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.

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