Bucket List

My first photography love is wildlife, but it’s a challenging genre for lots of reasons. Firstly, knowledge is key. You can’t just rock up on a river bank or to a badger set and take an award winning picture – if only life were that simple! I’ve found that a detailed grasp of your environment is crucial to knowing which species are available, at what times of the year and under what conditions. Kingfisher, for example, don’t fish as much after heavy rainfall when river water is murky and fast flowing and the best time to photograph Lapwings is during April & May in fields with short stubby grass as the males perform their mating displays. Most wildlife photographers will, therefore, have a favourite stomping ground which they visit regularly throughout the seasons rather than trying out new locations.

Secondly, wildlife photography is weather dependent particularly if you want to capture movement (and let’s face it, some kind of moving behaviour such as mating or catching prey is preferable to a stationary ‘bird on a stick’). You need enough light to be able to raise your shutter speed to capture action, whilst not having to raise ISO so high to increase shutter speed that the resulting photos are noisy or pixilated. The best conditions, therefore, for wildlife action photography are bright, sunny days. The trouble with this, for me, is that I live in Cumbria where it rains for about 10 months of the year and we often live under permanently cloudy, grey skies. The whole frustratingly rubbish weather situation is why I ended up doing portraiture and creative photography indoors in the warm and the dry!

And thirdly, wildlife photography is time consuming. Birds and animals are rightly wary of humans, and most won’t come within a hundred yards of people. So it’s vital to arrive at a site early, get set up in an inconspicuous hide of some kind, and to wait patiently………for hours, sometimes days, and even then you might come away with nothing. For those of us with busy lives, wildlife photography is often simply too demanding of our time.

For all these reasons, I had to move on from wildlife photography and do something which more readily fitted my lifestyle and location. Having said all that, it still remains my number one passion and I continue to have a bucket list of birds and mammals which I would love to capture. Vying for top spot are wild Otter (which I know we have on the river near my house but which are incredibly elusive and I’ve only spotted two during the last ten years, neither of which were within photographing distance) and Kingfisher (which again I see regularly on my local river but can’t get close enough to for a good shot).

Another top contender on my bucket list are Herons. They are incredible birds but very intolerant of humans and I have spent years watching Herons on my local river disappearing into the wild, blue yonder screeching in alarm as I’ve tried to sneak up on them for a picture. Imagine my delight, therefore, when on a blisteringly hot sunny day last week I spotted a Heron stood in shallow water in a local river as I was driving past in my car. Luckily I had my camera and long lens with me so I slammed on the brakes, quickly backed up, parked next to the bank and tried to get out of the car and settled on the grass to get some shots as quietly as was humanly possible.

Mercifully, the Heron appeared totally unfazed and carried on stalking the water for prey. I then spent an entire hour with my camera on continuous shooting mode taking pictures of this incredible bird. I assume it was a juvenile, because an adult Heron would have been much warier of a human presence, but it still had awesome hunting skills picking off minnow with deadly precision. Surprisingly the water was calm and still, which isn’t usually a Heron’s preferred fishing ground, but maybe due to the heat and very low water levels pickings were slim and it had to go wherever the fish were.

I took so many pictures I filled an entire memory card and killed 2 batteries (one of which I dropped in the river and took 2 heart-stopping days to dry out!). Then having sat in 30C heat with no shade for over an hour not wearing sunscreen I decided I should call it a day before I passed out from heat stroke or fried myself to a crisp. I couldn’t wait to get home to see what I’d captured 📷.

Unfortunately, nearby houses were reflected in the water which in my excitement I hadn’t noticed when I took the shots and they ruined many a good picture. But I still ended up with half a dozen images I was really chuffed with, which is actually a great capture rate for me! I’ve tried for a decade to get just one half decent Heron photo, so to get that many was brilliant 😁. I haven’t had the chance to edit all the pictures yet, but here are a couple of my favourites so far:

Just to let you know, they didn’t come out of the camera looking this good and I always spend an inordinate amount of time editing my shots. For a start it was a very sunny day, and in order to kill the very distracting highlights on the water I had to dial down my exposure. This then made the Heron dark, so I had to select the Heron in Photoshop and brighten it back up again. I also worked on bringing out the detail on the bird using a variety of techniques, before making sure the eye, beak and minnow were subtly the brightest parts of the shot because that’s where our eye as the viewer should go first. Having done all that, I then ran the images through Topaz DeNoise which I have as a plug-in in Photoshop to dampen down any pixelation my editing had created. If I had a fast pro lens which could stop down to F/1.8 or similar I could probably skip this step, but as I don’t and the largest aperture on my 300mm (600mm full frame equivalent) lens when zoomed out is F/6.7 noise is an ever present nemesis and is something I have to work on for virtually every picture I take.

I may never get this up close and personal to a wild Heron again and it was truly a privilege and a joy to spend an hour in the company of this beautiful creature 🙂. Strike 1 on my bucket list!

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