Apple iBook Version of A Journey with Nature is Available

As the electronic version for Amazon’s Kindle seems to be more popular than the print version, I have now updated my Blurb shop to offer an iPad and iPhone version of “A Journey with Nature” for sale. Unlike the version on Kindle, this is is full colour, with all the photographic images used to illustrate the large format print version.

The book itself, charts my experiences while tavelling and watching the natural world, starting in Nepal and following my journey in Scotland and Somerset.

Why not consider it as a Christmas present?

New Photography Article – The Use of Filters

I have just published a new article on “The Use of Filters in Photography“. It isn’t an exhaustive list, but it concentrates on the most commonly used filters in digital photography. It debunks the policy by many photographic stores of selling a UV filter with every lens (usually cheap, poor quality versions) and tries to reverse the trend of doing everything in Photoshop. The effects of some filters can’t be reproduced in Photoshop (e.g. polarising filters) and it saves a significant amount of time in post production.

I will be adding some example photographs, with explanatory captions to the article in the coming few days.

The Countdown to Bridgwater Carnival has Started

Remember, remember the 5th 4th of November. ThBurlesque Cabaret - 2009is friday, is carnival day in Bridgwater. Festivities start in the morning and carry through to the squibbing display after the carnival ends, some time after 11.00pm. At times, it seems like the whole world descends on the town, with bars being full hours before the start of the carnival. In fact, it is probably the third largest carnival in the world after Rio de Janeiro and Notting Hill carnivals, which is pretty impressive for a town with a population of around 30,000 (two different sources quoting the same 2001 census put it at 33,698 and 36,563).

As usual, I will be attending (I can’t really escape, having to take at least the afternoon off to get home) and it is one of the few times where I shoot people (not literally of course). Notwithstanding my lack of portrait photography, from a commercial point of view, it has my highest success rate, so it is certainly worth my while attending (even in the pouring rain). Weather permitting, I will again be using flash, although that won’t be possible in heavy rain. The flash helps to fill in the deep shadows from the strong lights, but is very unsightly when it freezes the falling rain drops.

Gremlins Carnival ClubLast year, the carnival was again won by the Gremlins Carnival Club, with their entry Runaway Train. They are in fact regular winners, having shared the overall title in 2009 with To the Trees, the winner of the Tableau class, by the Gemini Carnival Club. There are usually around 120 entries, comprising of a mixture of large carts or floats down to individual performers or masqueraders. The participants spend alot of time, effort and money on prearing their entries and the whole carnival is about collecting money for local charities.

If you haven’t been before, then it is definitely something that everyone should experience at least once. Until you’ve seen Bridgwater Carnival, you haven’t seen what can be achieved and most other illuminated carnivals are just pale imitations in comparison.

Wick Carnival Club

Latest Uploads from the Scotland Trip

A couple of weeks ago, I made my regular trip up to the Scottish Highlands. I decided this time to stop off at two areas I haven’t previously visited, the Lake District and Glencoe. Of course, both areas are well known for their possibilities for the landscape photographer. I was never going to get any award winning shots from either area, with just two one night stopovers overlooking Ullswater and three nights at the Clachaig Inn, at the top end of Glencoe, but it was a chance to do some scouting. The weather on the way up was atrocious, with visibility being so low, that I was barely able to see the mountains surrounding the two stopovers, not exactly ideal conditions for expansive landscapes. Luckily, the weather cleared during my week at the main destination, the Aigas Field Centre. I’m pretty well known up there now and I always feel at home. I don’t really need the photography tuition that was provided by Laurie Campbell, but this time there was a greater focus on fieldcraft, with the chance of stalking deear and feral goats, always useful practice, even if it isn’t always successful.

Because the focus was more on fieldcraft, I actually took less photographs (which also meant less to process and sift through), but I was able to get some shots I was more than happy with. Probably the highlight for me were some studio shots, as I was able to practice with some flash work, something I rarely do. Also useful for me were stalking some feral goats and also a stag that disappeared while we were out of view and building an improvised hide from available material.

Of course, there was also the chance of photographing the resident pine martens at the Aigas Field Centre. Last winter, they resited one of the hides, so that it was suitable for viewing wild pine martens. The whole area was designed with photography in mind, so suitable natural perches and trunks were installed. Also, the portholes of the hide were able to be lifted up, so that the martens could be photographed without having to shoot through glass. Of course, the downside was increased risk of disturbance from the camera shutter. As a consequence of the preparations, I was able to get my sharpest shots of martens to date and even tried some flashwork. I really put my 135 mm f/2 to good use and the f/2 proved invaluable, more so than the flash, with the 5D MkII providing very clean, sharp images. The 7D however, was less successful, as it seems like some lens microadjustment in needed.

All in all, the usual successful and enjoyable trip. I always enjoy being in the Scottish Highlands and particularly enjoy staying at the Aigas Field Centre. For anyone considering staying there, they offer a great variety of activities, not just photography, but also wildlife (including specific bird and mammal, as well as general programmes) and archaeology weeks. Next year, they also have a variety of special weeks and weekends in their programme.

Gigrin Farm Visit

For some time, I’ve been considering a visit to Gigrin Farm, in mid Wales. It’s one of the feeding stations (and was the first), that have been set up for red kites and as a result, it has become a bit of a honeypot site. Of course, the downside of it being so popular, is that everyone now can get photographs of red kites, which makes it harder to get something different. Also it makes it less of a challenge, as no fieldcraft is needed to get close. However, against that, you have the chance to try out different ideas, without having to wait months or even years for the opportunity and it is very good for practicing panning and other techniques necessary for bird photography. I finally visited a couple of weeks ago and was entranced by the the sheer spectacle. Seeing 100+ red kites swooping and gliding is a sight everyone should experience. It is certainly a sight I won’t forget for a while.

I’ve seen red kites before, up in the Black Isle and near Inverness and also while travelling by train towards London, but never as close as the views at Gigrin Farm. They’d always been soaring, not dissimilar to a buzzard, so I assumed they also fed like a buzzard, by landing next to the “prey”. After all, they are both carrion eaters in the main. However, that is where the similarity ends. The red kite is a much more acrobatic flyer, preferring not to land and swoops instead, collecting the prepared meat, before eating in mid-air, much like a hobby does with dragonflies. I wasn’t therefore prepared for the high speed panning. There are a number of hides available, from the general purpose public hides to some specially designed photography hides. It was unfortunate the day we went, that a coach party had been booked, so two of the public hides had been block booked and there was also a photography workshop, meaning that the photography hides were also unavailable. As a result, I ended up seated on the child benches, which was extremely uncomfortable, due to the low position. It did enable me to get a couple of low angle shots that wouldn’t have been possible from the photography hides though, as they are raised above the public hides, which are at ground level. The photography hides would make panning a lot easier though and experimentation would also be more possible, plus the dorsal colours would also be more obvious.

Definitely a place I would recommend and I will visit again some time in the future, perhaps in the winter.

Aigas Field Centre

I have spent the past week or so in the Scottish Highlands. Having arrived back home a couple of days ago, I have been resting prior to my return to work. I spent most of my time at the Aigas Field Centre, on a photography workshop with Laurie Campbell, a renowned Scottish nature photographer. While I am at the stage where I don’t really need any tuition, I always pick up a few useful snippets of information. Even by watching him as he teaches others, I am able to find inspiration and his insights at the end of the week are always worth listening to (even if I don’t always agree).

The main reason for going though is the locale and meeting up with people I have made friends with on previous visits. The photography workshops are an added bonus, as they are the excuse to get me to the highlands. The Field Centre was setup a few decades ago by Sir John Lister-Kaye, to promote the natural world. It plays a significant role in the education of children and the future generations of custodians, with their ranger education programme. The setting is an old Victorian hunting lodge, with a huge estate, including a wide diversity of wildlife. They offer a range of programmes, not just photography workshops, but also wildlife and archaeology weeks. There are also some programmes set further afield, such as Skye and the Orkneys. The staff are very dedicated and knowledgeable and the programmes include all food and travel. The food in itself is worth tasting. Lady Lucy, with the help of her team, produces food of restaurant standard, all three courses of it.

The days tend to be quite long and tiring, but the results (both physical and spiritual) are worth it. Would I return or recommend Aigas to others? Well, let’s just say, I’ll be paying my sixth visit in October.

BWP Awards Deadline Approaches

It’s the final few weeks before the deadline of this year’s British Wildlife Photography Awards. I’ve been busy compiling my selections ready for entry and have found around 15 possibles, although probably only four or five have any real chance and I only have high hopes for maybe two or three. I had hoped to supplement it with a couple more, based on some plans I’ve had for a couple of years, but the weather hasn’t played ball. It’s a little early in the summer really, but I need warm weather (not necessarily sunny) with light or very light winds. It’s been very dry since the beginning of April, but the subject bird only arrives in May in large numbers and it’s been pretty windy, which affects the flight of its prey. Most of my best shots in the past have been in June, so any entries will probably need to wait until at least next year.

The Role of Camera Clubs and Competitions

There are probably hundreds of camera or photography clubs scattered across Britain, but what do they achieve? I’ve always been a bit wary of them, because I think they sometimes can be “set in their ways”. Think of the best guitarists or other musicians and then think about how many of them were self taught. While there is a case for classical training, sometimes it takes someone who either doesn’t know the “rules” or likes to break them to push the boundaries. This often doesn’t fit the profile of a musician who has been classically trained. It’s the same with any form of art. Love them or hate them, you can’t deny the mass appeal of the likes of Andy Warhole and the various impressionist painters. But how many of them actually followed the rules? How many of the more recent artists would have “made it” if they hadn’t paved the way? Would modern art have evolved? You certainly can’t accuse modern art of following too many compositional rules. Photography follows the same basic rules as painting and other visual art forms. You have the rule of thirds, the use of leading lines and so on.
I’ve seen on photography forums how some people can be so fixated on the rules, they forget everything else. They heavily criticise others for daring to be different. Rightly or wrongly, this is how I’ve tended to view camera clubs and to some degree many competition judges also. In some ways, competitions are the more hypocritical, because they write up all the blurb about coming up with something that hasn’t been seen before, then they can end up commending the same old formula. They have their place of course. It’s always good to know the rules, so that you can then experiment on how to break them and make the picture or photograph work. If you don’t do this and everyone follows the “rules”, then art won’t progress and all pictures will look the same, with nothing standing out.
Photography groups, be it camera clubs or photography forums have their place. They are good fora for exchanging ideas and listening to others and how they view an individual image, whether it is someone elses or your own. It’s very easy to “just take pictures”, without giving it too much thought. Forums and clubs are very good at making you re-evaluate your own images, not just after the event when you get home, but also before you press the shutter. “What angle should I take that bird from?” “Should I include that post that’s sticking up, does it fit in with the rest of the scene or should I move to the right a bit?”. “Is that shoulder a bit too bright, will it distract?”. Even after you’ve evaluated your own photographs in this way, it’s always useful to hear what others think, after all, photography is just as much about the viewer. Without a viewer, then it becomes hidden. Just because you like something, not everybody will, we’re all different. This fact is never more highlighted, than when competition results are announced. How many times have you looked at the highly commended or runners up entries and thought they were better than the winner?
For all the advantages of camera clubs though, they do have a tendency towards the “traditional”. If you don’t conform, you could be criticised. The key is to listen to critique and learn to know when to heed the advice given and when to ignore it and do your own thing. Basically think, “will it enhance my own personal style or destroy it?”. A classic case in point occured last night at the new club I’ve joined. Someone was looking at one of my photos and said “you’ll never win any competitions with those cloud types, you need cumulus clouds”. To me, that was totally non-sensical, if you had to have cumulus clouds to win any competitions, then half of the entries in the Take a View books the last few years would have been rejected out of hand. A much better statement would have been “more dramatic clouds would have enhanced the imagery”, which arguably could have been a good point. Another case involved an internet friend. He specialises in black and white photography and had applied for a licentiateship with the Royal Photographic Society. He had submitted the prescribed number of images and received the feedback on one of them as (paraphrased) “You have used a very strange method to acheive your conversion and the composition isn’t right”. After several comments when he asked, along the line of “fuddy duddies” and not knowing what they’re talking about, he later entered it into the Take a View competition. The ultimate coup was when that same image was commended and appeared in the book.
So what is the moral? Photography clubs and forums have their place, but don’t always take the advice given to heart. Don’t be afraid to break the rules (either well known ones or theirs) or preconceptions and develop your own style.

British Wildlife Photography Awards 2011

It’s now one week since the 2011 British Wildlife Photography Awards opened for entries. I was lucky enough to have a number of photographs shortlisted for the inaugral competition in 2009. However, I wasn’t so lucky last year, not that I felt my images were as strong as the previous year.

Last year, the winners and many commended images were featured in a new book published by the publishing arm of the AA, as they looked to expand their portfolio of nature titles. While it would of course be nice to win a category, my aim is to have a photograph commended, so that it features in the book.

Like many competitions, it is rare that everyone agrees with the choices of the judges and as usual, I found myself thinking that some of the runners-up were actually better than the winners. This is probably an example of taste and how everyone has a different view of what is good and what is a winning image. It also emphasises how difficult it is to “get into” the judges’ minds to try to predict what they are looking for. You could spend hours analysing a photo to see if it is right for the competition, only for the judges to choose something completely diferent to what you imagined they would pick. It is therefore a fruitless exercise and it is better to check your images for creativity and technical quality, making the most of your chances, then hoping for the best.

Of course, that is where the difficulty lies. More than almost any other genre, it is often almost impossible to achieve the vision you have precisely, with an element of luck involved. You can spend a long time planning and hours of waiting to maximise you chances, but even then, the sun might go behind the cloud at the crucial moment or the target animal might appear suddenly without warning, throwing your planning out the window. Or sometimes your luck is in and a totally different animal to your target appears and you get the winning shot. You just can’t tell what is going to happen and that is probably what makes wildlife photography so interesting and challenging. Just occasionally, you are able to spend some time exploring a subject and that is where fieldcraft and knowledge of the subject comes in.

New Guide to Winter Photography Added

I’ve just added a new guide to the articles section of the blog, this time on winter photography. Snow can play havoc with camera metering systems, causing problems with under-exposure. This guide looks at an overview of how metering systems work, as well as offering tips and pointers on overcoming the meter, using exposure compensation. While it was written primarily with landscapes in mind, it would apply equally to scenes that include wildlife and also white animals and water scenes. It could also be used as a guide to low key scenes, reversing the ideas.