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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