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Friday, 31 December 2010

Looking ahead to 2011

2011 will be another year of mainly UK based photography. I'd like to venture further afield when the time comes (in particular with a safari trip in 2012 and also one or two other smaller excursions), but until finances permit, I'm going to stick with the UK.

Here's what I've lined up for the first few months of the year:
  • Ardingly Reservoir (herons)
  • Hickling Broad (cranes, owls, raptors)
  • Isle of Mull (otters, raptors)
  • Jersey (tbd, but there seems to be plenty of choice)
  • Oare Marshes (wildfowl)
  • RSPB Elmley Marshes (owls, harriers)
  • RSPB Havergate Island (hares)
  • RSPB Northward Hill (herons)
  • Rutland Water (opsrey)
  • Wembury (rock pools)
 As in 2010, I'm using these two books as the main resource for identifying new locations:
Both of these books are marvelous, and I'd recommend them both to anyone looking for wildlife destinations in the UK.

Intended new species to photograph this year include:
  • Otters
  • Salmon (leaping)
  • Osprey (that is, UK based Osprey)
  • Owls other than Barn Owls (but Barn Owls also ;-))
  • Marine Arthropods
  • Hares
  • Cranes
Not sure if I will be able to fit this all in. After all a couple of things on this list were on my list for last year. But I'll give it a go.

In terms of competitions, last year I did OK in the British Wildlife Photography awards, so I'll be entering again this year. I'll also enter Wildlife Photographer of the Year (for what it's worth), and maybe the Outdoor Photographer of the Year competition too.

In terms of kit, 2011 should bring the highly anticipated D4 and D400. I'll certainly be buying the D400, and if any kind of D700 refresh/replacement appears (rumored for early 2011), that will also be worth a close look. I'll also take a look at any 80-400mm AF-S replacement - although this would mainly be from the point of view of taking it on safari in 2012. Other than that, I don't expect to be buying large amounts of gear like in previous years - I'm pretty much all set.

As I write this, it's dull and gray outside, and if it is anything like last year it will stay like that pretty much for the next 3 months. I'll be honest, I'd rather be lining up some trips to sunnier climes. I begin 2011 looking forward more to 2012 instead of the coming year. Not long now.

    Thursday, 30 December 2010

    My 2010 Top Five

    In this post I'll review my favourite 5 shots from 2010.

    In reverse order then...

    5. Blue Eyed Lizard. D700 + 200mm f4 micro @ f/5.6, ISO 1600, 1/180th.

    Photographing lizards using a macro lens is great fun - it's basically macro photography without the hassle of short working distances and slow shutter speeds.

    Even for smaller Lizards, 1:3 is already plenty of magnification, and working distances are measured in feet rather than inches. I've found that as long as you don't make any sudden movements, or approach to quickly, it's easy to photograph these creatures while keeping well outside their circle of fear.

    It's also not really necessary to stop down very far when photographing Lizards as compared to insects - some people may prefer a little more depth of field, but to my taste as long as at least the whole head and some of the body is in focus that's fine. Their tails are so long anyway that to get the whole animal in focus it would have to obligingly lie pencil straight while you photographed it side on (=a bit boring anyway). This shot was taken at f/5.6, which made it easy to shoot hand held, even in the shade.

    This chap was sitting on a log near the front door of our chalet in Antigua. If you look closely (click the image for a larger version), you'll see that his eye is a rather striking blue colour. It's such a shame there are so few Lizards in the UK (although common lizards can still be found on heathland like Thursley Common).

    4. Damselflies Mating. D300 + 200mm f4 micro @ f/8, ISO 200, 1/500th.

    This shot of Damselflies mating was shortlisted for the British Wildlife Photography Awards in 2010, and that's why I've included it in my top five. To be honest though, I have to admit that I only entered it to make up the numbers (you're allowed a fixed amount of entries for your entry fee). Personally I think it's a bit boring (after all, there are hundreds of pictures like this one on the internet). But there you go, there's no accounting for taste!

    One thing I'd like to mention is that this shot (like all my macro efforts) was taken hand held. You will often read on the internet that it is not possible to shoot macro without a tripod. My opinion is that this is simply wrong, as it is largely based on the incorrect assumptions that cameras only shoot noise free at their base ISO, and that all macro should be done of an aperture or around f/16. Try it out - set your ISO to 800 and your aperture at f/8 and walk around a pond on a sunny day taking "snaps" - you'll get a lot more shots than you would have gotten dragging a bloody great tripod around. Hint: insects don't stick around for tripods.

    3. Gull with his Lunch. D300 + 500mm f4 VR @ f/4, ISO 400, 1/3200th

    Oftentimes, you don't get what you came for. This was taken on a morning standing on Chanonry Point in the Moray Firth in Scotland. We were there to photograph Dolphins, but there wasn't much action that day.

    This gull though was looking for lunch on the shoreline, and when he found it he did something interesting with it. What he is doing here is dropping a shell from a height of about 40 feet onto the pebbles below to break it. It took him a few drops to smash the shell open, so it was possible to get more than one chance at getting the bird and the shell (mid-drop) in the frame at the same time.

    2. Dragonfly. D3100 + 300mm f4 AF-S @ f/5.6, ISO 400, 1/2500th.

    This shot was taken near Devil's Bridge in Antigua. It was very windy, and the Dragonfly kept taking of a re-perching every few seconds. Even when he landed, his perch would sway around wildly. To avoid any motion blur, I upped the ISO a bit - but it wasn't necessary to go any higher than 400 - it's so nice to be able to work with plenty of sunshine (not something we get a lot of in the UK)!

    The background is one of my favorite aspects of this shot. It's a complete fluke, of course - most of the time you have to accept what's available when it come's to backgrounds - but this fella decided to perch on a tall free-standing twig about 5 feet in front of a large green bush. Perfect.

    1. Humming Bird. D3100 + 300mm f4 AF-S + 1.4x TC @ f/8, ISO 1600, 1/1250th.

    This is one a a large number (perhaps hundreds) of shots of hummingbirds taken from the balcony of our chalet in Antigua. A good 90%+ of these hundreds of images had to be thrown away, the main reason being that they were out of focus, or that they contained only part of a hummingbird - these birds move incredibly quickly (and erratically).

    I like the sharpness of the focus, the slight movement in the wings, and the clean blue background, but mainly the lighting. As luck would have it, these hummingbirds were most active at sunset, when the light is at it's best. Our balcony was also just at the right angle to be able to shoot right until the sun had dipped below the horizon.

    The camera used for this picture, the D3100, has been something of a revelation to me since I bought it in October. The fact that such a small, lightweight, cheap, crop sensor camera body can produce pretty much noise free images at ISO 1600 (as long as the light is good) is amazing and welcome, to say the least. £400 for a camera with a 14MP sensor that is clearly better than the one in the flagship D300? Brilliant.

    So there you go, that's my top five. Hope you enjoyed it.

    In my next post, I'll take a look ahead at the coming year.

    Tuesday, 28 December 2010

    A Look Back at 2010

    As the year draws to a close, it's time to take a look back at the trips I've taken and the wildlife I've seen.

    In this review, I've tried to stick to using shots not previously posted, so most of the following has not been posted before.

    January - March

    Throughout 2010 I have made regular visits to a river in Lincolnshire near to Cath's parents, where a Barn Owl can, almost without fail, be seen hunting at dusk. I'll keep visiting in 2011!

    Ardingly Reservoir is pretty reliable for Herons nesting in the early part of the year. I may visit Ardingly again in 2011 (it is not far from where I live), but RSPB Northward Hill apparently has over a hundred mating Heron pairs, so that will also be on my list for 2011.

    In March I visited Poole for a few days, with a view to photographing red squirrels on Brownsea Island. As is often the case in the UK, the weather did not cooperate, and I only managed a few hours of photography, with the rest of the time being spent sitting out the rain in a Premier Inn.

    This year, I've learned that wildlife photography in the UK can be pretty tough. You have to contend with:
    • the weather 
      • this makes it very difficult to plan around your day job. In the whole of January, February and March, for example, you may only get a few days of decent light, which also coincide with a weekend
    • the scarcity of wildlife 
      • outside Scotland at least, much of our wildlife appears in isolated pockets - to see a Red Squirrel for example, I need to either drive 1000 miles north, or go south and get on a boat to Brownsea or the Isle of Wight
    • the fact that most of the wildlife (especially birds) is: 
      • small (= big, expensive, heavy lens needed), 
      • skittish (ditto, and also some stealth and a lot of patience) and 
      • oftentimes nocturnal. 
    Recently, in two weeks in Antigua, I managed to take more decent wildlife photos than I had taken in the preceding six months in the UK - and most of them were taken from the balcony of our chalet! From a balcony in Antigua I can photograph more wildlife than in, say, the whole of Surrey (where I live). Madness! 

    April - June

    In May to took a week off work and traveled to Cambridgeshire and Norfolk. At Wicken Fen I sought out Cuckoos. It was some time before one perched obligingly within camera range - but on the final day I took this:

    From Wicken Fen I moved on to RSPB Minsmere on the east coast of Norfolk:

    And later in May, I visited Stodmarsh. There are always Marsh Harriers to be seen at Stodmarsh, and this was the main purpose for the visit - but there are also Marsh Frogs!

    July - September

    In August, we visited Scotland. At Chanonry point on the Moray Firth, we saw dolphins approaching the shore.

    On our first morning there, I spotted this gull hovering over the shingle, dropping shells from a height to crack them open.

    This next shot was taken at the river in Lincolnshire where I often see a barn owl.

    In September I visited a wildlife photography workshop run by Chris Weston. What a lovely chap he is (but I wish he would stop his workshops at Donna Nook). This particular workshop was held at Wildlife Heritage Foundation in Kent, where a variety of big cats are kept for captive breeding programs. We were shooting through cage walls but it didn't matter at all - to be able to get this close was something special.

    October - December

    In October I visited the other of the two islands in the south where there are red squirrels (the first being Brownsea). Generally, this is a better place to see the reds - simply because there is a larger population. On the other hand, the main site there, Parkhurst Forest, is infested with dog walkers. This really makes photographing here no fun at all. The squirrels keep away from the dogs, which means to photograph them you also need to stay away from the dogs. Easier said than done with that many dogs present!

    I still need to find an ideal place to photograph these squirrels. Perhaps in 2011 I will try Formby, in the north west of England, where the population is said to be recovering again after being hit by a recent virus outbreak.

    Most of my wildlife photography in the latter part of 2010 was done during our two weeks in Antigua. This came as a real surprise - I really did not anticipate the sheer numbers of Osprey, Lizards, Butterflies, Dragonflies, Mongeese, etc. that we'd see. I packed a few lenses for the trip on the off chance that I might visit a nature reserve - I'm really glad I did, and in the end there was really no need to go looking for a reserve!

    This trip has really got me thinking that I need to get out of the UK more to see more wildlife. For various reasons, in 2011 this will not be possible - but from 2012 onwards, I hope to start taking trips to Africa and elsewhere.

    This has been my first full year of wildlife photography - I think it has been a good year, and I hope you have enjoyed this review. Most of the trips I've mentioned have their own related posts, so to see more, take a look at my recent post list.

    In the next post, I'll review my favorite images from the last year.

    Thursday, 2 December 2010

    Antigua - part 3

    This is the final installment of photos from the Caribbean. First up, some shots taken during a boat trip to neighboring island Barbuda.

    Barbuda is home to a Frigate Bird colony. It was very gloomy weather when we visited the colony, so it wasn't possible to use longer lenses - this wide angle shot though gives an idea of the number of birds present - thousands!

    The gloomy weather preceded a storm - minutes before the rain came, I got these two from the beach:

    Literally two minutes after taking this shot, the sky opened (we got drenched). The weather is like this out there though - an hour later it was hot and sunny again!

    Earlier this year, I had an idea to try and photograph Salmon leaping upstream, but abandoned the idea as it sounded like it would just be too difficult to pick them off mid-leap as it were. Having got the following shot, I might change my mind about that:

    This next one is a coral reef - it was taken during a helicopter trip we took around the island.

    And finally, a dragonfly taken using not a macro lens but my 300mm f4 AF-S.

    We've come home to a slightly different climate:

    ...but come the weekend that should provide some photographic opportunities of its own!