Wildlife

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Four AP readers join photographer Andy Rouse at the RSPBBempton Cliffs reserve in East Yorkshire to find out how to capture gannets in flight and on land. Gill Mullins reports

RSPB Bempton Cliffs is a bleakly stunning nature reserve on the north-east coast of England. Rising to 300 feet above the steely grey waters of the North Sea, the cliffs are the result of millions of years of chalk layering, which has created a huge array of nooks, crannies and ledges that are the perfect home for seabirds, including puffins, kittiwakes and guillemots, as well as the ubiquitous herring gulls. The cliffs are also home to Englandonly mainland breeding colony of gannets, which take up residence every January to mate and raise their chicks, before migrating south from August to October.

What s particularly special about Bempton as a gannet location is that, by July, with the cliff faces mostly packed out with chicks and their parents, the tops of the cliffs become home to a fair number of adult birds, congregating just a couple of yards from the path or cruising a few feet above your head in search of a landing spot among the crowd. To make the most of this unique opportunity, on a damp, chilly afternoon in early July, four AP readers meet with awarding-winning wildlife photographer Andy Rouse for the AP Wildlife Masterclass.

This is the best place in the country for gannets,  says Andy at the briefing session at the RSPB s visitor centre, a few minutes  walk from the cliffs. At Bempton in midsummer, they inhabit two places at the top of the cliffs, so theyvery accessible-it s the closest you ll get to them in the UK.

Gannets are easy to photograph, but difficult to photograph well, explains Andy. They nest and live very close together, so itdifficult to isolate just one or two as you ll invariably have another gannet intruding into the shot.  On a day like today yougoing to shoot hundreds of pictures, and you re going to delete a lot, too-but you have to shoot a lot to get a lot,’he says.  With seabirds the trick is spending time on them, doing one thing until you get it right and youhappy with it, and that means taking lots of the same shots, then editing them down.’

Finally, Andy warns us to protect our cameras to avoid any water ingress and to take care of our lenses.  Keep your camera close to your body and keep your lens pointed downwards-if you point it up, itbe covered in rain in ten seconds,’explains Andy. That said, we stash our cameras away in our rucksacks, pick up our tripods and leave the shelter of the visitor centre for a brisk, damp and bracing ten-minute walk north along the cliff path, the squawks of the birds getting louder with each step.

AS THE weather improves slightly, with the sun struggling to come out from behind the clouds, we move a few yards up the cliff path to Bartlett Nab viewpoint that affords amazing views of the sheer cliffs that are teeming with birds-mainly kittiwakes, but with the odd puffin, identifiable by its bright orange feet against the pale rock face.

Here, if you have a head for heights, you can look right down to the sea foaming on the rocky shore several hundred feet below, making it a great spot for panning shots down onto the gannets that capture their bright white bodies against the complementary grey of the waves. When the sky is so pale and uninteresting, it helps to shoot against the darker sea, advises Andy, whereas in low-light conditions with a stormy sky, it would be better to shoot against the sky instead.

 Youwatching for the wings to open in gliding flight, at an angle, so you can see those beautiful black wing tips,’says Andy. For a decent background blur in a panned shot you need a slow shutter speed. For the gannets, Andy suggests l/25sec, which in this light will mean shooting at around IS0100 and f/20, remembering to keep the focus on the head and follow the eye. Half-depressing the shutter while tracking the gannet keeps it in focus, and then, when the birdwings are fully locked out and itgliding smoothly, press the shutter gently and continue to pan with the bird for a smooth result.

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CENTRE-SPOT AF

GANNETS are surprisingly hard birds to photograph well, even when theyon the ground. Not only do you have filthy beaks and mud-splattered feathers to contend with, but these birds are never still so you have to keep a constant eye on your autofocus. Andy suggests using centre-spot focusing, as the birds are going to be big in the frame when they re on the ground. This is also helpful when youphotographing them in flight, although if youusing a multi-point AF and can get all the AF points lit up, go for it. And remember, as with all wildlife, focus on the eyes.

WORKING WITH THE LIGHT

WHILE we were all fed up with the wet weather, overcast conditions are actually far better for photographing gannets than bright, sunny days.  You can t shoot gannets in bright sunlight,’says Andy.  With all those white feathers, your shots end up overexposed with no detail. I actually prefer these overcast conditions, as you re able to see all the detail beautifully.’

And what if, by some miracle, it had been sunny?  You d definitely need a polarising filter,  says Andy. If you re not using a burst of fill-flash, which is another option when birds are fairly close, the alternative would be to shoot slightly dark and then brighten it afterwards on your computer-but the success of your final image will depend on how much noise you get from your camerasensor. The other option is the time-honoured approach of shooting in the  golden hour’the hour just after sunrise or just before sunset, when the light is warmer and more diffuse.

For the first shot of the day Andy suggests focusing on courting birds, starting at around 1/1 OOOsec and ISO 800 in the overcast light.  Your exposures should be very balanced today as the light isnfluctuating, and in these conditions you need a decent shutter speed. Use aperture priority rather than shutter priority-aperture priority at f/5.6 will automatically select the fastest shutter speed possible. For displaying birds, try f/11 so theyrazor sharp.

As for compensation, Andy uses a simple rule-if you re squinting, your shots are probably going to be dark, so try +0.3EV.

In aperture priority your camera will automatically reduce the shutter speed, allowing more light to the sensor.  If youunsure, just go back to zero compensation as you donwant to burn it,’says Andy. For pictures of gannets flying against the sky, he suggests experimenting with +2EV.

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Another tip is to check your white balance, says Andy.  If you set it to cloudy when youshooting raw, your images will end up orange,’he says.  Just put it on a normal or daylight setting to get consistently neutral images. If you re shooting JPEGs, use auto.’

LENSES AND COMPOSITION

THE KEY with successful gannet photography is to watch the birds very carefully and pay great attention to detail.  What we want to do is look for a bird thattrying to land,  says Andy.  When theyflying in, they ll open their wings out wide-so if you watch them they ll teach you what to focus on. They re always very careful to pick exactly the right spot, so if one aborts its landing that s the one to follow to get your shot on its next attempt.

Andy advises looking for really clear open shots. A couple of gannets preening right on the edge of the cliff would be great, as it reduces the possibility of other gannets distracting in the background, and the sea provides a nicely coloured backdrop. Getting down really low and using the foreground to create a pleasing blur is a very effective way of framing the birds and concentrating attention on them.

As for lens choice, yougot plenty. If you re lucky enough to get birds as close as we have, a 70-210mm zoom or similar with a 1 ,4x converter would work, while a 300mm f/2.8 would be a great choice. If youshooting from one of the viewpoints at Bempton looking over the cliffs, you re more likely to want a 500mm, says Andy. The widest I ve used with gannets is a 24mm,  he says.  With these birds, what you most need is flexibility because you ve got so much to capture-birds flying in off the sea in formation, on the wing as individuals, courting birds, head shots-and a big zoom will give you the ability to do both distant flights and closer portraits, so probably your best option is a 28-300mm.

If you don t feel happy handholding a large telephoto, you can obviously use a tripod, but this might not always be convenient. In that case, try Andy s tip for improving your position: put one foot out slightly and move your weight onto it, bring your elbows into your chest and put one hand under the barrel to the support the lens, with the other holding the camera.

UNDERSTANDING your subject makes it easier to photograph it successfully, as youmore likely to recognise nuances of behaviour and be able to predict what the creature will do next. The gannet is the UK s largest seabird, with an impressive 2m wingspan.

With their large, pure-white bodies, long, graceful necks and pale-yellow heads with a thin black frame around its beak and eyes, adult gannets make striking photographic subjects. Juveniles sport brown feathers among the white, often with a beautiful Dalmatian-like speckling over their bodies, and this also makes for great images. In flight, you can easily distinguish them from other large seabirds, such as gulls and fulmars, by their long, black-tipped wings and distinctive  flap-and-glide’style, while when fishing, they tuck back their wings and dive into the sea at up to 60mph. At Bempton, the best time of year to photograph them is from late May to July, covering the mating, nesting and chick-rearing season. Courting and bonding behaviour can be particularly photogenic, as the birds bow, then raise their heads to the sky, intertwine their necks and preen each other.

MORE TO EXPLORE

THERE arenthat many places you can easily photograph these spectacular seabirds onshore in Britain, which is what makes Bempton so special. The only other mainland colony is at RSPB Troup Head near Fraserburgh in Aberdeenshire, otherwise the action is strictly offshore. Grassholm, eight miles off Pembrokeshire, hosts the only gannet colony in Wales and is one of the world s largest, with 39.000 breeding pairs. For more details, visit www.rspb.org.uk. Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth supports the second largest colony (www. seabird.org), with Bempton starting as an overspill from it in the late 1960s, while St Kilda in the Outer Hebrides boasts a world-beating 120.000 gannets, albeit in the remotest part of the British Isles.

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