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
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
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
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 !
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....
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
Here is a normal grey squirrel for comparison...
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.
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
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:
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
Brown bear courtship
There are also other animals in the forest including these wild