With the weather unable to makeup its mind at the moment, I decided to stay at home
and write this piece in the warm rather than sit it out in a cold, flapping and vulnerable
canvas hide. If I go back next weekend, and find a heavy branch on my seat and a
gaping hole in the roof, it wouldn’t be the first time. It’s safer here.
A quick flick through recent images offered the opportunity to compare two approaches
to achieving the same kind of pictures and each has its own advantages. On both occasions
the morning had started in misty mood, conditions that I really enjoy. The mist scatters
light, and with few shadows and soft focus backgrounds, beautifully subtle palettes
can be achieved.
The first two images were taken at RSPB Middleton hall. Both were taken freehand
with long lenses, a clear departure from what has become my usual, preferred technique
of shooting remotely. Laurence and I were just wandering around seeing and enjoying
whatever we came across and preferring to waste some time with these comparatively
common small birds (female stonechat above and male reed bunting below) while others
concentrated on long-distant rarity recognition. I think of this as hunting my subjects,
whereas, wrapped up inside my hide, it definitely feels a lot more like trapping
them into a picture. As always with the longer lens, and despite getting some perfectly
good and much closer frame fillers, I found myself drawn to these two more remote
images. The colours in the top image are very easy on the eye and coupled with the
stance of the bird more than make up for her less striking plumage. All the colours,
in bird, background and perch are completely in tune with each other.
The reed bunting image below attracts me for two reasons. The bird is partially hidden
by foliage, an effect that always makes an image appear more natural and harder won.
It gives the same sense of being down there with the bird rather than at a distance
observing it that I get from my camera hides. Fortuitously I seem to have achieved
a very similar effect to that generated by one of those old fashioned soft surround
filters that wedding photographers swore by in the seventies, with all the surrounding
vegetation out of focus and the central cameo containing the bird, sharp.
I say fortuitously but I firmly believe that photographers (and viewers) do themselves
down at times by putting results down to luck rather than judgement. Just because
it didn’t register at the time, doesn’t mean your eye did not see it or that your
brain did not act on what it saw. In the end, successful composition creates a picture
that is pleasing on the eye. Ergo, if the image is pleasing on the eye, you press
the button. You don’t have to provide written evidence that your subconscious made
a note of the reasons for its pleasing appearance. That is the art of it.
A few days later I was back at the farm, ensconced in my rather damp and cold hide
awaiting the arrival of a watery sun to break through the mist. I had moved the camera
to point out into the field towards a fallen branch close to which, I had deposited
a couple of hens eggs (one broken) and some cheap mince and a bit of corn. I was
hoping to attract crows and maybe the buzzard again, but it seems to me that the
more birds I can get to visit the site the better, whatever species they may be,
so I threw down some corn as well. I have just realised after all this time, that
the most successful way to attract your chosen subjects is to create interest and
activity in the right place. Obviously we do that with food, but I could never understand
how high flying or less common birds might stumble upon what are often insignificant
food items. How do yellowhammers find odd fallen grains of corn? How do buzzards
find my little pile of bait in a territory that might cover many square miles?
It was the jays back in the wood that initially provided the answer. They don’t look
for food, they let the much commoner and harder working squirrels find it for them
and then home in on the activity. The problem I had there was that although the jays
would come down for the peanuts that the squirrels had found, the squirrels were
eating me out of house and home while I was waiting for them. I started putting out
cheap mince among the peanuts and eventually, although they ignored it for a long
time, the jays started eating that. Then, I could save the peanuts and just put out
the mince which the squirrels wouldn’t touch. Now I found the jays attracted the
interest of crows, magpies and ultimately buzzards. Even blackbirds have a taste
Here at the farm, I put out corn which quickly attracted the pheasants who are constantly
patrolling all the hedgelines for food. Jays and crows joined in and although I haven’t
managed to capture them using the slr, the camera trap has caught jackdaws, foxes
and badgers as well. The corn now sees a regular traffic in yellowhammers and reed
buntings as well, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise this morning when among the
first visitors to the mince was a hare! Obviously it wasn’t eating it, but it came
to this one small exact spot in a 20 acre field to see if there was anything it should
know about food wise. There was little there that it fancied, so I only managed a
couple of frames.
Unfortunately (?) it then wandered right past the hide, into the copse and made itself
a form right next to where I was hidden. I had nothing with me inside the hide to
photograph it with, and in fact even opening the hide a fraction to do so would probably
have scared it off. Instead I watched it go to sleep fifteen feet away and it stayed
there for over four hours. Every thirty minutes or so, it would wake up and have
a scratch, performing all manner of photogenic actions that I could only watch in
frustration while my pre-positioned camera was pointing at more pheasants.
That was problem enough, but eventually, I wanted to go home. Opening the hide and
scaring the hare off would have been foolish and just about the best way to ensure
that it never came near it again. I had to find a way to disturb it from somewhere
else, so I climbed out of the back and crawled away, always keeping the hide between
me and the hare, under the hedge and into the next field. Once I deemed myself far
enough away for it not to connect my presence to the hide, I stood up and started
whistling on my way back across the field. Sure enough, it cantered off long before
I got back, and subsequent camera trap footage shows that at least one hare is still
visiting the copse.
I used to enjoy that sort of thing, but these days it just hurts, but then the harder
you try and the more it hurts, the luckier you get. It will just have to hurt I guess.