At the beginning of 2014 I made a resolution to get out into the Surrey Hills more with my camera. The Surrey Hills is a designated Area of Outstanding Beauty, and forms part of the North Downs Way. Newlands Corner, Box Hill, Leith Hill and far more besides offer fantastic views that stretch for miles, and there are many photogenic hotspots in between. I’ve spent a fair amount of time photographing at Newlands Corner, and a little at Denbies Vineyard and the Hogs Back, but beyond that I hadn’t really done it justice.
I’d always been of the opinion that when you get shortlisted it’s better to keep it under wraps. After all, it’s not as if you’ve actually won anything at this stage, and you wouldn’t want to ‘jinx’ the result by telling everyone only to end up empty handed.
But the longer I go on, and the more competitions I enter, the more my attitude is changing. As the level in competition pushes ever higher, the harder it is to get through, so to make it to the shortlist is in itself an achievement.
I’m proud to say that for the second year running I’ve made it into the Surrey Life Calendar. My image of a backlit tree taken in the Valley Gardens at Virginia Waters earlier this year has been selected to represent March. Rather fitting as that’s my birthday month! (Tenuous I know). A total of 35 winning and selected entries will once again be exhibited at Denbies Vineyard in Dorking from Monday January 19th until Sunday January 25th, so plenty of time to pay a visit.
It’s that time of year again, the annual Red Deer Stag Rut, and as I missed it last year I didn’t want to miss it this year. I met up with Daniel Hannabuss, a photographer whose website I’d built a couple of years ago, but had never actually met in person. So it was good to finally meet up and go out taking shots together. We met up outside Richmond Gate at 6.30 and walked in to be greeted by some nice mist and a group of hinds with a large Stag to the left. The sun hadn’t yet come up, and after staying a little while we headed toward Pen Ponds.
I’m delighted to announce that I’ve just launched my Wild Surrey Kickstarter project. ‘Wild Surrey’ is a postcard box set, 10 high quality postcards beautifully presented in a maltese cross folding cover. The postcards feature wildlife photographed in and around Surrey, at nature reserves, national parks, lakes, canals and rivers. Species covered include Red Deer, Barn Owls, Great Crested Grebes and Waxwing.
My main aim is to highlight all the wonderful wildlife on our doorstep, in the hope that others can enjoy it too and share my passion. The more people that are passionate about wildlife, the more hope there is for its long term future.
I’m looking to raise £4,000 to cover printing and postage costs, so I’m looking for a set pledge of £12 from each backer in order to reach my target (£15 outside the UK). Everyone that makes a pledge will receive a copy of the postcard set. Transactions are handled through amazon payments, if the target is not reached then no money is taken from your account.
If you’d like to find out more, and purchase your copy of Wild Surrey, please visit Kickstarter and make a pledge here.
Unfortunately I didn’t reach the funding target, but I would like to thank all those of you that made a pledge. Your support was greatly appreciated. I’m sorry that we couldn’t achieve our goal and see it in print.
I’m proud to announce that my photo of the Mayfield Lavendar Field in Banstead has been chosen for the 2014 Surrey Life Calendar. The calendar is available free with the January edition of Surrey Life. The competition was judged by Photography Monthly and Turning Pro Editor Adam Scorey.
All the winning entries, along with a few extras, were displayed at the Denbies Vineyard Gallery, from January 20 to January 26. I went along on the Sunday to have a look and was pleasantly surprised to find that 4 of my images in total were selected for the Exhibition.
For more information please see the Surrey Life website here.
To see all the exhibited entries click here.
Congratulations to all the winning entries!
Ever since I saw Gail Johnson’s picture of a massive wave slamming the side of a lighthouse in the 2008 LPOTY I’ve been looking to shoot something similarly dramatic. So it may’ve been 5 years in the planning, but you can’t rush into these things! I wanted to be as sure as I could though, until conditions were just right. Newhaven isn’t exactly around the corner for me, but with hurricane force winds predicted overnight I don’t think conditions could’ve been any better than they were. Thankfully I didn’t have anything else planned so I made the (rather tedious) journey to the coast. Tedious due mainly to a massive tailback on the M3 that had me fighting my way across country to get back on track.
Two and a half hours later and I was finally in Newhaven. As I rounded the corner and the view opened up I soon realised it was worth it. Waves were crashing against the sea defence and lighthouse. I’d packed some plastic carrier bags to protect the camera from the sea spray, but as soon as I opened my camera bag they caught the wind and disappeared. Ah well, there went that idea. Holding on to the tripod legs was similarly fraught, so sheltering behind a wall seemed the best idea. Thankfully it wasn’t raining, which was one less thing to contend with, but unfortunately the light was a little flat. I started shooting at 400ISO but very soon had to push to 640 to cope with the worsening conditions. I was hoping for some late burst of dramatic last rays of sun but it never materialised.
I concentrated first on the west side of the defence, keen to get a frame filling shot of the lighthouse. Once I was sure I had a couple of good ones I then went to the east side, and here you could see and feel the full force of the wind. The power of the waves was incredible, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it. But then I am from Surrey.
I got a few shots of the waves breaking on the defence, and then an RNLI Lifeboat came into view. A 14 year old boy had been swept out to sea. The lifeboat was swaying wildly from side to side and at times looked like it would get engulfed by the massive waves. But they soldiered on in their attempts to find the boy and at times seemed to get dangerously close to the sea defence. Soon after a helicopter arrived, not to mention several police cars and ambulance.
By this point the beach was swarming with onlookers and the emergency services, and we were moved off the beach. I heard later that they continued to search until 10 o’clock, before having to call it off. A very tragic ending that only serves to underline just how dangerous these conditions can be.
I’d been to Skomer 5 years ago, but it turned into something of a disaster. Our kids were both very small at the time, we had no food or drink, and after attempting to carry them for as long as we could it soon became apparent we were woefully under prepared. I managed a few minutes with the Puffins before I had to cut my losses, and so it was very much unfinished business. I was also keen to photograph the red kites again, and so combining the two over a weekend seemed like a very good idea. As good as the feeding station is at Bwlch Nant yr Arian, the one problem is that you can’t get quite close enough to the Kites to fill the frame, so I wanted to see if things were any better at Gigrin Farm. I booked a couple of places in the Gateway Hide and hoped for the best.
And so it was that Colin and I set off at 7 in the morning from West Byfleet and headed for mid Wales. Despite a slight hiccup with the sat nav when Col decided to select the ‘non-motorway’ option we got there in very good time and waited for feeding. Once the action began it soon became apparent that the main problem would be not cropping off wings, they were that close. In hindsight I would’ve booked one of the higher, open top hides as I lost a few shots when trying to track them overhead. But after a couple of hours of full on action I was very happy with the shots I’d managed to get and my main problem was going to be freeing up space on my memory card for the Puffins.
We then made the journey down to the western tip of Wales to the campsite at West Hook Farm. If you’re looking to make the pilgrimage to Skomer then you couldn’t choose a better campsite to stay at, it’s literally a 5 minute walk to the ticket booking office, and the view out across the bay is beautiful. We were treated to a beautiful sunset before the night drew in. After a couple of beers I then had to try and get some sleep before getting up at 6 the next morning to stand in the queue for the landing pass and boat across. What sounded like a sleeping elephant next to me had other ideas though, so I can’t really say I had the best nights kip.
I did however make it to the queue by 7 the next morning, but even then around 20 people were in front of me! So if you’re planning on a Skomer trip get to the booking office as soon as you can to avoid disappointment. Whilst queuing I was joined by Euan and Mike, who’d come down from Cardigan for the day. With tickets in hand we made our way down to the boat, and on visiting the Gents came upon a couple of nesting pairs of swallows! I would’ve got my camera out but didn’t particularly want to get myself arrested over a ‘misunderstanding’!
So leaving the swallows to their own devices we boarded the first boat across at 10, which gave us 5 hours on the island before the boat back. Once on the island Colin and I headed straight for the Puffins, while Euan and Mike headed in a different direction.
Col and I then proceeded to spend the next 3 and a half hours with the Puffins before deciding we ought to perhaps venture further afield.
We bumped into Euan and Mike who had seen a Peregrine Falcon and Short Eared Owl on the other side of the island, so we thought we’d give it a go. Unfortunately we didn’t see either but I did get to photograph a Wheatear at close quarters so it was worth the soujourn. There were also a small colony of Grey Seals on a rocky outcrop, athough they were too far away to get any decent shots of.
Worth mentioning is the amazing colour across the island. The bluebells were out in full bloom, with carpets of bright pink campion fighting for attention. Absolutely stunning.
We made it back to the boat just in time, and after a cup of tea back at the campsite Euan and Mike made their way home. Colin and I stayed on the campsite for another night, dining out at the Lobster Pot in Marloes, and then attempting to get a good night’s sleep after an exhausting couple of days. The sleeping elephant put the kibosh on that of course. But feeling a little fresher than the night before we made the journey home, doing it in good time, and thankfully without hitting any traffic jams.
We’d really lucked out with the weather, two glorious days of sunshine. Whilst perfect for the kites I had hoped for slightly more overcast for the puffins to avoid burning out the highlights on their chests, but you can’t have everything!
* My alternative headline for this was ‘Tern, Tern, Tern. Tern, Tern, Tern’, a little play on the Travis song, but decided it was a little tenuous. Or maybe that should read tedious. Just like Travis.
But I digress. For anyone who’s read this blog for any length of time will know I have something of a soft spot for the Great Crested Grebe. I spent a good part of spring and summer a couple of years back photographing a couple of Grebe pairs at different locations nearby.
There were still a number of shots I had in my head that I still hadn’t come to fruition, and I’dalways intended to go back at some point and finish what I started. Whilst on the way back from somewhere I drove past this large pond and noticed a pair of Grebes. I stopped the car to take a closer look and was delighted to see that the female was carrying chicks on her back! This was one shot in particular that was still on my wish list.
I returned one evening after work and managed to get one semi decent shot, but with the light levels really low the quality wasn’t great, so I knew I’d have to give it another go. Time was of the essence as they don’t stay chicks for very long, so I returned at the weekend.
When I got there conditions were perfect, a mist had developed, and I realised that the nest was very close. The only problem of course was that it was partially obscured, so I couldn’t get a decent shot and they weren’t moving for toffee. (Maybe I should have tried offering them something else instead).
However, I then noticed that there was a second pair of Grebes further round with two chicks, and they had ventured about ten yards from the bank. So I made my way around the lake, more in hope than expectation, and had to negotiate a very marshy area that left me fearing for my camera, but I made it onto the platform at the edge of the lake and lucky for me they hadn’t moved. In fact they stayed right where they were and seemed perfectly at ease with my presence. It was a magical moment, the light and mist were just beautiful, not a hint of wind, and I got down low and snapped away for around ten minutes before they eventually swam away.
I thought I’d then return to the original pair and see if there was anything happening. When I got back the mother and chicks were still on the nest. I was lucky enough however to catch the male coming back with a fish in his mouth. It’s a shot I’ve tried several times before to get and failed, but thankfully this time I got it!
Not wishing to look a gift horse in the mouth I thought I’d stick around a little longer. A Common Tern was circling the pond and diving for fish. I knew this was potentially a good opportunity, as he was being beautifully backlight by the early morning sun. When he dived again I shot off a burst of frames, but I couldn’t possibly have realised how lucky I’d be when I reviewed them. In one of the frames he’d turned upside down, with the water spiralling off his beak. A rare moment when everything comes together to deliver something totally unexpected.
I also saw a Kingfisher flying fast and low over the surface of the water. A real hidden gem of a pond, I’ll be sure to return here soon.
Having owned the 100-400mm zoom for a couple of years, I began to suffer from the ‘grass is always greener’ syndrome, that the 400mm prime might be the better option for me. What finally did it for me was reading Canon’s Forgotten 400. It was all I needed to hear, so I put the zoom up for sale on ebay, and as soon as that was gone I went out and bought the prime.
So what are the advantages of the prime over the zoom? The first thing you notice about the prime is how much lighter it feels than the zoom, which with my dodgy back is certainly a plus. Perhaps the greatest advantage however is the autofocus. It’s damn quick. One of the frustrating aspects of the zoom for me was it’s continual ‘hunting’ for focus. The prime is lightening quick, and I’ve captured many shots that with the zoom I’d have lost.
My one overriding concern however was the sharpness. I’d hoped that my success rate would improve with the prime, but I can’t really say that it has. The prime is undoubtedly a sharp lens, but I have to say there’s really very little difference between the two. Shots taken at distance were proving disappointing with my old zoom, and I laid the blame squarely on the lens. But I now think that environmental factors were far more to blame, as I still see the same happening with the prime. A common complaint I kept hearing about the zoom was it wasn’t sharp at full extension, but I never found this to be the case and have several shots to prove it. I’ve read elsewhere that there may be a variance from model to model in the quality of the optics, so I think it’s fair to say I had a good model.
I’m now of the opinion that it’s far better to increase the ISO and take a little noise on the chin. With my old 500D I wasn’t really willing to do this, but now I have a 7D I’m far more comfortable pushing the ISO to 800, or even a 1000. Doing this I’ve found sharpness has improved considerably. These days, I’ll always then reduce the noise on the background, leaving the subject untouched as the noise is always far less obvious and I don’t want to lose any of the detail where it counts. It has to be said that the 7D and 400mm Prime are a great combination, but that’s probably the subject of another blog article.
I wasn’t sure about the non-detachable lens hood at first, but actually it’s great. Far better than the frankly annoying lens hood on the zoom, which more often than not I would leave at home as it just gets in the way.
One of my rationale’s for buying the prime was that I was always using the zoom at 400mm anyway and so didn’t need the zoom. Now I don’t have the option it’s incredible how often I wish I still had it! I really miss that flexibility. Shooting the deer in Richmond Park was one such occasion; with the zoom I could just re-adjust (I never had a problem with the push pull mechanism), with the prime you find yourself continually having to take a few steps back, only to find you’re still not far enough back, and potentially missing the moment. This isn’t always the case of course, with birds you’re never quite close enough and then it’s not an issue.
The prime has a really poor close focusing distance. Inspired by the likes of Sandra Bartocha I was looking to get into a lot more close up photography, and the zoom, with a minimum focusing distance of 1.8m, was good for this. With the prime, with a minimum focusing distance of 3.5m, you just can’t get close enough. No contest! Just going to have to get a macro lens as well!
In summary, both are great lenses, I would say the prime may just pip the zoom for sharpness, but there’s not a lot in it. At the end of the day both are L Series lenses with excellent reputations. If you need the flexibility, then go for the zoom, you’ll still take some great, sharp shots. There have been occasions when due to the lack of flexibility and close focusing that I’ve considered selling up and getting the zoom back again, but for now at least I’m going to stick with it. The zoom is a great all-rounder that eradicates the need for a 70-200, and to a certain extent a macro. Two lenses which are now on my list – quite where they’re going to go in my camera bag I have no idea!
I feel I’ve had a bad run of luck lately. I went to Richmond Park in the snow to photograph the deer and saw not a single deer. I was down to Dorset and set the alarm to catch Corfe Castle shrouded in mist, but despite what looked like the right conditions the night before there was not an ounce of mist to be seen. I then went to the Old Pier at Swanage to find a bright red boat moored at the end of it, which thwarted any chance of getting the kind of shot I was after. Then to top it off we were heading back to Poole, the kids starving and with the promise of Macdonalds, when the most glorious sunset started to develop. I raced to the Quay as quick as I could to find something, ANYTHING, that would make a decent setting but just couldn’t get there quick enough and missed the best of the colour. Things weren’t going well.
So it wasn’t with a great deal of optimism that I set the alarm for 5 o’clock when mist and fog was forecast the next morning. Top of my list for 2013 was to capture a mist filled valley. Peter Hulance and Phil Selby had taken some great shots at Pewsey Vale, which looking on the map seemed within relatively easy reach. It was, I discovered, quite a tedious journey but I still managed to make it to Martinsell Hill within plenty of time. Thankfully, being February, sunrise was still at a reasonable hour (7.18) and I’d given myself plenty of time so as not to end up giving myself a coronary to get there.
I was glad to see that there was a little nice mist hanging in the valley so I wasted no time in setting up and began shooting. Not long after I’d arrived another photographer turned up, and sure enough it was Peter Hulance himself. Together we enjoyed the drama that unfolded before us.
Peter and I had been flickr contacts for a while, and I was a big fan of his work, so it was nice to finally meet. Peter was very modest about his own achievements, and a thoroughly nice chap to boot! I’m quite sure we’ll bump into each other at Pewsley again.
And what a location it is. Breathtaking. As the sun rose and broke over the bank of cloud the mist increased and the colours were beautiful. It’s amazing how mist can transform a scene. Photographic heaven!
I returned home with that satisfying feeling of knowing I’d got some lovely shots, and thanked my lucky stars I’d made the effort. Special mornings like these restore your faith and enthusiasm.
Just before Christmas in the middle of the cold snap, I’d made the journey to Newlands Corner, hoping to get some landscapes covered in hoar frost. It looked great on the Hog’s Back and I figured with Newland’s Corner being so high up I would see more of the same. Sadly, when I got there it was disappointingly ice free. So I thought I’d have a little look by the feeders and get some snaps. The light wasn’t great, but I was delighted to see there was a Marsh Tit in the area. Their population has been in steady decline, and I’d certainly never seen one before, so a first for me. I also spied a very colourful Bullfinch, and behind the Visitor Centre I saw a couple of Tree Creepers. I resolved to return on a better day and try my luck.
I returned fully equipped with a couple of lichen and moss covered perches, as well as a plentiful supply of nuts. At first there was nothing but the usual Great and Blue Tits, but after a little while the Marsh Tit came in, and fortunately for me, wasn’t at all shy. More than can be said for the Nuthatch. Although I’ve photographed them a few times I’m still yet to get one I’m entirely happy with, but today I got perhaps my best yet.
Light levels still weren’t great, the clear skies that had been forecast didn’t really materialise, so I was pushing a high ISO with exposures between 1/200th anf 1/400th of a second. Having recently upgraded from the 500D to a 7D I feel I can get away with it a little more, but it’s not ideal. I’d still rather get a good sharp shot with a little noise though, than a noise free but blurred bird.
After having lured in the birds with the nuts, I then noticed that the Marsh Tit was feeding on the nuts on the ground right in front of me, so I returned to the car and got my mossy ground perch out, laid it down, and covered the area liberally with nuts! It worked a treat, not only did the Marsh Tit pose nicely on it, but the Nuthatch was becoming increasingly bold and landed right where I wanted him. Even the Jay got over it’s shyness and came right in.
I returned again in mid March, keen to get some more of the nuthatch. It was far brighter second time around, and with shutter speeds of around 1250th sec I was able to freeze the movement of the nuthatch completely.
The Marsh Tit was still around but not quite so bold this time, but a Pied Wagtail paid a visit, a nice bonus.
I promised myself no photos of Robins, Blue Tits and Great Tits, but the Robin looked so good I couldn’t resist.
I think I’ve finally got the nuthatch out of my system now, so I can move on!