There is more to being a nature lover than putting food out for the blue tits or
admiring a wood full of bluebells. Once you are tuned in, there is something to see
everywhere. I am not sure that human beings are as aware of what is around them as
they must have once been. Living technology-filled lives in towns and cities separates
us from the environment that we once relied on directly. Today, although we still
rely on it, our interest is several steps removed from nature.
Many of us are interested in it, but because it is in a leisure capacity rather than
a subsistence one, I don’t believe we are as aware of it in the same way. As a photographer,
I do rely on it for much of my income, but even that is not the same. What observing
nature through the viewfinder does do though is isolate small pieces of the grand
view and once your eye becomes used to that you will ‘see’ more of what you are looking
Wildlife photography is much to do with planning but as always, my plans seldom play
out as I expect them too. Loz and I went back to the welsh hills, both intent on
securing some nice images of redstarts. So far we have only ever achieved distant
images, but it was close-ups that we really hoped for. The redstart is probably one
of the most beautiful birds in Britain and like everything else declining as we resolutely
destroy everything they need to survive, from ancient oak woodlands to insect populations.
Maybe I am losing my touch. I find it harder and harder to get those close-up pictures
these days. At this site alone, I have taken large numbers of unsatisfactory pictures
of dippers, flycatchers and redstarts. I get images, but they are rarely as satisfying
as I was once used to getting. My focus has shifted somewhat and as I have started
to ‘see’ more through the viewfinder, my attention has wandered to the environment
itself at the expense of the more usual and sadly more commercial detail.
Up in the hills, the landscape is huge. It is majestic and expansive and I am not
tuned in to making pictures that show vast swathes of it. I am no landscape photographer.
It may just be because my eyesight works better at distance, but what I can see quite
readily are patterns at distance. Not harsh graphic lines of shadows through the
railings, but the subtle tones of green and brown and grey that nature is predominantly
The remarkable thing about natural patterns and what you might call organic, natural
design is that it is never static. Human design pretty much is set in stone. We design
a cement mixer or a tv and it looks the same until its useful life is ended. These
two images of a tree clad hillside may appear random, they are not, they are carefully
composed. Not only do they select a section of the landscape containing many delicate
and attractive colours and tones, they are a product of the time that they were taken.
Spring and Autumn are key seasons for my photography. Winter is good, summer is miserable
most of the time between 8am and 8 pm because the light is so naff.
Spring and autumn don’t just offer better light, but these are the times of the year
when life is coming into the world and going out of it. The trees all break into
leaf at slightly different times for example and these two images would not look
the same in two weeks time, or even in ten minutes time. In the short term, the light
changes and the wind blows, in the longer term, the leaves change colour and the
fresh colours turn harder and become less appealing.
Compositionally, I selected this area of woodland in the image above for colour and
because there is a line of leafless trees that meander from bottom left, up through
the frame and across to the opposite side before tailing away in the top right corner.
It leads the eye nicely through the image. The image on the right was composed to
put the dark conifers on the top left third and to balance them with the green conifer
on the bottom right.
At a casual glance these are just two snapshots of trees on a hillside, but I see
why that works and did so at the time. It is the difference between casually looking,
and seeing with the eye of a photographer that composes these images in this way.
It is the difference between casually looking, and seeing with the eye of an outdoorsman
that even noticed something worth remembering in an image. Of course you may not
like them, but that is another matter altogether.
Incidentally as an example of how quickly nature’s design changes, the silvery coloured
tree on the left side was yellow green just three frames earlier. All it took was
a gust of wind to light it up in silver.
At the moment I am only carrying one 300mm lens for everything. I can add or subtract
convertors when I need to and for the vast majority of the time in the field it has
the 1.4 attached making it 420mm. With its 6 ft focussing distance,I find this short
enough to pick out detail and long enough to capture reasonably small birds without
having to crop the image to death. It is also short enough to allow multiple subjects
into the frame and increases my chances of capturing images of moving subjects.
Using a long telephoto for environment images flattens the picture, reducing any
impression of depth within it. The more two dimensional feel created making the pictures
more painting-like. We all know that a photograph or a painting is two dimensional,
but usually the artist strives to disguise that fact. By accepting it and using it,
more emphasis is placed on the colours and patterns within the frame. It is more
natural as well, because although we have stereoscopic vision at distance, the angle
of view between our eyes is dramatically reduced, so distant views are two dimensional
in reality. It is not until we introduce a foreground element that distance becomes
In fact I would argue that it is the wide-angle dramatic foreground photography style
that is unnatural. Modern landscape photography tends towards the overly-dramatic.
It is a style developed with the aid of digital technology in which small foreground
pebbles can become huge rocks because they are so close to the camera and skies become
overly dramatic and often bizarrely coloured through the over-use of filters. HDR
is used constantly to garner every hidden detail and then the image is over-sharpened
to the point where it no longer looks real. Nature is soft and fluffy, its colours
are usually muted and its whole reality is generally subtle. By overly exaggerating
the everyday in this way, the real dramatic moment is lost in a sea of artificially
over-cooked images. It is the modern way to demonstrate that everything in one’s
life is amazing and incredible even when it isn’t . Incredible and amazing seem to
be replacing beautiful, subtle and under-stated. We are becoming divorced from the
reality that exists all around us in an effort to impress.
I am well aware that this piece has taken on the feel of a rant, but it is not intended
to be. I am merely trying to draw attention to a more gentle, more peaceful view
of nature and I hope that my pictures reflect this. While you could argue that these
backlit images are dramatic, they are because they were. This is how they looked
and that drama is enhanced simply by placing them close to those subtly coloured
treescapes at the top of the page.
We went to photograph birds and most of my favourite pictures are once more, small,
closely observed cameos from the landscape. There is a moral here I guess, the photographs
that I wasn’t planning to take are the best because they were inspired by what I
saw, not by what I was expecting to see or hoping to take. Good or bad, nothing is
as interesting when you were expecting it.