Creating images has been a part of our lives since the moment the first human daubed a selfie onto a cave wall. Walls gave way to the canvas, but capturing those images always relied on the talent of artists.
It was only in 1826/27 when Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce developed the first print that the photograph was born, but it was still years until moving pictures sprang to life. Imagine the moment when the first reel of the flickering film showed people the world. Picture it in your mind and then ask yourself when did you discover video? I’m not talking about the first time you watched a film; I’m talking about the moment you shifted your finger from the shutter button over to record and realised what video was truly capable of. When was that moment? What were you doing? Why did you do it?
When did you discover video?
For me, it was because of wildlife. It was all down to the dipper.
In 2019 I was working on a voluntary project for the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales. My role was to photograph some of their wildlife reserves so that they could use the images for publicity. One of those reserves was Taf Fechan. It’s on the edge of Merthyr Tydfil and hides in a gorge that snakes down into the heart of the town from the north. I’d only been there once before, but I was still excited because of, well… dippers.
Dippers are the only native British songbird that hunts for food underwater. They cover the length and breadth of Wales, but my only sight of them had been on that first visit.
For me, Taf Fechan meant a two-hour drive east along the M4, with an abrupt turn north through the Vale of Neath as first light began to touch the horizon. Hills covered by conifer plantations glowed with a halo of the sunrise as my excitement grew, but it was all about the reserve, all about wildlife, all about dippers.
I arrived a little after 7am. Car engine silenced, I stepped out to find the air alive with birdsong. It engulfed me, the joy and majesty of it washing away the cobwebs of that long, early drive. I took a deep breath and grinned. This was going to be epic.
I’d chosen the northern tip of the reserve as my entry point, so I set off and followed the path down into the gorge that forms the reserve. The sound of rushing water grew with each step as the river snaked its way into view.
I saw a dipper almost at once. A dark sense of movement in my peripheral vision made me turn, and I watched as a dipper zoomed along the river only inches above the surface. Its wings beat rapidly, and its sharp, cheeping call trailed along in its wake like an avian sonic boom. But then it was gone.
The landscape was fascinating. The water had carved its way into the rock, not only cutting out the gorge itself but eroding a deep channel through which to run. Every now and then there were bowl-shaped depressions where the water had spun gravel and stones around, like a washing machine, to hollow out tiny cavities into holes of varying sizes. Some were the size of cereal bowls, while others were up to two feet across. It looked like a giant had used his ice cream scoop on the place.
I soon noticed another dipper. I’d moved further on and climbed down the side of the gorge so that I could walk along a narrow shelf close to the water. Golden hour was still at work, so the light was amazing. Reflections on the deep, black water became a paradise of green that drew my eye towards a distant curve in the river. Dippers would flash by, darting along above the water, only to disappear around the bend. Leaves fluttered on branches that reached over the scene, and the mosses and lichens that trailed down towards the water were all touched by the same emerald palette.
The river cuts deep into the rock of Taf Fechan Nature Reserve.
I took a shot of the scene to capture the moment and then just sat there for a few minutes, my excitement rising as dippers fluttered past at regular intervals. The dipper nest I’d discovered only a few days before was around that curve in the river and, based on the amount of dipper activity, it looked as if it was still active. But then disaster. When I reached the nest, I found it in tatters. Longbeards of moss that had once been woven into the nest now dangled down as the only reminder of where it had been. Everything was silent. Dippers came and went, but none of them approached the nest.
But then I had a thought. Where were the dippers going?
I climbed back up to the path and moved on, keeping my eyes and ears open. Soon enough, I heard some frantic activity down close to the river. I couldn’t see anything from my position upon the path, so I inched down until I could see the water. Readying the camera, I sat there and waited.
It was difficult to see anything at first as the river flowed through a channel a good twenty feet deep, and everything was cloaked in shadow. Add in the effect of the trees and it was pretty black down there. But then movement. An adult dipper came flying in close to the water and landed about fifty feet back up the river away from me. It had a beak full of twitching insects and hopped onto a rock near the river’s edge, and then reached under an overhang. A moment later it was gone, its beak empty. It had fed something.
I trained my E-M1 Mark II on the scene. I was using the M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm F4 PRO with the 1.4 teleconverter attached, but it was still a stretch. I searched the riverbank until I found that small overhang of rock just above the waterline. The faintest sign of movement made me stop and, sure enough, I could see a beak. The bird it belonged to was hidden under the overhang, but there was definitely something there. The adult came back with another beak full of insects and suddenly a fledgeling dipper hopped out into view.
A fragile beam of sunlight illuminates a fledgeling dipper in the darkness of the gorge.
It was then just a matter of moving down closer and closer to the water and fighting against the darkness to get the shot. To get anywhere near a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second, I was sometimes up at ISO 4000, so I would slow the shutter right down and rely on Olympus’ fantastic image stabilisation to cope with my shakes while I grabbed images when the birds were as still as possible. Some of the images have an almost magical quality to them because of the combination of low light and sparkling water. I’m completely in love with the results.
I then turned to video. I was recording my trip for YouTube and realised that the dark conditions were ideally suited for video. I’d only need a shutter speed of 1/50th of a second to record at 25 frames per second, so that meant I’d be able to push the ISO down low and get a really clean image. For those interested, the rule of thumb for the shutter speed when recording video is just double your frames per second and use that as a reference for the shutter speed. So, 25 fps means a shutter speed of 1/50 second, 30 fps means 1/60s, 60 fps is 1/120s, and so on. The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II has great autofocus, so I was able to forget about the technical aspects of what I was doing and just immerse myself at the moment as I recorded the dippers going about their lives.
But I realised something on that trip. An image can show you the physical appearance of your subject, it can capture the mood and atmosphere, it can tell a story, but for wildlife, it can struggle to show behaviour. That’s where video comes in.
You may think that dippers are named because of the way they take a dip in the river to catch their food, but it’s all to do with the way they bob up and down when standing still. One look at the video attached to this blog will show you immediately; it’s something that a photo will never be able to achieve so vividly. Video also extends the moment beyond the single instance of an image. Sure, you can take a series of images that show a bird hopping along a path, but a video allows you to see it in action. It’s why we all love nature documentaries. We get to see wildlife in action. We get to run with the wolves, fly with eagles, peck through leaves with a blackbird. We get to share their lives.
I knew all of this already, of course, but I’d never realised it. I’d never stepped back to take a look at what I’d recorded and seen what I’d achieved by switching from stills to video. I’d just seen it as footage without realising its power and the options it opened up.
That single moment with the dippers made me fall in love with video, and the wonder of modern digital cameras means that it’s open to all. Just find something you love and press record.