What do photographers do all day?

Black grouse, north Wales
Black grouse, north Wales

Over the winter I’ve seen a couple of episodes of the TV series entitled “What do artists do all day?”. Each programme featured a particular artist and showed them doing the sorts of things an artist might do. Like, well, painting, for instance. But what about photographers?

I’ve spent quite some time this week trying to get my PC to work more smoothly, with some success, I think I dare to say. It certainly wouldn’t make good TV but I spend so much time at the computer, and I imagine the same is now probably true for most photographers. A far cry from the days when you exposed a few rolls of film, put them in an envelope, and waited for the transparencies to come back. Oh, then there’s updating the website, writing the blog, invoicing customers, emailing contacts…..the list is endless.

How come I found myself, yesterday, pulling the vacuum cleaner apart and putting it together again, of all things? One of my most crucial pieces of equipment is the camper van. It’s my home from home and enables me to be on location first thing in the morning when so much top quality wildlife and landscape photography is done. And with the passage of time you just have to do a bit of spring cleaning. Banal, I know, but true……. and one thing leads to another……..

To give an example of how indispensable the camper van is, though, a couple of weeks ago I had another go at photographing the black grouse lek which I also wrote about here and here. I drove up the previous evening, parked up nearby and settled down for the night. It was clear and frosty so by sunrise a thick layer of ice had formed on the inside of the windscreen! At 5.15 am I could hear the birds’ bubbling and hissing calls as they began displaying nearby. But it was still more or less dark, and I had plenty of time to make some tea and observe the birds with binoculars while the day gradually dawned.

It became apparent that there were more birds present than on any previous visit, and they were taking up stances over a wider area. Having said that the amount of activity was rather variable. Some birds actively jousted with their neighbours, while others looked a bit bored. It was as if they may have been young birds which knew where they needed to be, but didn’t know what to do when they got there. As a whole the birds seemed to be rather nervous and at one point all suddenly swept away. A couple of seconds later a sparrowhawk briefly landed on the deserted lek site. One wonders if the grouse would be less easily distracted at the peak of the breeding season in a couple of weeks time. A little later two greyhens (female black grouse) also flew in, which provoked an extra burst of activity from the lekking males.

It was inevitable that on a still morning such as this extraneous noises like the rapid firing of a shutter would be heard by the birds. In anticipation of the “action shot”a shutter burst would begin just as two birds sized each other up. One could imagine how strange, and possibly distracting, this might be from the bird’s point of view.  On the other hand it was also noticeable that during a lull in activity a car engine starting (for example) might  provoke the birds into briefly displaying more vigorously.

This was my seventh visit altogether to the lek site and it was probably the best. Being a weekday there wasn’t too much disturbance as  impatient birders and other photographers came and went. Despite bright sunshine the light had a soft quality to it thanks to some atmospheric mistiness, and this was ideal for photographing these high-contrast, black-and-white subjects.  The winter yellows  and ochres of the vegetation and a layer of hoar-frost made for an attractive landscape in which to set the birds; so much so that I’m planning to include a set of three images from this visit in my forthcoming exhibition. It was also a pleasure and a privelege to be able to watch this fascinating spectacle.

So what do photographers do all day? It can really be almost anything from the sublime to the ridiculous.

 

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Third time lucky (Part 2)

Black grouse, north Wales
Black grouse, north Wales

The very briefest of weather windows seemed to be opening up over the weekend following my unsuccessful trips described in Part 1. Heavy showers and sunny intervals were forecast for the Saturday evening followed by a sunny couple of hours first thing on Sunday morning. I decided to go for it.

All was quiet when I arrived at the lek site in the early evening. The setting itself looked a bit scrappy – probably linked to some abandoned quarries nearby – but suddenly four blackcock swept in together. Almost immediately they took up their stances and hostilities began. It was quite comical really; these birds were quite clearly not strangers to each other and yet all of a sudden it was handbags. While the light wasn’t good, the distances I would be working at were very useful.  I took a series of images of the birds over the next hour and a half, at which point –  for no apparent reason – the grouse flew, only to return again just before dusk.  I felt reasonably confident that a morning session would be profitable, so set my alarm clock for 5.30 am; I should get a decent night’s sleep……….

At 2.30 am the first rally car sped past. For more than an hour there was the sound of burning rubber on tarmac every few minutes as one car followed another around the bend beside which I was parked up. One stopped alongside and the driver shouted “hello?” before heading off again. As silence eventually fell over the moorland at 4 am, and the very first hint of dawn began to appear, the bubbling and hissing sounds of lekking black grouse became apparent. I could just see their white tail feathers in the gloom through my binoculars. It looked like some serious action was underway on the lek. By 5.30 it was just about light enough to begin work with the camera and such are the joys of having a camper van, I did not need to leave the warmth of my sleeping bag to do so! Just sit up, reach over for the camera and open the side window…..

While the promised sunny morning did not actually materialise the birds did come very close, closer than I could have hoped for, really. I recalled the adverts I had seen on the internet offering dawn visits to hides near leks for upwards of  £100 a go. Here I was doing the same thing  in much more comfort for free!  Other leks not too far away could be heard in a light breeze. And fortunately several other birder/photographers who arrived later on did not leave their vehicles until after  the birds left of their own accord. Light levels were quite poor, however, and it seemed likely that any photographs of moving birds would be disappointing. Nevertheless I felt that the series of portraits I took of standing birds should contain at least something usable, and this has proved to be the case. I’d like to have a go here in brighter sunlight at some stage but I feel now that I’ve made a good start on the new project. And it really was third time lucky.

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