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.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Fire and flowers: photographing with hay fever.

Foxglove at sunset - Nottinghamshire, UK.

I have hay fever.  Unlike many people’s hay fever, mine always rears it’s ugly, mucous-filled eyes and streaming nose in July. (Sorry, was that too graphic?).  This is a problem for photographing wildlife.  Some subjects are easier than others, and you might think I would stay away from flowers, but it’s much easier this way.

I was out last night photographing brown hares in the fields round where I live.  The technique is simple: lie in a concealed ditch, covered in camo netting, at the side of a field and wait quietly for as long as it take.  Within an hour or two, the hares will usually be around and passing by, but you’ve already seen the flaw in my plan.  Do you see the problem? Wait...quietly...very...ACHOOO!!...quietly.

After some good close encounters were ruined, I gave in about 20 minutes before sunset, having gained only some distant shots of the hares (and no longer being able to open my eyes anyway).
Brown hares have big ears specifically to help them stay away from sneezing photographers.

So instead I walked up into a stretch of woodland to photograph a few woodland plants and maybe see if I could find some deer.  I ended up photographing foxgloves as the sun set behind the trees.  I wouldn’t usually use my long lens (500mm) for photographing flowers, but it was already on my camera from the hares, and it gave me a nice vantage point that I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to achieve: with such a narrow field of view, I was able to place the foxgloves directly in front of some intense pockets of light that were coming through the trees from the sunset (even if I had to stay a good five metres from the foxgloves in order to fit them in!). 

So maybe the hayfever helped me think differently about how to photograph flowers.  But I still wish it would just go away so I can open my eyes again.      

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Birds at the table? Let them eat cake.

A visitor came to the table where we were eating lunch.  A little chaffinch.  She was eager for the sugar, the fat, and the crumbs of our cakes were good. 

The cakes were our little treat we gave to ourselves bought from a little tea shop after a short walk on a long, hot day; quite naughty, really.  Such a close encounter from such a bold but slender little chaffinch was perhaps the better treat however.  We moved the plate a little closer to her, away from ourselves, and we encouraged her to eat.  She flew away with some, perhaps carrying it to her nest, and then she returned for more.

Cake is good for birds.  Bread is less good, like eating an innutritious stuffing, it fills them up and does little else - and it can be quite harmful to young chicks (read the RSPB’s advice here).  I should like to be a bird.  Perhaps little chaffinch chicks don’t have to eat their crusts.  Perhaps they can skip straight to dessert.

So if a bird comes to your table, don’t offer them bread. Let them eat cake.  It'll do them good (and, if I may say so , it'll do you good too).

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

The photographer and the solitary piper

I can’t stay away from Mull.  Most people who have been there can’t.  I spent a few days up there last week and, even though I didn’t do much photographing, there’s still such a wealth of wildlife that the camera kept creeping out.  Even the backdrops along the shore, those washes of pastel blues and yellows, are a distinctive sign of this beautiful place.

This time I was away on a family holiday, but wildlife photography is best done alone.  At best, it requires acute concentration combined with a sense of inner stillness.  When working with nature, you follow its rhythms and moods, forcing nothing, no clock ticking, no specified time to stop and go home (except for the setting sun, of course).  The sandpiper is a good illustration of this lifestyle; a largely solitary bird that thrives in this environment.  Much as I love solitary days, however, I couldn’t live like this; not all the time.  

We were on the way back to for dinner when I took this.  We stopped to watch some seals in the water and I crawled down to the shore.  Then we went back and shared a hearty feast, all four of us, leaving the sandpiper to its solitary life.