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My wildlife photography journey – 1 year on

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I cannot believe it has been a year since I decided to return to photography and concentrate on one of my passions – wildlife and wildlife photography.

A time to reflect

Whenever we reach a landmark in time, like an anniversary, it is good time to reflect and take stock. What have I achieved, what would I like to achieve in the next 12 months? The beauty of photography and especially digital photography, is you can easily review your progress, successes and failures! I will quite often go back over images I took when just starting out.This is especially useful if you feel you have reached a point where, in your eyes, things are not progressing as you’d envisaged. Or you feel as though you have hit a point where you have advanced so far and now it feels like your just treading water.

I recall this feeling when I decided to learn the guitar. I was going to be the next Eddie Van Halen! Initially things seemed to progress quite quickly, I learnt a few chords and could play them in a way which almost sounded melodic! But then I hit that point where things just did not get any better. It was frustrating to an 11 year old me. If I could go back and talk to that frustrated 11 year old, I would tell him two things. Firstly, look how far you have come in a relatively short space of time. Secondly, don’t throw what you have learnt and stick at it. The secret is to just……

Practise, practise, practise

Fortunately for my parents sanity and the music world I did not take the advice of my older me. My guitar playing days were consigned to the bin. Well the same three words apply to wildlife photography, or indeed any genre of photography, or for that matter learning to drive, playing golf (I don’t by the way), drawing and painting etc etc. Imagine how different the world would be if every time we felt things weren’t going as we had planned and we just gave up.

So now I try to practise what I preach. Sure there are still plenty of times I eagerly pop the memory card into the laptop only to have that overwhelming feeling of disappointment. The difference is now, once I have got over the annoyance of getting up at 5 a.m for nothing. I try to analyse where things went wrong. What do I need to do differently next time? Bottom line is learn from your mistakes.

Be inspired by others not envious

Admit it, how often do you look at other photographers work and feel that little pang of jealousy? Or the other old classic is to say to yourself, “well of course they have amazing images, the cost of their gear is the same as my car cost”. I’ll put my hand up and plead guilty as charged. The thing is you can bet that if you gave these photographers of amazing images your kit, they would still take amazing images. So what’s their secret? I refer you to the paragraphs above. These ladies and gents have had to go through exactly the same process we all do. If you read their biographies you will find most of them have been using a camera since childhood and you can be sure the majority of them did not use a camera outfit costing tens of thousands of pounds.

Know your subject

No I don’t mean, that’s a robins, that’s a blue tit. Something I have tried to take on board from reading other photographers experiences. Is to take some time to understand the wildlife I was hoping to photograph. In other words their behaviours. Knowing this can be key to nailing that wall hanging shot. Opposite is an image of a hunting coyote taken by Steve Perry of Back Country Gallery. Steve did not get this shot relying on pure luck. He had spent time watching coyote behaviour and so was able to spot when this one was in hunting mode and its likely course of action.

Lunchtime by Steve Perry
“Lunchtime” courtesy of Back Country Gallery

So putting in a little research time on your subjects behaviour can pay off big time. To prove my point, I applied this to the image of the Hawker dragonfly below which I took at Langford Lakes in Wiltshire.

My Wildlife Photography Journey

Photographing a dragonfly on the wing was one of my “would love to do” lists – more on that later. Now we all know these wonderful aerial acrobats really move. Trying to track and get a clean focus lock on one is no easy task. But then after a bit of research I discovered they have set routes they patrol and favourite resting perches. Armed with this information I located this Hawker dragonfly and the first thing I did, was watch it. Actually that was the second thing, first I got my flask of tea out 🙂

Sure enough after only 15 minutes of watching it I noticed a flight pattern emerging. There was one particular spot it regularly just hovered whilst deciding whether to rest or do another circuit. This was where I decided I was going to stand the best chance of getting my illusive “in flight” shot. This also gave me time to pre-compose the shot and check settings. Sure enough after another 10 minutes it duly obliged and I got my shot. It won’t win any awards, but that does not matter, in my eyes it was a winner.

The value of patience

When I set out on my wildlife photography quest I fell into the trap many of us do. That is I wandered around trying to get a snap of everything that moved. Result – not many particularly good shots. I’ll be honest, it took a while for the penny to drop. That penny is patience, patience is the virtue that enabled me to get the dragonfly shot I so coveted. It also meant I got an image of a Kingfisher resting on a branch. A bit of local knowledge coupled with sitting quietly for 40 minutes paid off. The old me would of hung around for 3 minutes or even less and then moved on and I would never of seen let alone photographed this illusive bird.

Kingfisher on the river Avon

Now I am not suggesting you have to sit and wait for hours on end. But sometimes just taking 10 minutes out to sit and watch and listen to the world around you can pay dividends. Plus there is the added benefit that it is good for your mental health, just absorbing yourself in what is going on around you there and then.

The other advantage I discovered to having watching and waiting breaks is it gives me valuable preparation time. As with my dragonfly shot, it gives you time to review your camera settings, am I using the right shutter speed to capture that bird in flight as it leaves the nest? Should I shoot with the lens wide open, or should I close it down a couple of stops as a safeguard? What about the background, is there anything distracting in it? Countless times when I have been adopting my wander, point and shoot techniques to late I discover my shutter speed was to fast for a static subject, or I was at f11, so I had no nice bokeh going on. These are easy mistakes to make when starting out in wildlife photography. Thankfully I am starting to iron them out, but there is still room for improvement.

The dangers of the all consuming bucket list

wildlife photography check list

I’ll be honest with you, this was another trap I fell into! In my mind I had a list of the different species of wildlife I wanted to photograph. Now there is nothing wrong with that, until it takes over your photographic life.

What I was finding was once I had photographed that Kingfisher, Buzzard or Kestrel I became blind to them. That is not to say I did not see them. I just had the view point of “I’ve already got that one” and moved on. What I realise now is you can never have to many images of one species. You might have a perfectly good image of something, but by becoming species blind means you may just miss some amazing behaviour you or for that matter, no-one else has ever witnessed, even a potential award winner!

Shoot to your hearts content!

And that’s the beauty of digital. Unlike film where every celluloid frame was like gold. Digital means you can shoot away to your hearts content and as long as you have enough hard drive space the images can easily be stored. Many times on social media and especially during lock down, I see images posted with messages saying, “went through some unprocessed shots from a year or more ago and came across this”.

So I have learnt that if I spot a species I have crossed off my bucket list. I will still take as many images as I can, chances are there might be an even better image than the original I took. More so if that original was from the early learning days of my wildlife photography journey.

Final thoughts

Looking back on my first year of getting to grips with wildlife photography, I confess I still have a long way to go. But also I have come a long way and I feel I am making progress. If I need confirmation of this I just look back at my early efforts. The 11 year old me would have probably been frustrated at the speed of this progress, hopefully his love of nature would of kept him going – I like to think so.

A list of things I have learnt in my first 12 months:

  • Practise. There is good reason why they say “practise makes perfect” So try to get out whenever you can.
  • Be inspired by others work. Remember they were novices once too.
  • Patience. Take a flask or refreshments with you and take time out to sit and wait and see what turns up. If nothing else it gives you time to engage with your surroundings and nature – all good stuff.
  • Get to know your subjects behaviours, this will help immensely, it will give you an edge and help you nail that killer shot.
  • You can never have to many images of one species.
  • Beware of bucket lists! They can be like chasing that illusive pot of gold at the end of the rainbow!
  • Don’t be to critical of your efforts. If you are not totally happy with them, think what you would do differently next time. Learn from your mistakes.
  • Get to know how your camera works, where all the settings are and which work best according to the conditions. This will save you losing vital time fiddling around when that epic shot presents itself.
  • Above all enjoy it!

The beauty of the internet is there is so much freely available help in the form of articles and video tutorials. So if you feel you have hit a photographic wall, I’ll bet you can find the answer or inspiration somewhere. To get you started I did put a post together on people whose sites helped and inspired me. You can read it here.

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