Saturday, 26 November 2016

Panasonic G80 photography masterclass

A couple of weeks ago I was delighted to be invited on a photography masterclass by Panasonic UK to the British Wildlife Centre in Surrey. I was joined in the event by three other photographers: Jason Alexander (aka, the 'Wildlife Gadget Man', championing the role that technology can play in connecting younger generations with the natural world), travel blogger Heather Cowper and family photographer Hannah Harding.

We were given the smart new Lumix G80 mirrorless camera to experiment with during our morning at the centre, and use subsequent to the day to profile some brilliant advancements from Panasonic's gadgetry. After receiving a background talk and introduction by professional wildlife photographer Phil Gould, we headed off to explore the centre's diverse array of native mammal and bird species in the various enclosures, getting to grips with our new cameras and capturing some #UnmissableMoments in the process.

The new G80 (also referred to as the G85) exhibits some smart features which allow the photographer to get pretty creative with imaging. Some particularly exciting developments for this new model that I was keen to get to grips with are the 4K photo and post-focussing 4K picture functions. I was also looking forward to experimenting with the 4K video capabilities- a feature which has made the previous G8 series cameras a popular model for use in film and moving-image production. I'll go into a bit more detail about the overall technicalities and performance of the camera in a second blog post, having used it for a couple of weeks now.

However, it was brilliant to spend the first photo shoot with this smart camera by capturing images of some charismatic wildlife species such as these cheeky little chaps...

During the morning's session I was able to shoot with a variety of different lenses, although the kit lens (24-60mm) that comes with the camera is a great and versatile lens for capturing a range of subjects at close ranges - I particularly enjoyed getting up close to the red squirrels as they nibbled on their rewards, trying to showcase their inquisitive and rather endearing nature!

We were truly lucky with the weather conditions for the day's masterclass, with barely a breath of wind and beautifully clear skies - ideal for photography! The squirrel enclosure was great fun, although the hyperactive little mammals can be tricky to capture at times, even with the technologies of 4K photo and pos-focussing at your disposal! Here Phil Gould (left), Heather and Jason are pictured alongside an obliging squirrel

Gorse Flowers - even using the standard kit lens, I was impressed at the macro abilities and close-up images that were possible with the G80

A small mushroom that caught my eye - using the post-focus selection feature worked really well for this tiny fungus. After shooting a burst of 4K images, the nifty feature allows you to retrospectively scroll through and select the exact frames which are best focussed for your needs. I am looking forward to having more of a play around with this!

It was lovely to have the opportunity to photograph this particular Red Fox called 'Biscuit', who is impressively at the ripe old age of 15! She is certainly doing well for her age, and I'm sure has brought pleasure to countless thousands of visitors to the centre!
Using a shallow depth of field and utilising the really handy flip-screen on the Lumix allowed me to get nice and low to the ground to try some more impactful portraits of this smart animal

With the leaves draining of the green colour and beginning to drop from deciduous trees, some of the enclosures were gleaming in autumnal colours, and this made for particularly pleasing shots of the fox in a thoroughly seasonal setting! These two images were taken with a 200mm lens on the G80 - I have to say that the new combined image stabilisation system works wonders with handheld photography. Even at longer focal lengths, the image remains very stable and I can see this being superb for filming

Admiring the gorgeous fox 'Biscuit' 

It was brilliant to be introduced to some of the centre's pure Scottish Wildcats - a species which inbreeding with feral cats has reduced to just a handful of individuals in the uplands of Scotland. They are stunning creatures, and with real characters! 
You wouldn't want to get too close to these chaps...except by using a reasonable zoom and remaining at a comfortable distance! Using the 4K photo mode whenever these hissing bouts ensued allowed me to chose the exact shot I was after. It is really straight forward to use the 4K picture mode, and the touch screen makes it super easy to scroll through a burst of shots afterwards and then simply select and save the ones you want to keep

I really liked the cracks in this tree stump, using them to lead your eye into the image - and one of the wildcats obliged at the perfect moment to capture a #UnmissableMoment 

One of the hardest subjects to capture images of, despite being one of my favourites to watch, was the Otter. Their slinky-like style of movement and inquisitive nature is a rather endearing trait, but makes it hard to get perfect images at times! Jason opted for the low-level technique in this situation, which really is made so much easier with the flip-out and rotational screen on the G80. One of the great things about the G8 series, though, is the retention of a viewfinder - I struggle to use live view for photography in a lot of circumstances, having used digital SLRs most of my life!

A great end to the morning was getting up and close to this superb species: the Tawny Owl. Resting against the gnarled trunk of a mature oak, it made for some great images taken with the 200mm lens. It isn't often you get to see such fine details of a bird that is usually a ghostly figure in the night

Besides the wildlife of the centre, I enjoyed experimenting with the camera on a range of other subjects...
backlit oak leaves in the morning sunshine

the silhouetted fruiting bodies of a rosehip

So overall I had a thoroughly enjoyable time at the wildlife institute, and the masterclass was brilliant - it's not too often you get to use a fantastic new Lumix camera on charismatic British mammals in stunning autumn weather! A great combination, especially shared with the company of accompanying photographers and Phil Gould, who was thoroughly helpful in explaining some of the technicalities related to using the G80. 

I have since had a very busy few weeks filled mostly with uni work for exams, assignments and practical write-ups, and so haven't had anywhere near as much time as I would have liked to get to grips with the camera. I am really looking forward to putting the G80 through its paces when I return to Bardsey at christmas - I am hoping to focus on filming the Grey Seals whilst I'm there and making use of the #4Kvideo

Many thanks to Panasonic UK for the opportunity and superb masterclass, and to the staff of the British wildlife institute for allowing us to spend the day at the centre.

- take a closer look at the specs for the new G80 here
- British Wildlife Centre
- Panasonic Lumix UK

Thursday, 10 November 2016

October thrush migration in Falmouth

Although more or less at an end now, the last three weeks has been utterly fantastic for witnessing thrush migration here in Falmouth. After delighting as the first few 'seep' calls heralded the arrival of the autumn's first Redwings back at the beginning of October, the ensuing weeks saw a superb migration take place. The weather conditions have of course played their part, with high pressure sat over the British isles for much of the month, pulling in an air stream from the north-east and giving these Scandinavian wanderers an easier journey.

Visible migration of thrushes and finches reached its climax just over a week ago, with daily counts of Redwings into the thousands, occurring in an intense period of time lasting from just before sunrise to about an hour and a half afterwards. The best places to see the migration for myself was, rather conveniently, right outside my humble abode near Argal Reservoir in Penryn. Stepping out of the caravan at sunrise to the sound of Redwing flocks bombing overhead and the cackling 'yack-yack-yacks' of Fieldfares was fantastic. Witnessing the 'vis-mig' has been great on campus too, where I've joined a few other keen birders like Liam Langley, Calum Urquhart, James Beaumont, Max Thompson and many others to enjoy the spectacle.

I thought I would note down some of the best days of migration that I've seen, and include a few facts and figures from the passage from my recordings. 

As I said before, I saw my first Redwings on 7th October, with the first big day of passage three days later. Here are some of the top days for passage...

- 10th October: 1, 111 Redwings and 24 Song Thrushes noted flying north-east in flocks up to 112 between 0755-0855

- 12th October: 956 Redwings, 29 Song Thrushes and 16 Blackbirds noted heading north-east over campus between 0750-0900

- 19th October: 666 Redwings flew north-east between 0800-0900

- 21st October: 574 Redwings, 19 Song thrushes and 13 Fieldfares heading north over my caravan from 0720-0830 in cold conditions with a light south-westerly breeze

- THE BIG DAY 22nd October: over 10,000 Redwings, 544 Fieldfares, 62 Song Thrushes, 67 Chaffinches, 23 Skylarks, 62 Meadow Pipits and one Mistle Thrush. All flying north-east between 0720-0910, with biggest Redwing flocks over 1000 birds in size, and stretching for over 1km! Conditions: light E breeze (headwind), 80% cloud cover and cold

- 31st October: another big day! 6330 Redwings, 269 Fieldfares, 38 Chaffinches, 47 Skylarks and 8 Song Thrushes heading north-east over the caravan between 0700-0830 

After the final day of October, passage seemed to peter off quite quickly, with just slight movements over the last week. It was pretty incredible at peak intensity though, and hearing their calls during the night was great too! One of the best visible migration spectacles I have seen in the UK, and all just out of my front door!


Song Thrush

In praise of visible migration...
Fieldfare flock

Redwing flock



 Mistle Thrushes

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Focussing on photography: telling a story through your images

Photography has become such a ubiquitous hobby in an age where our lives are closely entwined with technology that allows us to instantly share images, ideas and inspiration from all around the world. With smartphone cameras ever-improving their image quality, and new technologies appearing around every corner (such as the amazing new 'Light' camera coming out next year- see, it opens up the possibility for almost anyone to snap an image of surprising quality in any number of situations. Whilst the past-time has become an incredibly popular and accessible pursuit, the fundamental basis that makes for a good image has remained unchanged - and getting 'the perfect shot' remains a matter of patience, perseverance and perfecting your camera's abilities. 

For me, photography allows the expression of creativity, the ability to depict the world around us in powerful ways that really tells a story. Whilst this can take myriad forms through the artistic use of imagery and individual styles employed by all manner of photographers, my own passion is depicting wildlife in their environment - bringing the viewer into the moment and enabling them to perceive the situation. This really creates impact, particularly through emotion - and there are a variety of elements I always look for in a striking shot to create this emotional connection. Telling a story, using creativity, good composition, and mood: these are good starting points for a powerful shot.

Wildlife photography has been a passion of mine since an early age, and has been shaped and fostered by a unique place where I lived from the age of 11. Bardsey Island is a small, wind-battered isle off the coast of North Wales, UK. Situated in the tumultuous Irish Sea, the island receives its fair share of extreme weather conditions, and the winter months present an ever-changing canvas of blues, whites and greys as ferocious waves and sea spray dominate the horizon. The seasonal changes bring about constant opportunities for photography: spring and autumn with its pulse of migratory birds, seabirds clustering on coastal cliffs and blooms of flowers; summer with its abundance of invertebrates, tranquil waters brimming with marine life and abundance of young from the breeding season; winter with its racing seascapes and challenging weather conditions...the possibilities are endless. Being such a special place to me, it's hardly surprising that it's amongst my favourite location for photography. Capturing the essence of place requires a strong use of the elements I eluded to previously - I have included a couple of images from Bardsey to demonstrate how these can be used to produce a striking image.

Wildlife is the focus of most of my photography, and I particularly enjoy capturing animals, plants, birds or insects in their environment. Bardsey provides some unique subjects and situations to capture through the lens. Seabirds are a prominent feature of the island's wildlife, and species like this Gannet can often be seen powering past over boiling seas. I wanted to tell the story of this elegant seabird, which battles ever-changing weather conditions at sea as it travels around to feed all across the UK. 

Shooting with my usual setup for bird photography, a Canon 40D and Canon 100-400mm f4-5.6 lens, I positioned myself on a particular stretch of coast where a continual series of rolling waves rushed towards the shore and broke in long regimental lines. This made for a perfect foreground, giving the shot a real mood. The mood of any image is affected by elements like lighting and the connection with the subject. In this image, for example, I really appreciated the subtle differences in colours that this scene presented, adding depth and and emotion to the shot. 

It took a lot of patience and time before this Gannet glided past and banked just at the right time to frame it above the seas. This connects to the second key feature in an shot: the composition. It is always worth thinking along the 'rule of thirds': trying to position your subject in the appropriate position within an image. Although I usually like to place flying birds so that they have space in front of them - room to fly through the shot, as it were, here I went for an alternative framing. I located the Gannet where it is flying out of the image, focussing attention on the shapes and colours of the waves in the bottom right hand of the image. 

This image is part of an on-going project to capture the intriguing Manx Shearwater in its night-time haunt on Bardsey. Shearwaters are relatives of albatrosses, and spend most of their lives at sea. Although they spend the winter off the coast of south america, they return in their thousands to breed on Bardsey and feed in its surrounding waters. Feeding well offshore during the day, the shearwaters wait until nightfall to descend on the island, where they nest in earth burrows. I recognised a brilliant opportunity with these curious wanderers, combining the superb dark skies of Bardsey with the unique bird's nocturnal habits...

So again, this project centred on telling the story of this unique species, and creating real impact through creative use of a camera's technical abilities and careful planning. Getting the right conditions for taking these images was the biggest challenge to overcome in this project - that's the planning part. Like any night-time photography, there are a host of factors to consider. For the shot I was after, I needed a clear, moonless night with sufficiently light winds and dark skies to make for striking celestial scenes. Spring-time suited these conditions best, when the nights were also dark for long enough to spend a few hours working on this shot.

Technique: this was a key part of getting the shot, both in terms of using the camera and settings effectively, and also with regard to judgment of the bird's behaviour. In dark conditions, you need to use the ISO, shutter speed and f/number in acute coordination. The added complication for me was 'freezing' a live subject by using a dim head-torch within the exposure. First of all, however, it pays to be using the right equipment. I used a Canon 6D and Canon 15mm fisheye lens: the 6D is a superb full-frame camera that produces superb image quality even at very high ISO settings; the fisheye lens allowed me to maximise the amount of sky in the shot, whilst incorporating the main subject and some foreground elements too. 

After finding this particular shearwater, I crept close and set up the equipment, composing the image and then experimenting to see what the best camera settings were. I settled on using a 30 second exposure at ISO 6400 - this combination maximised on light-gathering to ensure the stars were vivid enough in the image. As is often the case with night photography, I had to shoot wide open at f/2.8 to allow enough light for the picture. During the 30 second exposures, I used a dim head-torch to briefly illuminate the bird, so it stood out against the celtic crosses and glorious night sky in the background. 

So you can see how combining planning and effective use of technique with important elements like mood, composition and creativity can really create some striking images. Anyone can take a picture, and indeed it is very easy to take quite good pictures with limited experience these days; but it takes effective use of these techniques to produce something special, that tells a story, and creates an emotional impact.