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Top 5 Photos of 2014

January 8, 2015

The stories and techniques behind my  top 5 wildlife photos from this past year. 

 

Last June's trip to the Threave Estate in Galloway was pretty spectacular, so I feel no shame in choosing all of my top 2014 wildlife shots from this one location. But for a good reason - nowhere else on earth have I seen such incredible sunrises! Each dawn shoot revealed new light - from Indian Ink blue to chrysanthemum pink. On my shoot at Carlingwark Loch, the light was pure liquid gold, somehow managing to be more golden than gold itself. 

 

It's a pleasure to work in these conditions but also a great challenge, which is why I'm sharing the stories behind these images. Some might wonder why there are no Normandy hedgehog or shrike pictures here, but for me that was a different kind of experience...I've chosen this selection because they better reflect my artistic style.

 

Thanks for taking the time to read, and I hope you enjoy and perhaps learn too! 

 

All images can be purchased as prints from the Shop

Other images from the Threave trip can be viewed in the Recent Gallery

 

1. THREE SWALLOWS AND THE MOON

Barn Swallows | 1/1000 sec at f5.6, ISO 400 | 400D + 400mm f5.6

 

I had just finished a very long night monitoring whiskered bats with the Scottish Wildlife Trust, ending up at a river location not far from their roostsite. The sun was beginning to peak over the trees and, as I didn't know this part so well, I decided to dump the bat gear in the car, don my camera and head for a walk. Probably my favourite image of 2014. 

 

I had hardly left the little carpark when I heard rattling squeaks overhead. Having heard bats doing a similar performance on my detector for the past 11 hours, it was a bit of a surprise to see the culprits were swallows - the bats of the daytime! Lots of them, lined up on a phone wire, right in front of the moon. 

 

The idea for this shot came pretty instantly. I knew I wanted that inky blue sky, the gibbus moon, and silhouettes of swallows. I got a few shots with just one swallow and the sky, underexposing the swallow and using the moon as a back light so as to throw the bird into silhouette. ISO 400 was the highest I could afford to go before losing the silhouette effect, and I compensated by boosting my shutter speed up to 1/4000, which also froze the birds in flight. I was shooting handheld too, on a 400mm lens, so it took some physical effort to compose and shoot.

 

I had my first element in place: the portrait, of the swallow in front of the moon. It became clear however that behaviour, and not just a technically pretty portrait, had to make the image work. Every so often, I'd glance out of my viewfinder to watch the swallows and predict what they'd do - for example, if one bird was sitting on a wire, I would wait for another bird to land on the wire, and see if the first bird flew off or interacted with its new companion. 

 

I had my composition: the 3 diagonal lines, and the moon in the top right corner, strictly obeying a rule-of-thirds form.  And I had a swallow in the opposing left corner. Now I just needed some behaviour, such as one more swallow to fly in bottom left... 

 

As luck had it, that happened - before my arms had a chance to collapse under the weight of the camera. I missed the moment the bird flew in, but still got what I wanted: Bird 1 looking back; Bird 2 landing, wings outstretched and stunning forked tail; Bird 3, elegantly shadowed against the moon. Overall a simple, pleasing and unusual monochrome image of a subject usually seen in broad daylight. I don't think I've taken a single image as formulaic or as lucky as that, and look forward to doing it again!

 

1. DAWN AT CARLINGWARK LOCH 

Moorhen | 1/3200 sec at f5.6, ISO 200 | 400D + 400mm f5.6

 

Carlingwark Loch at dawn was like nothing else. You would be forgiven for not realising this is in the Dumfries town centre. But at 4am, it's pure magic and isolation. 

 

And so that's what I wanted to show. The mist, which seemed to rise off the lake, was the core element of the picture. The second element was the light. The sky was constantly changing colour - first white (as you'll see in my third image, Swanscape, below), then icy blue, and then this gold. To capture both, I really had to get down low on my stomach, which smoothed out water reflections and created a balanced composition of water and sky. As with the swallows, I selected a high shutter to freeze any possible action, and an open aperture and ISO to let the light stream in and close off any distracting elements. 

 

Soon a subject came along - a common moorhen. The colour was just right, a simple black plumage with a little variation on the wings. I got many portrait shots with the moorhen virtually filling the frame, but my favourite is this one, showing the bird in its misty magical environment. 

 

3. SWANSCAPE

Mute Swan | 1/250 sec at f5.6, ISO 200 | 400D + 400mm f5.6

 

However cliched you might think swans are to photograph, they really are great birds, and if anything the fact they are considered "cliched" makes it even more fun to try something new.

 

I've taken lots of inspiration for this shot from one of my favourite photographers, Vincent Munier, and his portfolio of Japanese swans and cranes in the snow. My work in wedding photography inspired the negative space approach. The mist and white sky so obviously lent themselves to an empty monochrome scene, where less would be more. The scene was a blank canvas, and the swan would be the only mark upon it.

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For that to work, I got down very low to cut out sharp reflections - even lower than with my moorhen photo, as I didn't want the slightest reflection. With such white mist this also meant that, at water level, it was less clear where water ended and sky began. This was the effect I wanted - of a pure white page.

 

I chose an exposure that would leave just a little detail in the water around the swan, and waited for the swan to turn its head away from me. When it did, its necked formed a distinctive S shape, like a signature on the white. Its beak added a candle light to the scene, a brushstroke of orange and black in acres of white page. 

 

4. PENETRATING STARE 

Ring Necked Pheasant | 1/100 sec at f5.6, ISO 400 | 400D + 400mm f5.6

 

This photo is strongly inspired by one of my favourite and best known wildlife photos, "Peeping Through Foliage" (the chipmunk). It uses a technique I created a couple of years ago, of an animal completely framed by leaves, with only key features on show. The desired effect for "Peeping Through Foliage" was to create an endearing portrait with dappled lighting of a very sweet animal; the effect here is of stumbling upon an elusive pheasant in the jungle of the undergrowth. 

 

This photo is a bit of a lie though, as this pheasant was anything but elusive. He spent a good few hours serenading his mate with garrulous clucks, no less than 4 metres from my forest hide. This was my third day of photographing pheasants, so by now I had got to know the cock pheasant's favourite paths through the forest and his favourite feeding spots. I also spent most of that time trying to photograph them without avail, because of the sheer quantity of ferns and bracken in front of the hide. An obstacle to some but soon, with "Peeping Through Foliage" quick in my mind, a creative challenge. 

 

I returned the next morning at first light, making sure I was there for the entire sunrise. Most of all, for that moment around 6:20am when the light would cut through the trees in a very precise way, lighting the forest floor and ferns. Exposure, as for other days, was as open as possible, with a low aperture to throw the ferny foreground completely out of focus. I just kept the camera focussed through the one gap I could guarantee (a) that the pheasant would pass on his way to feed (b) that would guarantee me a clean shot of its face and plumage. I wanted not just its startled expression as it looked up, but also the shimmering breast feathers. 

 

The cock bird arrived. I made a gentle clicking noise and, first time lucky, he looked up and stared down the lens. The picture's a little off - I'd like more of his left eye in the light, and the purples of his feathers, but otherwise it's not far from my imagination.  

 

5. ORIENTAL SWAN

Mute Swan | 1/200 sec at f5.6, ISO 200 | 400D + 400mm f5.6

 

On second thought, this might be my favourite shot of the year. It's certainly my most successful wildlife shot of 2014, getting the approving eye of both National Geographic France's picture editor and the judges at International WildBird Photographer of the Year.

 

Again, it is inspired by the great Vincent Munier, taking a page from his oriental images. I waited for the mist to lift a little so that I could see some more detail in this "floating" tree. Framing was essential. The silhouetted tree in the white mist, with glassy reflections (I chose a higher perspective here), would create something atmospheric and magical, without a sense of geographic context. The curve of the branches, sweeping as if from some Japanese painting, were too good to ignore, so had to be included in full. The swan had to be a small part of this scene, in the style of a Japanese bird print, and popping out against the bluish water. 

 

All images can be purchased as prints from the Shop

Other images from the Threave trip can be viewed in the Recent Gallery

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