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.
There is just so much to photograph at our wonderful woodland wildlife site, Alvecote Wood. Every year, I try to produce a photographic yearbook that highlights the beauty of this site through the seasons – light and colour, insects and birds, flowers and fungi and the stunning views that are to be seen there. Our yearbook for 2013 is now available via the Blurb bookstore, featuring images from the wood throughout the year, as well as a few images from other places that we have visited.
There is a hardcopy version, as well as an e-book and pdf version, all available via Blurb. We only make a small amount from each sale, but every sale will help to support our conservation work at Alvecote Wood, so please do consider purchasing a copy. A full preview is also available by clicking the badge below.
I confess to a weakness for backlit photos, as I just feel that backlighting, or at least light that is coming obliquely from behind, really brings out something mystical and magical about the subjects. This weekend we were blessed with the most fantastic light for photography, with the autumn light coming in at a low angle and making the insects and plants shine in a way that it does not during the high summer.
I set out deciding to focus on this light and took some photos around our woods. There has been something of a late summer revival in the weather, and it was very warm, with late speckled wood butterflies, large whites, brimstones and common blues on the wing, as well as emperor dragonflies, southern hawkers, common hawkers, brown hawkers and lots of common darters still basking and hunting around our meadows and ponds.
One particularly special moment came while I was photographing a lovely little spider, and a common darter dragonfly actually came down and landed on my hand. I managed to move my hand and take one picture before it flew away.
Backlighting is special, although you need to make some adjustments to exposure or you end up with a silhouette – I use the exposure compensation setting to over-expose the pictures relative to the metred value, keeping the camera in aperture-priority mode to give me control of depth of field. Sometimes you need to over-expose by more than you think!
Autumn is very fast approaching, but for the moment, there is still the opportunity to take some summery photos, and I was grateful for the light at the weekend to help me capture these backlit images.
The Golden Hour. That wonderful hour just after dawn or just before dusk when the light is coming in from an angle, and tinged with the beautiful golden tones of sunrise and sunset. This can lend a completely different perspective to photography, be it of landscapes, people, buildings or, in my case, insects in the evening meadow.
Undoubtedly the finest time of day for insect photography, the evening meadow is a perfect place to capture butterflies, dragonflies and other insects. At this time of the year, the golden light is enhanced by the golden colour of the grass, as well as the golden flowers of birds-foot trefoil. The insects are slightly less active than they are during the main heat of the day, which gives you a chance to catch up with them and picture them as they go in to roost.
After our Open Days at the weekend, we took a walk down to the meadows as the sun was sinking over the woods. We were really lucky to see a cloud of common blue butterflies which, unusually, were perching with their wings open as they were trying to catch the setting sun for warmth. They were perching in the dry grass, and the combination of the iridescent blue butterflies with the golden light and reflected gold from the grass was really quite breathtaking and very special. Even those butterflies with closed wings were outlined beautifully by the evening light.
We also found more common darters perched on top of canes, waiting to pounce on their prey, as well as some amazing emerald damselflies. These damselflies are iridescent green, but perched in the grass in that wonderful warm evening light, looked like they were made of gold.
The evening light isn’t always perfect, and you don’t always get the pictures you want, but this weekend was different. This weekend it was truly a golden hour in the meadow, and I was happy to capture these beautiful jewels in the late summer sunshine. Sometimes the light is just right. This was one of those times.
The woods are an absolutely beautiful place. Despite my photo course lasting almost 3 years, I took most of the photos for the assignments there, and it struck me quite early on that the woods would make a wonderful location for photography workshops. Regardless of the weather, there are opportunities to learn the basics of photography and in the summer, the opportunity to look at macro and insect photography too. It seemed the ideal opportunity to fuse my interest in nature and conservation with my passion for photography and to use the teaching experience I had built up over the years working at the University, albeit in a very different subject area.
This last weekend we had a fantastic day with our introductory workshop. It is a bit different to many other workshops in that we don’t start with technical elements of photography at all. There is no mention, during the morning, of exposure, aperture, shutter speed, ISO settings, white balance and so on.
None at all. The reasons for this are two-fold; first of all, people tell me that as soon as you mention technical stuff they glaze over and then forget everything else they have been told during the day; second, I think there is very little point in attending to the technical elements of photography if you aren’t taking the “right” picture in the first place.
So, I divide the day into two parts: taking the right picture (artistic) and taking the picture right (technical). Starting with the artistic elements seems to me to bring about improvements very quickly for the students. It helps with confidence, which is a major factor limiting what people can achieve. Once you see improvements, you are much more likely to believe you can learn, and therefore grasp the technical elements too. It also helps you take a good photo no matter what type of camera you have. There are lots of cameras about, and most of them are extremely competent, and therefore about 95% of the time, it is the photographer, not the camera, who is responsible for a good, or not-so-good photo (obviously in some highly technical areas, such as birds, wildlife, insects, you need the right kind of kit).
We run through the “rule of thirds” – what is is, and how it can help with composition. We look at leading lines/visual pathways, diagonals, symmetry and balance, lighting (direction and quality), and textures and patterns. It is amazing what a small amount of attention to composition can do to photography, and how much confidence this gives people. What is most exciting is that people try something different, something they would never have tried before. It also gives people a toolbox to use in future to think about why a picture did, or didn’t, work.
In the afternoon, we move on to exposure and that magic button, the exposure compensation button (the button that has +/- on it, but that seems to be so rarely used). Learning how to use the camera to check exposure, and then how to correct it, really opens the mind to possibilities and puts you in control of the camera in a very creative way. We also look at those old chestnuts, aperture (depth of field) and shutter speed (control of movement), and briefly a bit about ISO.
It isn’t a complete photography course, but it DOES get people off the creative modes and intelligent auto settings, and taking control, and thus taking unique, special and individual images. Some of the pictures the students take constantly surprise me.
The macro workshop is a bit different, in that we require people to be already competent in elements of composition, exposure compensation, control of aperture and shutter speed,and therefore we deal with technical elements first, and how these relate to macro. You really have to deal with this first. We then use the afternoon, particularly the late afternoon when the light is lovely, to learn fieldcraft – how to approach insects and make opportunities for macro photography out in the wild (as opposed to in the studio). Hopefully, there are opportunities to make macro images that are not strict technical records, but bring out something of the beautiful, the unexpected, the surprises inherent in nature. That stir the emotions, that make you gasp, make you think, draw you in to a new and different world.
Why do I do these workshops? The answer is to help people to be creative. Photographs have two purposes: to make a technical record of an object or location, person or place and second, to convey a feeling, emotion, sensory experience, memory…in short, to put the viewer into the eye and mind of the photographer. Both have their place, but the images that stand out for me are those that do the latter. All too often people tell me about, or show me, photos of places they have visited that disappoint. That don’t really do justice to the place they have been and the things that they have seen. The aim of the workshops is to show them how to recognise what they are really looking at, and what they are feeling, and what is drawing their attention and then take quite different pictures. They may not show the whole of a stately home, or a person, or a landscape. What I hope they will do is get images that actually induce the feeling they had when they were in that place, picturing that thing. And then to move on beyond satisfying themselves, and making images that evoke emotions in somebody who has been there and seen that, to taking images that can truly guide the viewer to experience the same emotions, the same experience as the photographer had when the image was taken. Or even to a new place, a new experience, that is unique to the viewer, but is still guided by the photographer and the images that they have created.
Clearly this can’t all be done in a day. But I do try and start people along this path. It is very easy to find stuff that is written about technical elements of photography – it is all over the place, on web, in camera clubs, in books, in magazines – but much harder to get those creative light bulbs illuminated, and bring out the artist lurking behind the viewfinder of the camera. We do charge a small £20 fee for the day-long workshops, which goes towards the maintenance costs of the woods (for sustainable wood fuel cutting, maintenance of paths and meadows and ponds, insurance for the public to visit and so on).
Last weekend, thanks to long-awaited fine, dry, warm weather, we camped at the woods. We have camped at the woods before, obviously, but this time we chose to spend the night out in the open, rather than in a tent. Open camping really does help you to become part of the woodland around you. In a tent, you can hear all the little snuffling and squeaking noises around you, but you are somehow removed from it, by layers of flysheet, groundsheet and tent. Out in the open, it is all happening right around you, and you are so much more part of it than when enclosed in the cocoon of a tent.
Nor were we uncivilized – we walked to the nearby pub for our supper, and watched the house-martins, swallows and swifts swooping down over the canal marina, eating the abundant insects. Then we walked back up the road to be greeted with the most beautiful, colourful and uplifting sunset. We then walked round the woods, watching the last of the swifts and swallows scoop up the evening insects, and listening to the song thrushes singing in the dusk. Finally we set up a couple of chairs in our clearing, brought out a bottle of wine, and sat listening to bats and watching them come out and start their hunting – noctules, common and soprano pipistrelles. It was quite, quite magical.
I found it hard to sleep for feeling so alive and excited, but eventually I did sleep, and woke up to an almost deafening dawn chorus. An early-morning walk around the woods and meadows was also something to treasure. Because I have to do a lot of medical treatment before I can go out in the morning, we rarely get to see it in the morning light, and it provides a completely different perspective on the woods – different areas are lit in the watery warm light of early morning.
Butterflies, dragonflies and other insects are just warming up, and it is easier to see and photograph them than in the heat of the day. And the best prize of all was the discovery of a pair of lapwing in our meadows. They were making a “distraction flight” to draw us away from their young, concealed by one of our ponds. This is so exciting – we have created lapwing habitat, for sure, but were not imagining that they would actually move in and breed here!
They have been there for a few days, too. So they seem to be a fixture rather than passing through. The last week has seen clouds of brown butterflies emerging – ringlet, meadow brown and speckled wood – as well as common blues, small skipper, large skipper and very large numbers of six-spot burnet moths. A kingfisher was heard at the bottom of the woods this morning too – probably on the canal. Added to the hobby flying by the woods a couple of weeks ago, this is really exciting stuff. Our woods are coming to life and growing in diversity and beauty in quite a radical way.
We need to spend more nights at the woods. It is not easy with the constant medical treatment I need to undergo, which in turn requires an electricity supply and a fridge, but we have to find a way to do this more often, so we can experience the magic of a woodland dusk, night, and dawn. It is very, very special.