NATURE

All images ©ericweight 2015

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I was reminded today, by a chance encounter, of how much my view of wildlife photography and photographers has changed in the last few years. The chap I was chatting to expressed his admiration for the single-minded dedication of professional wildlife photographers, spending long, lonely hours in the field to get the photographs that he so admired.

Way back, when I first felt the urge to photograph wildlife, that was the romantic picture that I had in my head as well. It was the path that I wanted to follow too, as my love of nature is and always has been generated by the respect I have for the way that wildlife knuckles down and just does what it does, irrespective of the many trials that life throws at it. That respect has always been keenly felt because I have always been 'out there' and 'in there', up close and as personal as I can get with it. I have never enjoyed anything more than being outdoors and watching, feeling, enduring and surviving the fresh air and weather that moulds the lives of all creatures other than, increasingly, man. I like to join in with and experience nature at close quarters rather than just watch it all vicariously through glass.

I would rather be soaked to the skin trying to photograph moorhens, than watch snow leopards on the telly, or photograph hares through the car window. That doesn't mean I wouldn't do either of those things, but they would certainly be a half-hearted diversion before I could get back out there again.

There are wildlife photographers who still sit in the mud for days, but not many, and the vast majority of those stunning images that we all see so often now are more likely the result of an internet search and a visit to somebody else's commercial hide or a well established hotspot. Whatever lights your candle, I suppose.

This year on Mull, both Laurence and I spent a lot of time waiting. We waited and we were in turns, soaked and blown dry by warm atlantic gales, but it was glorious. Tedious occasionally, what in life is never occasionally tedious, but gloriously fulfilling and supremely satisfying.

Laurence was working hard to capture his own sea eagle images, ones that weren't taken from a boat, of birds coming for their daily official feed, and he succeeded. Without a doubt he is the best true wildlife photographer I have ever met.

Following his cue, I had a more 'mundane' raptor in my sights. Buzzards are everywhere these days, but setting out to photograph them is a nightmare. Mull has an enormous population of buzzards but just like everywhere else, they sit atop their look out posts, and fly just as the car brake lights go on or on good days, just as the window goes down. A few rubbish overhead flight shots is virtually all I have ever managed. I have built hides before, I have staked out a veritable graveyard of dead pigeons and rabbits with diabolical results, but this year I decided to redouble my efforts if the chance came my way.

It did. By the end of the second week, we had established two potential sites that might produce the goods in the two days remaining. One would probably, given enough time, offer chances at sea eagles and otters. The other, a delightful scenario, had potential for hooded crows, and buzzards, with remote chances for ravens and golden eagles. Laurence went for the former and I chose the rancid, rotting sheep carcass dissolving ever so slowly into a mountain stream. Don't ever try and tell me I don't deserve some of my pictures, these would be well-earned.

So, day one, I arrived at first light to scout the scene. I needed a good view, a seat thirty metres away would make me less intrusive even if that would require a longer lens (I could go to 600mm if needed) and maybe some cropping. That was a problem immediately, there were no likely looking rocks or trees to hide amongst, just bracken and without scything down acres of it, fifteen metres would be as far away as I could get and still have a sensible view. Given the x-ray vision possessed by crows and raptors, succeeding while sitting that close to the bait would require so-far unachieved levels of concealment and immobility. With my holiday running out, I became pretty single-minded about it. I picked my spot, looking down the slope against a background of bracken and grass rather then up it against sunshine and sky which would give horrible contrast problems.

Shooting uphill is a seriously uncomfortable nightmare, a recipe for neck pain, headaches and impossible camera angles, but shooting down the slope which is much more comfortable has its own problems as I quickly discovered. Sitting on a rubber kneeling mat as I always do was fine to start with but as time went by, and with the slope lubricated by regular showers, it started slipping down the slope. Digging my heels in worked for a while, but as the ground became wetter and more disturbed, the whole thing became untenable.

My bag hide has become a favourite tool, but its effectiveness is reduced by the weather as well. It clings badly when wet. It is fine if you don't move, but the more you do, the more claustrophobic and difficult it becomes. Sitting on it or trapping the edges under a tripod leg, can seriously restrict your movement and comfort. While the weather was dry, it worked ok, hiding my shape in the shadows beneath the bracken. Unfortunately, the more it rained, the heavier the bracken became, bending low and sinking to the ground, gradually revealing me as a soggy, miserable lump sticking up like a sore thumb.

Early on, I had some success. The first visitor, a hooded crow stayed for a minute or two, and a buzzard came down and fed for ten minutes or more. I was sitting close enough to use my 300 mm lens, so getting those first pictures was an enormous improvement on anything I had achieved previously and I should have been happy with that, but there were problems that needed to be overcome, so I packed early.

It would have been easy to stop there. The stink was pretty awful, pictures were in the can and all seemed well, but this is the world of wildlife photography and rule one is, ‘whatever can go wrong, will go wrong’. Later back at home on the big screen, it would become apparent, that going back for a second day whilst being monotonous at the time was the right thing to do. Stray grasses, poor camouflage, and inadequate light had conspired to make the images I took on the first day disappointing. It is too easy to get carried away with apparent successes and be guilty of not concentrating hard enough on what you are doing. The 100 images I took on the second day were, every one of them, at least half as good again as those I had taken on the first.

I detest tripods to be honest. They are too heavy and cumbersome, but their biggest drawback is that they restrict spontaneous photography. If something happens behind you, you have to run right around the tripod to face the other way. Similarly you cannot quickly shoot lower or higher. Leaving mine at home was my greatest leap forward. In circumstances like these however, I grudgingly admit their usefulness. With subjects always appearing in a small, given space, the camera can always be facing in the right direction. With super spooky, x ray sighted subjects like crows and raptors, lifting the camera to one's eye is a dead giveaway, but the tripod never gets tired arms and is always holding it up ready.

There is a camouflage advantage as well. The bag hide or net covering it is fixed and easily dressed with local materials which won't fall off. Unfortunately the same can't be said for the part of the bag hide covering the photographer. It can't be dressed easily from inside and every time he moves stuff falls off, which apart from anything else draws even more attention to his presence. Moving about too much is a major problem, especially for someone Iike myself who is a hopeless fidget. Comfort is essential, and I was in agony because my seat was on a slope and unstable.

I had, in fact still have, camera issues too. The 5D2 is great, but the shutter is noisy. No worse than any of its contemporaries, but woeful when compared with Laurence's newer mk 3. It really is like throwing a brick in a bucket every time one takes a picture. It costs me a lot of chances. One more issue to overcome then because it was very obvious that both the buzzard and the crow became very twitchy as soon as I started taking pictures.

In the afternoon I returned, not with the camera, but just to prepare and repair my shooting position. Laurence had lent me a folding shovel. A brilliant piece of kit which within two minutes, I had used to cut a platform into the ground, sloping slightly backwards that would stop my cushion's progress down the slope. Four stout sticks cut from a sycamore made a framework that would carry a camo net just above and down behind me. This, I dressed with a few bracken stalks and leaves threaded through the mesh so that even if I wriggled about inside my bag hide to get a better shot or just to ease the cramp, none of it would fall off. Everything was tied tightly in place with re-usable cable ties.

Now I was ready and the next morning, even before it got light, I had the tripod set up, the bag hide in place and everything covered with bracken. A little tidying of the sight line from lens to subject to make sure that no stray grass heads would spoil the pictures as they had from the previous day's efforts and I was ready. Comfortable and ready.

I cured my shutter noise problems by using the live view option. When activated the mirror is locked up and exposure is virtually silent. Watching the subject live on the lcd screen was easy and meant that I didn't need to lean forward to see through the viewfinder. It wouldn't work with mobile subjects anywhere near so easily, but with the picture composed and the tripod/ballhead locked off, it was perfect. In fact focussing was if anything more accurate because the view could be magnified 5 or 10 times to check. It has to be manual although that doesn't bother me. The buzzard visited twice and stayed for at least fifteen minutes each time, something that I can't ever remember happening before with any subject. Best of all, it was utterly unaffected by shutter noise and only left once it had eaten its fill. In fact I ran out of pictures to take. Further visits might have got two buzzards or some interaction, maybe different species, but for the first time in my life, I had a very difficult subject in front of me and captured every image presented to me.

The accompanying pictures speak for how well things worked out, but pictures aside, I had a fine time sitting out on a Scottish hillside in all weathers watching difficult and interesting subjects at close quarters. More than anything, I learned a whole raft of important lessons about effort, preparation, hide making, the importance of minimising shutter noise.

To persevere and refine, be single-minded and thorough before moving on to the next subject, were important lessons learned. Maybe now, I will be able to spend more time concentrating on one subject at a time instead of looking for places where a large variety of wildlife passes by. Those early aspirations of mine to stay close to and study my subjects in detail looks a lot more feasible now.

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