Investigating Birds

My first Pictures

Greater Flamingos, 1984

These two photographs of Greater Flamingos were taken in the Carmargue region of Southern France long ago in the summer of 1984.

Throughout university I had played in a Punk Rock band, the ‘Titantic Survivors’, then after graduation I sold my guitar, bought myself a Canon A1 and a 500mm mirror lens and a rusty Renault 16 and headed southward with 16 rolls of film.

As consequence I made 576 exposures and these were the only two that were any good! I gave up on thoughts of a Ph.D., (I’d had enough of Badgers) and decided to focus on wildlife photography.

You see the two photographs were taken on the same roll a few frames apart in the space of half an hour in the same spot and they are of course of the same subject. With so little scope for difference I was amazed at the stark contrast between the two images; the blue photograph shows a perfect mirror for the ice blue sky, the Flamingos timidly fleeing my inquisitive lens. They appear to be walking through a minimalist dream.

The other photograph taken into the sun, slightly earlier, with the wind ruffling the birds feathers and breaking the surface of the water and all of those irritating do-nuts cascading up to the horizon is a high key image, and it couldn’t be more different from the former. Please forgive this one dalliance into pretension when I say that I was, at that naïve and impressionist age, aware that if I were able to master the art of photography I would be able to paint with light. These days I consider both of the pictures to be a little “cheesy”, but nevertheless I retain a soft spot for them in my album.

If you are a budding bird or wildlife photographer may I take this opportunity of offering you one genuine piece of advice. Don’t bother to compete with us. You see there are a lot of well equipped and experienced photographers who are producing extraordinarily good pictures virtually every day. It will take you years of effort to gain that experience required to create similar things.

My advice is this, embrace life’s most important rule and avoid competition at all costs. Carve a niche for yourself or explore one in which few others are active and immediately enhance your chances of success by simple probability alone. Develop an ability and some style in that niche and you will not fail. Use Darwin’s theory of natural selection to envolve into a new species of wildlife photographer.

Fly Agaric mushrooms

When I first started I took the photograph above. It shows a group of Fly Agaric mushrooms sprouting from the corner of the road whilst my stiletto heeled girlfriend walked by. Now, you will realise I’m sure that these toadstools don’t normally sprout from tarmac, they grow under coniferous trees or birch glades in autumn. I placed them there on nails that I had driven between the curb stones. Furthermore since their white spots had been washed off by the rain I piped new ones on using my Mother’s cake icing set!

Then I lit the whole thing with a Tungsten lamp and took innumerable exposures on a freezing October evening. I presented this photograph to a number of prestigious magazines who all laughed it out the door! You see, at that time surrealist wildlife photography albeit a novel and new niche, was beyond the tolerance of those in charge of our art. I wonder what they would make of it now?

Developing a new style or a new technique is never easy, if it were we’d all be geniuses, but it’s important that you keep your eyes and your mind open to all kinds of visual experience. Borrow ideas and styles of approach from the established art movements, look at, examine and criticise as many photographs as possible, not just those of wild life subjects. If your taste is Impressionism then try to replicate that approach in your own style. Transform pin sharp record shots into into beautifully lit unsharp shapes alluding to a visual recollection of how you personally see a subject. If abstraction is top of your pops, then start by cropping tight on any subject, concentrate on the shape of it’s fur, the pattern or colouring of it scales or feathers. Or maybe go for still life, like the dead Tawny Owl you see below.

Dead Tawny OwlI have always liked this feathered fossil as it reminds me of an Archaeopteryx in the making, but the key to the photographs success, if you consider that it has any, is in the lighting - lots of reflected light, intense depth of field, pin sharp detail of all of it’s tiny feathers covered in dust.

It may take you months or it may take you years but if you are constantly aware of your desire to separate yourself from your peers, with a bit of luck one day you’ll achieve this objective and set new trends and standards in wildlife photography.

Origins of Mediocrity

It is a constant source of disappointment to me that wildlife photography still fails to achieve a place in the pantheon of mainstream art photography.

Portraits, landscapes, nudes and news all find gallery space but our trade is marginalized to shows which accompany competitions and hang in the more provincial halls. Why is this?

Well, in the very earliest days of photography primitive equipment and fickle film hampered photographing anything that moved, but soon a few pioneers were inventing their own solutions to wildlife problems. The 1890’s saw new “instantaneous” pictures using the dry plate process and by the early 1900’s the rich and titled were indulging themselves on opulent photographic safaris throughout Africa.

Martin and Osa Johnson thought nothing of carrying innumerable cameras, thousands of pounds worth of lenses, chartering an aeroplane each and hiring 130 bearers. Such snappers were frequently snapped at themselves and heroic stories of lion, lepeard and elephant encounters fill a bevy of dusty old safari photo books. And here I think is the root of the problem – romanticism.

Photography was born in an age of romance but wildlife photography has only recently begun to struggle out of it. The incredible stamina needed by pioneering photographers to get close to and then record a wild subject was, indeed is, interesting. These days, however, everything is much easier, yet how many times do you read of suffering or endless patience or great good fortune in a wildlife photo caption. It’s as if that in itself is a prerequisite for good photography.

Captions too take up as much space on the page as photos themselves. What a shame, all of this hiding behind a cloud of ‘cleverer-than-thou’ romantic nonsense meant that the world’s richest aesthetic resource was damned to illustrative reportage.

For many years I have had the pleasure to have a close association with the BBC’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year, first as an entrant and latterly as a Judge, and this has afforded me the opportunity to see first-hand many of the world’s best wildlife photographers’ work. I’ll be honest, some are immensely disappointing, but by the time the final stages of each competition is reached the quality of the photographs is simply extraordinary.

The pictures defy any need for a caption at all in my books, they speak for themselves as amazing documents of incredibly beautiful aspects of our natural world, and there is no doubt at all that many of the world’s top practitioners clearly bridge the divide between reportage or illustrative picture makings and that of true art. I don’t think that it is our photographs which are the problem, I think it is the way we present and package them to the public.

It’s time we dispensed with the gung-ho glory of their recording and allowed people to judge them for what they are. At their best they are and beautifully crafted pictures, the work of artists and occasionally that of true genius.

Artistic Licence and Absolute Fraud!

Given the above views it won’t surprise you that I am a person who thinks that the picture should speak for itself and as a consequence will go to almost any length to achieve artistic perfection in that picture. That length is really only restricted by my intense and unfaltering regard for the welfare and ecology of my subjects. By photographing them I consider that I am exploiting them, so whether they are a leopard, a blue tit or a beetle I will diligently ensure that their health and well being are not compromised. However, for one reason or another photographs are sometimes less than entirely truthful in being a record of undisturbed nature.

The photograph here shows five Hedge Sparrows eggs in their nest. These little brown skulking birds have a pretty twitter of a song but are quite average until you pull back the brambles to find the little hairlined cup they use as a nest. A few years ago utilizing my schoolboy bird-nesting skills I set out to find such a nest to make this photograph, but unfortunately all those I found were in impossible positions to photograph. As a consequence what you see here is in fact a replica of my ideal, a piece of artistic licence. In actual fact these are duck’s eggs sprayed with car paint and laid on a tray under a tent of tracing paper to soften the daylight entering through my dining room window.

Now, I could have lied. I could have told you the picture was of Dunnock’s eggs in a musty English hedgerow lit by rays of early spring sunshine. By why? Whilst it’s not a great picture, and certainly not great art, it did completely fulfil my vision when I set out to achieve it.

My object was to reproduce reality in a two dimensional form, to produce a work that would celebrate a tiny fraction of that reality, to transcend the snap shot and produce a picture of nature. I believe the photograph should be judged by its success in this sphere alone, not by its caption.

Nightingale

In the second photograph I fear that even for the most relaxed photographers I will have firmly “crossed the line”. What you see here is a picture of a Nightingale bursting into full song, deep in a hedgerow, or rather you don’t.

Many years ago when I was writing my first series of books I’d completed a section on Nightingales, but obviously didn’t have a photograph to accompany it, these birds being so seldom seen and secretive in the U.K.

When the editor requested such a photograph it was November and there was no way that I could photograph a Nightingale – they were all in Africa! But he was adamant that I should supply a picture and I duly delivered.

What you see here is the silhouette of a Nightingale cut from a Cornflakes packet supported on legs made from welding rod and placed into what you will now note is a relatively leafless November Hawthorn bush. The rich orange colouring was by way of a crude plastic filter to give it that summery warmth.

The photograph was duly published alongside my verbose and romantic account of this astonishing little songster, and I never received a single complaint or enquiry about it. Am I ashamed? No, never. No Nightingale was harmed and if you consider my reputation forever tarnished then at least acknowledge my honesty, and at the end of the day note that it was simply a case of ‘job done’.

Golden Eagle

Although accomplished in their aim some pictures are simply not my type of photograph and this shot of a Golden Eagle is just such a case. O.K. it’s dramatic but it symbolises everything that I dislike about most bird photography. The bird is frozen, deathly still, sapped of the motion that makes it’s flight almost a miracle. You never see this in real life because the human eye does not register images of this type.

Besides, how many of us have ever been this close to such a raptor in the wild? As it is the eagle is about to seize it’s prey a few feet from the camera. I’ve seen many Golden Eagles, I’ve watched them wheeling, soaring, swooping in silhouette against far off rock screes and slate-grey Scottish skies, but I’ve never seen the twinkle in their eyes or even the eye itself.

I know of only one photographer who has with any regularity, the extraordinarily gifted Laurie Cambell. You see this photograph has been set up in the studio. The bird was released from the top of a ladder for a steep jump down to a perch baited with food. Sebastian, as he was called, happily performed this ten or twelve times over a couple of nights. I used a 6 x 7 camera and hired a high speed flash unit. Thankfully the client was very pleased with the result.

O.K. from an anatomist’s point of view I suppose it’s quite interesting to see the wings at work, the fanned tail acting as a brake, those talons spanned for a sharp spread of death, and the head thrust forward into the impending action ready to steer the gruesome proceedings. Perhaps most surprising of all though is the length of those legs. Stretching from midway up the chest they are twice as long as you would see them when the bird is perched. Nevertheless I would rather see a poorly lit blur that smells of heather, peat and rain, or one of Laurie’s exceptional images!

Captive Subjects

You might do well not to turn your nose up or your lens away from captive subjects, particularly if you are a beginner in the field of bird photography. There are several reasons for this; looking through a camera at a bird is very different than looking through a pair of binoculars or telescope. When you engage in the latter pursuit you are principally watching aspects of behaviour or merely identifying a species, not in the process of creating a picture.

By means of an exercise the next time you are out birding, looking at something pretty special in nice light, perhaps your favourite bird, just imagine for a second that your binoculars or telescope is a camera. Now, I am almost certain you will notice the ‘picture’ is far from perfect. That piece of grass which runs up along the top of the bird’s wing and ends right in the middle of its eye is inconsequential when it comes to observation but pre-eminently important when it comes to photography.

Thus getting used to looking at birds through a camera, getting used to framing them and recording their moods is something that can well practised with captive animals, and there are a number of suitable sites scattered around the country. I am prepared to vouch for instance for all of the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust collections. Here ducks and geese from all over the world will parade themselves and pause for your photographic perusal, and what’s more they will do it for 364 days of the year for a few pounds!

There are a number of other bird collections, some independent, some associated with major charities and like many old timers in the field there is still nothing as satisfying as coming back with a ‘class’ portrait from one of these establishments.

portrait of the Golden Eagle

I spend a lot of time at the Hawk Conservancy near Andover in Hampshire. Here they house a large collection of raptors and owls in what I consider to be the finest collection of this type in the British Isles.

The portrait of the Golden Eagle is a very simple study. The bird shown is a one-winged cripple that is therefore able to wander it’s enclosure with no need for any wire covering. With the permission of the owners I sat the bird on a perch and carefully tied and clamped around it an array of storm blown Scot’s Pine boughs that I’d brought with me, making sure that the needles on different branches aligned with each other in a naturalistic way. By doing so I managed to frame the bird with a soft background and foreground to create a very pleasing portrait. The photograph of the Peregrine Falcon, fluffed up and cuddly, showing that the bird is comfortable and satisfied, was taken whilst it rested on its block and I made the green suffusion by holding a dense clump of grass in front of my 70 to 200mm lens.

Both the Goshawk and the Merlin were also photographs taken at the Hawk Conservancy. Again I’ve added foliage, a sprig of oak in front of the Goshawk and an array of heather placed neatly around the Merlin. I spent most of my time setting up this foliage without the bird in place, using a cardboard surrogate, and then once again with the kind help of the owners snapped away with the real bird for a minimal period of time. With the Goshawk and the Eagle I took a large neutral green background which I slung over a fence behind them to produce an even clean background.

What is striking is the difference in mood between the Goshawk and the Merlin. The Goshawk is clearly in a ferocious frame of mind, it’s feathers are drawn tight, it has that fixed frown, it’s canted forward, clearly looking at something. The Merlin on the other hand is all fluffed up and at rest and in a couple of minutes he could almost be asleep.

Goshawks

Now unless you are fortunate to be familiar with these raptors in the field, and few people ever get that close to Goshawks to fully understand the anatomy of their moods, then looking at birds in captivity will be great practise in terms of understanding their behaviour.

Thus if you ever get the chance to photograph such species in the wild you will have already done your homework, although I must confess the likelihood of any of us getting this close to a Goshawk to snap it’s portrait is extremely remote, and therefore such treats will always be provided by captive birds.

However, please note there is sadly a fraternity amongst those who keep birds of prey, who can best be described as cowboys, so please take great care in choosing your zoo or park, don’t patronise the most convenient, patronise the one where you can see the birds at best cared for.

Home Ground

It is as clammy as hell. The steam is rising from the giant green trees and from your tower hide you can see the jungle unfurling to a distant misty horizon. A cacophony of howls and hoots, screams and squeals ring out from the forest below. You don’t know whether they are made by birds, monkeys, frogs or creatures new to science.

You don’t care though because in front of you on a moss covered branch is a Philippines monkey-eating eagle. It has it’s back to you and is mantling it’s prey, but it’s just looked over it’s shoulder and held a perfect pose and to top it all off the first rays of the morning sun have bathed this magnificent bird in gorgeous light. You squeeze the button...

...of the kettle. Yep, it’s just a fantasy! In reality you are more often in your kitchen looking out of the window at your bird feeder. At a Greenfinch. Sorry, but let’s face it that’s our reality unless we are outrageously fortunate. I’ve never seen a Philippines eagle, let alone pointed a lens at one. Sadly, I probably never will, so it’s the Greenfinch for me.

Okay. It’s not as glamorous, but you can certainly concentrate on making a better job of snapping the Finch. In fact with a bit of imagination and effort you could turn a snapshot of a common bird into a stunning picture, so how do you make a silk purse out of a sparrow?

Well for the budding wildlife photographer the garden is the best studio available, and it doesn’t matter how big your garden is because our wildlife is all relatively small – no elephants, rhino’s or herds of Wildebeasts. Instead we’ve got foxes, squirrels, frogs, jays, woodpigeons, woodpeckers and a host of colourful smaller species flitting to and from our feeders.

There are many benefits of working at home, but privacy is probably top of the list. You see if you decide to build a set or wish to leave your tripod out for an hour it won’t be interfered with, unlike anything you try to do in our over populated countryside. So you’ve designed a masterpiece and constructed your set. Now because you are at home you can keep trying until you get it right. Time and privacy are great luxuries, but there is also one unfortunate enemy of this cosy home practise, the dreaded handicap – familiarity. There is no doubt at all that at worst it breeds contempt and at best laziness. You must remember that there is a Greenfinch out there waiting to get you a great photograph.

As my fantasy above revealed, there is nothing so invigorating as the exotic, and if you have travelled with your camera you’ll know exactly what I mean. But here’s the challenge, take the subject on your bird table, Buddleia, or back windowsill and look again, generate a new photographic excitement about those most accessible, convenient and easy subjects which you had previously overlooked. And then come up with something that no one else has seen or photographed before.

Photograph of a fox through the bottom of a dustbin

Years ago, when it hadn’t apparently been done I took a photograph of a fox through the bottom of a dustbin. For some time afterwards acquaintances remarked that they had seen it in magazines or books to which it had never been sent. When I looked I found that other photographers had replicated my shot and some of their pictures were better. Good luck to them – it’s the picture that counts.

O.K. you’ve researched the competition you’ve readied the camera, it’s time to take control. You’ve got to get to grips with light, colour, texture, the composition and the position of the camera and its lens and your subject. Let’s consider for simplicity’s sake a robin on the bird table. Firstly, in front of the camera the bird table is not a bird table, it has become a photographic platform. I don’t care whether Conran or Chippendale created your feeding station, neither I, nor most people would wish to see it in the picture.

We all like birds to look as if they are in the wild, and to fool us all is easy, just nip down to the woods and pick up a nicely sculptured piece of moss and lichen covered branch, preferably wind blown, and G-clamp it to the table top. Only momentary confusion will grip Robby Robin before he pitches upon a far more picturesque perch.

You don’t have to go all au naturelle either. Rusty pipes, car bonnets, and a huge pile of empty but brilliantly coloured paint tins have all at times been attached to my bird tables to provide a more interesting backdrop than my neighbour’s out of focus garage door, and remember if the light is not right you can always reposition everything into the shade or to the sunshine, and a new novel background can be pinned to your fence, propped up against the pagoda, or painted on the wall. After all it is your garden.

Setting Things Straight

As soon as you have blatted off a few frames of Robby Robin on the bird table it’s time to aim a little higher. Take advantage of whatever wildlife subjects you have, especially those that are least upset by your constructive changes. I once built a cemetery, lots of hardboard lightweight tombstones and withering wreaths dotted around a friend’s lawn, to get a shot of a fox which took food from her patio.

However, not all the visitors will be as forgiving as the Robin. There’s no doubt that some of the more timid will be instantly put off if they see you anywhere unusual. You will normally find that your subjects are more wary than you imagined they might be. As a general rule birds and other animals rely on familiarity for security, thus as long as you are where they expect you to be they are happy. Move outside these areas, step off the path or outside the shed, and suddenly everything becomes cautious. Nevertheless, urban subjects should be quicker to adapt and its easier for you to persevere when you are at home.

I know of only one comfortable, centrally heated hide, complete with tea, coffee, or beer that normally has an assistant standing by and is free to use without booking, 365 days a year – my house, Before you consider going out into the cold or wet exploit the indoor opportunities.

Ideally shoot from where you normally sit or stand, from your armchair, in front of the patio window, or out the kitchen window over the washing up. In this way you’ll stand little or no chance of terrifying your thoroughly accustomed subjects. Obviously clean both sides of the glass and try to find a scratch free section to line up with your lens. To minimise the risk of reflection keep the lens as close to the pane as possible, almost touching it is best.

If you do need to use flash get an extension lead to run out through the window to the gun which you have taped to a second tripod or stand and clad in a polythene bag to stop any rain getting in. This may take your subject a few days to get used to so flatten a couple of batteries flashing without film – by then all but the most timid visitors will be prepared to bask in the brief lightening strike.

If your lenses won’t reach or the table or set can’t be moved close enough to a window then you have two choices, firstly you could fire the camera by remote, trigger cables can be bought for most cameras. Manually focus on the spot where the subject will be and lock the focus off. By using auto-exposure you should be fairly confident not to have to keep running back and forth to the camera to make adjustments. A motor drive or an auto winder is essential, both standard on today’s SLR’s, and if you are up to the digital game you can simply whip the card out, bring it in, load it on your computer and see how you are going, whilst a replacement card in the camera is still happily snapping away.

Whatever, especially use another polythene bag to protect the camera from any moisture, secure it with a couple of elastic bands to stop it flapping around in front of the lens. You can get perfect pictures using this approach but it’s always nerve racking and will test the most confident practitioner. One word of caution – in fact two – grey squirrels. If they are active in your garden be careful what you leave out unattended and unprotected, irrespective of value they will chew it and this will really upset you.

The second option is a case of moving outside yourself. Check the conservatory, greenhouse, garage or outside toilet windows for prospective vantage points – if none are suitable build a hide out of anything. Remember it’s your garden so what it looks like is up to you; make it dry, comfortable, and flap proof so that when the wind blows it doesn’t startle your subject or expose you to it.

Family camping tents, especially toilet tents are easily cannibalised, or you can build more permanent structures from fencing panels, whatever; the choice is yours and that of the family you have to live with. Remember they will have to barb-b-q, hang out the washing or play football around your structure. Standing up straight or sitting down are amongst the most comfortable options and if you have to spend time waiting, comfort is essential.

This approach can in turn often mean that you end up looking down on your small ground based subject, something which always appears unnatural and is therefore the mark of a lazy photographer. Always, always, always try to get down to your subject’s level; if you lie down, support the camera on a bean bag, and peer through the grass or over the pond.

Your perspective will make an immediate impact in a photograph. It increases the wildness and immediately reduces its domesticity and if you are working at home in my view there is absolutely no room for any laziness whatsoever. If you get tired and fed up have another cup of tea, but whatever you do don’t compromise your overall ambition.

Black Headed Gull

As an aside, I am about to pen an article for BBC Wildlife magazine to be published in November 2004. The basic premise of this piece will be to issue a plea to the worlds wildlife photographers to take some of the categories in the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition more seriously, not least the Urban Wildlife Category. Not since the mid-1980’s when some fractious spikey haired ex-Punk Rocker of an English bloke continually did well in this category with pictures of foxes in his Mother’s driveway and Black headed gulls in the local park, has it enjoyed much patronage!

Indeed in the last few years there have been no prizes given, the entries have been uninspiring, unimaginative and underachieving. Look, there’s a bevy of fantastic wildlife out there on your urban doorsteps, and this category is right up there for the winning. I am absolutely certain that a reader of this website could take a photograph between now and next May that would win this category so that he or she could not only take the prize money but also secure a healthy showcase for their work alongside some of the world’s finest bird and wildlife photographers. For goodness sake go and get that Greenfinch.

Hollywood at Home

Building small manageable sets is a great way of infinitely extending the scope of your garden – because part of it can be part of anything you like.

Generally even the tamest animals will require a little time to customise themselves to your new ideas, so a degree of permanence is desirable. For naturally curious species such as Grey Squirrels, Magpies or members of the Tit family, a few days or maybe a few hours will be enough to overcome their caution and jump onto or into your best laid plan. Even then the light, weather or pose may not be quite right and you may wish to repeat your shot. Hence piling things loosely together is not a good idea, and nor is putting the set in the middle of the lawn.

Bolt, nail or screw your set together because this will help with the second essential – portability. Between shots you can store it out of everyone’s way and avoid conflicts about what constitutes an attractive feature in the garden. It seems that most people prefer cupids, urns or gnomes to would-be sections of Castle, battlements or factory air conditioning outlets – a couple of my realised but vilified beauties!

And because most of our British subjects are small your set doesn’t need to be that much bigger, just large enough to allow to shoot-off around the subject. It is best to plan all this in advance, design your ideal picture, even sketch and measure it out. You know or can find out how tall a Starling stands. Decide how big you would like it to appear in your final photograph, and then extrapolate to decide how much background you need to make. Keep a camera complete with the appropriate lens handy so you can check on all perspectives as you are building your contraption, and remember the more confident you are about what you want the less flexibility you’ll need to exploit.

Often there’s not a need of DIY needed, just a keen eye for opportunities. I was walking along a dis-used railway line once where the tops of all the old telegraph poles had been cut off. I lugged one away and stood it up in the garden and immediately I was standing two metres away at eye level from the top of a telegraph pole! A trained Kestrel and a roll of sky blue paper provided me with a simple but never seen before perspective of this bird.

Grass Snake

The photograph above of a grass snake slithering down the bonnet of a Morris Minor apparently rotting on some overgrown wasteland all in fact occurred on a Sunday morning on my parents’ lawn. There was no more of the Morris Minor than the bonnet and the grill that you see, and I had previously festooned it with moss, a couple of pieces of dead bramble and some other foliage, and doused the whole lot with a watering can.

I then took and then took the photograph whilst my father held the tail of the snake. I’ve always had a fondness for old cars, particularly those in horrible states of disrepair, and grass snakes are one of my favourite British animals, and on this account the photograph remains one of my few favourites.

Please note however, that several days after the photograph was taken, then on slide and not digital, whilst I was still waiting for the results to come back from the lab’ my Mother, bless her, became increasingly perturbed by the scrap in the middle of the lawn and upon a subsequent visit I found it relegated to a less suitable position behind the shed. Beware, wives, mothers, girlfriends, sisters, brothers, dads, uncles and aunts, may not always see your ambition as clearly as you. Nutters!