Our meadows have been absolutely beautiful this summer. I have been putting together a video of our meadows over the course of the summer, right up to haymaking last weekend.
Our woods are probably at their most beautiful during the spring. This week we welcomed the Royal Forestry Society here on a visit, and I filmed some video as we went round, adding some stills and a commentary afterwards. This really gives you a feel for the woods and their wildlife. It lasts about 11 minutes, but in reality it takes about an hour to walk round.
Spring is here at last, and what a welcome thing it is. It started when I was cooped up in a hospital room for two weeks, watching the crocuses on the balcony bloom in their tubs, and the first small tortoiseshell butterfly flutter past my window. But I could not go out and enjoy it.
Coming out of hospital, the first thing I noticed was the wind on my face. Cold, for sure, but very welcome, and something that had been sorely missed.
They seemed almost imperceptible at first, the signs of Spring at the woods. It was very subtle. One week, you could see through the understorey, through the woods to the fields beyond. Then a few days later, you couldn’t. Just a few buds bursting here and there and the woods were transformed once again.
The daffodils came out in great numbers, followed by the lesser celandine, primroses and cowslips. This last weekend the first bluebell buds appeared, the blossom was profuse on the blackthorn, and the first cherry blossom also came into flower. Snakeshead fritillary are also in flower, and the smell of wild garlic hits you before you see the emerging leaves.
Within a few days, tiny green leaves were all over the birch trees, like little jewels, backlit by the sun. Catkins cover the willow trees, leaf buds bursting, early bees feasting on the pollen. Comma, small tortoiseshell, brimstone and peacock butterflies are everywhere in the sheltered parts of the meadow. Chiffchaffs are calling. The first blackcap is in song.
Surprisingly, for most birds are still building their nests, we even have a robin feeding her young, the nest precariously perched in an empty log bag thrown onto the top shelf of our log store.
This is the feeling of spring. The wind on your face. Some warmth in the sun. Frantic bird activity, flowers on the woodland floor, and the delicate sight of new leaves and catkins. A feeling magnified by my release from captivity. A glorious feeling. A joyful time of year.
I love photographing insects. Not just the showy ones, but the small and insignificant ones too. Butterflies, dragonflies, moths, damselflies, overflies, ladybirds, bugs, flies – all of them are interesting and challenging.
Actually, I use very simple equipment, but insect photography IS one of those specialist areas where it does help to have the right equipment – a digital SLR and a macro lens. I have my SLR (Canon EOS5D Mark III), and a few lenses, of which my favourite is the 100mm f2.8L IS Macro. I also have a 70-300mm f4 L IS zoom and a 300mm f2.8L IS prime lens. The 300mm is big and heavy, and I don’t use it often. I stick to the first two lenses which I can carry easily. The 100mm lens is absolutely without compare in terms of image quality, but does require you to get pretty close to your subject if you want the insect to appear a decent size. It is also f2.8, which gives the opportunity to blur out the background if you wish. The 300mm zoom or prime have the advantage of a longer reach, which is useful for shots over water, or where the insects are easily-disturbed. The disadvantage is that the longer reach is no advantage if there is undergrowth in the way, and there often is. It is also harder to hand-hold.
A lot of people use a tripod or monopod to reduce camera shake. I don’t do this for three reasons. First, I have a serious illness (cystic fibrosis) and my breathing isn’t good. Carrying a tripod and monopod on top of the heavy camera and spare lens really tests my breathing, so I tend to avoid it. Second, I find tripods or monopods tend to restrict your viewpoint. You set it up and then can’t be bothered to adjust, particularly if you are close to the insects, which means that you aren’t as flexible with your viewpoint, and consequently with your background, lighting and everything else, as you can be if you hand hold. Finally, the problem with insects is that they are often moving, or what they are perched on is moving, and a tripod doesn’t help with this at all.
The other thing worth considering is a circular polarising filter – this allows you to make adjustable changes to the way in which reflections are handled in your pictures. Particularly when photographing over water, it can be nice both to show reflections and also minimise them, for example when you are trying to get a picture of an ovipositing female dragonfly.
Finally, it is worth learning how to use the non-auto features on your camera: aperture-priority to control depth of field in your pictures, shutter-speed priority to freeze motion for in-flight shots, and manual focus to get focus on exactly the right plane, exactly on the right part of the insect – usually the eyes, but sometimes the root of the wings or other parts.
Learn how to approach
The first difficulty with insects is getting close to them (apart from mosquitoes, which like to get close to you all the time!). They have good eyesight, and are very sensitive to motion, not to mention sound, vibration and smell. You can’t just go crashing through the grass, waving your camera around, and hope to get a decent photo, or indeed, get anywhere near them. I find the key is to move very slowly, no matter how tempting it can be to get in quickly before the insect goes. It might disappear anyway, but is much more likely to disappear if you rush. It is useful to practice the Tai-Chi way of walking which is quiet and smooth. Also, use the wind, if there is any and time your movements to coincide with gusts of wind. It is also worth learning how to squat or kneel very slowly, quietly and smoothly – doing very slow squats isn’t easy, particularly with a heavy camera. It is worth practising this without taking photos, until you can do it well.
Remember, they can smell you too – so it might be worth remembering this when preparing to go out and avoiding things like smelly hair dressing, perfume, deodorant and of course, insect-repellent.
Viewpoint and Background
Once you have made the effort to get close to the insect, it is tempting to blast off a photo and be happy with that. However you really do need to think more about it than that. What viewpoint do you want? Which bit of the insect do you want to feature? Do you want to see it from behind, from the side, head-on, from below, above or on the level with the insect? Do you want detail on the wings, or do you want the light shining through the wings? This should be in your thoughts as you approach, so that you approach from the right direction, and get yourself on the right level to take the photo.
Likewise, how do you want the background to appear? Do you want it to be a blur, or do you want to show detail? Do you want it to be dark or light, a complimentary colour or the same colour? When you are close to a subject, a very slight adjustment in your position can make a large difference to the background. Likewise, it is easier to blur the background when you are close than when further away (for any given aperture – it is down to distance ratio between subject, lens and sensor). A very slight shift in your position can give the picture a totally different feel, if the subject allows it.
Full-on front lighting is great to show details of the markings and structure of the insect, but try experimenting with other types of lighting including side and back-lighting, because these can give a very different feel, although getting the exposure right is more challenging. Again, worth thinking of this before you approach the insect, so you can get set up in the right position.
Getting exposure right can be challenging. You may have a dark insect with a bright background such as sky, grass or water, or a pale insect against a dark background such as dark leaves or water, as well as challenging lighting, such as side or back-lighting. It is worth becoming familiar with the exposure-compensation button on your camera, and learning to use it without moving your face from the camera. This will allow you not only to make a best guess as to how much compensation is needed, but also to manually bracket the exposure so you get some insurance against having made and incorrect decision. This is something that comes with practice, and is well worth it. As a guide, if it is a dark insect on a light background, I usually over-expose by 2/3 a stop and then adjust – for the converse, I underexpose by 1/3 or 2/3 stop then adjust. You can also adjust exposure to give a particular feel to a picture – over-exposed ethereal, or under-exposed and dark and menacing.
Some insects are surprisingly difficult to judge: butterflies, for example, have very iridescent wings, and it can be hard to judge the exposure. Common blues, for example, often need a surprising amount of under-exposure to get the colours correct, because of the reflections from their wing. Ladybirds, also, tend to look very washed-out at correct exposure because of the reflective nature of their elytra (wing cases).
Learn to see the picture in your head
Finally, it is very helpful to practice seeing in your head what the final picture will look like, after you have taken it and processed it. Visualise what you want to see. What details do you want to see? How do you want the colours to look – bright, subdued, deep and rich, pale and ethereal? How do you want the balance of light and shade to look in the picture? How do you want the background to look – detailed or blurred, bright or dark? Which bit of the insect do you want the viewer to focus on? How can you best compose the image so the viewer sees it through your eyes? Is there anything you can do to draw attention to what interests you about the insect, or the setting in which it is placed? How do you want the viewer to feel? How do YOU feel? Can you convey that feeling in your imagery?
You may disagree
This is my approach. Many will disagree, and many will have their own, different, and equally-successful approach. It works for me. In 2014, a portfolio of my insect work reached the final round of Wildlife Photographer of the Year – not something to be sneezed-at, even though I didn’t win. I hope it has given you something to think about, and provides some guidance for beginners. Whatever you do, I hope you enjoy looking closely at insects, and getting into their weird and wonderful world.
The phrase “cute” doesn’t usually apply to insects – furry and feathery creatures are often considered cute, but insects? I think it is a question of how you view them, interact with them, and present them in your pictures.
Interact with insects? Obviously, insects will fly off when disturbed, but can you really interact with them? Certainly with damselflies, I’ve found it possible to play a game of peek-a-boo, the damselfly hiding behind a stem or leaf, and rotating round to try and stay out of sight, while peeking with one eye to see where I am.
Butterflies, too, can interact. Perched on a flower, they may be trying to decide whether or not to trust you. If you move a bit closer, the fore-wings may extend a bit, ready to take off, and then be tucked away again when you back off. If they really trust you, they may go on feeding, allowing you to get pictures of their long extending proboscis and tongue.
Ladybirds are another interactive insect – again, often hiding just out of reach of the camera, stopping to assess the photographer, clean their face, and potter off on their business.
I think insects can be really very cute indeed, and that it is certainly possible to interact with them. Try taking a closer look – you might be surprised!
Meadows are very rich areas for wildlife, particularly if they are managed well. Most of our meadows have only been in place for a few years, although the main meadow in our woods has been a clearing for a long time. We are managing all of them to maximise wildflowers and to provide maximum benefit for pollinating insects, as well as to provide food plants for butterfly and moth caterpillars. In the last couple of weeks, these meadows have really started to come to life with buttercups, purple vetch, red campion and ragged robin appearing in ever-increasing numbers, to add to the cowslips and snakes head fritillaries of early spring.
In the last few days other plants have started to come out – in particular the spectacular southern marsh orchid, which is spreading in the damp areas of Betty’s Wood, and the first ox-eye daisies are starting to bloom.
In the ponds, too, the iris are coming into flower, and emergent stems of sedge, spearwort and iris are forming great vantage points for the four spotted and broad bodied chaser dragonflies staking out their territories. Damselflies are also on the wing, roosting in the long grass, on the thistles and on the trees in the hedgerow.
With the blooming of the meadows come the first of the summer butterflies – brown argus, small copper, common blue, dingy skipper and small heath are now all on the wing in our meadows, as well as the large and small white, brimstone, green-veined white and the ever-present peacock and small tortoiseshell.
We manage our meadows in a number of ways. One of the star plants is the yellow rattle, pictured above. This marvellous plant is semi-parasitic and knocks back the grass, making it possible for more wildflowers to thrive. We add to this by mowing and removing the hay, which takes fertility out of the soil – wildflowers generally thrive in relatively impoverished soil, and low fertility again keeps the grass in check. It has taken a while to get the process of improvement started, but we are now seeing the results.
In the next few weeks we are looking forward to seeing large and small skippers, Essex skippers, ringlets and meadow browns. Then the meadows will truly be in their prime, but for the moment, they are full of promise.
With the warmer weather, we have seen the first butterflies emerging in the woods, as well as the first dragonflies and damselflies. The first spotted on the wing were brimstones, but we now have good numbers of green-veined whites, orange-tip, speckled wood, large white and small white, as well as the rather dusty and ageing peacock, small tortoiseshell and comma which overwintered as adults.
The large red damselflies were the first to emerge, but in the last few days we have also seen azure damselflies coming out, and the first two female broad-bodied chaser dragonflies.
We are also delighted to report a good patch of violet growing in the woods, which we hope will be food plants for the caterpillars of silver-washed fritillary – this butterfly is moving our way, and we have ideal habitat for it. Fingers crossed!
The bluebells are also stunning at the moment – just past their peak, but still putting on a fantastic show. They look particularly wonderful when growing together with clumps of white stitchwort. Red campion is now in flower as well as the first ragged robin near our ponds, and the buttercups are just starting to come out.
The woods are in full leaf now, and the acid-green colours of spring are just wonderful to behold. It all looks quite magical in the evening light.
Spring sneaks up on you. There are a lot of very small changes that make very little difference and then everything explodes into action. One day you can see through the woods, the next, there are so many leaves that you can’t. One day there is just a little bit of growth in the grass, the next there seem to be cowslips and snakes head fritillaries all around. One day you start to notice the leaves of lesser celandine and creeping buttercup, the next they are in flower.
Spring came alive this weekend. Great spotted woodpeckers were calling and drumming. We seem to have four chiffchaffs singing in the woods this year. The yellowhammer are in song. Buzzards are swooping over the clearings and meadows. The tall grass is shaking and waving as the field voles dispute their rights to use the runs under the thatch. Other butterflies are joining the brimstones on the wing – small tortoiseshell, peacock and comma. The bees are coming alive in their hives and nests, returning home with little pollen sacs stuffed full. The woods start to smell of wild garlic. The skylark is in song all day – the song gets into your head, so much that when you return home, it remains with you, like an echo.
The coming of spring seems like a miracle every year, for all that now understand its genesis in the travel and alignment of the Earth around the Sun. It is so very exciting.
Happy New Year, and thank you to everybody who voted in the poll for our photo of the year. It was a very close vote in the end but we have a winner – and it is the photo of the common blue butterfly roosting at dusk.
Runner up was the sunset shot.
And in third place was our lovely white bluebell
I’m hoping for another wonderful photographic year at the woods in 2014.
There have been some fantastic photographic moments at Alvecote Wood during 2013, and I would be really grateful if you could vote to help us pick the best image from 2013 from the shortlist. Compiling the shortlist has in itself been quite difficult, but I’ve tried to pick images that speak to me of the beauty of the woods, but that also showcase the wonderful variety of plants and insects that live there.