1. Brown bears of Finland

    Three weeks ago I returned from leading a group to north-eastern Finland to photograph the King of the Forest – the brown bear. In professional 2-person hides we spent up to 14 hours each night observing and photographing these magnificent beasts. We would enter at 5 and then be ‘released’ at 7, have breakfast, get some rest and then be up and ready for our ‘evening’ meal at 3 before heading back to the hides at 4. It does mess, a little, with your sleep/wake pattern but everyone of us agreed that it was more than worth it.

    This chap was huge who, to the group, was affectionately known as Tyson! He looked mean! But he had wonderful fur and B&W brings out texture far more effectively than colour. He was clearly an alpha male since every bear within a 400m radius would clear out rather quickly as soon as he arrived.

    The cubs, however, were the real stars – for obvious reasons.

    We had exclusive use of two 2-person pro-hides in each of the 3 locations – forest, swamp and lake. Each gave very different perspectives and offered a range of different images from bears amongst trees, to them walking across the swamp or reflected in the lake. We all had our own personal favourite location and mine was the swamp.

    Sub-adults play fighting. If this was just play fighting, goodness only knows what it must be like to watch two full grown adults really going at it!

    They continued for quite some time, ending up at the far end of the marsh which gave a nice opportunity to place them in context with their surroundings. I waited for them to be framed by the two dead pines.

    For the most part I used the 200-400mm f/4 on the Nikon D810 which I found to be the perfect combination. I also, on occasion, used the 70-200mm and 28-105mm for the holes on the side of the hide for those extra-close encounters. I would often use Auto ISO which, for wildlife work, I find a most versatile setting. With just a few spins of the thumb and forefinger wheels I can keep the shutter speed up (1/500th sec.) incase of action and slow it right down (1/4 sec.) to create motion-blur. Once you’re familiar with this you’ll wonder why you hadn’t discovered it years ago!

    I spent a night in the hide beside the lake where we were blessed both in terms of conditions and encounters. We all had lots of opportunities (regardless of which hide or environment we were in) to capture the cubs climbing up and down trees. Surely, there’s no more adorable creature on this planet?!

    Our neighbour’s hide at sunrise.

    We were both shooting landscapes willing a bear to appear but we knew, given that activity usually tailed off at around midnight, that it was unlikely but then to my right, I saw one skirting the water’s edge and instinctively (as you do) in hushed tones said “bear”! We could not believe our luck.

    Captured late at night in the rain, I rather liked the muted, sombre tones. You can just make out the bear shaking the rain off its coat.

    The forecast for the following morning was for clear skies. We waited. Surely, not again? And then, at 5.30….

    It was a wonderful trip helped in no small part by a fantastic group with plenty of laughs and good humoured banter.

    Needless to say I’ll be doing the same tour next year, so if you’d like to join me in a photographic experience like no other then do get in touch as spaces are limited. Anyone with a love for nature will, simply, drink this up!

    Tour details here

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  2. Tale of two winters

    February was a very busy month which saw me leading two tours, one to Poland and the other to Finland. The focus for both was predominantly wildlife though we did manage to squeeze a little landscape in too.

    Traditionally, February is a pretty reliable month, weather wise, where you’d expect snow cover and minus temperatures but this, sadly, no longer seems to be the case. I think most of us will acknowledge that the planet goes through cycles. Indeed it has been doing so for over four billion years but it’s the acceleration over the last 3-5 years that has surprised most and is clearly affecting nature. In the past, wildlife would evolve as the conditions changed (which would, perhaps, be over many thousands of years) but it seems to be happening with such speed that many species simply cannot keep up. The polar bear is a prime example where the sea ice is breaking up much earlier (it relies on sea ice for catching seal prey) which, as a result, leads to starvation, infant mortality and even cannibalism.

    My first trip was to northeast Poland to ‘potentially’ (nothing in nature is ever guaranteed!) photograph European bison, elk, birds of prey (especially white-tailed eagle) and smaller birds such as woodpeckers, tits and finches. The region experienced wonderful winter conditions a couple of weeks before with eagles visiting regularly but as time went on the temperature rose, melting all snow and the eagles disappeared. All but two members of the group had been with me the previous year (for some this was their third trip) with high hopes of photographing the eagles on this occasion. Alas, this wasn’t to be the case and although it was a little disappointing not to have had the conditions and eagles that were hoped for we did get some marvellous wildlife encounters. Three 12-hour days were spent in hides in the hope of photographing eagles but such was the group’s upbeat nature that if they were ever to have felt despondent it didn’t show – though for all I knew they could have been crying in their pillows in the privacy of their rooms! I hope I speak for us all that, regardless of the conditions (though we did get a light dusting, sunshine and frost on the final morning), we still did pretty darn well in photographing a wide range of species including bison, common buzzard, raven, elk, wild boar, red deer, grey-headed woodpecker, great-spotted woodpecker, middle-spotted woodpecker, nuthatch, greenfinch, hawfinch, tits, jay, siskin and even mink! Moreover, aside from the photography aspect, the group (as always) got along marvelously and our incredibly obliging and warm hosts made our mornings and evenings very special indeed with their fabulous home-cooked meals and occasional(!) vodka.

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    For the wildlife images I used either the 200-400mm f/4 or 70-200mm f/2.8 lens on a Nikon D7200 which, more often than not, was mounted onto a Manfrotto tripod with video head attached. Occasionally, when the situation required it, I would hand-hold the camera – especially when photographing elk – as often there was very little time to set up a tripod and it enabled me to remain flexible both in terms of viewpoint and composition.

    Greenfinches squabbling

    Greenfinches squabbling

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    While in the hide waiting for eagles, in failing light, we observed and photographed this  American mink as it went back and forth from underneath the hide (where it had made its home) to the bait. The ravens, as you can see, took umbrage to this and attempted to scare it off but with little success.

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    The highlight of the trip was encountering this extremely obliging elk which fed and drank in this flooded forest (carr) for a considerable period allowing us all to get some ‘once in a lifetime’ images of this, very often, shy and difficult to approach species.

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    Snowfall and pines

    Snowfall and pines

    We had a few hours to spare on our final morning before leaving for Warsaw airport so we headed out at dawn in the hope of photographing elk. The conditions were glorious with a heavy frost and light dusting of snow but, alas, aside from this very skittish individual we couldn’t find any that would allow sufficient time for us all to get some images. We probably used up all our luck with the elk the previous day!

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    Not wanting to waste the morning chasing shadows we stopped and photographed the rising sun over the marsh and sun rays as they penetrated a pine forest which, I have to say, was a very nice way to end the trip.

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    Never let it be said that my tours are ever all that serious!

    Never let it be said that my tours are ever all that serious!

    One week later and I was in the far north – Kuusamo – in central eastern Finland which lies just south of the Arctic Circle. A stunning region of unending views and crisp, cold air, we arrived with 70cm of snow and below zero temperatures. A real contrast, conditions wise, to Poland where, as the week progressed, the temperature slowly dropped from around -5 to, on the last day, -20. We photographed everything we could hope for except the great grey owl but owls in winter, anyway, are very hit and miss as it is largely dependent on prey availability. Instead, we got some wonderful views (and images) of pygmy and hawk owl both of which tested our reflexes to the max and I don’t think I have ever photographed a bird so fast and unpredictable in its flight path as these! There was an awful lot of deleting upon my return home, I can tell you.

    Aside from the owls, over the four days of photography we photographed frozen landscapes, dipper, golden eagle, siberian jay, willow, siberian, great and blue tit, great-spotted woodpecker, eurasian jay, red squirrel and, for some, a rather distant ural owl. En-route to the eagle hide we had a fantastic encounter with a calf and female elk that were standing beside one another in deep snow just 15 metres or so from the road. They didn’t stay long enough for us to get a photograph but it was great to see nonetheless.

    Among the most colourful and characterful of all Finland’s birds is the siberian jay which kept us entertained on three of the four days where trying to come up with something a little different to the norm was quite a challenge.

    A visit to a mill adjacent to some rapids gave everyone an opportunity to divulge in some landscape photography and, also, to give them a sense of this wonderful place in winter.

    A suspension footbridge crossing the river provided a great perspective. Before crossing it was essential to double check that the camera was firmly attached to the tripod – for obvious reasons!

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    And in the other direction…..

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    Dave Pressland, keeping it steady.

    David Barker

    Two days were then spent in hides deep in the Finnish wilderness to photograph golden eagles.

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    Car journey at dawn to the hides.

    Forest impression at daybreak. Taken from a moving car.

    Forest impression at daybreak. Taken from a moving car.

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    The beauty of a siberian jay can only truly be revealed when captured in flight.

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    Eurasian jays and great-spotted woodpecker

    Eurasian jays and great-spotted woodpecker

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    A male golden eagle did turn up and fed long enough for everyone to get some nice images before flying to a tree at the far end of the clearing, gathering twigs to present to the female for nest building.

    Both are full frame and shows the flexibility of a 200-400mm when working from a hide.

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    The following day more small bird images were in order prior to the main course.

    Willow tit

    Willow tit

    Great-spotted woodpecker

    Great-spotted woodpecker

    Willow tit. Keep looking....

    Willow tit.

    Siberian tit.

    Siberian tit.

    In the eagle hide. Image courtesy of David Barker.

    In the eagle hide. Image courtesy of David Barker.

    The eagles didn’t disappoint and the male arrived at 1.15pm.

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    Once they feed they often fly to a nearby perch, for a short while, to clean their bill. With this in mind, while he was feeding, I composed the image below and simply waited with cable-release in hand for him to leave and fly to the branch.

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    Exactly two hours later they both arrived and fed for almost an hour.

    In this image you can clearly see the size difference between the male and, significantly larger, female.

    In this image you can clearly see the size difference between the male and, significantly larger, female.

    Once the male had had his fill he left and, once again, perched on the tree at the far end leaving the female (which hadn’t fed for two days) alone at the carcase.

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    Departing. Eagle impression.

    Departing. Eagle impression.

    Word had it that there was an obliging hawk owl and pygmy owl and so we devoted much of that day ‘attempting’ to photograph these incredibly quick and unpredicatable birds. the success rate was low but it was jolly good fun trying!

    Pygmy owl

    Pygmy owl

    I thought it would be a great shame not to show my clients the wonderfully surreal landscape of a nearby fell-top where due to heavy snowfall and moisture you get these amazing snow sculptures known as tykky (pronounced duurker). We were very fortunate in that during some of our time there there was a steely-grey sky which provided a nice contrast to the pure white snow. As we left, mist enveloped the area.

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    With a few hours to spare on our final morning we took to the road for one last go at the pygmy owl and what a stunning morning it was too: minus 20, blue sky and thick frost.

    Pygmy owl

    Pygmy owl

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    My thanks go to my guides Marek, Paavo and Olli for all their help in ensuring the tours ran so smoothly and, of course, to both groups for making them such a joy to lead.

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  3. Lapland in Autumn

    Yet another Northern Lights and Autumn Colours of Lapland photo-tour and what a lucky group we were too! The vibrant colours of birch, aspen and rowan were all around and contrasted beautifully with the cloudless blue sky we experienced for much of the trip. In fact, you could argue it was too sunny at times! However, clear skies in the evening mean only one thing at that time of the year and that far north – aurora borealis!

    We began in the region of Muonio, in Finnish Lapland, miles from anywhere. A stargazers paradise! No light pollution and crystal clear skies make this the ideal place for astro photography and for group member, Jill, to keep us all informed of the various constellations. Beats an app any day!

    Soon after our meal on the first evening we were off to a favourite location of mine, a lake just 15 minutes away that presents many compositional opportunities. We weren’t to be disappointed with an almost constant display for several hours. It’s was great for everyone to witness this extraordinary phenomenon on the first night. It puts everyone at ease (especially me!) and everyone can relax safe in the knowledge that they have not only seen the northern lights but bagged some really good images too.

    Our following days were filled with visiting pristine forests, lakes, rapids, fjord and a lengthy walk up a fell to obtain the most incredible view.

    I have to say I have been very fortunate over the years with everyone on my tours getting on so well with one another and this group was no exception. From the moment we landed, joshes and jibs and just all round good humour. Oh yes, and a little photography talk too. Thank you all so very much for making the trip so enjoyable for myself and Dirk. It hardly felt like work at all!

    finland_autumn_002finland_autumn_003For all northern lights images I used a 14mm f/2.8 lens on a Nikon D750. Although the aperture remained constant at f/2.8 the ISO and shutter speed fluctuated depending on the brightness of the aurora.
    finland_autumn_004finland_autumn_005Each year, without fail, I take the group to one my favourite places as in a relatively small area there is so much to photograph from incredibly tame Siberian jays to a waterfall and stream. The experience was made all the more special with reindeer soup for lunch, served around an open fire.

    Siberian jay

    Siberian jay

    finland_autumn_008finland_autumn_007finland_autumn_009finland_autumn_010Clear skies were yet again forecast and since we were to have a long night ahead and with our cabin just a stone’s throw from a huge lake, the group relaxed and photographed through to dusk.
    4finland_autumn_011finland_autumn_012As sunset turned to dusk – and so it began.

    Group members photographing the lights. It was so bright it cast a shadow on the track.

    Group members photographing the lights. It was so bright it cast a shadow on the track.

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    And just in case you didn’t catch the timelapse in a previous post, here it is again. Do switch on your speakers or put headphones on.

    The following evening I decided to keep it local and a fishing hut provided an interesting subject to place against the northern lights.
    finland_autumn_015 I always take a powerful LED torch for such occasions and we had lots of fun illuminating it from different angles.

    Silver birch and waterfall

    Silver birch and waterfall

    Bilberry

    Lingonberry

    There is just the one long (optional) walk that I ask of everyone to the summit (or at least halfway) of a fell that gives amazing views over Finland, Norway and Sweden. To me, this is real Lapland – scattered rocks and boulders with dwarf birch clinging to the surface.
    finland_autumn_019Our last day began cloudy and with that I took the group to a very nearby location that lends itself perfectly to thee conditions culminating in a vantage point which, once again, afforded incredible views.
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    Five upright images stitched using PtGui. Although Lightroom 6 produces a RAW file I do find it rather slow when, especially, all I want is a low res jpeg image. For this reason (and also that PtGui affords more control) I prefer this software since it takes but a couple of minutes.

    Five upright images stitched using PtGui. Although Lightroom 6 produces a RAW file I do find it rather slow when, especially, all I want is a low res jpeg image. For this reason (and also that PtGui affords more control) I prefer this software since it takes but a couple of minutes.

    I was to stay on a further week to do some personal photography and to seek out new locations for future trips and so once we had taken everyone to Tromso airport, myself and guide headed back to Muonio, 4 hours away. The following morning I caught a bus to Kittila airport where I picked up my car. The weather (and forecast for the following few days at least) was such a contrast to what we had experienced over the previous seven with a drop of close on 10 degrees with cloud and rain. I was a little despondent at first as I had envisaged spending long nights in remote locations on my own photographing the northern lights and capturing sweeping vistas from nearby fells bathed in warm afternoon sunlight. But, you make the best of the conditions and what I wouldn’t have been able to photograph under a clear, blue sky, I now could with the soft, overcast light, which presented itself.
    Under heavy skies and, especially after rain (during in this case) , northern bilberry leaves seem to glow.
    finland_autumn_023For much of the time, however, it rained – hard! And, although I am most definitely not a fair weather photographer, there comes a time when you just have to succumb to the conditions and seek refuge.

    Photographed from within the car though the window. I intentionally shot it in this way and left Levels well alone in order to retain the soft, pastel colours of the scene.

    Photographed from within the car though the window. I intentionally shot it in this way and left Levels well alone in order to retain the soft, pastel colours of the scene.

    Occasionally, in order to portray the scene more akin to what I was experiencing at the time, I’ll incorporate ICM (Intentional Camera Movement). By doing so the image can take on a pastel, almost watercolour appearance. The conditions in which I captured the image, below, were very similar to those above. I parked up beside a lake and, noticing the headland with a few scattered birch trees, took a number of ‘static’ images. To me, they said little and were nothing more than a mere record. Through movement of the camera during exposure and at a slight angle I believe, ironically, I have captured the scene far more accurately than those I took before when I first arrived.

    Solitary pine

    Solitary pine

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    One of numerous tip-offs I received was a of a location around 30 minutes from where I was staying which turned out to be an exceptional place to spend a few hours – nay, many! The weather was absolutely perfect. Still and overcast. Just the kind of conditions I adore for this kind of work when autumn’s slowly coming to a close and when many leaves have fallen and are scattered on the surrounding vegetation except for bright red rowan leaves still clinging to their sagging branches. For the 4 hours or so I spent there I saw not another person (not that unusual for this region). The silence broken only by the sound of the stream.
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    Rowan leaf and raindrops

    Rowan leaf and raindrops

    The colours were vibrant. So much so that when it came to processing them for this blog I would have to reduce the saturation on many. That said, for the most part I will increase or decrease the saturation of individual colours to give a truer representation of the scene. More importantly, how I want it to appear to, perhaps, give emphasis to a particular object (or objects) within the frame.
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    Bilberry and rock

    Bilberry and rock

    There is something very special about photographing a location such as that below, confident that very few have witnessed it let alone photographed it. Off the beaten track requiring a walk through a very boggy mire, it’s not a place you notice as you drive by. I came upon it a few days previous (through scouring a map) and could see the potential at sunset. Days had been gloomy but the weather broke just long enough for me to capture the scene before, once again, the heavens opened. finland_autumn_038

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    Pines and lake at dusk

    Pines and lake at dusk

    Another location I was made aware of was of some old fishing cabins which, again, were a relatively short distance from my cabin but hidden enough away that you wouldn’t notice them otherwise. Situated (of course!) on the shore of a lake many of these cabins date back several hundred years. Indeed, the original cabins which once stood there date back to the 16th century but, alas, these were burnt down during the war between Sweden and Russia. Today, they are owned and used as they always were by local people.

    finland_autumn_042finland_autumn_041The setting was wonderful and I settled in for the long haul realising that I was going to be there for quite some time especially since heavy rain and strong winds were forecast for the following day. Aside from the setting the cabins themselves oozed character. Wooden hooks hung from the cabin’s exterior as were all manner of traditional fishing apparatus.
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    With not a soul to be seen and not a sound to be heard I wanted to soak it all up. I was due to leave in two days and I would miss the solitude and above all else – the silence.

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    After an hour or so one of the owners of the huts turned up. A man named Tapio. He expressed an interest in my photography (a tripod does that) and in his broken English he told me a little about the history of his cabin (which dates back to the 19th century) and invited me in. What an honour I thought. Small and very cosy he tells me he comes here as often as he can. Why wouldn’t you? This is just about as perfect a retreat as you can imagine!

    finland_autumn_050finland_autumn_049He explained that stormy weather was on its way and he needed to collect his nets before tomorrow. He left his cabin open and said that I was more than welcome to photograph the inside of the door which was covered in graffiti etched into the wood by its previous owners.
    finland_autumn_043finland_autumn_051Half an hour later I could see that he was making his way back to shore. I really wanted to get a portrait of him and when he returned he happily obliged. My past years of freelancing for the press would stand me in good stead. It taught me to be quick and to direct the sitter. I need not have worried here. Some folk are just easy to capture. I simply asked him to sit on the edge of his bed and look out of the window and he naturally fell into a pose. I took just half a dozen frames and once I had finished he remained seated, turned and spoke to me. “I used to invite my wife but now I don’t. I prefer to be alone. A man needs time on his own to think sometimes”.
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    I took his email address and promised to send the image to him as well as look up the species of fish (sikka) he catches which he couldn’t remember the name of in English. It turned out to be whitefish. He’d caught 40 last week. It was to be my last day of photography but those few hours spent wandering around the cabins and meeting this warm, friendly gentleman was to be among the most memorable.

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