a great shot and then find that the bird has a huge tag on it. This is not a deal-breaker mind you, there are plenty of untagged birds and there is always the clone stamp tool in Photoshop as a last resort !

J4 on the ground. The tags are on both wings !

Black squirrels and sparrowhawks

I tried to locate some black squirrels a couple of years back in Hertfordshire where they are apparently becoming numerous. Despite good information I didn't find any, so thought I would try again this year. The "black" squirrel is actually a genetic mutation of the grey squirrel and was introduced with the greys to this country from the US or Canada. The black squirrels have a lot of the black pigment (melanin) so these are called melanistic grey squirrels.They are not a separate species, they are still grey squirrels.

When I arrived on the site - the grounds of a Church, I met a local couple who informed me that the church caretaker had killed nearly all of the squirrels. The squirrels used to be very confiding and ate out of people's hands giving lots of pleasure to many apparently. So much for Christian tolerance then! However he suggested I persist because there were still a couple left in the churchyard grounds. After a gloomy lunch I tried again and was rewarded with excellent sightings of the two remaining animals which appeared to be very intolerant of the normal greys that were also present. A few peanuts got them to pose where I wanted them and this is one of my shots....

Melanic grey squirrel

Conditions were very challenging photographically as the squirrels were in the shady side of the church in minimal light but as it was a sunny day, the backgrounds were too bright - a bad combination.I was forced to use a mixture of available light at wide aperture (f3.5- f2.8 on the 300mm f2.8L IS lens) and high Iso plus a bit of fill flash from a flashgun fitted with a flash extender. I purposely under-exposed the flash by 1.5 stops (by dialling in Flash exposure compensation) and this combination enabled natural-looking pictures despite the use of flash. I will probably go back again in the early morning in the hope of better light next time.

I have quite a collection of grey squirrel pictures now as the blacks complete my collection of normal (grey) and white (albino). You can see many more shots in my image galleries on the squirrels page.

Here is a normal grey squirrel for comparison...

Normal grey squirrel

And this is another rare variant of the grey, a white (albino) grey squirrel. It totally lacks any pigment and in common with many other albino species even the eyes lack pigment and are pink.

Albino grey squirrel

Another species that I have been trying to photograph recently is sparrowhawk. These occasionally turn up in my garden and I have watched them from my hide on several occasions but they have an uncanny knack of staying just outside my camera range. However, while I was repairing a greenhouse that had suffered a bit of storm damage in the recent windy conditions, a beautiful male bird landed on a perch by my feeders and I froze all movement while I watched him preening for about five minutes. He was no more than thirty feet away, which was astounding as these birds of prey are normally hyper-spooky. Typical I thought, I didn't have my camera with me! Anyway, I noted the time of day and the next day conditions were similar so I got into the hide and waited with my 500mm f4 lens mounted on the 1DmkIV. At last I was rewarded with frame-filling shots I had been trying for for three years. I was willing the bird to turn to face me, but he never did. This is as close to a full frontal as I was treated to....

Also a little over-the-shoulder number...

I love birds of prey and the sight of a male sparrowhawk perched so close was just wonderful, but his presence is now a mixed blessing as the other birds are all on maximum alert all the time and do not settle to feed. Instead they dart in to the feeders, grab some food and dart out again at high speed, making photographing them a frustrating experience.

The year's plans and predators in Bavaria

Firstly let me just wish everyone a very happy and prosperous New Year ! The Ophrys Photography website is now about to begin its seventh year. Is it really that long ?

This is the time of year that I start booking up trips and planning some projects for the year ahead.
In the UK I hope that I will be doing some stuff with foxes and I have arranged a very special trip to Alaska later in the year with the well- known UK wildlife photographer, Chris Weston. We will have privileged access to some wonderful wilderness areas of Katmai that are normally off-limits thanks to Chris Morgan - a bear biologist who will be accompanying us. Both ChrisM and Chris W are extremely experienced and have written books on bears, so I feel confident that I will remain safe while being extremely close up and personal while the bears fish for salmon.I have been instructed to bring my wide angle lens for the closeups - gulp.

Before any of this I am going to try for the Aurora Borealis (Northern lights) in Iceland. This is a bit of a change for me as I don't usually do "landscapes" as such but I have always wanted to see the Northern Lights as it must be one of nature's greatest spectacles and many people find it to be a really spiritual experience. I have kitted myself out with some new cold weather gear as I expect to be standing around for hours on snow at minus goodness-knows-what temperature at night in Iceland. I am currently genning up on requirements for aurora photography and will report back with recommendations when I feel confident in camera settings etc myself.

Anyway, I am rather getting ahead of myself as I never put anything in this blog about my last trip to Bavaria. This is when I got to know Chris Weston and we subsequently arranged to go to Katmai in 2012.

Chris runs a short workshop that he calls "Europe's Great Predators" and includes bears wolves and lynx in the Bavarian Forest National Park in Germany. I managed to get some nice images of theses difficult species in late autumn colour in November.

Here are a few highlights:

European wolves
Wolves gathering in beech forest

Meat is put out for the wolves every other day and they gather in readiness near a viewing platform which provides good photo opportunities. They remain largely invisible at all other times.

Wolf close up
Wolf close up

Brown bears courting near den
Brown bear courtship

Brown bear
Resting up.

European lynx

Wild boar
There are also other animals in the forest including these wild boar



© Copyright Ophrys Photography 2012