Monthly Archives: January 2010

Mewslade Bay, Gower peninsula

View of the Thurba headland from Mewslade Bay, Gower

I’m not a great lover of blue sky images, although calendar manufacturers and tourist agencies have a preference for them. When there is no clouds in the sky they can be quite plain and even boring to look at after a while. Luckily for me some cloud drifted in above the Thurba headland to provide some interest. I have other versions without the cloud, but they don’t work as well as the ones with the cloud. With the waves moving in and out across a wide area of the image, digital capture comes into its own here. I am always taking lots of images to try and get the wave in the ideal position, but with film this gets quite expensive and wasteful. Even though you can predict where the wave is going and roughly where it will appear on the image, for some reason some waves look better than others. It is only later back at the computer when you can review them together, that it becomes clearer which images work better.

It was quite busy at Mewslade with a few dog walkers, other visitors and photographers, so it was difficult making images without foot prints or people appearing in them. If it is difficult to avoid the foot prints, I tend to make a feature of them by using a wide angle lens and getting in low to emphasise them as foreground interest. A good example of the use of footprint for effect can be seen in one of the commended and winning photos of the Wildlife photographer of the year competition 2009.

Once the light had started to soften as the sun headed towards the horizon a promising sunset started to form. I was amazed to see some of the photographers heading home, but as most didn’t seem to be using tripods supporting the camera was obviously an issue. Having seen some test images of a photo taken on a tripod and one without enlarged, I rarely take an image without my tripod or beanbags to support the lens. The difference in quality is very stark once the image starts getting enlarged. There are obviously situations where handholding is required, especially with wildlife but the improvement in framing and composition that the discipline of regular tripod use brings sometimes counters the lack of spontaneity.

Sunset at Mewslade

Broad Pool and Cefn Bryn, Gower – take two

Pool Behind Broad Pool in snow

With the second lot of snow I ventured out again to Broad Pool, but this time the surface was very grey in colour due to the ice being visible, and with a dark grey sky it just didn’t seem to work as well as before with the blue sky. I decided to go for a wander across the common behind the Pool as normally this is quite boggy and hard work to walk across. With the cold temperatures the ground was frozen and firm to walk on, so I went further than I have been before and found another pool behind Broad Pool, which I never knew existed! I think I need to get out more! It had some great details and a great curve on one side which prompted the above image. Due to the light being so dull and the image being made at about 4.30pm in the semi dark, I switched the image to black and white even though my original idea was to stay in colour.

Reeds, ice and snow 2

My liking for detail images came to the fore for the above image. As with most scenes there is more than one image that can be made from the overall scene. Normally just a different lens, angle, height or position of the camera will reveal these options. With practise, this becomes more instinctive and hopefully you reach a point where you know what lens, angle, height and position is needed when approaching a scene, or at least a close approximation.

More snow and better prepared this time!

Redwing in the snow

With a new forecast for snow being given, I was better prepared this time round. I set up two hides in the garden as the number of Redwings had increased to about 7 to 10 regular visitors plus the Starlings and Blackbirds were increasing in numbers as well.

Female Blackbird in the snow

By feeding regularly in front of the hides, the birds very quickly accepted the hides and started coming very close. Once I was inside the hides they occasionally came too close for the lens and with the numbers of birds feeding, it became difficult to isolate individual birds at times.

Starling in the snow

The more eagle eyed amongst you will have noticed the catch light in the birds eyes. Once again due to the dark conditions high ISO’s were needed and to help provide some colour correction and improve colour saturation, I used fill in flash with a flash extender fitted to match the lens coverage. I used a 500mm lens on a beanbag and laid down in my hide I have set up for ground level photography. Normally I would have used my 90 degree angle viewfinder to view through, but I kept fogging it with my breath so I used the normal viewfinder instead. I had to alter the ratio of fill in flash as the birds were coming quite close and as a result I probably didn’t need the flash extender as the birds were within about 5 feet of the lens.

With film my normal fill in flash setting was one and 2/3 of a stop less than the correct exposure, but with the enhanced low light capacity of digital I have found that I have decreased this to 2 and 2/3 of a stop less than the correct exposure. At the old setting the flash looked over done, and due to the close proximity of the birds here, I feel that I maybe should have gone lower to 3 stops or more less than the correct exposure. The flash setting on the camera is always set for Rear Curtain sync to avoid motion blur appearing over the sharp image with slower shutter speeds. With rear curtain sync, if there is any subject movement due to a slow shutter speed, it is overlaid with the sharp image made by the fill in flash. This provides a more acceptable image than having motion blur on top of a sharp flash image made at the start of the exposure with normal curtain sync. When the shutter speed gets too low, especially for the feeding motion of the birds, I had to wait for the bird to pause slightly before making an exposure. The flash was connected to the tripod collar foot with a Wimberely flash bracket, so the flash moved with the lens and was kept off the direct axis of the lens to avoid steel eye which is the bird equivalent of red eye.

Only a frost remains, no more snow.

Frost on the ground, Ilston Valley, Gower

Even in the sheltered location of Ilston valley, the snow cleared pretty quickly. With the cold temperatures a frost still occurred, but it didn’t seem as interesting as it normally does after the snow. Once again I concentrated on more detail type images, but for some reason on this visit nothing really caught me eye and I found myself making similar images to ones I had already taken before. A sigh to me that I had over done a location and was time to leave it alone for a while.

Bare stem patterns in warm winter afternoon light

Moving on to Ilston Valley, Gower Peninsula

Light and shade in Islton Valley

I left Broad Pool and moved onto Ilston valley as I knew that it would be in shade for most of the afternoon, and with the low temperatures the snow would still be present and last longer. Being quite a small wooded valley, it is a very cluttered visual scene and poses some difficulty in making successful photographic images. Once again I tend to end up make detail images more than true landscape images.

It was the diference in the cool blue of the shade contrasting against the warm colours of the sunlight trees in the background that initially caught my attention. The problem then was to find a pleasing composition that seemed to work with the pattern of the branches. After a few attempts this seemed to be the best angle and most pleasing to my eye.

Snow covered branches, Ilston Valley, Gower

The same tree from the opposite direction just gives a pretty standard image of a snow covered tree. You can also see the visual clutter that is hard to pare down to a single image. Making images of details makes this process easier, and in some locations a visual story of the location has to be made through a collection of detail images rather than through one single image.

Bent stems in the snow, Iston Valley, Gower

Snow and Ice at Broad Pool, Gower Peninsula

Reeds,ice and snow at Broad Pool, Gower

Even though the snow was starting to melt, the ice on the pond at Broad Pool was keeping the snow on it around longer. Small patches were starting to melt creating circular areas and some great patterns on the surface of the pool. I find making landscape images around the pool quite difficult due to some telephone lines and houses being visible in the background, which I don’t like. The one direction that is free of these didn’t seem to work as an image this time. Also having a clear blue sky didn’t really help with providing interest in the sky either.

Broad Pool, Gower Peninsula

I decided to focus on more detail images which I find come more naturally to me than wider landscape views any way. Some examples of which follow below.

Grass shadows on the ice, Broad Pool, Gower




Melting ice circles on Broad Pool, Gower




Melting ice patterns, Broad Pool, Gower

A little bit of snow at last and an early start on Cefn Bryn, Gower.

Cefn Bryn with a sprinkling of snow

A small sprinkling of snow arrived to cause the usual chaos that seems to happen in this country. Being close to the sea means that we don’t get snow very often and not that much when it does arrive. When it does arrive it is difficult not to run around like a headless chicken trying to make all the images that are planned in your head for an occasion when the snow arrives. I had to get on site early as I was trying to avoid foot prints in the images.

I chose Cefn Bryn and Arthurs Stone as my first port of call as I thought it would allow some views of the Gower Peninsula covered with snow. As I drove towards it, I could see that the snow was thinning out and in the west of Gower no snow had landed at all! Luckily I was the first to arrive at the car park area, so the thin layer of snow was still undisturbed which allowed the making of the above image looking west with my favourite trees on the horizon before I moved onto Arthurs Stone.

Arthurs Stone looking north

My first images of the stone were average, and it was only after a few visitors had arrived and left that I managed to make this image which I feel more pleased with. Some foot prints are visible in the snow areas, but they are not too noticeable I hope. The sun was starting to melt the snow quickly now, so it was time to move on to my next location which earlier on didn’t look too promising, but had started to change with the melting snow and ice: Broad Pool.

Cold Weather Visitors in the Garden

Redwing in a Cotoneaster Tree

With the cold weather hitting the east of the UK first it has pushed the migrant visitors further west than usual, so this winter has been the best for seeing more birds such as Redwings, Bullfinches and Fieldfare in the garden. The Redwing in the above photo was enjoying the remaining berries on the Cotoneastertree in the garden. Even with his distinctive red on the side he was very well camouflaged in the tree. It was only by accident that I saw it. I rushed upstairs to assemble the gear and point it out of an upstairs window that over looks the tree.

After eating a few berries it would retreat to a branch further into the heart of the tree for a rest, then come back out onto the end of a branch to try for a few more berries. The Blackbirds in the garden didn’t seem to pay it any attention, where as the Thrushes saw it as a rival and would chase it away, even though they didn’t seem that interested in the berries.

Mistle Thrush

Unfortunately due to it being very dark on the day, most of my pictures of the Redwing eating berries are blurred. Both of the above images were taken at 800 ISOon a 500mm lens with an exposure of F4.5 at 1/50th. The only way I managed to get these images sharp was by using a bean bag and to hold my breath when taking the exposure. Bean bags are excellent for supporting long lenses, and probably provide better support than a tripod in low light. They have the disadvantage sometimes of making it harder to frame an image due to having to find some additional support to rest the bean bag on.

Being Lazy with a Back Garden Safari

Gull feeding on bread

I have purposely posted this image first as I’m sure most people would would consider this rubbish. I actually quite like it, even though it breaks most of the photographic rules, and took no skill on my part. I was testing some hides in my back garden to check comfort, the best equipment layout and feel in use when this gull came down to the remains of some of my sandwiches. Typically I had the wrong lens on at the right time, I wasn’t in the correct position and wasn’t even looking through the camera. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the bird land, I flicked the focusing switch on the back of the camera to activate all of the focusing points and without looking through the camera, pointed the lens roughly in the direction of the gull and pressed the shutter button. 99.9% of the images were rubbish (some would say 100%!) but for some reason this appeals to me. I don’t know why though!

Female Blackbird feeding in my garden

This is more typical of the images I was making with my hide trial. By using a bean bag low on the ground to get this low view point it helps to isolate the bird from the foreground clutter, in this case grass.

Starling feeding in my garden

This is a similar image to above with the same set up. Starlings have some great patterns on them and are more colourful than they first appear. If only this one had spent some time preening before its 15 minutes of fame; the out of position feather bugs me!

Blue tit drinking

This image shows me two things: it doesn’t seem to matter what your bird bath is made of, it will always get used and that I need to get a more photographically pleasing type!

The final image is nothing special, but it was the best opportunity to get an image of a regular visitor to the garden this winter. Spot the difference!

Blackbird with no tail feathers

I don’t know how this blackbird lost it’s tail feathers, but it doesn’t seem to have any problems with flying and is just as maneuverable as the other birds when flying. Plus he holds his own with the 13 other blackbirds that gather for their feed each day.

As for the hide trial. I was testing ground level hide options and I have discovered that I am too tall for most of them. Being 6ft 4inches tall has it benefits sometimes, but trying to find a hide long and low enough to take ground level images with the camera covered inside the hide is difficult. The one I used to use seems too small and uncomfortable now. Perhaps I’m still growing! There are purpose made hides available such as those by Wildlife Watching Supplies which are great (I have a standard dome hide) , but they are quite expensive and not the sort of thing I would like to leave unattended. I have found that some tents available from military surplus suppliers work quite well with some modification and are much cheaper. Plus if they get damaged or stolen; this affects all wildlife photographers with hides at some point, the cost is not so much of an issue.

WWT London Wetlands Centre

Frozen scrape with plants stems

I always pop into the WWT London Wetlands Centre when I am in London. I find that the hides here are better positioned than most WWT centres or other reserves. They seem to be positioned lower down, closer to the water level and closer to the water in general. Also the sun position is very good with most of them. I have been a member of WWT for quite a while now, and feel that they are missing a trick with bird and nature photographers. If they had specific photographic hides or especially in summer, earlier entry times, I am sure that they would be able to market this to their advantage. I know that may photographers would be willing to pay extra, either through an enhanced membership fee or for individual usage of hides etc. Unfortunately WWT is caught in the usual trap of lack of resources which results in a slight split personality in their centres. With the introduction of cycle hire and canoe and vehicle safaris, the centres are more of a theme park designed to interest the public to become interested in the plight of nature. Before they seemed to be more of a nature reserve to provide a haven for the wildlife and birds that visited the area. I think both situations can work, but need to be carefully planned. From my biased photographic point of view it is frustrating when some of the best places for photography are  no longer an option because the hide has been removed to provide a dock for canoe safaris (Slimbridge) or the birds are disturbed by people whizzing by on bicycles (Millennium Wetlands, National Wetlands Centre Wales). The WWT centres are always worth a visit though as some of the birds are easier to approach due to them being used to seeing benign humans wandering around.

Grey Heron, WWT London Wetlands Centre

I left a bit more space around this heron in the image above, partly because I had too with the lens I had, but also it shows a bit more of the habitat around the bird. The WWT London Wetland Centre always seems to have large numbers of  Herons when I visit, so it is possible to make quite a few different images of these birds.

Goldfinch feeding in a tree

On my way back from the scrape hide I came across a small flock of Goldfinches feeding on the trees. I decided to try and make a slightly more graphic image as my lens wasn’t powerful enough to make an individual portrait. I quite like this image and for me it has worked out better than I expected at the time.

Starling singing

When I reached the main centre and cafe area I heard the strange but beautiful warbling and clicking sounds of this Starling who was happily singing away on top of the roof. It carried on quite happily as I took a few frames, and then continued after I left it in peace. I notice other photographers packing up their equipment to carry it around, but I learned my lesson a while ago: the only time to start packing your equipment away is when you are right next to your mode of transport so you can leave, or when it is so dark you cannot make any images even if you wanted too! If you had packed up your gear, would you unpack it for this image? Probably not, but sometimes simple environmental images like this tell an interesting tale of a birds life and home conditions.