Wild Surrey Kickstarter Project

Wild Surrey
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.

Wild Surrey Postcard PackIf you’d like to find out more, and purchase your copy of Wild Surrey, please visit Kickstarter and make a pledge here.

Update

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.

Surrey Life 2014 Calendar Competition

Surrey Life Calendar Competition 2014.

Surrey Life Calendar Competition 2014. My image is featured in July.

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.

Surrey Life Photo Competition Exhibition, Denbie's Vineyard

My winning entry, top middle, fighting for wall space! The overall winner is bottom left.

Surrey Life Photo Competition Exhibition, Denbie's Vineyard

Me and the kids posing with another of my images, the Poppy Field at Send.

For more information please see the Surrey Life website here.

To see all the exhibited entries click here.

Congratulations to all the winning entries!

Storm Brewing at Newhaven

Lighthouse, Newhaven

Lighthouse, West Quay, Newhaven. This was the shot I had in my mind for all these years, awesome to see and experience it.

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.

Lighthouse, West Quay, Newhaven

Similar, but different. There’s a lot more of these where this came from!

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.

Lighthouse, West Quay, Newhaven

Taken from the other side, untempered by the sea defences you could see and feel the full force of the gale. Incredible.

Gulls

The gulls seemed to be enjoying it.

Gulls, Newhaven

More gulls, more mad surf.

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.

RNLI Lifeboat, Newhaven

Hopefully this gives an idea of what they had to contend with.

RNLI Lifeboat, Newhaven

RNLI Lifeboat, Newhaven. So full of admiration for these guys to put themselves at risk to try and save another. What an incredible job they do.

RNLI Lifeboat, Newhaven

At times they looked like they were going to get engulfed by the massive waves.

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.

Weally Welsh Birding Weekend

Red Kites Circling, Gigrin Farm

Red Kites Circling, Gigrin Farm

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.

Red Kite, Gigrin Farm

The size of these birds takes the breath away, their wingspan is enormous. I just think they’re awesome.

Red Kite, Gigrin Farm

Looking ominous as he comes in for the kill!

Red Kite, Gigrin Farm

Red Kite underbelly

Red Kite Diving, Gigrin Farm

I was desperate to get one of them diving. It all happens so quick it’s very difficult and I began to get increasingly frustrated. I think it’s time I bought a gimbal head. This one was just too close, but there’s something about this one that I really quite like.

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.

Sunset, West Hook Farm

Sunset taken from the campsite, West Hook Farm

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.

Oystercatcher on Skomer Island

The colour on the island was just breathtaking, and it makes a lovely backdrop for this Oystercatcher.

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.

Puffin, Skomer Island

Thought I better get the obligatory Puffin portrait in the bag before attempting something a little more challenging.

Puffin and Flowers, Skomer Island

Thought this one looked quite cute poking his head up over the flowers.

Puffins Greeting, Skomer Island

An intimate moment as a returning Puffin gets a warm welcome from its partner

Puffin Strolling, Skomer Island

Loved this comical walk!

Puffins Fighting, Skomer Island

Fight!

Puffin with Sand Eels, Skomer Island

Really glad to get this one. There were quite a few large gulls terrorizing any Puffins that came back with Sand Eels, and so I think the human presence was quite welcome as it offered the Puffins some protection.

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.

Wheatear with Crane Fly, Skomer Island

Wheatear with Crane Fly, Skomer Island

Razorbill, Skomer Island

Razorbill near the pick up point. Handsome birds.

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.

West Hook Farm Campsite

Euan, Colin and Mike enjoying a cup of tea, West Hook Farm Campsite.

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!

Doing a Quick Tern*

Upside down Common Tern

A Tern doing a, errr, turn.

* 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.

Great Crested Grebe carrying chicks on back

It was only when I got this shot loaded onto the computer that I realised there were 4 on the back!

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.

Yapping Great Crested Grebe Chick

Feed me!

Great Crested Grebe with Chicks

Hold it right there you three!

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).

Great Crested Grebe chick flapping wings

I believe I can fly!

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.

Great Crested Grebe family

Following Mummy

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!

Great Crested Grebe in the mist with fish

The returning hero. With 4 hungry mouths to feed he’s certainly got his work cut out.

Great Crested Grebewith fish

I’ve been trying for so long to get a shot like this. Finally 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.

Common Tern

Very happy with this shot. The mist, the waterdrops and the backlighting all come together very nicely.

Canon 400mm Prime versus 100-400mm Zoom

Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit photographed with the 400mm prime @5.6, 1000 ISO, Canon 7D. It’s a very small bird, but the lens has caught the detail beautifully.

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.

Advantages

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.

kestrel

Taken with the 100-400mm, @ 400mm. Despite a very fast moving subject the focus is pin sharp right where it should be.

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.

Dunnock in the Garden

Dunnock in the Garden. 400mm prime, 250th sec / f5.6, ISO 800

Disadvantages

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!

Conclusion

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!