Although it is still a few months away yet and it might seem as if I am wishing the summer away (assuming we are actually having one by the time you read this, that is), my thoughts are already turning to the start of what I call my woodland and garden bird season.
I have a pretty straightforward set-up really – a nice well built hide for four (I run a few workshops there each winter too, so I need some extra seat space), some changeable locations for perches, a table for some stumps, logs and such like, some tree trunks with holes drilled for peanuts which attract the woodpeckers, and last year I put in a small and very simple little reflection pool area which many of the finches were particularly obliging in terms of their usage of. This year, well, my thoughts are on it already because in many ways this simple set-up is a microcosm of what, deep down, I probably enjoy most about working as a wildlife photographer.
First of all it is that this is a local set-up. It is in the field of some very good friends, close to a small coppice that the birds use as a stopping off point to and from the feeding station and it is only a couple of miles from my home. It might be pushing it a bit to claim that I walk or cycle there whenever I visit, in an attempt to ensure it is as carbon-neutral a process as possible, but in these days of ever increasing costs of petrol coupled with the diminishing returns for image sales, then little economies such as this have to be taken into consideration.
The importance of being local
Being local has a whole load of other advantages besides cost though. I can, quite simply, very easily go there whenever I want. When the forecast suggests a heavy overnight frost I can set up some leaves the afternoon before, head back first thing and there are frozen leaves for the birds to perch on. When a dull day looks to be turning into a gorgeous evening I can switch off the computer and head over for the last couple of hours of the day. When it snows, well you know where I will be when I am at home for certain. Great images are almost always taken in great conditions, and having something set up ready and working just 10 minutes away for six months of the year allows me to be able to respond instantly to them.
And there is the really big advantage. Because I spend so much time there throughout the winter months, I get to know the subtleties of behaviour of the birds too: not just the species but the individual birds as well - where they like to be approached from, how they like to sit, who is tolerant to what level of camera movement and so on. When dealing with subjects who sit still for fractions of a second at a time, making them among the hardest to get good images of, and with whom the subtlest change of head position can transform an image from dull to inspiring, then this level of insight is well worth having. Many a workshop attendee will recall my advising them to set up on a certain position on a perch because I can hear the Long-Tailed Tits coming!
Building a portfolio based on understanding and insight
For many photographers this kind of information might seem a bit boring or repetitive. After all, isn’t it more fun to be photographing Grizzly Bears in Alaska rather than Blue Tits in Shropshire in England? Well, I fully appreciate that I am one of those fortunate to be able to have the opportunity to do both during the course of the year so maybe I am not the best to be able to take an apparently moral high ground here, but that is missing the point a bit. Even with a subject as dramatic as Grizzly Bears it will take many visits or spending a whole summer season with them to build a portfolio built on understanding and insight, and even I don’t get that chance. But when it comes to Blue Tits, well, I can see them every day, influence how and where I want them to land or sit, I can photograph them in all weather conditions the UK has to throw at them, and I could be there within 10 minutes of finishing this article too.
Great wildlife images are based on this level of subject empathy, so overlook the everyday at your peril – it may be the best learning ground you will ever have.