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
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
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.