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The Light Touch
Wildlife photography has changed beyond recognition and competition is at its peak. New styles, approach and techniques are being tested constantly by many professional photographers and enthusiasts alike. Peter Cairns expresses his thoughts on the subject

Whilst June in the leafy lanes of southern England might mean balmy evenings accompanied by the odd Chardonnay, in the Scottish Highlands June simply confirms the waning of winter that is barely discernible in some years. For me, early summer is an alluring, seductive time of year. I am imagining misty mornings caressed by orange light or the pastel blue of a lazy sunrise; I am drooling over mental images of Slavonian grebes, goldeneye and red-throated divers with their haunting song piercing the silence of a highland dawn; I am dreaming of warm backlighting and the emergence of young pine martens frolicking in the ancient pinewood, their ancestral home. This is a time of plenty, but the bounty of photographic subject matter has to be handled with care.


Ever since I first picked up a camera, I have been drawn to the north. I do not know really what the north is or what it does, but it draws me back time and again, and these quintessential ‘northern’ species still set my pulse racing. The Scottish Highlands, and more specifically where I live in the Cairngorms National Park, is home to species found nowhere else in the UK; that might make them photographic celebrities but certainly it does not make them easy.

The sun rises early in June and most mornings I am up before 03:00. Warm days and cold nights are the perfect cocktail for a misty dawn and you have to be ready for these very special but often fleeting conditions. Almost anything looks good backlit in diffused orange light and I am not unduly precious about subject rarity; I am out to make simple, graphic, striking images that shout “north” at the tops of their voices. The Cairngorms is blessed with several picturesque lochs, which provide either feeding or breeding habitat for waterfowl that is associated more often with Iceland or Scandinavia. A handful of Slavonian grebes with their distinctive head gear, breed on a number of lochs and, in recent decades, so do goldeneye ducks which have taken readily to nest boxes provided to simulate natural tree cavities. Divers, red and black throated, have their stronghold further north in Caithness, Sutherland, and on offshore islands, but sometimes can be found on the lochs of the Cairngorms.

None of these charismatic birds is easy to approach and all are subject to a Schedule 1 license if you are photographing near their nest, but that does not eliminate opportunities for strong images. Often I deliberately resist the temptation to fill the frame, giving the bird space and a suggestion of isolation, of vulnerability even. These icons of the north need to be portrayed more as components of the wider landscape rather than simply recording them with biological accuracy; Scandinavian photographers have been using such an approach for years with great success. Mood, atmosphere, call it what you will, when you have it, use it.

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Speaking of mood, something I consider is becoming ever more important in raising the wildlife photography bar to the next level, backlighting is still underrated and underused by wildlife photographers. In summer, in particular, front lighting can be harsh, and unforgiving, whereas backlighting, used sympathetically, adds warmth and yes, mood too.

I am fortunate to live in an area where I can photograph not only the rare and charismatic but also the more common migrants that are perhaps not as common as they once were further south. Cuckoos are one example, and a few years back I set to work to record this enigmatic summer visitor. Of all the images I took over a period of two weeks, the backlit interpretations are still my favourites. Again, it is not about the subject as such, it is about the image and, whilst I did not manage to photograph this male against a misty orange sunrise (I wish), by using gentle backlighting in the early evening, I was able to produce something that is more than simply a record. Similarly with pine martens and, on recent visits to Norway to photograph sea eagles, backlighting has become my default position; I start off shooting into the sun rather than with it.

From a technical point of view backlighting can be a challenge, exposure readings are tricky to interpret and lens flare can be problematic. I know from experience with tour guests that these potential pitfalls put people off trying, but I suggest it should not. Once the basic technique is mastered (and it really is not that difficult), it opens up a new world of possibilities.

Wildlife photography has changed beyond recognition in the last decade and that change shows no sign of slowing down. I hear many of my peers lamenting the now crowded marketplace, the tsunami of imagery from “photographers you have never heard of” and the trend in pay-to-photograph iconic species at baiting sites worldwide. The “good old days” have gone folks and we have two choices: carry on complaining or innovate. None of the images in this article is a prizewinner and barely qualifies as innovative, but I hope they serve to illustrate on a basic level, that wildlife photography is not all about filling the frame at f/8 with the sun over your shoulder.

My last feature for LPM spoke about the need for our images to have impact. I stand by this more than ever, but I want to add something else that will always be relevant in this ever-changing community, and that is the word ‘story’. If your image, or set of images, tells a story, preferably a story with impact, you will always have an audience for your pictures. Try telling your story using backlighting.–

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About Author

Peter Cairns

Peter Cairns has worked as a freelance nature photographer since 1999, during which time he as been honoured with numerous awards, including the Natures Best Photographer of the Year in 2010.

1 Comment

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    That is an excellent article in many ways. I’m not as fortunate as you are in my surroundings but I appreciate your concern for and interest in the landscapes and species that surround you. I also identify strongly with your “wildlife in its landscape” approach as opposed to the prevailing “get as close as possible and blur out the background” ethos.

    It has re-inforced my desire to visit the Cairngorms this year and try a few early mornings!


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