Sunday, 15 November 2015

Nature close to home

A cobweb found on a parked car - Nottinghamshire, UK

“a challenge remains to overcome the polar distinction between what is urban and what is natural…We have tended to see the most significant forms of nature as occurring somewhere else-often hundreds of miles away from where most people actually live”. 

Timothy Beatley, professor in the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia; quoted in Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods.

A few years ago, I had a conversation with a wildlife photography enthusiast who lamented to me the great expense of wildlife photography.  At first I thought he was talking about the expense of the camera equipment itself, but no, he was talking about the cost of travel – ‘I can only really afford to go to Africa once a year’ he told me, ‘so my equipment stays in the cupboard for the rest of the year’. 

I have encountered this (stupid) attitude a great deal over the year, and I always find it deeply sad.  Is this a sign that we have lost touch with the natural world so greatly, that we think that nature and its wildlife is something that exists only far away?  

The truth is that the wonders of nature are here (rather than there) for everyone who has the curiosity to look for them. 

I found this cobweb on a neighbour’s car one morning (strung between the wing mirror and the driver’s door) as I was walking up the road where I live – the most telling fact is that I was returning from my morning nature walk in the local woods, but I actually made my favourite image of the day not from tramping around in the wilds, but simply by looking carefully closer to home.

The curiosity to see the nature living all around us is all we need to stop the lament, and to revive and awaken within us the reason we are all arrived here in the first place.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Autumn Cobwebs

My morning nature walks in the woods with baby Benny have become an important ritual in daily life over the last few weeks.  I feel the bond grow between us each day during those special hours, and the contact with nature on a daily basis is also a greatly enriching experience. 

During these early hours in the day, cobwebs always provide a great visual feast.  I can remember as a young boy myself being fascinated and intrigued by the patterns of cobwebs, the intricacy of the design which their builder brought together entirely by instinct (when did they ever learn to do that?), and by the glassiness of the dew drops that weighed so heavily upon their strings – strings which were so carefully knitted together that they never threatened to break beneath the strain, despite being so microscopically thin.

The closer you look at the world, the more you see – just as long as you’re prepared to have your mind blown!

Thursday, 12 November 2015

The swirl of autumn

It's always good to get out in the fallen autumn leaves and fling them around (and to fling yourself around in them). And I love taking these swirly pictures while I'm at it – I take them a lot with my mobile phone: you can just twist the phone around quickly in your hands and take a picture halfway through the twist.  The part of the picture that’s in the centre of your spin remains relatively clear, while the part on the outside of the picture spins faster and blurs more.  Elementary physics, but the effect can be both intricate and magical.

It's only since mastering the technique on my phone that I've also started to do it with my SLR camera too, which offers all sorts of possibilities.  Here's one I made earlier with my SLR, using the prominent sycamore leaf as a centre-point for my spin.

The colours of autumn do make me all dizzy and giddy with excitement every year..  Abstract photos can be very good for communicating this sense and the emotion that goes with it,

It works for me.  Personally, I wish it could be autumn every day. 

Friday, 6 November 2015

A week of nature walks with baby Benny.

I’m only a week and a bit into being a dad, but already I’ve felt a huge feeling of reawakening to the world around me, and to the things in life I love.  Every day starts in a similar way.  I get up early and take Benny out on one of our little nature walks for an hour or two.  This gives me some good quality time with my son at the beginning of each day, and allows Katherine to take some time off and rest by herself at home.  

It’s difficult to know what, if anything, Benny takes in from our nature walks so early in his life; but I hope that being out in the woods at dawn, listening to the birds singing, will also start to rub off on him and become a comforting part of his life.  

There’s a great deal of woodland and farmland around where we live, so all our walks are in relatively quiet, misty places – and so I take photos in these places every day too.  Having a baby strapped to your chest also makes a walk a more outwardly sociable affair.  All the dog walkers we meet stop and want to know all about him and see his face, which is otherwise tucked up against my chest. 

Maybe Benny will grow to love the outdoors, but for now it's a good opportunity for him to love sleeping as he's tucked up tight against the warmth of my chest.  All my rocking back and forth, trying to find the best angle, lining the snails up against the right colour in the background, or the right chink of light, helps soothe him in his slumber.

He mostly sleeps throughout the walks at the moment, and my style of photography helps with this.  I hardly ever use tripods, so I’m constantly rocking back and forth with him strapped to me, I’m finding an angle and he’s being soothed off to sleep as I feel him kicking, learning, breathing and hiccupping gently against me.

We get home and it’s time for breakfast and piano practice.  Sometimes the carrying harness stays on, and I play with him strapped to me; sometimes I just play with him lying across my lap. 

Life is being enriched by his presence every day, and as I get his senses going to the world around him, I’m also spending much more time doing the things that make life great.  I think we’re good for each other.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Mother nature's son - nature walks with a new baby.

Autumnal Oak leaf, Nottinghamshire, UK
Canon 7D mk. II, Canon 24mm f/1.4 lens, 1/160sec @f/1.4, ISO 100,
handheld with a two-day old baby strapped to my chest (essential).

It’s been a very colourful and eventful week here in the Worsley household, as my wife and I welcomed the arrival of our first child, Benny, born on Wednesday.  By Thursday night we were all at home together, and so first thing on Friday morning, when he was less than 48 hours old, I took Benny out on his first nature walk.  My brilliant Babybjörn baby carrier made this easy - I can strap him to my front, and get out walking through the autumnal woods, observing and photographing the wonderful array of colours; all with the added pleasure of the precious boy himself before me at all times. 

Benny, two days old, on his first nature walk with me.

The woodlands and fields that surround my house are an ideal playground for such natural adventures, and I’ve been noticing the difference in myself for taking walks once or twice a day in the wilds, seeing, smelling and feeling the mild chill autumn unfolding all around.  I hope it’s good for him too as he grows and develops a sense of the world around him.

Life itself is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of nature, so it’s a no-brainer to say that exposure to nature is good for our lives.  My little boy has his whole life ahead of him, and I hope that being surrounded by nature will serve him well.

Benny spots a snail and recommends I switch to a macro lens.

Canon 7D mk. II, Canon 100 f/2.8 macro lens, 1/250sec @f/5.0, ISO 2000
handheld with a two-day old baby strapped to my chest.

Canon 7D mk. II, Canon 100mm f/2.8 macro lens, 1/640sec f/4.5 ISO 1250
handheld with a two-day old baby strapped to my chest.

Monday, 14 September 2015

British Wildlife Photography Awards 2015 - Winner of the Animal Behaviour Category

I am delighted to announce that I have won the Animal Behaviour category in this year’s British Wildlife Photography Awards.  It’s two months to the day that I was told the news, when competition organiser Maggie Gowan phoned me up and charged me with the mighty task of keeping it confidential until now.

The picture of a male pheasant displaying was taken in April of this year in fields just at the front of my house.  I would listen for the call through the open windows and walk out across the fields and through the woods in search of them.

Congratulations to all the photographers of winning and commended images, and particular thanks to my wonderful colleagues at Leeds College of Music who have kindly agreed to cover my teaching on Wednesday in order to allow me to attend the awards ceremony and book launch.

A selection of the winning and commended images are now available to view online

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Not the best year for red grouse

Female red grouse - the moors of the peak district are just starting to turn purple now.

It’s not a great year for red grouse.  Reports that their numbers are down due to bad weather earlier in the year are certainly playing out in my experience.  Meanwhile, those grouse I have been able to find have been a great deal more timid and difficult to approach than usual.  I’ve had two grouse trips in the last few weeks alone, and two more planned, and I’ve come away with only one photograph (usually I can expect several hundred from a single trip). 

But the moors of the peak district are as fine as ever (there are many, many other things to photograph up there), and the heather is just starting to turn purple now – this is a time of year which I find really exciting.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Pond Skaters at dusk

Nature is unpredictable (that’s 99% of the fun – you never know what’s going to happen).  Last night I went out to a local lake to photograph ducks, swans and gulls – the usual, everyday normal stuff in the park.  There was lots going on around me, a woodpecker in the tree right behind me, a tree-creeper creeping along the branch over my head, and the crimson bullet of a kingfisher that shot past, steering out into the middle of the water and circling a few times, before coming into land somewhere across the water from me.

But as the light grew dim at the close of the evening, the best thing around was the pond skaters right in front of me.  I love the little dimples they make on the water, and the patters of ripples when they move.  Having a good selection of kit with me, I was able to switch lenses and go macro.  I tried to use the half dusky light to accentuate the contrast of the clear water and the ripples, also moving around to let the reflections of the trees on the opposite bank create an arc of shadow at the top of the images.

Pond skaters on the water are Good News – since they go off to hibernate in the autumn, this means that it must still be summer, although I know I’m not the only one who’s noticed the trees starting to turn Autumnal over the last week or so.  So look out for the pond skaters – if you find them hibernating in your shed, you’ll know autumn has really arrived, but while they’re on the water, you can still get out and enjoy an ice cream.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Tube Strike! In praise of walking.

The claustrophobic descent to the tube.

Last Saturday I walked over 15 miles across London.  There was no tube strike, I hadn’t intended to walk any particular distance, and I would never have counted the miles were it not that my phone does this for me automatically.  I can’t say I gave much thought to the distance, either; it was simply the route I needed to walk from A to B. 

I got to London almost every week as part of my work and I almost never use the tube.  Walking is a much richer experience and full of health benefits, mental and physical, and some of these are not immediately obvious (more on those studies in a bit).  I hope that those some of those who are forced out of their routine with the tube strikes today might discover something very enriching in the act of walking to work.  And since my continuing summer project is to photograph nature within walking distance of my house, I thought I would chip in here about some of the benefits.

We’ve all heard the advice about getting off the bus one or two stops early to get some extra exercise, but it’s not just the exercise that benefits you – walking is a very natural pace not just for our bodies but also for our senses to take in the things around us. 

Discovering the benefits of walking - the benefits of discovering

I give here two examples of people who dismounted from their transport in order to explore the sensory benefits of walking.  The first, one of London’s most famous fictional inhabitants, the great detective Sherlock Holmes: the first time we find Holmes at work on a case, in A Study in Scarlet (1886), we see that he insists on getting out of the cab and approaching the crime scene on foot.  Dr Watson tells us of how he points out the Brixton Road to Holmes whilst travelling in the cab (drawn by genuine horsepower, of course).  Holmes replies:

'So it is.  Stop, driver, stop!' We were still a hundred yards or so from it, but he insisted upon our alighting, and we finished our journey upon foot.

The importance of approaching the scene on foot is spelled out towards the end of the book, when Holmes talks Watson through the ‘steps’ in his reasoning, for how he solved the case:

I approached the house, as you known, on foot, and with my mind entirely free from all impressions.  I naturally began by examining the roadway, and there, as I have already explained to you, I saw clearly the marks of a cab, which, I ascertained by inquiry, must have been there during the night.

Walking, for Holmes, allowed him to look keenly and perceptively on the details of the world around him, working carefully not to disturb it.

However, it’s not just our external senses that we explore when we leave our transport and walk, but the inner senses of reflection and memory, the mode of contemplation rather than examination.  In Goethe’s great German Romantic Novel, Sorrows of Young Werther (Die Leiden des Jungen Werther, 1774), the young Werther, battling the pains of unrequited love, writes in his diary of his visit to a linden tree in the town where he grew up.  In making the journey, Werther stops the coach and completes the final stage of the journey on foot in order to allow his memories of childhood to return more vividly:

May 9
I have completed the pilgrimage to my hometown with all a pilgrim’s devotion, and have been overcome by many unexpected feelings.  I had the coach stop at the great linden tree that stands a quarter of an hour before the town, got out, and bade the postilion go on, in order to taste on foot to my heart’s content every newly revived and vivid memory. 

Tasting on foot to your heart’s content – there are some things that travelling by tube just can’t give you.
Whatever your mode of transport, getting down and feeling the ground beneath
your feet will create a feast for your senses as you slow down and take in the detail.

To your good health

Naturally (very naturally) all of this spending time pacing around the great outdoors is very good for you, as has been proven time and time again.  A number of studies over the last few years have demonstrated that urban dwellers who live in a greener areas experience sustained benefits to their mental health (read more here, here and here).  It’s no coincidence that the streets of London are lined with trees, and spending time in that greenery is clearly very good for you.

Sunshine through the trees, Birdcage Walk, London.
No matter where, these green spaces are proven to improve your mental health.

The benefits of walking to physical health also tie in nicely with the mental health benefits.  A 2012 study showed that stressed supervisors who took regular exercise were less likely to given vent to their anger by aiming it at their employees. 

Don’t tell me that doesn’t appeal to you! Is it any wonder Holmes was able to remain composed in such trying circumstances?

Tube strike!

Many people whose working day has been altered by the tube strike today might well find themselves walking around the capital earlier and later than they would otherwise have to experience.  Charles Dickens, one of London’s great walkers, used walks around the capital at various times of day and night in order to meet the people and encounter the thoughts that inspired much of his fiction.  After contemplating the muddy streets at the beginning of Bleak House he goes on to talk of the morning fog:

Fog everywhere.  Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits [islets in the Thames] and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping...Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights.

Dickens’ greatest experiences, however, were probably his night-time walks around the city, on which he wrote the essay ‘Night Walks’ in 1860 (the same year in which he started work on Great Expectations).  During a period of insomnia in March, Dickens tells us, he went out walking the streets at about half-past 12 each night.  He used these walks mainly to educate himself about the experience of the homeless (or ‘houseless’ as he calls them, since the streets are their home).  Dickens’ love of humanity and human nature shine through from the heart of this essay, as he writes,

My principal object being to get through the night, the pursuit of it brought me into sympathetic relations with people who have no other object every night in the year.

And it isn’t simply the encounters that walking the city streets brought Dickens’; the gentle pace of the walk and these discoveries excited his imagination and dreams (as it also did for Sherlock Holmes and for Goethe):

The walk on to the bank, lamenting the good old times and bemoaning the present evil period, would be an easy next step, so I would take it, and would make my houseless circuit of the Bank, and give a thought to the treasure within; likewise to the guard of soldiers passing the night there, and nodding over the fire.

The Bank of today invites the modes of contemplation unchanged from Dickens' era - if only you have time to stop and think.

Slowing down

But for those simply pushed out of routine, it might be a good opportunity to bring new discoveries into your routine day.  It can bring great change gradually.  The Chinese proverb about the journey of 1000 miles is often quoted, but for finding green spaces amongst the skyscrapers on your city walks, the larger quotation from chapter 64 of Lao Tzu’s great Tao Teh Ching is perhaps more meaningful:

A tree as big as a man’s embrace springs from a tiny sprout.
A tower nine stories high begins with a heap of earth.
A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.

A thousand mile walk is not a journey that can be made quickly, especially not in August.  But we can learn to enjoy the walk for our health and slow down.  As the great father of medicine, Hippocrates, wrote in the 5th century BC,

In winter a man should walk quickly, in summer in more leisurely fashion.

Perfect for an August day like today.  Try walking for leisure, ‘tasting on foot’ everything around you ‘with a mind entirely free’.  It’s good for you (and you don’t need me to tell you that you’re worth it).

More on this soon...

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The Da Worsley Code

Foxglove at sunset - Peak District National Park, UK
(Click for larger image)
I have a confession to make: I’ve failed.  The truth is, I’m not really a very good nature photographer, I’m just pretending I am.  I fail all the time, but I’ve just learnt how to cover it up.

Boo hoo hoo hoo hoo! Howl. Sob.

(and if Claudia Schiffer happens to be reading this, yes please, a hug would help).

Anyway, I thought you should know about this, because you’ve been good to me – and so I have a reward for you.  Since the numbers of people reading the blog are really soaring now, and I’m really grateful for all who read this blog (that’s you) and who add to those (at times eye-watering) numbers.    We’re a special little group, I think, so I’ve invented a secret code for us, we the people who inhabit this blog – it’s like a little secret society, except it’s online so it’s possible that none of our society will ever meet.  And the SECRET CODE is: foxglove. 

Bumblebee and a foxglove - Perthshire, UK
(Click for larger image)

The thing is, I’ve been photographing a lot of foxgloves recently simply because they seem to be out everywhere I go.  That much is normal.  But the fact is that I’ve had a lot of trips out recently where I’ve failed to photograph whatever it was that I’d set out to photograph, and so I’ve just ended up photographing foxgloves, because they’re there and quite pretty, and at least I can pretend that it’s what I actually meant to do.  But I can’t really say there are many times in my life I’ve actually gone out in order to photograph a foxglove.  My growing portfolio of foxglove images is a sign of my constant failure as a nature photographer.  Maybe there’s an upside – maybe next time some photo publication wants a picture of a foxglove, they’ll come my way, as I’ve got photos of them in all different habitats right across the UK now! Get me with my amazingly diverse foxglove portfolio!

Foxglove at sunset - Perthshire, UK
(Click for larger image)

So next time you see a foxglove image appear on my blog, you’ll know: it’s a sign that things haven’t gone as planned.  Those less committed followers who come here just look at the pictures and move on will never know, but we, the hard-core membership of this society, the ones who read and respond to this stuff, we will know; we’re special. 

But that’s how nature photography works – I always say that photographing nature isn’t something that you go out and do, but it’s a lifestyle that you live over the long term, and in the course of that lifestyle, some pictures turn up occasionally that you like, and help convince you that you’re doing the right thing and should carry on. 

So there we are - there’s thick and there’s thin.  Let’s stick together through both.  Please? anyone found Claudia yet?

Foxglove at Sunset - Nottinghamshire, UK
(Click for larger image)

Foxglove at Sunset - Nottinghamshire, UK
(Click for larger image)

Foxglove and the full moon - Peak District National Park, UK
(Click for larger image)

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Seeing the Wood Pigeon fore the Trees

Wood Pigeon at sunset - Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire 

Evening in Sherwood Forest.  I’m out here because it’s been a bright, sunny day, and the evening light is set to be beautiful, and now that I’m here I’m not disappointed; not with the light at least.  But I’ve come here looking to see if I can silhouette birds against that light and in particular I’d like a tawny owl - I’ve seen (and heard) them around here many times before. 

Tonight I’ve heard an owl hoot once, and although I’ve worked my way over to find it, I never hear it hoot again.  The light fades to black, and just as I’m about to leave, a young fox cub comes out and sits in the middle of the path looking at me – it sits upright and motionless for about five minutes; it’s too dark for me to take picture, so I just wait until eventually it gets bored, picks itself up and wanders off.

But somewhere in the middle of all that, after the single hoot of the owl and before the fading of the light, I spy a common wood pigeon sitting on a branch; plump, grey and very, very common – a rugby ball with feathers.  In many ways I enjoy these challenges just as much as the more obscure and sensitive animals – I want to people to come away from my photos with a renewed sense of the extraordinary within the commonplace and the every day.  In short, I want them to leave my photos and head straight for the outdoors to look for themselves with new eyes.  

The pigeon has its eyes fixed on me, probably wondering if it is safe to stay put or if it should move away to a different part of the forest – there’s plenty of it to move to.  I see the orange light about 45 degrees to the right of the bird and I move round slowly into position to get the bird against it.  Bending down, I make sure I have some green foliage of the woodland, bracken and grasses, right in front of the lens to create and mystical, diffused look across the picture.   I make sure that the pigeon is positioned with a window of light behind it to highlight its round, heavy outline.  I can’t use a tripod in this situation – I have to work quickly and fluidly, and adjusting the legs and repositioning the thing until the composition is right would just be too disruptive – I need to be able to make minute adjustments to the composition with ease.  The camera and lens combination I’m using is just over six kilos and working handheld with it (always my preferred approach for the flexibility I gain), holding it out in front of me for minutes at a time, is quite a workout for which I need to keep fit.  It’s important that I train with free weights and (in particular) make sure that I have good core strength and strong abdominal muscles so I can hold the camera steady in such strange positions.  Even now, I can feel a faint tremble in my muscles as I’m holding an uncomfortable position for quite a while, adjusting the composition slightly, waiting to see if the pigeon will move or do something a little more interesting than just sit still. 

It doesn’t move or do anything interesting (they usually don't), so I start to play with my position, finding new windows of bright light around it to place it against, moving around to change its relationship with the structure and contours of the other trees in the wood.  I play for as long as I can before the orange light fades, I enjoy the silence, the fox cub comes and goes, and—finally—I decide to leave.  There’s nothing more to see tonight.

Friday, 31 July 2015

Harvest Moon

Foxglove and the Harvest Moon - Peak District National Park, UK

The Harvest Moon was magnificent and bright right through last night. I always find it invigorating to go out away from the urban lights on a full moon and be amongst the strong shadows in the moonlight. For me, my only harvest is one of photos, but being out in the still, cool, bright air can be equally as nourishing as as anything else the summer offers, even if you can't serve it up for breakfast. 

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Blue Moon tonight!

The near-full moon, photographed July 29th 2015, just before the blue moon.

'Once in a while, in a big blue moon,
 there comes a night like this.'
Joni Mitchell

So sang Joni Mitchell in the opening lines of Night Ride Home.  And so tonight on 31st July we have our own blue moon - a real one! But if you’re expecting to wait up and watch the moon turn blue, you might be left standing alone, without a dream in your heart – because the moon doesn't turn blue on this sort of blue moon.  And if that saddens you, then you have two 16th century Greenwich friars to blame, who first coined the term (more on that in a moment).
The fact is, you’re not going to notice very much, other than a fabulous full moon in the sky (the Brits among us will have to take that with a pinch of salted cheese), but the point is that we’ve already had a full moon this July, and now we have a second one (two in one month!), which is blue-min rare.

Think about the word ‘month’ – which comes from the word ‘moon’ in English, as it does in nearly all languages, as it does in the Bible and the Koran.  The Jewish, Islamic, Hindu and Chinese calendars (among others) still use the lunar-months of just over 29-and-a-half days, in combination with the transit of the sun, to calculate the month.  A new moon equals a new month.  So, if you think about it, having two full-moons within a single month is quite a betrayal.

A Betrayal

And that’s precisely why it’s a blue moon – the old English word for betrayal was ‘belewe’, making the ‘betrayal moon’ the ‘belewe moon’.  This should not be confused with the word ‘blewe’, which is the word Chaucer used to talk about blue things, such as violets: 

Fro day to nyght                                                                    From day to night
She dooth hire bisynesse and al hire myght,                         She gave her care and a
And by hire beddes heed she made a mewe                         And by her bed’s head she made a mew
And covered it with veluettes blewe,                                    And covered it with violets blue,
In signe of trouthe that is in wommen sene.                         As a sign of truth that is seen in women.

from Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400), The Squire’s Tale.

Except that the two words were confused, and so the ‘betrayal [belewe] moon’ became the ‘blue' [blewe] moon.

The two words may not have been confused, had it not been for the fact that the church used the cycles of the moon to calculate the precise date of Easter.  So here comes the history lesson:

The History Lesson!!

Unlike many other festivals in the calendar, Easter is a movable feast - i.e. it's not fixed by date.  This was decided in 325AD when the council of Nicaea decided that Easter Sunday would take place on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox (March 21st).  BUT – and it’s a big BUT – the Greek and Roman churches still could not agree upon a standard version by which this calculation could be made, and that rogue, betraying, belewe moon wasn’t making life any easier.  

The scandal was still being dramatised in England in 1528, when two Greenwich friars, Willam Roy and Jerome Barlowe, published a poetic pamphlet protesting against the church’s prescriptions of what was true and what was false; and these included small matter of the church claiming to decide the one-and-only correct, which was in fact based only on interpretation.  And so they wrote of those churchmen who are ‘wily foxes’:

If they say the moon is blue                        Yf they say the mone is blewe
We must believe that it is true                    We must beleve that it is true
Conceding to their interpretation.               Admittynge their interpretacion

I said it was poetic, and not only does it rhyme, but it works on a clever pun: the ‘belewe’, or betraying moon, only happens once in a while (which we know from Joni Mitchell), whilst the appearance of a ‘blue moon’ would be ridiculous, and therefore, really rare.  In effect, Roy and Barlowe were saying, 'if the churchmen say the moon is blue, or if they say it is made of cheese, or that there’s actually a man in it, we must believe [beleve] them'.  

And so the phrase landed in English.

What does it matter?

So you’re not going to see anything different tonight than on any other full moon (sorry).  But understanding the blue moon does help us to reconnect with a time when mankind was more in touch with nature and followed its cycles.  The lunar months marked the changes of the season: each of the four seasons was three-cycles of the moon long, and when the fourth cycle started, people knew a new season had started and would know whether they should start ploughing and planting, or watering and growing, or reaping the harvest, or just enjoying a nice long drink (whilst keeping an eye on the moon).  But sometimes, just once in, the moon might play a trick and start a fourth cycle before the end of the season, so it’s important to be aware of the betrayal so you knew what to do with your crops.    

A truly blue blue-moon?

The moon photographed from Norfolk in April 2010,
following the eruption of  Eyjafjallajökull.
Is it blue?
So, I’ve disappointed you – the moon isn’t actually going to be blue, or made of cheese, or have a man in it.  But once in a while, it can appear just a little bit blue – but that’s even rarer.  For that you need a volcano spurting a cloud of ash into the sky.  For example, it was said that after the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, the moon appeared blue for almost two years.  Such an eruption hasn’t tainted our view of the moon to that extent for a while, although I do recall those great colourful skies that we had the week after the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 – I was photographing in Norfolk at the time, where a particularly dense cloud of ash was visible in the sky.  This was especially noticeable in the evenings, as it brought out the exquisite twilight colours like I’d never seen before.  Was the moon bluer at this time? I’m not sure, but I'll never forget those colours that were to paraphrase Joni Mitchell once again) ‘like some surrealist invented this night’.

Avocet in twilight reflections, Norfolk, April 2010.
The colours were provided by the ash cloud from
Eyjafjallajökull and have not been altered in processing.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Puffin Siesta

Puffin Siesta - Lunga, UK

By definition, a siesta should really be taken during the sixth hour of a hot day.  But really, why wait for the sixth hour? (there's certainly no point in waiting for a hot day!)

Sunday, 26 July 2015

A Hidden Hare

Brown Hare - Nottinghamshire, UK

Just like the hare, hidden away, this photo was also hidden away in an earlier blogpost a few weeks back.  I didn’t think too much of it at the time, as it represented something of a failed attempt to get frame filling shots of hares – ideally it should have been me hiding myself away from them, but my terrible hay fever was frustrating all attempt to do that as my frequent sneezes echoed across the farm.

Nevertheless, a couple of weeks have now passed and I’ve started to look more favourably on it as a picture: the warm evening light, and that great big eye staring out clearly from between the crops.  I’d rather have some frame-filling shots, but I’d also like some antihistamines/nasal-spray/eye-drops that work too.  Maybe next year...

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

A puffin picture that moves

Puffin - Lunga, UK
The more you look at the wings, the more they seem to move.  It's quite often said that looking at a photograph can bring back all the feelings from the moment you took it.  I was quite badly seasick when I took this picture, and, yes, looking at it just brings all those feelings flooding back.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

New otter pictures

Mum and cub - the mother will shortly leave her cub to enjoy the catch (see images below).

My friends have two nicknames for me (two that I know about, at least).  The first is ‘Beethoven’, which is not due to the way in which I dribble when someone opens a tin of Pedigree Chum, but due to my love of the composer’s music (I wrote my PhD dissertation on Beethoven and have devoted much of my life to performing and giving lectures on his music). 

The other nickname is ‘otter’.  I’ve probably devoted more hours to photographing otters (and most of that has been spent waiting patiently to catch a glimpse of one) than to any other single creature.  My friends even say I dance like an otter, although having never seen one dance, I couldn’t possible comment, and my wife says she first felt attracted to me when I first started giving her a loch-side lecture on otter behaviour (she’s a keeper, that one).

 It takes a long time to learn the basics of otter photography.  For me, it took two failed trips to the Isle of Mull, where I sat by the shoreline every day for up to 14 hours a day, for weeks at a time, and spent my bedtime reading sessions steeped in books and research papers about otters, trying to work out how on earth I could share their coastline and get within just a few feet of them, close enough to take photographs, without disturbing them.  Otters are very sensitive creatures, and you have to be completely in tune with every movement in their environment to close enough.  However, the biggest secret is that you have to make sure that you’re in the right position for them to come close to you – you can’t approach an otter.

Learning about their behaviour is a never-ending and fascinating learning curve, but I have one simple technique which serves as the basis to this, as it does to all my photography.  When I’m ready to go, I calm myself by taking deep breaths of cold Scottish air through my nose – coincidentally this is the same principle that serves as the basis for Buddhist meditation, and I find it really sharpens my senses, making me very sensitive all the sights, sounds and smells around me, so that I can move with nature, not against it.  This is also the core principle of Daoist philosophy, feeling nature around you and moving with it, not stirring it in anyway.  I know when I’m in the right frame of mind - I can feel the roughness of the stones as they turn and bulge into the soles of my boots as I walk.  The line between moving with nature and taking a chance against her is clearer than ever, and it’s important that I can stay securely on the right side of that line.  Working this way is much better than going for the fast buck of chasing the shot; instead, it can be possible to follow an otter for many hours at a time (my longest otter stalk to date is about 6 hours, which ended with the otter exiting the loch via a freshwater stream, and scurrying away to its holt – being sure that you’ve followed an otter to its final point of rest for the day is the greatest compliment to your field craft).

On my recent trip back to Mull, I managed to fit in just one afternoon of otter photography, which is far from ideal since you can never be certain of seeing an otter in that time (particular since I was out of touch with the news of the local otter populations and families).  Nevertheless, experience did mean I was able to take some pictures and make sure I had something slightly different to those pictures I’ve taken previously.  I used a site which I’ve not visited for years, out of the way from the tourist traps.  Privacy from other tourists is important – even the wildlife tour buses stop when they see a photographer with a long lens, and they’re particularly good at scaring away the subject that has taken you hours to track down and get close to.  The downside of this site is that the coastline here is rugged and difficult to negotiate on foot, and keeping up with an otter as it goes about its daily business is extremely difficult.  So off I set.

After a few hours of walking, I find a mother otter and her cub fishing out in the water, and I wait to see if they’ll come into the shore.  The cub is quite mature and can fish quite efficiently for itself, and when in the water the two are quite difficult to tell apart.  It’s clear, however, that it still needs a little help with the larger meals, and whenever the mum catches a large fish or a crab, she sticks it on top of an exposed rock and then swims back out into the loch, leaving her cub there to tuck in and enjoy it.

The mother swims out, leaving her cub to enjoy her catch.

After an hour or so on the move, I’ve managed to move up the coast ahead of the otters, hiding myself behind a rock just above the shore.  The otters are still working their way round the coast towards me slowly, but there’s no way I’ll get closer to the water than this without being spotted.  Usually I would hope to get my camera down on the ground, level of with sight-line of the otters, although on this exposed, rough coast, I’m having to keep a slightly higher position, with my camera supported on top of the enormous boulder that I’m using for cover. 

Eventually the mother brings in a crab and leaves on a pile of seaweed for her cub – I’ve judged my position (and theirs) just right and they’re now just below me.  Brilliant.  The wind is blowing in my face, which will help take my scent away from the otters, and will slightly dampen the sound of my camera.  Even still, I have to be selective in the number of pictures I take since I can hear every single wet munch of the chewing otter just a few metres in front of me – I’m close, very close, and I’m not going to take any chances of disturbing them.  This is such a thrill – we’re breathing the same air; our senses are sharpened to the same splashes of water and gusts of breeze around us both.  I can hear my own heart beating; I can feel the adrenaline coursing through my blood, and my finger is shaking on the shutter button.

Enjoying another mum-caught crab

The sun comes out, and the water turns into a marvellous marble of blues as it reflects the clear sky.  I can take advantage of my high position to make this wonderfully textured surface part of the image.    I take a deep breath of that cool, salty Scottish air, in through my nose to help me stay sharp and focused.  The otter finishes off the crab, looks around and plunges into the water again to join its mother.  They work their way up the coast a little further, but I need to stay in position for a few minutes if I’m going to leave the scene undetected.  I wait and leave them to it for the rest of the day. 

This is what it's all about!
The high position helped me to photograph the marbled blue water when the sun came out.  The sun also gave the otter cub a nice catch-light in the eye, which enlivens the picture.

The cub returns to the water

Thursday, 16 July 2015

More foxgloves - just a short walk away.

I've been back in the local woodlands at sunset with the foxgloves. I'm going through one of those hippie fazes of trying to photograph only things within walking distance of my home - it's going well and thankfully I live in a stretch of countryside that is extremely varied. My hay fever still isn't playing fair though, so the larger part of the days are still spent indoors at the moment. I could do with some rain - I love rain (I know, I know, please don't write in).

Foxglove at sun set - Nottinghamshire, UK

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Wildlife Photography: How to lose friends and exasperate people.

Sea cliffs - Lunga, UK

Imagine the scene.  There’s me perched on top of a high cliff, pointing my camera down towards the crashing waves a few hundred feet below.  The sea gulls are flying below me and the guillemots are perched on the lower cliffs (wimps).  I’m motionless with fixed vision, some would say fixated.  Katherine, my wife, is sitting next to me.  I’m waiting for the conversation to start, you know, the conversation every wildlife photographer dreads:

Katherine: What are you doing?

Me: I’m taking a photo.

Katherine: No you’re not.

Me: What?!

Katherine: You’re not pressing the button.

Me: There’s more to taking a photo than just that.  I’m waiting for the right moment.

Katherine: How will you know the right moment?

Me: I’m just waiting for a seagull to fly through that gap there at the same time as a wave crashes on those rocks. 

Katherine: I see.  And what do you think the chances of that are, exactly? 

Me: I don’t know ‘exactly’.  Probably not great, but there are waves and there are gulls, so there’s chance it could come together.

Katherine: Mmm.  Can’t you just photoshop one on?


KatherineYou know, add the seagull on after.

Me: **!*?! No! of course I can’t. *!*?! What must you think of me? [mumble grumble mumble grumble]

Katherine: I just think it would be easier.  No one would know.

Me: I’m not doing it – that’s for photographers who can’t be bothered to learn how to photograph, and painters who can’t be bothered to learn how to paint.

Katherine: meow! Someone got off the wrong side of the boat today.

Moments later, and a gull flies into the space.

Katherine: Look, there’s one now!

**Click click click click**

Katherine: Can we go now?

Me: Not yet – it wasn’t quite right.

Katherine: Why? What was wrong with it? It’s what you said you wanted.

Me: No – the angle of the wings wasn’t quite right, it didn’t have the right definition in its outline.

Katherine: Oh for goodness’ sake.  Okay, I’m going off to make a phone call.  Then can we go?

Of course, this is only the conversation in my head, the one I’m dreading gets started.  I’m dreading it because there’s no defence to the antisocial behaviour of a wildlife photographer, and I’m acutely aware of the disruption that carrying a camera can create on a family trip – it’s something I feel extremely guilty about.

But it’s not what really happened. In actual fact, the conversation goes something like this:

Katherine: What are you doing?

Me: I’m just waiting for a seagull to fly through that gap there at the same time as a wave crashes on those rocks. 

Katherine: Cool – I’m going off to watch the puffins try to land.  They’re hilarious.  I’ll give you a shout before the boat leaves. I wouldn’t like you to get stuck on the island alone like you did last time [sadly, this part is true].

Me: thanks, I’ll join you at the puffins in a moment.

Katherine: no hurry.

What a star.