I rarely seem to have time these days to read all the magazines that drop through my door; I’m sure it never used to be the case. One headline however, recently caught my eye: “Make the weather in Photoshop”. Apparently, for those who know what’s what, ice, sun, mist and rain can all be plucked from the digital heavens and inserted into an image with no one being any the wiser. Is that what it’s come to? Is that what nature photography is now about?
Nature photography can be a tough business and thesedays it’s damned difficult to get even a toehold on the ladder. It’s not always possible but when it is, we like to try and help young photographers/naturalists progress their career and/or personal development. Continue reading “Pay me with inspiration.”
“Nature photography will become the next golf.” Friend and colleague Danny Green said this to me the best part of a decade ago. I agreed with him then and I agree with him even more now. Let’s face it, (generally speaking) we’ve all got more money, (generally speaking) we’re all in better health and (generally speaking) we all have more leisure time. It’s not surprising then that lots more people are taking advantage of increasing opportunities to connect with, and photograph, wildlife. Nature photography IS the new golf, now practiced by thousands upon thousands of lens-wielding enthusiasts across the world. And where there is demand, there is supply.
I’ve spent the last few weeks satisfying some of that demand up here in the Cairngorms. Ospreys are the in thing right now and we’ve accommodated several groups of photographers all champing at the bit to get up close to this icon of the Scottish Highlands. It’s completely understandable – the prospect of a diving or feeding osprey just metres from your hide is mouth-watering to any photographer, myself included. What’s more, it would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Once the shots are secured, the immediacy of the internet ensures they are visible to the world creating even more demand for even more osprey encounters. A good thing? On balance and notwithstanding my own business interest in photo-tourism, I think that yes, it is a good thing.
So what’s the problem? I don’t know that there is one…yet. But there is talk of creating an additional osprey facility over and above those that already exist. There is talk of an artificial pool, an artificial background and a hide on rails to take account of the lighting and wind direction. There is talk of tower hides and cleverly engineered feeding stations. And why not? These techniques are already applied for a range of species both in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. In Hungary you can tilt tree-mounted mirrors from your hide to ensure optimal lighting; you can even take images of wetland birds in Costa Rica from the comfort of your armchair in Burnham-on-Sea. All it takes to secure a photographic trophy is a timely click of your mouse.
So where’s it all going? What does the future hold? I don’t know if truth be told but I think there are dangers from an over-dependence on industrialised photographic opportunities. There’s the obvious likelihood of our audience getting bored with images that are after all, very similar. Perhaps more serious however, is the potential loss of creativity. Go back just a generation and the images that etched themselves on your mind were the work of photographers who spent hours, days, even weeks, preparing, preconceiving and then finally, capturing the shot. Without that lead-in period, without the imagination that ran wild in their minds for weeks at what images might be possible, and without the freedom to interpret your subject in your own way, is there not a danger that the present generation of photographers – the new golfers – will become creatively stifled? Artistically straight-jacketed?
I’m a great advocate for anything that gets people inspired about nature and there’s no doubt that a close encounter with an osprey, kingfisher or fox does exactly that. I’m also a fan of sustainable wildlife tourism but my concern is that the increasing number of image-making opportunities provided by experienced photographers now deprived of traditional revenue streams, will become an addiction and will replace, rather than complement, the traditional approach of working your patch and creating your own unique images.
Of course I want people to continue to rent our hides and join our tours but not at the expense of their potential to be individually creative. Images secured on our tours and from our hides should sit alongside images shot in a local woodland or town park. It would be a great shame if photographic teachers taught the new wave of photographers not to think for themselves. Modern day nature photography needs homogeneity like a hole in the head.
More early starts, more late finishes, more highs (and in some cases very high highs) and the inevitable lows – this was the flavour of Fish Eaters part 2.
We had lots of great dives at Rothiemurchus (thanks to Neil and Julian) and we had one unbelievable session with the dolphins (see image below) but I’m going to focus closer to home and make a bold and radical claim: 4 of our group have photographed something unique this week. Here’s the story. The osprey pair close to our base have two chicks this year, making four birds in total. As far as I’m aware, images of osprey chicks being fed away from the nest are, if not unique, rare indeed. The image below shows a recently rung fledgling being fed by its father. At one point, adult male, adult female and chick sat side by side on this perch – cool or what? This image took 1/250sec to produce but in reality, it’s taken nearly ten years to engineer a situation whereby our guests can get this sort of encounter and produce this sort of picture. A special experience for them and a very satisfying result for me personally.
Well done to all of our Fish Eaters crew – it’s been a blast.
0415hrs. I know, it sounds horrendous, but it is after all, just a number on the clock face and once I’d convinced our group that this was the optimum time to photograph fishing ospreys, it didn’t seem nearly as painful.
After a short drive in the gloom we split into two different hides overlooking a small fish-filled pool on Rothiemurchus Estate near Aviemore. The water was flat, the air was still and so it remained for several hours of watching, waiting…and then waiting some more. At the end of the waiting we were rewarded with a brief otter sighting followed by two successive osprey dives. Minutes of methodical chimping, several ‘ooos’ and varied profanities revealed that results were mixed amongst the group. And so it is with this type of photography – it’s high octane, high risk and high rewards; it’s not easy but if you get it right, the images can be spectacular.
After a hearty breakfast and some time to relax, our group split again. This tour has one USP over its rivals: a private osprey site (sounds pretentious I know). Close to our base a pair of ospreys have bred for many years and this year have successfully added two more birds to the Scottish population. By siting a convenient perch far enough away from the nest to avoid disturbance but close enough for it to provide a handy ‘plucking post’ for the adult pair, our group were able to secure images that are simply not possible elsewhere. The hide is small, the chairs uncomfortable but the views are spectacular.
Leaving two members of our group marooned in the osprey hide, the rest of us ventured north in search of the most northerly bottlenose dolphins in the world. It seems incredible but just 20 minutes from Inverness city centre is Europe’s best shore-based dolphin watching site. In the background the traffic races over Kessock Bridge and the Easyjet flight lands at Inverness airport; in the foreground a large and very impressive marine predator leaps clear of the water just 20 metres away. It doesn’t happen every time but when it does, it’s adrenalin-fuelled wildlife photography at its best.
One of the biggest rewards from running photo tours over many years is seeing the images of long-standing guests improve beyond recognition. I’m not going to embarrass individuals but I hope the images in this post prove my point. Cheryl, Chris and David made up just half our group and each guest is to be congratulated on the images they secured.
And so our inaugural Fish Eaters photo tour comes to an end. We’ve had rain, wind and midges; we’ve had ospreys fishing, ospreys feeding and ospreys frustrating us by doing neither of those things; we’ve had dolphins leaping, dolphins lurching and dolphins out of focus, out of frame and ultimately, out of sight; we’ve had waterfalls, philosophical discussions, picnics on the beach and some rather nice flapjack with our coffee. And all in 3 days. Thanks to another great group and I’m looking forward to doing it all again this week (after a rest). If you fancy getting images like these and you enjoy shortbread, join us next year.
Expectations that is. I’ve been around long enough to remember when a crested tit momentarily alighting on a branch was enough to justify a week-long investment in one of our photo-tours. In what seems like just a few short years, such a fleeting opportunity is no longer enough. In fact, it’s nowhere near enough. We live in an age where expectations have changed beyond recognition, and I hear lots of photographers and workshop providers – and I guess I include myself here – bemoaning the demands placed upon them to deliver fulfilling experiences to their paying guests. But you know, we only have ourselves to blame.
We flaunt our best images across the internet like designer labels and of course in these days of instant communication they get seen. And once seen the race is on to replicate. Any shot of a sea eagle ten years ago would have been a major scoop, but now most – in spite of their technical brilliance – are met with apathy. So those photographers who have paraded their stunning images of sea eagles, red kites and grey seals – they’re to blame for cranking up expectations. And I’m one of them.
But something else has changed, something a tad more worrying in my book. Unrealistic expectations can easily be fuelled by shortcomings in subject knowledge. I’ve been asked more than once by tour guests about photographing ospreys in February (they spend the winter in West Africa), and many other occasions where a lack of understanding of the difficulties in photographing wildlife in northern Europe has lead to disappointment as expectations inevitably go unfulfilled. So perhaps in addition to putting people in front of wildlife subjects as best we can; in addition to talking them through the technical and aesthetic approach to wildlife photography, we should be working harder to provide a broader knowledge base which will create a new generation of not only top-notch photographers but of top-notch nature advocates. To me the two things are inseparable but I may well be in the minority.