1/5/2023 0 Comments
World Bee Day falls this month and I thought it would be great to celebrate that. Scientists and conservationists have for a while been discussing the importance of and risks to our pollinators so this international day is intended to raise awareness of the issues.
On a local level I have been talking recently with folks from the Redesdale Bee Society and learning about their work keeping the native subspecies of honey bee. For a long time it was thought the Dark European Honey Bee, Apis Mellifera Mellifera, was extinct; gladly they were found in several places where other subspecies struggle to survive including in Northumberland. These hardy bees are much better suited to life here, thriving with far less intervention, and pollinate all our native wildflowers. Some groups now seek to discourage the use of other variations such as the Italian subspecies (much more golden in colour) as interbreeding threatens the future of the preferable native variety. Read more.
Being both small and seldom still bees and other flying insects are a challenge to photograph. As wild spaces and gardens burst into bloom now is a great time to work on this skill. To some extent this can be a numbers game, take full advantage of a large memory card and feel empowered to take many images. Some people use burst mode and really lean into this idea, although I prefer a more methodical approach. There is an element of luck for this subject but I tend to agree with Gary Palmer when he said “The harder I practise, the luckier I get.”
Select a Fast shutter speed (1/800+) enabled by a high ISO.
Holding your breath and staying very still, manually focus on the head of the animal, notice that the depth of field is very shallow. This means looking at a side view of the insect gives the best chance of having most of the head and body sharp.
Bringing in The May has been important in British culture for a long time. Despite the different forms it has taken over the years a central theme is bringing flowers to decorate the inside or outside of the home. Not only would this be a lovely, and simple, tradition to take part in, it's very practical for photography purposes too. I suggest that taking close up images of a vase of flowers in a bright but still area, such as a windowsill, is the perfect practice for capturing bee photos later. Make sure you spend time working on controlling your focus- aim to be able to choose which precise spot will be the sharpest.
1/4/2023 0 Comments
Today's newsletter is all about native blossom and the apt term Blackthorn Winter provides us a reminder of how harsh weather can return at the drop of a hat- it refers to the habit Blackthorn has of flowering just before a cold snap.
Subjects to seek out this month:
Surely it is a hard heart which does not brighten at the sight of spring blossom. Blackthorn, Hawthorn, Apple, Cherry- we are spoilt for choice. Some winter flowering species have been and gone but many natives are just starting to break or yet to come (looking through my archives I have taken many lovely blossom shots in May).
Blackthorn is one of my favourites, this is the only time of year it is easy to tell apart from the Hawthorn, as Blackthorn comes into flower before the leaves have come out. The delicate petals against the stark branch and lethal looking thorns make a wonderful contrast. Any witches in need of a new staff or wand (apparently this is the favoured wood) or autumn foragers in need of Sloe Gin, may wish to note the location of these bushes now.
A few pointers for creating pleasant blossom images-
1 These photos can often be busy, with lots of extra branches criss-crossing behind the subject, a shallow depth of field can help blur the background. On a phone-camera this may be replicated by choosing Portrait mode. In nearly all cases you will dramatically narrow the depth of field by ‘zooming in’ on your subject - which is to say, standing back and setting the lens to magnify the scene to fill the frame once more (choosing a longer focal length). If you use a Macro lens, which is a great choice if you have the option, you will naturally get a blurry background.
2 If you are vertically challenged (like me) and try to photograph the blossom above you in a tree you will invariably be shooting into the light. If you want to avoid a silhouetted subject you will need to be careful. Consider turning the flash on on your camera, normally this has a great measuring system and will compensate by itself for the available light and just provide you with a suitable amount of ‘fill in’ flash. If flash isn't an option or looks too harsh you can otherwise force the camera to brighten the scene. On a phone-camera try holding your finger on the screen then gently sliding your finger upwards, this often opens an exposure scale and allows you to manually brighten the image. On a camera, if you are not yet comfortable with manual mode, you can use the helpful exposure compensation button. A simple “+/-” symbol will denote the physical button or menu option you need to press. It will normally be set to “0” move the dial towards +1 or even +2 playing about with how much is appropriate- if in doubt err on the side of a slightly dark image. You MUST remember to turn this back down afterwards or your next images will forever be too bright- this setting rarely resets itself.
his composite image could be described as digital photographic art, it comprises around 9 different blossom photographs in a technique adapted from a one covered in our Editing Club. The Editing Club is a supportive, friendly environment where once a week members come together via video call. During the calls editing techniques are discussed and ideas are generated, there is lots of opportunity to delve into problems we have all faced, work out solutions and come away feeling a lot less silly than we had done while struggling alone. I would love to take credit for the successes which arise from these clubs (and the many wonderful images created) but I am merely the conduit- group feedback is the key. To this end we would love more members, whether you are brand new to editing, an old hand or somewhere in between you would be very welcome. Each set of lessons lasts 6 weeks during which a project prompt is given for inspiration, learners work at their own pace and submit to the group as much or as little as they wish. Brand new students may choose to work through the beginners tutorial videos I have created. Perfected end products or draft works in progress are both accepted with open arms into our private online gallery. Currently we have a call on a Wednesday at 9am, but other time slots can be considered if they prove popular. Let me know if you are curious about the club and have any questions.
Follow this link for the step by step instructions to making a similar stacked image in Photoshop: blossom
Did you know?
‘April’ could be derived from the Latin Aprilis (from aperire) to open, I like this definition so I can neatly tie it into our blossom theme, although some argue the origins may be related to Aphrodite instead.
1/3/2023 0 Comments
St David's Day
Subjects to seek out this month:
The 1st of March has been celebrated in Wales and elsewhere as St David's day since the 12th Century and one of the traditional ways to mark the occasion is to wear a daffodil. Which is my segue into talking about this month's suggested subject, low growing (wild)flowers. It is still a while before the trees’ leaves burst properly and only the hardiest of blossoms are daring to begin their emergence, so our eyes turn to the ground instead.
This is a popular subject so there is little doubt almost everyone has taken such images before so let me just offer a few brief ideas to perhaps help broaden your approach.
1. Use a mirror. I love the surrealism of reflections in photos anyway but for a small subject such as these a mirror can offer a scientific or artistic advantage. A small hand mirror placed to allow a view looking up into a bunch of snowdrops perhaps showing the structure of a woodland canopy overhead sounds like a recipe for success.
2. Use a wide angle lens (which by the way includes every phone camera) and use a low viewpoint. Wide angle perspectives really distort the relative size of subjects close to the camera and will exaggerate their height within the scene. It's an unusual view and it's fun!
3. This really should be reserved for your own flowers or those you have permission to pick but taking a few flowers home to play with on the scanner opens up a whole new avenue of exploration (and brings you in from the cold). Place a box over the plant which has been put directly on the flatbed of the scanner, you may wish to paint the inside of this box. Tips include aiming to keep dust to a minimum and trying a variety of angles and arrangements. See the above images for some examples from later in the season.
Did you know?
The familiar saying ‘Mad as a March Hare’ is said to stem from the distinctive boxing behaviour that Brown Hares exhibit in late winter. Some lucky folk in Northumberland have already taken pictures of this action so it's certainly not too early for you to catch it happening. Rather than it being two males fighting as is often supposed this will be a female fending off unwanted attention during the breeding period. Personally, I think their crazy eyes probably helped the phrase seem particularly fitting.
1/2/2023 0 Comments
Subjects to seek out this month: Barn Owls
Barn owls can often be seen hunting in daylight during the shorter winter days. This is for a few reasons:
Rodents make up around 90% of a barn owl’s diet and during cold weather field voles change their behaviour to come out when warmer rather than their usual time of overnight.
Starvation is a big problem for barn owls. They are poorly insulated and need to eat extra to keep warm.
Lacking proper waterproofing they rarely hunt during heavy rain; likewise snow causes huge problems by obscuring the voles. Northumbrian owls are often recorded moving towards the coast to find clear ground. As the name suggests these owls would historically have hunted indoors making the most of the high populations of rodents that went with traditional ways of storing grain- a huge boost during cold weather.
During cold weather they are more likely to perch in order to conserve heat and energy, giving you a great chance for a portrait in soft golden hour light.
They can be creatures of habit so if you are lucky enough to see one - looking in the same place at that time on the following days can often be successful.
To photograph them hunting you will benefit from a long lens and a high ISO, you will need a fast shutter speed. Some noise on your image is preferable to any movement so prioritise achieving a shutter speed of 1/400 upwards, ideally if the bird is in flight you’d go over 1/1000 and you may need to pan the camera to follow their path.
Some sights are worth braving the cold for
Although each was sub zero there have been many nights during January that have been perfect for stargazing and astrophotography. One allowed us enough notice to send an email that morning and gather a (admittedly very small) group together. Most importantly knowledge was imparted and fun was had. My thanks to Simon Etheridge for sharing his expertise and for the photo of the Milky Way.
1/1/2023 0 Comments
Subjects to seek out this month: Shots for next years' Christmas cards
While I can’t swear to still feeling as energetically festive as a few weeks ago, Christmas is certainly fresh in my mind and I do have a little more time on my hands, all in all this seems the perfect time to create images ready to use next year for Christmas cards. Year after year the hustle and bustle of November and December make thinking of DIY festive scenes just one job too many, so if I act now I can get nearly a whole year ahead of schedule.
With a spare hour while the decorations are nearby or while on a new year's walk to blow the cobwebs away keep in mind capturing scenes with a hint of winter magic. Be sure to make use of negative space in your composition and allow room for text to be added as needed.
Will you take a single image or be aiming to compile a set of several scenes? Thinking about pulling a collection of images together gives more to think about but is very rewarding. Ideally you would be looking for matching pictures in terms of colour palette, brightness and contrast but showing complementary differing scenes.
If you would like to design the card yourself but are less sure how to do so in your editing software drop me a line for some advice, I have made videos for Photoshop and Affinity covering a range of topics that may help you including how to add text and other effects.
Did you know?
The name January derives from ‘Ianua’, the Latin word for door, said to have been chosen because the month throws open the door to the brand new year.
1/12/2022 0 Comments
Subjects to seek out this month:
If you are gathering with friends or family through December you may take the chance to capture some portraits.
Candid images are always well received but beware that behind the scenes they have a high failure rate- it can be tricky catching people with a pleasant expression. Success depends a lot on reading the room and anticipating a smile or laugh coming. Try using a long lens and stand back from the group, all while keeping your shutter speed up.
Group shots can be tricky due to limited space. Try to encourage folks to pile together with as few gaps as possible. Think of ways to get the people to form rows which allow for height in the image and helps fill the frame. Planned portraits are always better outdoors or at least under natural light. Head to the garden or even doorways or conservatories. Position your sitters in comfort facing into the natural light, this might mean you grab your coat and stand outside while they wait in the doorway.
When doing portraits try to work quickly and go with the flow; the longer you make people wait the more forced the images. Once you are ready, be sure to call out that everyone needs to face the camera as inevitably there are people “helping” by looking at and talking to others in order to corral them (most often looking worse than the people they are trying to correct). To the camera’s eye calling out looks very similar to smiling and you can do a lot worse than a traditional request for three cheers: it's silly, it engages people and they look happy while doing it. Be sure to keep the shutter firing after the cheers end as the group lapse into more relaxed giggles.
The necessary camera settings for group shots in dull winter light are a bit of a big ask. You must keep your F no above 8 (although you needn’t go above 16) and you will have to have a shutter speed of 1/500 or so. Achieving both is likely to mean a high ISO and some noise, unfortunate but unavoidable - you must ensure a suitable depth of field (to cover the distance from the front row to the back) and you must freeze the movement in the facial expressions.
If you have a lone sitter (I find this works well with dogs) and there are Christmas lights nearby you can make the most of the chance to get some beautiful bokeh in the background, although you do need a bit of space. This is a big topic and tricky to master but in a nutshell, you are aiming for a very shallow depth of field. To maximise this you must put as much distance as possible between you and your sitter and them and the lights behind- so stand as far from the lights as is feasible and pop your subject in the middle. Then zoom in as far as you can and select the lowest possible F no. Be sure to frame it up with some of the twinkling lights visible.
You can see the difference being able to increase your focal length makes when looking at my examples below. On Otter’s shot on the right everything is magnified further and the fairy lights appear larger and more blurred. These examples are not ideal as the room was too small to allow me to stand back and frame her how I would have liked while maximising the sparkly bokeh dots.
I seem to have used the word ‘winter’ in every newsletter in recent months but by now all measures agree that it is here, 1st of December marking the start on the meteorological calendar.
If you need something sweet to take your mind off the cold weather, I am told that in the US it is National Peppermint Bark day- here is a recipe if you fancy making some bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/peppermint-bark
1/11/2022 0 Comments
Subjects to seek out this month:
Remember Remember the 5th of November, some tips on how to photograph Fireworks:
Fireworks are best shot from a tripod. Despite it being dark out, keep your iso low at perhaps 100/200 and the F stop modest at around 8 because we are going to open the shutter for a while and let enough light in that way (& besides- the background is supposed to remain dark). This is the perfect time for a remote control /or app and using the B mode- this means you manually control the shutter release- opening and closing it yourself. You can open the shutter as you see the firework rise in the sky and wait for it to explode and spread before closing the shutter once more. Failing being able to do that experiment with a range of speeds, starting at 1 second. The slower the speed, the longer the streaks and often the richer the colours. If all you get is a white fuzzy ball- your shutter is open too long, speed it back up!
My final bit of advice is to remember amongst it all to stop for a moment, step out from the camera and marvel at the lights and the colours before they’re gone.
A group of intrepid photographers faced the half term crowds when we visited the Gibside area together last week. After some hiccups finding one another and all getting parked, the autumn colours and an unexpected pair of tame little owls out for their walk(?!) made for some lovely subjects.
Did you know:
There is a traditional Japanese calendar which splits the year into 24 seasons, and then splits each season into 3 creating 72 Ko, each lasting about 5 days. As I write this we are in the last day of Frost Falls: Light rains sometimes fall, changing tomorrow to Frost Falls: Maple leaves and ivy turn yellow. While the next season sounds ominous, the Ko reminds of the nice changes that come with cooler weather (although apparently much sooner in Japan than here); from the 7th of the month we move into Beginning of winter: Camellias bloom. I think a lot of photographers are observers of the natural world and gratefully welcome fresh subjects throughout the year; what a lovely calendar system to remind one of the things to look forward to.
1/10/2022 0 Comments
Britain has 16 species of birds we call finches (despite them coming from a few different families) most are seed feeders and generally the males are very colourful.
October is a great time to get to know and photograph our finches. Most are naturally woodland birds but increasingly common in our gardens. In winter they become more gregarious, often feeding in mixed flocks. The amount of birds increase too as high numbers fly to the British Isles from the continent for the milder winter weather.
I've seen these changes on the feeders in our back yard where Greenfinch have reappeared after their solitary summer elsewhere. My research says that finches, especially Chaffinches, often form same sex flocks, I have not noticed this myself but will pay more attention this year! Winter is the only time to see Bramblings and their lovely autumnal orange markings, as they fly abroad during summer. Twite are also on the move in winter which could work to our advantage when they visit the Northumberland coast; this is quite a change from their usual home of Scottish moorland. Quite a plain brown bird, I dont think I’ve ever seen one but I imagine they could be mistaken for a female of another species.
One reason I chose finches to include in the newsletter is I think they are really accessible, even my yard in the middle of an estate gets loads. Sunflower hearts are the main attraction, I use a hanging seed feeder but I don't recommend being too tidy as the seeds which fall to the ground please the less agile members of the mixed finch flock. In large numbers they feel safe and they will return to the garden quickly after being disturbed, making them very forgiving models. As is often the case, a bit of prep work could lead to great results. Can you hang the feeder somewhere that you can see well from a comfortable spot and ideally with a pleasant or neutral background for your images? You will know when you are most likely to see the birds, if possible consider the direction of the light at that time so you are not having to shoot towards the sun. My favourite wildlife images hide the man made feeders and show some animal behaviour/activity. Often I watch the branches and fences nearby rather than the feeder itself, watching out for them landing to eat a seed, ready to capture any calling and tussling that goes on. Inevitably most of my shots end up being straight ones such as those below, great for seeing the bird clearly but better suited to an ID guide than a story book, hopefully you will capture more action.
Did you know:
According to Bede, the Anglo Saxons deemed the first moon of October as the beginning of winter (they only recognised two seasons) and for this reason named October Winterfylleth, derived from the terms for winter and full moon. Sticking to that system, winter is due to begin next Sunday the 9th. Brrrr
1/9/2022 0 Comments
Subjects to seek out this month:
The number of Migrant Hawkers around increases vastly in September when the continental residents fly over here. Dragon and damselflies can seem intimidating to catch on film when seen bustling around at speed but Migrant Hawkers often rest up in the sun for long periods and are relatively tolerant to disturbance. I was pleased to see this huge beast several years ago on the heather. I was pleased with the close up but I wish the background was less busy on the full length image so she stood out more, hopefully you will have better luck.
Of course lots of other animals are on the wing this month as many birds take part in migration. We (sorta) swap 2 of our beloved wading birds in September; while the Common Sandpipers leave for Africa (a few extra are around while the Scandinavian birds pass this way) our Knots arrive back from the Arctic. The knots appear a quite pale mix of brown and white in winter (apparently in summer they sport a striking brick-red tummy) but they produce a striking effect after they come to gather en masse. Begin to look out of Knots from this month along the coast and especially at muddy estuaries before the largest flocks form from December to March. As these are skittish birds and seldom still they can be tricky to photograph on the hoof, however with a bit of thought, patience and time you could reap wonderful rewards. Being able to zoom in to the max will help so pack your kit accordingly (if you have a detachable lens remember to change this before you get there, away from the sand). If a long lens is not part of your kit or your cup of tea there is ample opportunity to capture the Knots as part of the broader landscape, then their flighty nature works in your favour as you record the organic shapes their murmurations make. Whether zooming in or staying wide, a fast shutter speed is going to be a must so ideally try to organise your outing on a bright day with pale, thin clouds (I know - if only it were that easy). Happy hunting and if you head out please do show your photos to me, I’d love to see them.
Fungi season is also upon us with the main season for the larger fruiting bodies said to run from late August to late October. The ideal time to hunt for toadstools are after a spell of heavy rain if temperatures remain warm. This is a very different subject to the birds described above and can lend itself well to a different set of kits and skills. You may choose to use a macro lens or macro setting for this but neither are essential. I would consider, for your comfort, waterproof trousers and a kneeling pad. The fungi are often found on the moist woodland floor so light may be somewhat limited: raise up those ISOs. I enjoy using a cheap ring flash by Neweer when working in these conditions. Although it lacks the sophistication of more fancy models, when set low it gives a helpful and unobtrusive boost to the light in the shot.
Did you know:
September was known as Gerst-monath in Anglo Saxon, literally meaning Harvest Month. While for me the word harvest conjures scenes of golden farmland or stacks of tinned goods at a primary school festival, this year I am planning a small harvest of my own - gathering wildflower seeds to grow my own photographic subjects for coming years (and help the native pollinators to boot). I have taken advice on how best to do this from here www.wildflower.org/learn/collect-store-seeds if you want to follow suit.
1/8/2022 0 Comments
Our recent Cyanotype workshop at Elsdon went down a treat, with attendees making several of their own prints. Let me know if you would be interested in a similar face to face event lasting several hours and we can organise more sessions elsewhere around Northumberland over the coming weeks and months.
Subjects to seek out this month:
Those of you who follow the Kielder Ospreys will know that there are 4 successful breeding pairs this year, several other resident adults and regular guests appearing. All this adds up to you having a great chance to see Osprey’s making the most of the long summer days by regularly hunting.
Ospreys think nothing of travelling large distances daily to feed and visit other Osprey sites, so it’s always worth keeping an eye out for them anytime you are by freshwater just in case. At first glance I think they can be easily mistaken for a seagull, but on closer inspection the typical raptor traits can be seen and I often notice the black and white markings even at a distance.
If you’re keen to make a special trip to see them don’t wait too long to make your plans, by the end of August most will have begun their return to Africa. The young birds are often the last to leave, remarkably making the long dangerous journey alone.
I try to visit Kielder fairly often on the long summer evenings to look out for them. I was delighted to see one dive in and collect a fish recently. Getting a photo of the spectacle is a work in progress for me, enjoy a giggle at how tiny it looks- and this has been heavily cropped so you could actually see it! At least it matches my equally hopeless shot of a gannet on the northumberland coast back in May.
Something equally beautiful and a lot easier to find and photograph at this time of year is the Heather. Emerging in earnest now this never lasts long so don’t procrastinate if you want to enjoy it. Like many others I adore the flush of purple this brings to our hills, I often find it difficult to do justice to but I always love the time spent trying.
Did you know:
In a standard year like this one (not a leap year) no other month starts on the same day of the week as August.
Many people remember from school that August (called Sextillus until 8BC) was renamed after Rome’s first emperor Augustus. It remains a popular moniker 2014 years later; in 2021 August was the 121st most popular boys name and 842nd most popular girls name in the US.