QUACK, SQUALK AND HOOT

 As far as I know, all local authorities A pride themselves on the recreational opportunities that they provide for local people and visitors. One attraction is local greenspace, a place where people can relax or play but ultimately enjoy a taste of the countryside and remove themselves from the humdrum of the ever encroaching built landscape. In most cases recreational parks —or nature reserves if youreally lucky —have areas of woodland, rich grassland or scrub where wildlife likes to congregate. These niche habitats are often surrounding a lake or pond, commonly known as the duck pond, boating or fishing lake. Granted these can be full of people who are enjoying their own hobbies and they donfeel particularly wild, but they are good places to get great pictures without too much planning or effort. For those of you just embarking on nature photography, wanting to test new kit or just get beautiful shots of common bird species, then recreational ponds win.

EQUIPMENT

Anything goes with this type of photography, although the regular lens of choice for bird photographers is a lengthy telephoto lens such as a 500mm or 600mm. Donbe put off by those who boast these highly sought after and ridiculously priced optics. Even though I admit to owning one, I rarely take it to the local pond because they just arenthat portable. In all honesty I mostly prefer the 100-400mm image stabilised zoom lens occasionally coupled with a 1.4x converter, but often I use a 100mm macro, 24-85mm zoom and even a 17-40mm wide-angle zoom.

I tend not to use tripods but find that hand holding the camera works best, making sure that relatively high ISOs are selected and Image Stabilisation is switched. The action can be tracked more easily and successfully, while still being able to move around the pond without too much fuss. Though usually useful, tripods can be a real hindrance in these situations.

With todaymodern cameras, hand holding the camera for wildlife is easy providing you select suitably high ISO settings for your chosen aperture so that camera shake is eliminated. One general rule of thumb is that the resulting shutter speed for any given aperture must exceed the focal length of the lens you are using to eliminate any potential camera shake. With image stabilised lenses however, the shutter speed can be reduced by two stops less than an equivalent lens without stabilisation.

One invaluable piece of equipment is the trusty beanbag. These have been around for quite a while now and allow the camera to be placed in all manner of positions and angles. They are very popular with most wildlife photographers due to their durability. They really come into their own when supporting the camera on the ground whereby the view of an approaching bird becomes much more intimate and gives your picture astounding impact, whatever lens you use.

I try wherever I can to use a wide-angle lens and a long cable or remote release to trigger the camera as birds come near.

Baiting the bank with seed greatly puts the odds in your favour with this type of shot. One point to remember is that you need to keep an eye out for distractions. Ivisited the pond one morning to take a shot of a family of swans, which were in a far from ideal location when I arrived. I decided to work with what I had with a view of perhaps removing bits of vegetation that I couldnphysically reach back at the PC. However, when I got back to the office, Ifailed to notice that along with the other distractions, the corner of the beanbag was visible in the shot and so much so, it couldnbe cloned out. Always check the whole of your frame.

I was however very fortunate the next day as this family of swans had actually moved to a better location on a smaller pond and a much more pleasing shot was achieved.

Long lenses usually mean anything from 300mm upwards and can be in the form of zoom lenses or prime telephoto lenses, but they are in no way essential. I donfind them particularly good for flight shots due to their cumbersome size and weight, and if they are supported on a monopod they never seem to be at the correct height if you suddenly want to shoot up to the sky or downwards to the pond. They are however brilliant if you know just the shot you want and are prepared to sit and ignore everything else, which isneasy on a bustling pond. Try to avoid shots of birds on the pond that are taken whilst you are in a standing position looking down to them; at the very least kneel down to get a lower perspective, it always looks better on the final frame. Long lenses really come into their own when shooting low across the water. If you donmind being uncomfortable, lie flat on your tummy to get the best vantage point; a birdeye view, but with bird poo everywhere it can be messy. Angle finders are a good way of getting around this problem, but do be careful with horizons as shown on the case study. My picture of the little grebe was taken using such a device.

Two images taken of the same bird on the same lake, one taken from a standing position and one with the camera on the ground.

The shot from the ground is more dynamic.

WEATHER AND MOOD

Donbe discouraged when the weather turns foul. This shot of male and female mute swans (right) illustrates how wonderful the weather can be on even the worst of days. The shot was taken soon after getting my first digital camera so nothing was going to stand in my way of getting out. I didnhave any long lenses at that point but only a 17-40mm wide-angle lens so I had to use what I had with me. The shot was taken with a 0.6 neutral density Lee filter attached, which has reduced the exposure of the sky by two stops. Even today with many more lenses at my disposal, it still remains one of my favourite types of shot.

FOCUS AND PANNING

At recreational ponds there are always lots of ample opportunities to photograph birds in flight as they move around the pond to wherever the next group of people are throwing food out for them. Birds can look their most dynamic in flight so practice panning while they fly from point to point. The trick is to try and keep your lens trained on the birdeye. You will normally want to throw the background out of sharp focus, italways a good idea to use minimal depth-of-field. I usually select an aperture no higher than f/8. This will ensure that the majority of the body is in focus but the eye will be sharpest of all, which is what really matters. If you look at the picture in the top right you can see that the eye has been missed by the focusing point and is not critically sharp and so this one is destined for the bin.

In the second picture on the other hand, the eye is sharp with the added bonus of the gull calling with its beak wide open. Another point with panning is to make sure that you apply the rule of thirds in most cases. The bird should always be travelling into the frame and not out of it. In this instance, the centre of the birdbody is roughly on the

left hand third of the frame with the bird travelling into the frame. Also, as you become better at panning, play around with shutter speeds to get movement in the birdwings.

DAWN AND DUSK

From March to April and August to September are the best times to get out to shoot dawn and dusk. On regular occasions, vast temperature differences occur between the water and the air. As a result, mist frequently forms over the watersurface. The bonus during these months is that the shooting hours are not in any way anti-social, so you donhave to be up at the crack of dawn to get great shots.

This group of black-headed gulls were peacefully resting on the water before the hoards of public arrived with their bags of bread.

This shot (above) was taken with a long lens and an aperture of f/16 and I still had to crop the shot to exclude distant and near out of focus birds that fell outside the zone of sharp focus. Remember, depth-of-field is reduced with magnification. If the mist isndoing its stuff then look for parts of the pond where only the colours of sunset or sunrise are reflected and wait for a bird to pass through the area. The silhouette of a bird amidst the golden water makes a very pleasing frame. With this type of shot, itimportant to underexpose the shot as your camera is likely to try and lighten the scene, which is not what you want. Deep saturated colours work best here.

Too good to bin...

Good, clear and close images of little grebes are very hard to come by. So imagine my horror when I returned to the office and realised that in my excitement Ifailed to keep the camera straight while using an angle finder. This can often happen as a result of the ripples on the water surface confusing the eye into seeing a false horizon. The following images show how quickly my prized file was rescued.

1. This image clearly shows the bird leaning badly and pointing skyward.

2. Using the Ruler Tool I have drawn a line where the straight area should fall then selected Rotate Canvas and Arbitrary, which straightens the shot.

3. With the canvas orientated to straighten the bird, there is a need to clone in the area to the left of the frame that has resulted from such a severe re-orientation. Providing the area is clean and uncluttered this is usually a quick process.

4. Using the Clone Tool and Spot Healing brush, the area is quickly filled in.

5. The final image is clean and uncluttered but most importantly... straight and a keeper.

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