Whatever happened to fieldcraft? (Part four)

Choughs, Whitesands
Choughs, Whitesands

I really didn’t expect this series of posts to reach part four! But a couple of weeks ago I was down in Pembrokeshire and took an early morning walk from the car park at Whitesands towards St. David’s Head. An active cold front had pushed through overnight and as well as bringing heavy rain, it formed the leading edge of an arctic airmass which eventually covered the whole of the UK. The air was sparkling in its clarity and the temperature several degrees Celsius lower than it had been the previous day; very invigorating and ideal for the outdoor photographer!

After a landscape session at Porth Melgan and a frustrating hunt for migrant birds on St David’s Head, I returned to the van. I noticed there was a flock of choughs, rooks and jackdaws feeding in a nearby field. There was a pattern to their behaviour; they would start at one end of the field and work their way into the wind, feeding as they went, until they reached the hedge-bank. Then they flew back to the shoreline for a few minutes before returning to the field. I wondered if I could get myself into position at the end of the field while they were away and photograph them as they came towards me.  So I donned the nearest I had to camouflage gear and headed over.

Corvids are the most intelligent of birds and they noticed me immediately. But they were not entirely spooked; the chough, in particular, stayed faithful to the field and I felt sure that,  eventually, they would come close enough to be photographed. As the afternoon wore on and my body became more numb it became apparent that they were no longer so hungry and that feeding time was more or less over. So eventually never really came and I tried to be philosophical as I returned to the van. It was worth the try….wasn’t it?

Just a couple of days ago I had a look at the results from the session. In an ideal world  the birds would have been closer, but to my surprise a couple of images were actually quite useable. Thanks to the quality of my equipment – Canon 5d3 and Tamron 150-600 zoom – and the excellent light, I was able to crop down quite deeply into the image without encountering sharpness or noise problems. The image above begins to illustrate how full of character choughs really are.

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Whatever happened to fieldcraft? (Part two)

Preening dunlin, Ynyslas
Preening dunlin, Ynyslas

In my last post I described how I managed to approach a flock of small waders to within just a few yards. I used my knowledge of the location, the season, the time of day, and the species. I approached them slowly and carefully over a period of time. It’s what is described as “fieldcraft”. It was also my good fortune that there were no freelance dogs on the beach that day…….

I’m planning to photograph red kites over the winter  for my birds/landscape project and on the way back from south Wales recently I called in at Gigrin Farm near Rhayader to check out the facilities. Gigrin Farm was one of the original red kite feeding centres (if not THE original) and charged a modest fee to visitors to watch the spectacle. I was surprised to see that hides reserved for photographers were priced at £10, £17 and £22. For the latter you get access to a 2nd storey “hide” with low front and no roof.  I thought this was a bit steep, but in comparison with other locations it is still a bargain.

There is an burgeoning trend these days for enterprising photographers and landowners to set up feeding stations for particular species, each one complete with a hide for photographers. The cost of one of these pay-to-enter set ups is typically £100 – £125 per day, although if you want golden eagle at the nest that can stretch to £200 – perhaps understandably in view of the unique nature of the spectacle!  At the extreme end you can pay £795 for a three-day, all-inclusive holiday to photograph pine martens.  So more and more of those rather wonderful images of red squirrels, crested tits, little owls and an increasing number of other species will have been taken at a pay-to-enter hide. The close-ups of ospreys catching fish which are so  popular at the moment will almost certainly have been taken at a single location on Speyside. Reflection pools are also popular at some of these hides but in my opinion that type of image is already so hackneyed that their shelf life will be very short  indeed!

It is perhaps understandable that this situation has arisen. Many wildlife photographers – particularly the part-time pro’s and amateurs – are pretty well off and will probably possess many thousands of pounds worth of equipment. A hundred quid is neither here nor there. At the other end of the spectrum are the fully professional nature photographers who have seen their earning power plummet over recent years. It’s a match made in heaven! The nature photographers who know their stuff set up the opportunities for those who have little time but an adequate income from elsewhere. And yet……….

It’s becoming increasingly obvious when a wildlife photograph has been taken at a pay-to-visit hide. I have already mentioned ospreys. Many of the bird/mammal portraits taken at these sites are just so “perfect”. The perches look real (you can take your own…..) and the backgrounds are blurred out and natural looking – even if they are not. What about the creature’s environment? Is that not part of the picture? Some of the images could have been taken at the zoo. The photographer still needs good light but in these set-ups wildlife image-making is more of a technical exercise:  shutter speed, aperture, fast reactions and split-second timing. Even the latter is no longer the problem it once was with 10 frames a second motor-drives.

A recent article in Outdoor Photography (August issue) illuminates some of the issues more clearly. In “Nature on demand?”, the author bemoans “an over-reliance on industrialised photographic opportunities” and “the potential loss of creativity and connection with your subject”, for example. He tells us what a shame it would be “if the photographic teachers of today, for the sake of a quick buck, taught the new wave of wildlife photographers not to think for themselves”. And yet he himself, as well as being a prominent wildlife photographer, is one of the big names in wildlife photo-tourism, and must make a significant  percentage of his income from the activities he criticises in the article. Where is he really coming from?

Last week I went on a boat trip out to Grassholm island to photograph gannets. Eleven bird photographers were crammed on to a RIB with barely room to move; it proved to be a little frustrating –  for me, anyway. Amongst the other “punters” was a friend and skilled bird photographer, Janet Baxter. After the trip she described how earlier that day she had spent quite some time successfully habituating a family of choughs to her presence so that she could photograph them. Then along strode a group of birders who frightened the birds away and accused her of disturbing them. It was Janet who used the phrase “whatever happened to fieldcraft?” in response to this incident so I hope she doesn’t mind me appropriating it for my blog.  In reply I would suggest that there is still room for fieldcraft, but that instant results are increasingly the name of the game these days.

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