BY ROB COTTLE
I hope Santa was kind to you all, I think we all deserve a little treat after the last year. Once again, I thought a companion piece to his Macroness @geraintradfordmacro and my Christmas Instagram extravaganza
takeover – funnily enough just before Christmas – was in order.
As I’ve mentioned before, it’s not always possible to show what we are up to or even what we have shot at the time due to the nature of the great outdoors, frostbitten fingers, fairy lights and of course working with Geraint but hey, we all have our crosses to bear!
Nature photography is helped so much by light and as the weather has been positively spiteful in South Wales recently, we just have to use what’s given to us and here was no different, so these are here just to give you a few ideas. Remember whatever you are photographing you can only shoot what’s in front of you, so don’t beat yourself up, just do your best and use the time to think about and hone your next shoot. However much it may not be the competition winner we’d like to capture we still go through the same principles and one day who knows it may be our/your day.
We had heard reports of Santa being sighted in South Wales on a recce of all the chimneys that have now been converted to central heating, so we decided to find him and ask for a 150-400mm F4.5 PRO as we had both been especially good this year (I know it’s a different fable but our noses have just extended like Pinocchio with a MC-14 1.4x extender attached). Our first idea was that he must have arrived of course by reindeer and where better to park them up than at the deer park so, off we trundled looking for a red glow in amongst the undergrowth.
Rudolph (no, honest!)
We scoured the grounds for what felt like ages, checking for fresh reindeer spore and eventually it led us to the takeaway coffee stall where, it being rude not to, we partook in a warm beverage. The sudden rush of warmth to our brains, made us realise that of course the reason we couldn’t find tracks was that they had flown in, duh! So we looked for a vegetable patch and lo and behold there they were, eating what else but the carrots of course. Being nature photographers that will not influence mother nature going about its business, you can only capture what the wildlife is getting up to and where it positions itself (although with a bit of planning sometimes we can improve our chances – but not here). Ideally the beautiful doe wouldn’t have the grass bank behind her as it doesn’t make a for a great background but we can still record it as best as we can. So, I’ve added a few images to show you a few ways to make the composition a little more interesting. Now as we can’t change the background here, we could change the foreground. Usually, I would advocate laying down so low you are practically eating dirt (or worse!) however here that would have meant you capturing an image of the grass as the doe was standing above us on a huge slope.
In the first image, I’m standing at around normal height, straight on to the doe and simply focussing on the head. My aperture is at F5.6 (which is the widest aperture at this zoom range, remember smaller numbers = less depth of field) because I want the background to blur as much as possible, although there won’t be much blur here as we are far too close to it to be useful.
The second image is very similar but I am crouching a little to try and capture some of the foreground grasses. The impression is that you are looking through the grass and this can give your image an interesting look, almost like you are stalking the animal. It can also stop the image looking like a pure record shot.
The third image takes the idea of blurring the foreground grasses a little further and the F5.6 aperture is useful again to blur the foreground grasses. Remember that your depth of field, which is basically the amount of focus/sharpness in your image, is around one third in front of your subject and 2 thirds behind. This is something that is extremely useful to wildlife photographers for two reasons; 1: you can exploit the widest apertures to allow your subject to pop out of your image by having the foreground and background more diffuse (less sharp) and your subject in focus. 2: the wider the aperture the more shutter speed is available and we often need as much as we can get.
Although we had found his transport, we couldn’t find Santa, so we decided to visit the woods as we knew there were mushrooms around and had been told he was a fun-gi, (Geraint Joke, don’t blame me), however, on the way there we passed a whole gaggle of Canada geese on the pond and my shutter button got twitchy, not allowing passing without taking a few shots.
I’m straight back onto familiar territory and laying on the ground (I’m sure I should have been born a limpet) although thankfully this time it was a small timber platform rather than cold earth and it allowed me to go even lower by hanging over the side. With rather soggy elbows to show for it I captured a few variations of the always interesting Canada Goose. I’ve included three more images to show the variations again.
In all the images, I can’t emphasise this enough, get low, get low and for good measure get low. There are times when this may not work as well and indeed always look for other angles and compositions but it’s rare that a wildlife image doesn’t improve by getting low in some way with your camera. This will allow you to blur the foreground which can have the effect of leading to your subject and allowing it to pop out, especially if it’s far enough from your background to blur that as well (the further you are from your background the more diffuse it is). It also gives the impression of being at the animals’ level which always lends itself a unique perspective, as being humans, we always look down on most of nature, visually and metaphorically.
First image – Once again I am focussing at the head, if this is sharp an image can still work even if the body is not, this won’t work the other way around. My initial reaction is always to look at the subject and work it as best as I can. I started here with a straight portrait with a little bit of environment added in but even though it’s pleasant enough the background is a little open and bland.
Second image – There was a lovely willow tree in the centre of the pond and Colin Canada Goose (males are supposed to have rounded tails and females pointy but I’ve never really seen a difference, so this may be Coleen) was swimming towards it. So I used the willow tree to add a bit of depth to the shot and in turn frame the composition a little better.
Third image – Allowing Colin/Coleen to move underneath the willow adds a nice frame to the composition, a little more depth and seems to add a nice serene feel to the whole image.
There is no best image, just your own personal choice and for me that can even change when I review images later.
As Kate Bush once sang ‘It’s in the trees’ (Hounds of Love, save you Googling)
Boy what a song but I digress. Before I was rudely interrupted by Canada geese, you may have remembered we were on our way to the woods to look for Santa, fungi and little critters. You will have to nip over to Geraint’s Insta to see his Springtail images but I thought I’d have a bit of fun with the 150-400 F4.5 PRO and try a bit of macro. As there was no light and unlike Geraint I don’t cheat and carry around a pocket sun, I amused myself to see how low a shutter speed I could get away with handholding. Well, it turns out you can handhold very low.
First thing I tried it on was a luscious green carpet of moss and here I was just mucking around with depth of field and shutter speeds. As you can see by the EXIF I’m handholding at 800mm with a 1/160s shutter speed and that centre area of moss is absolutely pinners! I’m using the same technique as G would use with his macro lenses, which is to manual focus at its closest focussing distance and then rock back and forth a little, until the area you want comes into focus.
Second thing I tried it on was the Macroness himself, in full on macro action, capturing a fluffy little springtail. However not wanting to dwell too much on his face, I decided to just focus on the pointy end of the action, the camera and flash. Amazingly I’m now down to 1/40s although admittedly at 300mm however that is still a little bonkers. I converted it into black and white as it just seemed to look right.
Lastly, I found a fun-gi and asked if he’d seen Santa but although he hadn’t, he’d heard he had been seen near the beach. I thought I would take a pic of him before leaving as it’s not every day you meet a talking fungi. Once again bonkers handholding ability, 756mm at 1/40s! Manual focus and once more the rock and rolling technique. This can be a little hit and miss as your depth of field this close to a subject and at this focal length is razor thin but I managed to capture this out of a couple of shots.
We do like to be beside the seaside
Sneaky Santa was on the move and Magic (as that was the fungi’s name) had told us that he had gone to the seaside to paddle his tootsies in the briny for a cool down after all that walking in his big old black boots, so that’s where we headed. By the time we arrived, the sun was starting to wave goodbye and for good measure the cloud was joining it, so wildlife shots were a little thin on the ground. Whilst G went off to muck around with long exposure landscape shots, I noticed there was a lot of human activity that was a little odd (well odder than most days anyway) and I found myself taking street photography like images at the seaside with a 150-400mm F4.5 PRO and sometimes even with the MC-14 TC. It’s definitely not something I would normally do but I found people wanting to rush into the Bristol Channel in freezing December conditions fascinating and worthy of a few snaps.
No matter what photography I’m attempting, I try to simplify and treat all genres in the same way as I would capture wildlife and street with a long lens is no different. Pick out interesting happenings and subjects, look for a possible different perspective and use the light.
This does create the problem of getting low enough to exclude the dull sky and with the beach of course being sloping, it made things a bit more challenging. We can only work with what we have and besides, the compressed perspective of the long lens makes the waves seem closer than they were which helped create a turbulent backdrop.
Now it was quite dark whilst taking these shots so I have deliberately brightened them up, otherwise they would have been very dull. I also decided to crop them in 3:2 as the sky was particularly bland and I couldn’t get low enough to exclude it. However, this still gives you a JPEG of over 12MB, which is more than enough for anything you may need it for, so don’t be afraid to crop.
The first image shows a couple partaking in a touch of social media-ing (I think I made that word up), and indulging in the perennial taking off of the shoes and socks for a paddle. I just waited for a suitable moment when they were closest together and fired a couple of shots. A shutter speed of 1/100s was used but as the waves weren’t rolling in as quick as I thought, it wasn’t quite slow enough to really blur them as much as I’d like.
The second image is very similar but this time two girls are plainly social media-ing again and having a great time showing the world that they are fine in the water whereas I am trying to find someone with a 3-bar electric fire and marry them up with someone who carries their own portable generator. I was cold just watching them but they seemed to be having a blast so again just waited for a few moments and fired away. This was my favourite just because of their sheer joy. This time I’m using 1/40s and even though the waves are blurring a little, I would have liked a little more, but it was difficult to view the EVF or rear screen when I was shaking so much. Now remember I’m using an equivalent focal length of 1000mm here at 1/40s but more extraordinary, handholding! Bonkers!
Now the third image is of course the best subject I took all day, the boy wonder, his Macroness Geraint Radford the First. I know it looks a little like he’s pretending to be a frog but he is in fact attempting some slow shutter speed landscapes and he’s holding the camera on the floor in front of him. I still wanted more blur in the waves so I closed the aperture down to F13, which in turn lowered the shutter speed to 1/4s and this time the combination was more to my liking, slow enough to show more motion to the waves but not too slow that the frisky white horses were tamed too much. G is still sharp and at quarter of a second, totally outrageous!
Happy New Year to everyone
After searching high and low and from left to right we couldn’t find Sneaky Santa and resigned ourselves to signing off on Instagram. We left a few carrots and a mince pie, adorned our best Christmas jumpers and decked out in a festive festoonery of fairy lights we bade thee fairly well. As we wittered on with our usual nonsense, what appeared to be a shooting star arced above us, it looked for all the world like a rather large gentleman in a red suit, being carried in a sleigh pulled by reindeer of which one had a red nose, it couldn’t be we thought, could it? Or did we get a little too close to Magic earlier?
Be safe and be kind.