Part 1 of a 2 Part Blog: A Photography Day at the British Wildlife Centre, Lingfield, Surrey
Ethics statement: all these images are of wildlife held in the care and captivity of the British Wildlife Centre.
Last week I went to the British Wildlife Centre based in Lingfield, Surrey. They were holding a photography day. When I was organising the visit, I was considering going on one of the days where a professional photographer was present. They run a series of photography days when their centre is closed to the public. Some are run by photo guides, others are open for amateurs and enthusiasts. In the end I decided to go on one of the regular days without the services of a professional photographer.
The day started at 9.30am with registration and a cup of tea and biscuits. Details of the photography days can be found on their website. The cost of the day was £90. Is it worth the £90? Well I will answer that towards the end of this blog...
There were 12 of us in total that had registered and we had a member of staff to accompany us throughout the day and it was very well programmed. As we started the day in the centre it was great to see the other photographers with a wide range of equipment. Some had mirror less systems from Olympus and Panasonic, others had Nikon, other's had Canon's from entry level DSLRs like the 550D all the way up to a couple of 5Dmkiii's.
My plan that day was to shoot with my Canon 7D. I had no idea what to expect and did not know how far or close we would be to the subjects. I hedged my bets by packing my bag with my 24-70mm f2.8, my 70-200mm f2.8 and my 1.4x teleconverter, just in case. In the end that plan was turned on its head the day before.
The day before the shoot I visited the photography show at the NEC in Birmingham. My plan for the show was to network with some other photographers and a couple of publications, and check a little bit of gear but not too much. I am trying very hard to avoid the gear-trap right now as I am consolidating a lot of my kit to get exactly the gear I need to focus on wildlife photography. I am pretty close to my ideal set up, but I have sold one Canon body, am selling a Panasonic body, and have 3 lenses currently up for sale to fund my plan. And that plan included upgrading to a full frame body. But the plan didn't include buying one at the Photography show. That was until I saw the double cash back offer. At that point it was too good an offer to turn up, and even though I know the 5Dmkiii is at the end of its product life-cycle, its the camera that will take my photography, especially on future trips to Africa, to the next level.
So I turned up at the British Wildlife Centre with my two lenses and a Canon 5Dmkiii. Not having read the manual at all, I set up back button focusing, put it into RAW shooting mode and went straight into the shoot. Well there's nothing like learning on the fly I say...best way to get to grips with the camera, is in the field. Speaking with the other photographers on the day, I realised I wasn't the only one to have succumbed to Canon's crafty marketing ploys at The Photography Show! I suppose this made me feel only very slightly less guilty.
We started our day in the red squirrel enclosure. I have photographed squirrels before, notably in St James Park London, where there is a very large and habituated population of grey squirrels, more grey squirrels in Les Landes forest in France, and Black Squirrels in Toronto. This was the first time I had photographed red squirrels and I found them incredible. What really surprised me was their ears and the colour. They are beautiful creatures. They move seriously quick, and they certainly keep you on your toes photographically.
After the first few shots with the Canon 5Dmkiii, where I was really just getting familiar with the camera, I started to get some better exposed compositions. Shooting in manual, like I would on my 7D isn't all that different on the 5Dmkiii. The Auto-focus system is much more sophisticated and it is in this area I will really have to focus in the coming weeks. I will have to set aside probably a full day where I teach myself the auto-focus system and get out and learn practically how to use it. On the day, I just put the focus system into one point select mode, that allowed me to move the focus point around the selection area depending on my subject and composition, and for the most part this worked well.
After the squirrels, we went into the fox enclosure. This for me was one of my favourite experiences. I haven't lived in the UK for 15 years. But when I lived there I used to see foxes, even in urban areas fairly often. Since moving to Belgium, the only time I see a fox is lying dead on the side of the ring road which crosses the Bois outside Brussels. This is the very sad reality of living in such a densely populated country with very few natural crossings under main roads for wildlife to pass. I remember when I was very young visiting an aunt and uncle who had a regular fox visiting their garden. We used to put some food out before going to bed and then watch the fox come into the garden and feed from the upstairs window. I think I mentioned before in previous posts how important photography is in stimulating memories. Being in the fox enclosure took me back to my very first sightings as a child. But this was truly an amazing experience because there was a male fox who was habituated but wary of our presence. This made for some great photographic opportunities, where with the results you would never imagine this was a captive fox. The female on the other hand was a rescue fox and reared in the centre. So she behaved almost like a dog and was completely hyper active. She wouldn't keep still.
With the foxes we were told by our guide for the day we would have the opportunity to take some shots of the foxes running. So this is where I applied good field tactics of banking my shots and then experimenting.
For the running shots, we, the group of photographers lined up, and the guide would throw food towards us and the foxes chased after it. My plan was to stop up to around f18 or more, and lower the shutter speed to around 1/50 of a second. The plan being to try and capture some motion blur. Motion blur and panning shots are a photographic goal for me this year. I tried this out in the field in South Africa last November and pretty much failed. But I learnt from it. So this was only my second attempt at trying to pan with a slower shutter speed. The first shot I took I used a shutter speed of 1/160 at f7.1 - you can see I didn't really get the desired effect:
The second shot, I slowed the shutter further to 1/50 of a second at f14. This time I got closer to what I was looking for. BUT, I cut the foxes tail off the composition. Like all good photographers I will blame it on the new camera :-) But in all seriousness, I think if I had been shooting with my 7D I would have probably nailed this shot, because the 7D is like a glove to me. This was my first shoot with the 5Dmkiii. But still my principle of "experiment and fail" still holds. I would rather have tried and failed than just played it safe. I've made progress with this shot, simply because I am trying to convey the motion in the image. And if I focus on that, and not the composition, this is a step in the right direction.
After the fun with the foxes, we went into the British Wildcat enclosure. These wildcats look like domesticated cats but are far from it. They are mainly found in the Scottish highlands. They weigh between 9 and 14kgs, so sit in the same weight category as a Maine Coon or Norwegian Forest cat. I was curious to know this as I have a Maine Coon at home and they have a very long elongated body. These wildcats were fairly stocky in build and what I found particularly interesting was their tails, which are both thicker and bushier than a domestic cat.
These cats were fairly habituated to humans, but you wouldn't want to get too close. They can scratch and bite. They also give you a fairly clear warning signal if you go too close.
They also have a permanent frown on their expressions which I think pretty much sums up their overall character!
With wildcats photographed we moved on to something much smaller. The harvest mouse. I have viewed images of harvest mouse in fields of corn and utterly marvelled at how these images were realised. How on earth in acres of corn will you spot a harvest mouse? Seems impossible right?
Well our guide made the shot easy for us. In the spirit of full disclosure and ethics, the shot you are about to see has been staged by the guide. A well placed dry thistle and a washing up bowl underneath as a safety net, we had ourselves a perfect portrait of a harvest mouse! Even so, this was one of my favourite shooting experiences, simply because I was keen to make this shot as natural looking as possible. So with the 70-200 f2.8 lens on, I stopped right down to f2.8 to open the aperture wide open and get a shallow depth of field. The full frame sensor is amazing in this sense. After nearly 6 years of shooting on the APS-C censored 7D, which at f1.4 to f1.8 does a pretty good job at shallow depth of field, the full frame Canon 5Dmkiii is in a class of its own.
With the harvest mouse rested to the safety of his housing box, that signalled half way for the day. We retired to the cafeteria area to eat our packed lunches and chat with each other about our experiences in photography. The weather held, and despite the threat of rain, it stayed dry and overcast with the odd ray of sunshine coming through every now and again. For a March day in the UK we couldn't complain, and the light had been pretty good to us.
In part 2 of the blog I will share the second half of the day where I got to shoot photographs of a Tawny owl, hedghog, Barn Owl, Otters, Polecat, Stoat and Weasel. I thought red squirrels moved fast....they have nothing on the speedy and elusive weasel!