Exploring with Camera

(From The Oxford Times, 14 February 2019)

Misty morning at the C S Lewis Reserve

There is probably no better time than Spring to explore the numerous BBOWT reserves around Oxford - and one of the delights of that exploration is to share it with family and friends.  You can always tell them what you’ve seen, but they’ll get an even better flavour of your visit if you’ve got some photographs to share with them.

So, how do you go about taking the picture that shows the best of your local BBOWT reserve?. 

When you first get into one of the reserves there is often a temptation to rush round trying to capture an image that says “I’m here!”, but once you’ve done that it’s worth slowing down, taking a deep breath and just watching and listening to what’s around.  What birds or mammals are there?  What flowers are in bloom?  What’s the light doing - is there bright sunlight or is it a more overcast day?

The next step is to quietly explore the reserve.   If it’s a reserve you’ve visited before, you might already have an idea what you want to photograph. If it’s a new reserve to you, wander around so that you can start to get an idea what photo opportunities it might provide.  I’m particularly drawn to ponds and streams - so I’ll always look for some water when I’m exploring a new reserve.

Rivermead Nature Park 

Once you’ve seen something that looks interesting, you can then start to think about how to frame the image in the camera (or on your phone).   If it’s sunny, try and make sure that the light is   behind you (so that the sunlight is on your back rather than on your face) - your eye is very good at adjusting to dark and light areas in an image, but the camera isn’t so good.  If you have the light behind you’ll have the best chance of getting a well lit picture.  If you’re taking pictures of other people make sure that their faces are in sunshine rather than in shadow.

Try holding the camera at different heights - there’s a temptation to stand with the camera at head-height, but there might be an even better picture if you kneel down or even (if it’s not too muddy) lie down before you press the shutter.  You might want to try turning the camera sideways - people with camera phones often take ‘portrait’ pictures and those with traditional cameras usually take ‘landscape’ images - in both cases it’s worth experimenting with holding the camera the other way round.

When I’m framing up an image on the camera, I often try and imagine the story I’m going to tell about the picture once get home.  In some cases you might want to zoom into the image - was it the little group of moorhens in the middle of the image that you wanted to be able to show in the picture.  In other cases, it might be the sweep of the trees along the riverbank that was the main feature in your story so you would want to zoom out to show lots of trees.

If you’ve got a camera where you can adjust the settings, you can fine tune what the camera is doing.  If you want to capture a fast moving insect or bird, you will need to set a very short exposure time (or some cameras this will be called a ‘sport’ mode) - that will freeze the action in your picture.

My final tip for capturing a great image on a BBOWT reserve is to visit at different times of day - the light will be different at dawn, in the middle of the day and at dusk.  If you’re lucky (or pick the right day) you’ll get to take pictures in the soft light that photographers call ‘the golden hour’.  You’ll also get to see different wildlife early and late in the day - and you might just capture that special image.

Still Winter, February 2019

One of the challenges - some would say opportunities - of travelling between Oxford and Shetland is not knowing what the weather is going to do when you get there.  Some (for example, work colleagues) would quite reasonably assume that if the weather is cold and bleak in Oxford and if one was to travel, say 562 miles, due North you could expect it to be rather colder and bleaker.

But it just doesn’t work like that.  

The seas around Shetland certainly make a difference but it seems to be more than that.  In fact, generally, it seems that the simplest way of guessing the weather would be to assume ‘the opposite’.  If it’s cold and icy in Oxford then it’s likely to be mild on Shetland.  If it’s blowing up a storm in central England, there will be crowds on the Shetland beaches.  If it’s hot and sunny in the Thames Valley, then the fog and mist will have descended around Sumburgh Airport.

So when one heads off from on a cold and icy Saturday morning from Oxford, it would be entirely reasonable to expect to need beach attire (*) when you get to the south end of Shetland.

Quendale Beach 
Quendale Beach

One of the other bonuses of being of on Sunny Shetland (as opposed to Overcast Oxford) at this time of the year is that it’s always Golden Hour - that magical chunk of time sought out by photographers when, around sunrise and sunset, the light takes on a lovely warm glow.  

When the time between sunrise and sunset is short (as it is on Shetland at this time of year) the sun never gets very high in the sky, so you’ve got a good chance of getting golden light at anytime during the day.

Golden Light on Scat Ness

The other (OK, maybe only) thing about Shetland weather that can be promised is that it is going to change.  If on one day the seas are smooth and flat, you can be sure that there will be waves rolling in on the next day.

Calm Seas around Mousa
Waves on Scat Ness

No guarantees mind, this is Shetland weather we’re talking about. 
Snow Clouds over Fitful Head

*In this context "beach attire" means one fleece plus walking boots and a woollen Fair Isle hat.