Well, it’s 7 days now since here in Kent (along with most of the UK) we “enjoyed” hard frosts and quite a bit of snow. It’s so infrequent now that when it does occur I (and I’m sure 1000′s of other photographers) rack our brains to think of where to go in order to capitalise on this short lived event.
For the last month, or so, I have set up a bird feeding station quite near to where I live on the North Kent Marshes to see what I could pull in different to the usual woodland species that I have photographed time and again in subsequent years. With regular visits I could see that I wasn’t getting anything particularly interesting coming in aside from tits and greenfinches. So, I decided to go to Knole Park where they have a large herd of fallow and sika deer. With a wonderful hard frost, I enjoyed a good few hours from dawn, milking the conditions for all it’s worth!
This was the first time I used my 200-400 f4 that I acquired a couple of months ago and it really proved it’s worth with me being able to shoot close-ups and contextual, without moving or adding tele-converters.
For all the sika deer photographs, I used a Manfrotto monopod as continually altering the legs on a tripod can be both tiresome and time consuming which may result in missing a shot. For the fallow deer buck image, I hand-held the camera while laying down, utilising the VR.
I was just sitting down, upwind from this sika and it came closer and closer, sniffing the air every few steps.
The day after, heavy snow was forecast for the Sevenoaks area, predicted for around 12 o clock. I wasn’t going to miss this, so arrived at 9 and just waited. The fallow were very shy and with such a strong wind, understandably, took shelter in the wooded areas.
After the above encounter, it was a full hour before I got anywhere near close enough for a decent size image. I came across 4 bucks and by keeping a respectful distance, they took little notice. And, as if on cue, the snow REALLY started to come down. Perfect!
A few days later and with snow still on the ground I headed to my hide on the marshes where I witnessed the most extraordinary thing! As I walked to my hide to top-up the feeder I noticed a fieldfare in a hawthorn, not 4m away! Amazing. They are generally very wary so what on earth was it doing, just sitting there? I stood and watched as it sat and picked off nearby berries. The camera was in the car so I walked back the 100m or so, fitted the camera to the tripod and returned, only to find it was still there! It remained so for the next minute, allowing me take a few shots before it dropped to the ground, picked up a few berries and flew off to join the rest of the flock. I guess, it’s the hard weather that makes wildlife bolder.
I then got comfortable in my hide, observing greenfiches, blue and great tits come and go and then a bird appeared on a thistle seed-head I had only ever seen a few times before and certainly never photographed. A lesser redpoll. I took a few tentative photographs as it fed frantically on the seed-head. It flew to a nearby hawthorn then immediately returned. I let it feed for a while, took another shot and this time it took no notice. This was a rare opportunity to get close-ups of a bird I hardly see, so didn’t hold back in the amount of images Thankfully, quite afew came out sharp!
All images on this post were taken using a Nikon D300, 200-400 f4 and, more often than not, iso 800. For the redpoll shots, at f5.6 I used a shutter speed of 1/1600 sec.
I’ve never been the sort of photographer to walk great distances (by that I mean over 2 miles!) taking a shot here and another there. Unless I am after a specific subject I much prefer to “work” a small area. I still shoot in the same woods, downlands and marshes that I did when I first got interested in nature (a little later, photography) almost 30 years ago. I’m a firm believer in working your local patch. By visiting a site near to home in all seasons and weathers you uncover nature’s secrets. Where, at certain times of the year, you can, for example, expect to find a bee orchid, fox earth or rare fungi. By getting “under it’s skin” your images, I feel, will have greater feeling and depth. This is something, almost, impossible to do on a short or occasional visit. It also means, that when the weather is exceptional or if you just have a spare hour, there is always some place for you to visit. To remain, photographically, productive.
The images, below, were taken in one of South East England’s largest woodlands but all within an area no bigger than 900 m2. I could have walked and walked, looking for the finest specimens and views in which to capture autumn. Instead, for several days during October and November, I remained in a very compact area, often scrambling around on all fours or laying on damp leaf litter, searching for tiny mushrooms which, ultimately, gave me focus. More often than not I would, simply, just be led by the light.
I was taken by the relationship of the miniature with the gigantic. How the mature beech and minute fungi are as important as one another for their survival. With this in mind, I strove towards illustrating that as best I could.
With my reluctance to leave this wonderful place and with darkness closing in, I turned to using a flash-unit to illuminate spore release from a common puffball.
I must admit, I’m a little reluctant to give all the technical data for each image as I think we, so often, get so bogged down with the technicalities that we lose sight of the image we are trying to take. Yes, it’s important to know your f-stops and shutter speeds, differential focusing and depth of field and, given the time, all these things can be learnt. Spending time in the field and in all kinds of conditions is the best way to become farmiliar with your camera and, most important of all, to develop your “eye.”
But, in order to satisfy your curiosity, I used a nikon D300, 12-24, 28-105, 105 micro and 200mm. Occasionally, I would use extension tubes or a 2-element close-up filter and when working at ground level, a right-angle viewfinder. A Manfrotto carbon fibre 055 tripod was used much of the time with a Markins head and when I needed to get lower still, a small beanbag was employed.
Although photographed over a month ago, I have only just got round to processing these and thought that it would make a relatively interesting post to show them as a set as opposed to, more often than not, singling out a stand-out image.
My objective that morning was to find and photograph a dew laden dragonfly. Suitable conditions for these kind of images in the form of breathless, wet mornings don’t occur too often, here, on the North Kent marshes where the, seemingly, ever-present breeze has so often put pay to many a potential morning.
Having located a good specimin and set up my tripod, my eye was caught by a scene that was looking better and better as the sun rose. I was reluctant to move my tripod which was not only in position for photographing the dragonfly when the light picked up a little but was, also, in very deep mud! I picked up my camera and composed the image and since I was shooting into the light, I was confident I would have a sufficient shutter speed, aperture combination, enabling me to hand-hold the camera while at the same time provide adequate depth of field. While shooting, I was keeping a close-eye on the dragonfly, waiting for the light, having learnt over the years never to do so much that you take your eye off the ball, or dragonfly in this case!
I couldn’t decide which of the 3 I preferred most. Each having it’s own mood. Which is yours?
The sun, eventually, became too bright to continue and, anyway, it was now perfect for the dragonfly.
I was determined to photograph the dragonfly in such a way that it gave the viewer the feeling of being there, thereby resisting shooting portraits which do little to stir the soul or give any clues as to the habitat in which it was photographed. Here I was, on the marshes, the ground and surrounding spider’s webs, soaked with dew with the jewel like wings of the dragonfly sparkling in the morning sun. This is what I wanted to convey.
To have any picture published is a great honour for any photographer, particularly these days when there are so many wonderful images available. So, you can imaging how happy I was to see this image of a buck fallow deer greeting a doe appear as a half-page in this month’s BBC Wildlife magazine illustrating the fallow deer rut.
It was taken some years ago, on film, using a Nikon F5 and 500mm f4P Nikkor lens. I remember the situation well and proves a fundamental point about wildlife photography that knowing the habits of your subject is equally, if not more important, that knowing your equipment.
Occasionally, during the rut, doe harems fracture and the odd once goes astray. I noticed this lone doe on the horizon against a sunset sky and knowing (hoping!) that the buck would gently “round her up” with a touching-of-noses greeting, I focused on her, exposed for a silhouette and left sufficient room to allow the buck to enter the frame which, thank goodness, he did!
Short-eared owls are one of my favourite birds and each winter, here, on the North Kent Marshes, we often get them in fairly high numbers. This is entirely dictated by, of course, their food supply being mainly short-tailed field voles. These small rodents have cyclical populations and in turn determine how many “shorties” will be present. On those years (approximately every 7-8) where vole numbers are at their peak, so too are the owls. This year, though not exceptional, was pretty good and a pair took up residence on an area of private rough grassland I had been photographing barn owls on that winter. The 2 rarely mixed. When the barn owls were hunting, shorties were absent and vice versa. Birds of prey are notoriously territorial (for good reason!) and so, I guess, it wasn’t that surprising. I’d spent a couple of months photographing barn owls, the results of which can be seen here, and so when the shorties began to stake claim on the area, I was keen to get some images.
Initially, I would visit at all times of the day and weathers. It was soon apparent, however, that they were far more active from midday on and significantly less so in the morning so I decided to concentrate on that part of the day and shoot other subjects at first light instead. I used a combination of a semi-permanent wooden hide, dome hide and my 4×4 which really proved it’s worth during wet weather when access to the site would have been nye on impossible!
They would use certain parts of the field more than others for a period of time until, I guess, they exhausted the food source, and so, for the following 2 images, I set up a dome hide adjacent to a hawthorn. I’m not keen on using fabric hides in such exposed areas. It doesn’t matter how well you peg one of these down, they just act like a sail and if the guy ropes hold, the hide poles themselves, don’t! But, sometimes, there is no alternative. On occasion, I have used a hide framework made of dexion with a Fensman hide cover thrown over it which is far more stable. Ultimately, you simply can’t beat a solid wooden hide.
The two images below came as a result of slowly and at intervals, driving my 4×4 down the rough track where they were hunting. I stopped a good 100m from them but then the wind picked up, hail started to fall and the owls took cover. After about 45 minutes, the wind subsided and the sun shone, providing ideal hunting conditions for them.
My favourite image of this species to date taken moments after the above. It flew around my car and then towards me. The 300mm f2.8 fitted to my D300 had trouble keeping focus due to the background and so I did so manually until the last moment. Out of 6 shots this was the sharpest and the one with the nicest wing position.
About Robert Canis
Robert Canis is a professional photographer specialising in the natural world.
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