Understanding Your Subject

British wildlife photographer Russell Savory is a man who will stop at almost nothing to achieve the perfect shot. His secret? Understanding his subjects. This resourceful photographer shares his best advice for comprehending wild inhabitants

My journey into the world of wildlife photography has not been the most conventional. Originally, I flew fix-winged aircraft and helicopters. I was known in the club as someone who liked photography and was asked if I would photograph the catamarans racing in the Solent. Although I had never done anything like it before, I agreed, absolutely loved it and managed to get some great shots, flying at five hundred feet with the door taken off the aircraft to make way for my lens to hang outside. These photographs were taken before the digital revolution, of course, so proved expensive in terms of cost, time and effort and never knowing if you had captured the right exposure. There was the eager anticipation as I awaited the arrival of the photographs from the developer, which sometimes turned to disappointment when I had not captured the image I was after.

The arrival of the digital age may have changed all that and brought access-to-all photography, enabling us to view each image and adjust it, but the importance of understanding your subject still cannot be underestimated if you want to achieve the desired result.

Sigma Russell Savory
Little Owl • Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 DG OS HSM S

A tranquil wildlife haven

While I carried on taking photographs as a hobby, eight years ago, my job took me to Essex where I am currently based as the Aerodrome and Ecology Manager at Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome, UK. The Aerodrome, an old WW1 site abandoned in 1918 and not used in WW2, has become a tranquil, idyllic home for many birds and animals. Each day I am treated to a flying display from barn owls and buzzards, kestrels and woodpeckers. I see little owls hopping about on roofs and water voles swimming in the ponds. It’s a magical place and somewhere I can combine photography and filming with my other love – wildlife. My job has given me a unique opportunity to study and understand the huge abundance of wildlife that now lives and thrives, unthreatened and undisturbed, at Stow Maries.

Every day I arrive early in the hope of catching the animal action on my camera. The image you capture is a one off. There are no re-takes. A photographer I spoke to recently who enjoys landscape photography summed it up beautifully: ‘I like the certainty. I know when I go to a place to photograph a mountain it won’t have moved.’ While the same can’t be said about birds and animals, they are still creatures of habit and, to a large degree, you can learn what to look for and what to expect.

Russell Savory Sigma owl
Little Owl • 8mm F3.5 EX DG Circular Fisheye

Have patience

Do not expect to get the image you want in five minutes. I sometimes wait a whole day for one shot. I waited three years for the right opportunity to capture a barn owl landing on a wheel with the morning sun behind him.

Plan ahead

Make sure you have packed all you need for the trip and that batteries are fully charged. I felt so sorry for one photographer who arrived with all his kit but had no battery power so missed a whole day of shooting.

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Get up early

Wildlife starts early and animals are driven by the light. In the summer, I am on-site, ready to go, at 4.30am. It is a superb time of day and so very peaceful. I have some terrific sunrise shots as well as shots with the sunrise adding a backdrop to little owls sitting on a post. A magical image that I waited a long time to capture.

Russell Savory owl Sigma
Barn Owl on Wheel • APO 300-800mm F5.6 EX DG HSM

Get to know your subject

Observe them and see if there are any patterns to their behaviour. A barn owl, for instance, is a creature of habit. It has its hunting ground. You will know from observation where he goes and what his quartering habit will be. If he does that on a Tuesday, he will do the same thing on the Wednesday, so set yourself up and sit and wait for him.

Do everything slowly and quietly

In a world of fight or flight you will find that with wildlife it is flight every time. Scare them and they won’t come back. I drive around the Aerodrome in a Subaru adapted for photography. It is the best form of hide. I do the same thing every day, morning and night. I am well known to the wildlife and they are so used to me, my presence is now largely ignored. I do not drive quickly, I do not slam doors. I do nothing to disturb and so I scare nothing off. Indeed, I am so familiar to them now that I regularly have wagtails sitting on my wing mirrors and have had a barn owl fly inside the car twice. While photographing the little owls, I have even had them land on the lens of camera to investigate what I am up to.

Little Owls on Post • 8mm F3.5 EX DG Circular Fisheye

Use a remote control

I love bringing owls to a post and photographing them remotely with a Sigma fisheye lens. You get some great expressions on their faces.

Russell Savory Sigma
Little Owl at Sunset • 120-300mm F2.8 DG OS HSM S

Shoot low

Get down onto the ground for an eye level shot if trying to photograph hares, badgers or stoats or a striding kestrel. Perhaps steady your camera on a beanbag. I adapted a frying pan and mounted a ball head on it to use when the ground is soft. It allows me to settle the frying pan into the mud and have the camera just three inches off the ground. I often roll out of the car and on to an exercise mat on top of the wet grass to photograph the morning hares, a technique that has given me some super close-up shots. I also like engineering and making things and decided that to get to roam with the hares, I needed a silent vehicle, so I built myself the Hare Cam.

I arrive in the dark and wait until the sun rises and the hares to wake. I am part of the landscape before the hares arrive, I am not to be feared, therefore they take no notice. While it may make people laugh when they see me in my adapted mobility scooter, lying on my stomach, steering with my feet, I have the last laugh, as the results I have had have been terrific and it is a great, fun piece of kit.

Sigma Russell Savory
Hare at First Light • APO 300-800mm F5.6 EX DG HSM

Bring food

Food is a great driver for wildlife. If you have green woodpeckers visiting your garden, you can build a dummy ant hill and add meal worms to a small pot pushed into the top of the mound to bring them down. You could put meal worms into a small hole you have drilled into the top of a post to encourage birds to fly down and sit on it. Water voles love apple, but you won’t want the apple in the shot, so use apple juice poured onto a sod of grass that can be put into the water just above water level to bring them out, sit close by, set up your shot and wait.

Always expect the unexpected

I was once filming a barn owl and behind me were a family of stoats just enjoying playing in the evening sunshine. I was treated to their antics for a good hour and have most of it recorded.

Learn how to get the best out of your mobile phone camera

You may not always have your DSLR with you but you can still capture terrific shots on a mobile phone. You can also get waterproof phone cases for underwater photography. I kept my old smartphone when I upgraded, solely for photography, as it can be operated remotely and set in precarious situations where I know I would not wish to perch my Sony A7S.

Sigma Russell Savory
Little Owls Silhouette • APO 300-800mm F5.6 EX DG HSM

The world of water voles

I tend not to do that much long lens photography but, two years ago, I wanted to discover the life of the water vole and to get into their world. This meant that I had to work out a way to get up-close and personal with them, so I spent three months in a ditch covered in mud, laying there day after day. I could not put on any form of insect repellent as it would have repelled the voles as well as the mosquitoes so I donned a net on my head to keep the midges and mosquitoes at bay and lay in wait, but it did the trick. I set up a platform for them to come to and cut out fresh clumps of grass and added apple to entice them close, capturing them by using a remote control and a Sigma 8mm fisheye lens on my camera so I did not need to move. As I got more confident with their behaviour I set up underwater cameras and have some super footage of them coming out of their holes and swimming across the pond.

Russell Savory Sigma

Water vole • 24-35mm f2 DG HSM A

I know so much about these creatures now – territorial in the summer, living happily together in the winter. I used a Sony A7S with the fabulous Sigma 20mm wide-angle lens to film the voles and the footage ended up being used on BBC Springwatch and Winterwatch. One piece of advice though, if you are looking to emulate this set-up: when taking images do not use the motor drive. Keep the camera action quiet to keep the water voles nearby.

Great British wildlife

We have so much wildlife here in Great Britain, enough to keep me happy for the rest of my lifetime. This past summer I filmed and photographed beavers in Scotland, which was a first for me. You don’t have to cover miles to be a wildlife photographer. Macro photography is great fun and where the Sigma 105mm macro lens comes into its own. If you have access to a garden with plants and flowers there will be a myriad of insects to photograph. Walking along a riverbank on a sunny warm day you might see a dragonfly and, just by pushing a stick into the bank, you can create a new perch for the dragonfly to land on. It normally only takes a little while to attract one of these beautiful creatures and they can create some fantastic images for you. We are lucky to have so many superb wildlife sites to visit here, such as RSPB and Wildlife Trust, that can be found all over the country.

Russell Savory Sigma

Little Owls • 120-300mm F2.8 DG OS HSM S

For those of you lucky enough to live in the countryside, don’t forget to speak to local farmers. Some are great enthusiasts and members of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural A airs (DEFRA’s) Stewardship Schemes who love to share their knowledge. They spend their days on the land, so know all there is to know about what is around in their patch.

Start a project

It is always a good idea to have a project. I love photography that tells a story, such as a bird building a nest, having young and seeing them fledging. We live in an age where we want instant gratification, but nothing is more pleasing than capturing a story from start to finish. The more time you put in the luckier you will become. I am often asked how I managed to get my results. The answer is experience, but remember that experience comes from learning from your mistakes so, with practice, results will come. Why not spend those wet winter days getting to know your camera and all its features? It will save so much time when out in the field, so you don’t miss the image of a lifetime. Remember – your best photograph is still to be taken. That is why I love photography – you never reach the end of the journey. There’s always something new just around the corner.

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