It’s an exciting time for hobbyists, but before becoming a professional photographer, have a look at some professional photography tips to kick start your career.Read More
When you’re taking shots of wildlife, it’s very easy to end up with ‘record shots’ rather than what a friend of mine calls ‘printables’ - in other words, pictures that you’d be happy to print and hang on your wall. So what makes the difference? In this article, I’ve tried to suggest a few alternative techniques that should make your images stand out from the crowd - or herd, as the case may be!
In the early days of my photographic career, I used to take a lot of portraits - both of animals and of people. Now, that’s fine as far as it goes, and I like to think I took some pretty good shots, but these days I like to focus on action shots. Why take a simple shot of a ‘bird on a stick’ if you can wait for the crucial moment and capture it in flight or with its wings outstretched just about to land?
I was lucky with this shot. I was actually trying to take a run-of-the-mill portrait of the bird when it suddenly fluttered its wings just as I pressed the shutter release. I ended up with an image that was chosen by Outdoor Photography for a double-page spread!
In this case, the bird co-operated nicely, but it doesn’t always happen. What if the animals don’t co-operate? What if they just sit there and don’t do actually anything? Well, it is possible to increase your chances of getting action shots. One thing you can do (if you’re in Africa) is to follow the big cats around. Normally when you’re on safari, you drive around and then stop when you see an animal, take a few pictures and then drive on to the next one. Rinse and repeat. That’s what I did on my first four or five safaris, and I didn’t see a single kill! On my next trip, though, I went to Kicheche in the Masai Mara with Paul Goldstein, and the experience was very different. Paul paid out of his own pocket for a ‘spotter’ in a separate vehicle to radio in the location of any leopards, cheetahs or lions that he saw. Given that knowledge, we were able to find a group of cats to follow every single day. But it didn’t end there. Rather than just taking a few portraits and moving on, we stayed with the animals. Granted, there were some occasions when they didn’t do a great deal for half an hour or even an hour, but we kept at it, and eventually I saw five kills! That approach might not be for everyone, but at least it gives you a much better chance of getting that elusive ‘action shot’. And even if the animals aren’t actually chasing prey, you can at least wait for what Henri Cartier-Bresson would call ‘The Decisive Moment’. It might be a lion yawning or a warthog scratching its ear - whatever the activity, it’s a lot more interesting than the kind of awkward snap that would look better in a High School yearbook!
I learned this technique from Paul Goldstein, who’s a wildlife photographer and tour guide for Exodus. He’s a big fan of using slow shutter speeds to capture animals in action, and the results can be spectacular. Most people would use a high shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second or more to ‘freeze’ an animal or bird in motion, but the slow pan does the reverse. The problem with freezing the action is that you don’t get a very great sense of energy or movement. What the slow pan tries to do is bring that back by blurring all the non-essential elements, including the legs (or wings) and the background. What you have to do first of all is choose the right shutter speed. It will be slower than you’re used to using, so you have to be brave, but it also varies depending on the speed of the animal and the angle of its approach. If it’s a cheetah at full speed running straight across your field of view, the right shutter speed might be 1/80 or 1/100 of a second, but it might be as slow as 1/4 of a second for a walking elephant. The higher the speed of the animal, the higher the shutter speed you’ll need, but the angle also matters because getting the right blurred effect depends on the relative motion of the animal and the background. If it’s running straight towards the camera, there is no relative motion at all: the animal is not moving relative to the background, so the shot won’t work. You can obviously experiment as you’re shooting, but here’s a rough guide:
Walking animal: 1/6s
Running animal: 1/13-1/20s
Birds in flight: 1/80s
Cheetah running: 1/80-1/100s
Once you’ve chosen your shutter speed, you just need to check that the aperture and ISO settings are okay, too. How you do that obviously depends on whether you’re shooting in manual, aperture priority or shutter priority (or any other mode), but these slow shutter speeds let in a lot of light, so you may have to stop down the aperture or reduce the ISO all the way to 100. The flip-side of letting in so much light, of course, is that you can slow pan to your heart’s content even in very low light conditions, so that’s another reason to try it!
What you’re trying to get is a shot in which the eyes and head of the animal are sharp (-ish) while the legs and background are a creamy blur, so technique is important here. It’s obviously easiest with a tripod - particularly one with a gimbal-head design that is ‘damped’ to avoid camera shake - but most of us don’t have one of those, and you couldn’t use it in a safari vehicle anyway! There are a couple of alternatives. If you’re in a Land Cruiser or something similar, you can stand up and rest the lens hood on the frame of the car - ideally on a beanbag. If you’re on foot, you have to press the camera against your forehead, tuck your elbows in at your sides and turn from the hips. It’s not easy, so you might want to practise on cars on something before you make your trip! I learned the slow pan in Spitsbergen from Paul Goldstein, and I remember spending the whole day in a Zodiac taking slow pans of kittiwakes and guillemots: out of 1,500 shots, I only kept four! So why bother? Well, you don’t care about the 1,500 that didn’t work when you find one that did. I went on another trip with Paul to Kicheche in the Masai Mara, and I was determined to come away with a decent slow pan shot of a cheetah. In fact, I got quite a few, but this was my favourite. You be the judge…
There comes a time in every game drive when you wonder if any of the shots you’re taking are any good. “I’m just taking the same pictures as everyone else,” you think. “How can I be different?” Well, the answer sometimes comes in a flash of inspiration. When I was in the safari park at Cabárceno in northern Spain, I was taking pictures of the giraffes in their enclosure. They came right up to the fence, and the sun was behind them, so it was a bit awkward to get a decent shot. It was then that I thought of underexposing them to get a backlit silhouette with rim lighting. I positioned myself so that the sun was right behind a giraffe and underexposed by two or three stops. I played around with it in Lightroom afterwards, darkening the background and taking out any remaining detail in the neck of the giraffe, and this was the result:
The image was runner-up in The Daily Telegraph's weekly Big Picture competition and earned over 2,000 likes on Instagram!
Day for night
When filmmakers want to shoot a scene that’s supposed to take place at night, they sometimes do it during the day and underexpose the images, perhaps adding a blue filter for effect. This is called ‘day for night’ or ‘nuit Américaine’. I first tried it when I was on a game drive in Tadoba, India, and overheard Paul Goldstein telling one of the guests in his truck to underexpose the tiger in the water hole. At that point, I thought to myself, “Go big or go home!” So I decided to underexpose by three stops - that’s the equivalent of cutting out up to 7/8 of the light required for a normal shot. It was nice and sunny, and the sun had been beating down on us all day, but that meant any shots of the tiger were a little bit dull. What I wanted to do was something completely different. I wanted to create some mystery in the darkness, paint in a little light and shadow and pretend that the tiger was in a pool in a cave, illuminated by a single beam of sunlight from the entrance. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if I succeeded or not, but Paul thought this one was good enough to go in the Exodus calendar in 2018…!
One of the problems with going to a national park in Africa is that you always have to leave at sunset. That means it’s very difficult to get any shots at what should be the ideal time of day. One of the advantages in going to a place like Kicheche is that it’s in a ‘conservancy’, which means it’s owned by a group of landowners, and that in turn means that you can stay as long as you like. What we used to do with about half an hour to go before sundown was to pick a spot on the brow of a hill, find a group of animals and park so that we could all get out and take pictures. We did that almost every day (except when the clouds rolled in), and we ended up with some great shots. One of the good things about taking silhouettes of animals against the sunset is that you don’t have to do much with your camera settings. The camera is ‘fooled’ by the bright sky into believing that it has to underexpose, and that means the animals are automatically turned into silhouettes. The one thing to remember is that the horizon should be very low down in the frame - it’ll be pitch black anyway, so there’s no point in showing more than a thin strip at the bottom. Just make sure you pick an animal with a recognisable shape and in the right position to get a clear silhouette with no overlapping body parts and no other animals in the way.
Slow shutter speed portraits
People often say that you should use a wide aperture when taking portraits of people or animals so that the subject is ‘separated’ from the background. However, one of the problems with that approach is that you get left with a thin strip of the frame in which not just the subject but everything else is in focus. For example, imagine a shot of a lion lying in a field of tall grass. Yes, the lion is sharp (hopefully!), but so is a long line of grass. The result is that we don’t get a smoothly blurred background and foreground. One way around that is to use a slow shutter speed such as 1/8 of a second. It only works, obviously, if the grass is swaying in the wind, but, done correctly, it will give you a perfectly sharp subject isolated in a sea of creamy blur.
Black and white
There’s an old joke in photography that says, “If a picture’s no good, just turn it into black and white!” It’s not true, of course, that you can rescue just about anything like that, but black and white is a different medium, and it emphasises different things. If your picture looks ‘cluttered’ because there are too many competing colours, for example, then that problem can easily be solved by a switch to monochrome, which emphasises patterns, shapes and textures. I don’t use black and white very much in my wildlife shots, but elephants are a special case. For a start, they’re grey rather than colourful, but they also have the potential to show great texture in their wrinkled skin. I once took a shot of an elephant in Tanzania with the ‘wrong’ lens. I was using my 800mm when one of the elephants came a lot closer. I couldn’t fit everything into the shot, and I ended up with the animal’s eye far too close to the edge of the frame. However, I cropped it so that the tusk at the bottom was equally close to the edge and turned it into black and white, pushing up the Dehaze and Contrast sliders in Lightroom. What do you think…?
When it starts raining or snowing or sleeting or hailing, most photographers head home, but - if you’re willing to put up with getting a bit wet - you might find it’s worth staying out in the storm in order to take more unusual pictures. There are plenty of shots out there of lions lying in the sunshine, but not so many of lions in the pouring rain with water dripping off their manes! Whether you’re trying to sell your work or just find something to put on the wall in the downstairs toilet, it pays to be different. I went to Brooks Falls in Alaska once and had to put up with the most miserable weather. It rained the whole day at one point, and it was generally cold, wet and miserable, but - and this is a very big but! - I ended up with the best picture I’ve ever taken in my life!
I like wildlife shots with black backgrounds as they’re so rare and striking. Most of the time, I’ve had to create mine in Lightroom, but that’s not always necessary if you’re able to photograph at night. These days, a lot of safari companies offer evening game drives after sunset, and some may even shine torches or floodlights on the animals to allow you to take pictures. I was once in the Brazilian Pantanal driving home from a boat ride to see the jaguars when we heard there was a giant anteater right next to our lodge. We rushed home - over a VERY bumpy road! - and found it walking around with a baby on its back. It was long past sunset, so it was virtually pitch black, but one of the staff was lighting it up with a torch. Anteaters don’t have very good vision, so we were able to get incredibly close. Having said that, taking pictures was still very difficult. One of the guests ended up with nothing at all (after he forgot to take his lens cap off!), and I found it very hard to get the right shutter speed and aperture settings. Our guide Andy Skillen showed us the way by getting a beautiful close-up of the baby anteater on its mother’s back, but I had to delete all my efforts!
The closest I came to finding out the secret of night photography was when I went on a photography workshop in Cabárceno with Marina Cano. She promised us ‘the secret to getting a black background’, but she didn’t tell us immediately. We had to wait until the next day to find the answer. There were a few zebra next to an empty shed, and Marina threw some bread inside to tempt them to go in so that we could get some shots of them with a dark background. “So what’s the secret?” I asked. “Bread!” she said.
Whenever I get back from a trip abroad, I show my favourite pictures to my friends, but I always have the sneaking feeling that they’d prefer to see videos instead! I’m a wildlife photographer, so I obviously focus on taking photographs, but I still take video every now and again. I have a choice between my DSLR, my GoPro or - at a pinch! - my iPhone. The picture quality of all these devices is pretty good, but the main thing to worry about is camera shake. It’s bearable if you’re using a GoPro or a camera phone because of the wide angle of the lens, but trying to take video with a long lens on your DSLR without a tripod is a recipe for disaster!
I recently entered the AFAR Travel Photography Awards and was given a free submission review by a LensCulture photographic expert.
The images are shown above, and this is the review:
Thanks for your submission to AFAR “Travel Photography Awards 2018”. It was a pleasure viewing your work.
It’s an amazing collection of wildlife pictures that show that you have the necessary level to create images perfectly executed and composed. Technically there is not much to suggest as your images demonstrate great ability and confidence. You consider yourself as a professional and this is obvious from the high quality of your work. You have a very good sense of composition and use of natural lighting and the colour palette is intimate to the eye. Equipment for this kind of photography is crucial (because you need excellent quality) and here is obvious that you have the best equipment for a work like this one.
Wildlife photography is exciting but also exhausting at the same time and requires a lot of patience, time and hard work to be able to create an interesting and significant work in this genre. But I believe you'll achieve to succeed in the field because it’s obvious that you're passionate and dedicated to what you do.
The construction of a good series depends on the good editing. Εditing doesn't mean only the digital treatment in Photoshop. Editing is also the selection of the proper pictures in order to start building the sequencing. Here you have done an excellent work. You include pictures of many animals in different situations. However, I’ve noticed that pictures #2 and #5 are pretty much identical. Try not to use similar images. This is too important because similar images create the sense of repetition. Repetition might make or break the whole series, so be careful with that.
The second most important element of the contemporary photography is the statement. I would like to see a different and a better-developed statement about your inspiration and intention for those pictures. It’s important for a photographer to be able to express those ideas because it helps you to bring more depth to the viewers understanding of the photos. Now your statement is too abstract and you speak only for you and not for your pictures. I hope you understand what I mean. However is very good and important that you accompany each picture with a few words.
Keep up the good work Nick. Obviously, you are a good and talented photographer. My engagement with your work was a delightful experience and I hope to see more of your pictures soon.
The best safari destination you've never heard of!
Photography is a lonely business, so I was delighted when a friend called Tammy from my old camera club asked me to go on a wildlife workshop in northern Spain. "Spain?" I hear you ask. "What on earth is there to shoot in Spain?" Well, there's a little gem that nobody's ever heard of called Cabárceno. (In case you were wondering, it's pronounced kuh-BAR-thuh-noh). It's official title is the Parque de la Naturaleza de Cabárceno (or Cabárceno Wildlife Park), and it's a Longleat-style safari park that has hundreds of animals from all over the world in large enclosures perfect for taking pictures. You can't actually enter the areas reserved for the animals, but all you have to do is look at the map of the park, drive to the animal you want to see, get out of the car and start taking pictures. There's no waiting around for hours or driving aimlessly in the hope of spotting something - the animals are all where they're supposed to be, and that means the photographic opportunities are endless. I took nearly 4,000 pictures on the first day, which is more than I've taken anywhere else in the world!
The course ran for two days (17-18 June 2017), and it was run by a wildlife photographer called Marina Cano. Tammy told me she was very famous in the industry, and I was certainly impressed by the shots I saw on her website, so I had no problems signing up. I wasn't sure I'd get much from any tuition that was on offer - and that turned out to be the case - but I decided it was worth it just to be able to see so many animals so cheaply without all the hassle of long-haul flights to Africa, India or South America.
Tammy and I flew in on Friday evening, stayed the night at a couple of local guesthouses just outside the park and then met up with everyone at the entrance at 0900 the next day. There were 12 guests, plus Marina, her partner Michael and a couple of assistants called Paco and Luis. Most of the guests were Spanish and spoke little to no English, but we were lucky that a lovely northern couple called Barry and Christine changed their plans and made a last-minute decision to join us. That meant that the four of us from England could drive around in the same van, and we had a lot of fun together.
After spending an hour waiting for everyone to arrive and filling in forms and finding our passports to get tickets for the park, Marina gave us a briefing over coffee at one of the local cafés, telling us what the plan was and asking if we had any questions. The general idea was that she would take us to the best viewing spots, and we would get out and take pictures. Simple as that. She also gave us a bit of 'homework', which was to choose our five best shots for her to review the following day.
On day one, we ended up going to see the gorillas, then the bears, then the lynxes, zebras, cheetahs, lions, lynxes (again!) and finally the ostriches, with the odd giraffe, elephant and Bengal tiger cub thrown in. On the second day, we saw pretty much the same animals but with the addition of a couple of white rhinoceros, a herd of fallow deer and a glorious encounter with a hippo, which opened its mouth incredibly wide almost as soon as we arrived - and then did it again! We also went to see the birds of prey, and that was a good chance to take close-up 'portraits' of red kites, bald eagles, golden eagles, peregrine falcons, vultures and - my personal favourite - the black-chested buzzard-eagle.
The general format was to spend three or four hours taking pictures in the morning, then stop for a long lunch at a restaurant at a little village just outside the park and then go back to take more pictures until around eight o'clock in the evening. The days were pretty long, and we had to cope with a rather unusual heatwave that meant temperatures rose to 33°C at times, so were were pretty tired when we finally got back to the various 'posadas' where we were staying. That made it quite hard to do our homework on the first night, as most of us just wanted to go straight to bed! However, we all managed to produce our five images for the review after lunch the next day, and that was the most educational part of the whole course.
Marina gave some sensible feedback, and I was very impressed with most of the pictures people had taken. Even though we'd all seen exactly the same animals from exactly the same spots at exactly the same time, the quality and variety of the images was amazing! It just goes to show what's possible with a little imagination, and Tammy in particular produced a very creative picture of the two lynx side-by-side that looked just like a pen-and-ink police mug shot! That inspired me to try over-exposing (and under-exposing) my shots that afternoon rather than just taking the same old, same old sunny 'record shots' that didn't have an ounce of emotion in them.
It was a shame we didn't review all the images a bit earlier, as we only had a few hours to practise what we'd learned, but the trip wasn't quite over. We had a free morning on the Monday before our flight in the afternoon, and Barry and Christine kindly offered to drive us round the park in their motor home! That was a real bonus, and we got some great shots of a barnful of Ankole-Watusi cattle and the two white rhino lying side-by-side under a tree.
All in all, it was a great trip, and I thoroughly recommend Cabárceno if you're looking for a cheap and cheerful way to take great pictures of animals you'd never usually see without spending thousands on a long-haul safari. We were lucky with the people we met, and there wasn't much actual 'teaching' from Marina and her team, but that's only a minor quibble. Yes, the workshop cost €295, but the Ryanair flights from Stansted to Santander were only a hundred quid, the Posada Venero and Cabárceno only charged €50-60 a night, and an annual season ticket for the park was only €55, so what better place for a do-it-yourself safari! Can't say fairer than that.
European griffon vulture
1 x lens hood (it fell off into the bears' compound, and they ended up eating most of it!)
As everyone knows, "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach" - but that doesn't stop me trying to do both!
Whatever kind of photographer you are and whatever kind of pictures you take, you always need to pay attention to composition. As an introductory guide (or a reminder), here are a few principles of composition to help you take better pictures. Just make sure you break all of them once in a while!
Rule of thirds
The most common rule in photography is the rule of thirds. The aim of the game here is avoid taking pictures that are too symmetrical. For some reason, the human eye doesn't like that, so it's usually best to place the subject off-centre. The rule of thirds is just one way to do that. Others include the golden ratio or the Fibonacci curve, and you can find them in Lightroom if you really want to, but the rule of thirds is the best and the simplest. The idea is that you imagine that the viewfinder is divided up into thirds - both horizontally and vertically - and place the subject at the intersection of two of those invisible lines in order to give it more impact. The lines also help you to place the horizon when you're taking a landscape shot. If the horizon is in the middle of the frame, it looks a bit static. Instead, try to establish whether most of the interest is in the land or the sky. If you want people to focus on the land, place the horizon on the lower imaginary line; if you want people to focus on the clouds in the sky, place it on the upper one. Just make sure that it's straight!
'The Decisive Moment'
Henri Cartier-Bresson was a French photographer considered a master of candid photography. He pioneered the genre of street photography. The Decisive Moment was the title of a book he wrote, and his idea was that timing is the secret of a good photograph. This is obviously more important in certain types of photography (such as wildlife) than others (such as landscape), but it is still a useful guide to taking any kind of action shot.
Every photograph obviously has a frame, but have you ever tried using a 'frame-within-a-frame'? Photographic frames come in all shapes and sizes, and so do the ones you find in real life. It might be the branches of a tree or a doorway or a window - the point is that it adds depth to a picture and focuses the viewer's attention.
I don't know why people call it 'negative space' rather than just 'space' (!), but the idea is that a picture with a single subject can look more balanced if there is empty space on the other side of the frame. This is particularly useful for portraits if you want to stop them looking like 'passport photos'! It's also a good idea to allow space for a moving subject to move into. It just looks weird if a person appears to be 'walking out of the frame', so try to position the subject around a third of the way across in order to draw the eye into the picture rather than out of it.
Leading lines are supposed to 'lead' the eye of the viewer into the frame - and ideally towards the main subject. They don't have to be straight, but they tend to work best when they are. The obvious examples are railway tracks or a long, straight road stretching into the distance. S-curves can do the same job as leading lines, but they also add dynamism and visual interest to a photograph, particularly if it's a landscape. Again, it might be a road or a railway or even a winding river. All that matters is that the line is roughly in the shape of an S, meandering left and right into the distance.
The rule of thirds and others are meant to stop pictures looking too symmetrical, but sometimes symmetry suits the subject matter. If you have a reflection in the water or a human face, for example, you can't really avoid it, so it's sometimes best to make the most of it. That might mean positioning the line where the water meets the land exactly in the centre of the frame or choosing a square aspect ratio for the picture to enhance the symmetry of a face.
Point of view
I'm a wildlife photographer, and the most important rule of wildlife photography is to get down to eye-level with the animals. It makes a huge difference to the composition and elevates a quick snap to an intimate portrait. Taking pictures at eye level sometimes means getting wet or muddy - especially if you're taking pictures of insects on the ground! - but it's the best way to go. The same applies to portraits, which usually look best taken at eye-level or above. If you get down any lower than that, you take the risk of ending up with a close-up of the model's nostrils!
A photograph is just a static image, so it's sometimes difficult to convey a sense of motion. One way to do that is to use a slower shutter speed in order to create motion blur. Different subjects require different shutter speeds, depending on how fast they are moving, so you might need to experiment a little bit to find that sweet spot between too much sharpness and too little. You could start with 1/4 of a second for a pedestrian walking along the street, but a Formula One car would disappear if you didn't cut that down to 1/250 or slower. If you want to go the whole hog, you might try the 'slow pan'. Panning just means moving the camera from side-to-side to keep a moving subject in the same part of the frame. The 'slow' bit relates to the shutter speed. What you get with a 'slow pan' should be a recognisable subject with relatively sharp eyes but blurred limbs (or wings) and a blurred background. I warn you that this is a tricky business - I once took 1,500 slow pan pictures of guillemots in the Arctic and only kept four of them! - but it's worth it when it works...
Depth of field
Another crucial element in wildlife and other kinds of photography is depth of field. To make sure the focus is on the subject and separate it from the background, you can use a larger aperture (such as f/4 or f/2.8). That will blur anything that's not in the same plane as the subject while keeping the focal point sharp. The eyes are always the most important part of a portrait - whether it's of an animal or a person - and we will always see something as being 'in focus' as long as they look sharp. Depth of field is just as important in landscapes, but what we generally want now is sharpness all the way through the image, so it's better to start with a smaller aperture such as f/11 or f/16.
One of the funny things about the way people see the world is that we seem to like odd-numbered groups of objects more than even-numbered ones. It doesn't really matter why, I guess, but it's an important point to remember when planning something like a still-life shoot. Just make sure you have three or five tomatoes rather than two or four!
Fill the frame
Everyone has a camera these days because everyone has a mobile phone, but one of the problems with using your mobile to take pictures is that it's hard to 'fill the frame'. It's all very well taking a selfie when you're only a few inches from the lens, but trying to zoom in on a distant object or animal is difficult when you only have a few megapixels to play with. It's important to remember here the difference between 'optical zoom' and 'digital zoom'. The optical version is what you get naturally with a DSLR lens when you zoom in by changing the focal length; the digital version is when a phone or a bridge camera fools you into thinking you're zooming in by focusing on a smaller and smaller portion of the sensor. It's great when you look through the viewfinder or look at the back of the camera, but the image quality is a lot poorer. Anyway, the point is that what you really want to do is to make the subject dominate the image by making it as large as possible. If you're taking a picture of a cheetah, you don't want it to be a dot in the corner of the frame! You can always crop the image later using Lightroom or another editing program, but that means losing pixels, so the quality will suffer. It's always better to get it right in camera if you can. You just need to be careful not to chop off body parts in the wrong place when you're taking a portrait. Generally, it's fine to crop in on someone's face so that the top of the model's head is not shown, but it's not a good idea to crop people's bodies at the joints. It just looks odd if the edge of the frame coincides with the ankles, knees, waist, elbows, wrists or neck.
For some reason, taking a picture in landscape format just seems more 'natural' than turning the camera 90 degrees for a portrait, but it's important to choose the 'right' aspect ratio for the image. A photographer once advised me to make sure at least a third of my pictures were in portrait format, but the point is to look at the subject and decide what's best. If there are a lot of horizontal lines, then landscape is fair enough, but if there are more vertical lines - such as tree trunks in a forest - then you should probably choose portrait instead. If you really want to emphasise the length (or height) of a subject, why not try a panorama instead? Different cameras have different set-ups, but the average aspect ratio of a DSLR is 3:2, which doesn't suit all subjects. I've set up a 3:1 template in Lightroom to use for images in which nothing much is happening at the bottom and top of the frame.
When we see a beautiful view, most people's instant reaction is to take a picture, but what we end up with a lot of the time is an image without any focus. Placing an object in the foreground can lead the eye into the frame and give the image balance. A picture taken on the beach, for instance, might be improved by getting down low in front of a weird rock or piece of driftwood.
Speaking of balance, it can be a good idea to have the main subject on one side of the frame and a smaller subject on the other. Again, it's just a matter of what looks most satisfying to the human eye.
Old and new, blue and orange, large and small - all these are contrasts that a photograph can pick up on and emphasise. This kind of juxtaposition can be made the point of an image. Think of an elephant beside a mouse - it's not a picture of an elephant or a picture of a mouse, it's a picture of the contrast between the two.
Patterns, textures and colours
Sometimes, you don't need a traditional 'subject' to make an image visually interesting. There are plenty of patterns in Nature or in the man-made environment; the trick is to find them amongst all the surrounding clutter. Whether it's the bark of a tree or paint peeling on a wall, you can sometimes get a very effective abstract image out of it. Black and white images tend to emphasise patterns and shapes, as there is no colour to distract the eye, but colours can form patterns as well - it just depends on the subject and your personal preference.
It's hard to produce a visually striking image if there is no focal point, or if there are too many competing centres of attention. By creating a simple image - in terms of colour and/or composition - you can remove the distractions and focus on what's important.
To increase the focus on the subject of an image, it's a good idea to remove any distractions in the background. It's obviously not a good idea to take a picture of someone with a telegraph pole sticking out of his head (!), but it's easy to pay too much attention to the subject and not enough to the background unless you consciously check the viewfinder. One useful way to reduce the chances of an embarrassing blunder is to reduce the depth of field by increasing the size of the aperture. The traditional way of taking portraits of animals or people, for instance, is to use a 'fast' lens, which means one that has a very wide maximum aperture, and shoot wide open. That reduces the depth of field, thus blurring the background and adding to the impact of the main subject. If you have lights in the background, you can even get a nice effect called 'bokeh', which works well for something like a bauble with Christmas tree lights in the background.
Whatever you're photographing, there are always odd moments of humour to be found. People and animals are usually the best sources, but it doesn't really matter what the subject is. If there's a visual joke to be made, why not have a go? I laughed when I saw these penguins together on South Georgia. It looked as if the female was confused by the rock. Was it an egg she was supposed to hatch, or was it just a rock? She spent about five minutes looking at it and examining it before the male came up and said something like, "Come on, darling. It's just a rock..."
Breaking the rules
Having said all that, it's important to break the rules once in a while. Rules tend to set expectations, so breaking them can make an image seem fresh and original. Why should the horizon be straight? Why should we see the whole face rather than just half of it? Why should the sky start two-thirds of the way up the frame? If you can't answer these questions, then why not take a risk? It's a bit like being a painter: you have to be able to follow the rules before you can break them!
If you'd like to know more or want to book a photography lesson with me, then please get in touch.
The worst part about taking pictures is knowing you've just missed a great shot. Here, I try to help wildlife photographers learn from 'the one that got away'.
This would've been a great shot. It could've been a great shot. It should've been a great shot. But it wasn't. Why? Motion blur. If you look closely, you can see that the whole body is slightly out of focus, and that was simply because I didn't think to change my shutter speed. I was parked in a jeep in Botswana when a herd of impala came chasing across the road. They were galloping fast, but there were five or six of them, so I did have time to focus on each of them, one by one, as they crossed the road in turn. Unfortunately, I was using my default camera settings that were designed to capture animals that were standing still. I was using an 80-400mm lens, so I had my camera on 1/320 and f/8 with auto ISO. That would normally have worked, but not for a jumping impala! What I really needed was a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 of a second. I just didn't think...
In order to avoid moments like that, here are my answers to a few obvious questions:
What equipment do I need?
Good question. It's obviously too late to do anything once you're on safari, so it pays to get your equipment sorted out beforehand. People often ask me what camera I use, and it reminds me of a story I heard about Ernest Hemingway. He went to a photography exhibition in New York and was so impressed he asked to meet the photographer.
Hemingway: These pictures are great. What camera do you use?
Photographer: Well, I use a Leica with a 50mm lens for most of my shots. I'm actually a big fan of your work, too, Mr Hemingway. I've read all your novels. Can I just ask: what typewriter do you use...?
The point is obviously that a good camera doesn't necessarily make a good picture, and it's mildly insulting to photographers if you ask about their equipment without complimenting them on their talent! However, all other things being equal, a good camera can make life a lot easier for wildlife photography. I'd suggest getting a full-frame DSLR with a zoom lens with a maximum focal length of at least 300mm, preferably 400mm or more. The problem with a bridge or DX camera is that you won't get the quality you're after, as they don't have large enough sensors. I started off with a bridge camera and thought the zoom was great - until I saw the Nikon DSLR one of the other guys had! I had a severe case of 'camera envy', so I emailed a friend of mine who was a professional photographer to ask what he would get. He recommended either Nikon or Canon, but Canon made photocopiers, so that was out of the question! Instead, I bought myself a Nikon D800 - complete with 36.3 megapixels! - and it's served me well ever since. I now also have a D810, which is an upgraded version of the D800. Having two cameras means I don't have to worry about changing lenses. Instead, I carry them both cameras on a SpiderPro holster that looks a bit like an old Western cowboy's gun belt. I can take them out and put them back with just one hand, and I can lock them in place if I'm going on a boat ride or clambering over rocks and don't want to take any chances.
As for lenses, I mainly use an 80-400mm on the D800 and rent an 800mm prime on the D810. They're both made by Nikon, and for a very good reason. I tried a Sigma 50-500mm and then a Tamron 150-600mm lens, but the images just weren't sharp enough. I now manually check the autofocus of all my lenses using Reikan Focal automatic lens calibration software. All you do is print out a 'target' and set up your camera on a tripod to take pictures of it from a certain distance away. Once you load the software, it guides you through the set-up and takes a number of exposures automatically, just asking you to change the manual focus adjustment anywhere from -20 to +20. When the routine is finished, it gives you a PDF report showing the optimal adjustment value - and that's what persuaded me to use only Nikon lenses. I'd been on a trip to Svalbard and wasn't happy with my shots of the polar bears, which were all just a little bit soft. One of the other guys on the trip told me he did a manual focus check, and that's when I started doing it, too. It was only when I bought my new 80-400mm lens that I realised the huge difference in sharpness: the Sigma and Tamron were down at around 1400 on the numeric scale, and the Nikon was way up at 2200! In short, check your lenses. They're mass-produced items, so there's always bound to be some slight variation in focus, and you'd rather fix it yourself than have to use it as an excuse when you don't get the sharpness you want.
I also make sure I always pack a polarising filter together with a lens cleaning kit (with sensor swabs and cleaning fluid), a beanbag (for resting the lens on the windowsill of a jeep) and my laptop (so that I can download and work on my pictures in the evening). If I'm going to be near a waterfall, like Iguazu or Victoria Falls, I'll also take my tripod and a 'Big Stopper' neutral density filter to give me the chance of taking creamy pictures of the water with a long shutter speed.
What else should I do before I leave?
Getting the right equipment (and changing the time zone on your camera!) is one thing, but you can help yourself out by booking the right holiday in the right location at the right time. Check when the 'long rains' are if you're going to Africa. Check when the peak season is for wildlife viewing. Check if it's possible to visit when there's a full moon or - even better - a harvest moon. You can ask all these questions (and more) to make sure you get the very most out of your trip. One useful site for African expeditions is Safari Bookings, which allows you to search for packages by location, duration and price. I also like to travel light. I hate the whole airport experience, so I avoid having to check any bags in by having a roll-aboard camera bag and packing all my clothing into a jacket that has a pocket in the lining that goes all the way round. It looks a bit funny when you walk through customs - and some people just couldn't do it - but it saves me an awful lot of time and bother. If you’re a birdwatcher, you might also want to invest in an app to help you identify the local species. I downloaded one called eGuide to Birds of East Africa, and it’s excellent. It does cost around £27.99, but it’s very quick to check the name of a bird - which is often what you need to do when your guide tells you what it is but you’re too embarrassed to ask him how to spell it!
What should I take with me on the game drives?
If you're a keen photographer, you won't want to miss anything while you're out taking pictures from the 4x4, but that doesn't mean you need to take the entire contents of your camera bag! I would simply take your camera(s) and your longest lens(es) - protected by waterproof covers - plus a couple of spare batteries and a lens cloth. A beanbag might come in handy on certain vehicles, but that's about it.
What should I wear?
I generally cover up to avoid sunburn and insect bites, so I generally wear green cargo pants, a long-sleeved shirt, a floppy sun hat and trainers. (It's very easy to get sunburn, though, so do slap sunscreen on any exposed areas before you leave.) I also take a jacket on morning game drives as it gets quite cool before sunrise. If it's a walking safari, I'll wear hiking boots instead. I avoid baseball caps as it's hard to look through the viewfinder without bumping the camera on the brim, and sunglasses rather get in the way when I'm taking pictures. My wardrobe consists of greens, browns and blacks. I'm not sure if animals are exactly frightened by bright colours, but you'll get some funny looks from the other guests if you turn up in hot pants and a Day-Glo pink T-shirt!
What camera settings should I use?
There's an old photographer's joke:
Fan to photographer: I love your pictures. What settings did you use?
Photographer to fan: f/8 and be there!
The point is that 'being there' is more important than any camera settings, but that doesn't mean they don't matter at all - as shown by my shot of the leaping impala.
The 'Exposure Triangle' consists of the aperture, shutter speed and ISO value, and these are the only three ways you can change the brightness of the image: either having a bigger hole, keeping it open for longer or increasing the sensitivity of the sensor. A lot of beginners stick to automatic as they don't trust themselves to use manual settings, but they lose a lot of control by doing that. The camera doesn't know how fast the animal is travelling or how much of it you want to be in focus, so how can it possibly decide the best combination of shutter speed and aperture? Why not experiment a little and decide for yourself the kind of image you're going to take? Now, you still have to make sure you get the correct exposure somehow, and I'm not suggesting you use the exposure meter and manually change the settings for each shot! What I do is start off with a good set of general-purpose settings and set the ISO to automatic. That way, I get exactly the shutter speed and aperture I want, but the camera makes sure it's correctly exposed. The general rule is that you need a shutter speed the inverse of your focal length, so, If I'm using my 80-400mm lens at the top end of the zoom range, that means around 1/400th of a second. (Bear in mind, though, that you have to take into account the speed of the animal as well as how steady you can hold the camera!) I generally like to take 'portraits' of the animals, so I want to throw the background out of focus to emphasise the eyes. That means a wide aperture such as f/5.6, but I've started using f/8 because my lens tests tell me that both my lenses perform at their sharpest at f/8, and I want the maximum sharpness I can get. The problem comes, obviously, when there's not enough light to use your default settings, or the animals are moving too fast. That's when you need to take charge and make a difficult decision: which is the most important, the shutter speed, the aperture or the ISO? If it's a fast-moving animal, the shutter speed obviously takes priority. If the light level is dropping, then you probably want to compromise and change both aperture and shutter speed by 1/3 of a stop (or more). Most stock agencies don't want pictures taken at high ISO values (640+), so that's something to bear in mind if you're trying to sell your work.
Manual focus has its place in macro photography and in low light conditions, but wildlife photography generally demands that we use one of the two methods of autofocus: single point (AF-S on the Nikon) or continuous (AF-C). I generally keep my D800 with the wide-angle lens on single point, as I'll be using it to take landscape shots, but I keep my D810 with the long zoom lens on AF-C 3D, as I'll be using it to take pictures of animals. In fact, sharpness is so important for wildlife shots that I use what's called 'back-button focusing', which means setting up the camera so that I can focus by pressing the AF-ON button on the back with my right thumb. The AF-C 3D setting continuously focuses on one particular point on the animal that you select when you first press the AF button, and it magically follows that point even if the animal is moving. It's not perfect, but what it does mean is that you don't have to worry about losing focus when you half-press the shutter and then take a picture. By separating the focusing from releasing the shutter, you get the best chance of getting that all-important sharpness in the animal's eye.
You can always change it in Lightroom later (or another image-processing software package), but I generally still try to update my white balance setting as the light changes. It saves time later, and it follows the general principle of trying to get everything right in camera. Messing around in Lightroom should always be a last resort.
Shoot in RAW. There. Is. No. Alternative.
One of the confusing and frustrating thing about the DSLR is the number of settings there are and the fact that you can't 'reset' everything in one go. It would be wonderful if there were one button that would do everything, but there isn't. There are mechanical as well as electronic settings, so it's impossible to assign one button to change both. As it is, it's worth having a mental checklist to go through before you go out on the game drive and even while you're out there. The main settings to monitor are the following:
Mode: Manual, unless you've never picked up a camera before...
Shutter speed: 1/1000 (I know the 1/focal length rule, and I know Nikon's Vibration Reduction and Canon's Image Stabilisation mean you might get away with up to four stops 'slower', but animals move too quickly to take that chance!)
Aperture: f/5.6 or f/8, depending on how big the animal is and therefore how much depth of field you need
ISO mode: auto
Exposure compensation: None, unless you're photographing a very bright or dark animal such as a polar bear on ice or a gorilla
Autofocus: AF-C 3D on the Nikon, continuous servo on the Canon
White balance: Daylight - if it's your typical African sunny day, although you can always change it later if you shoot in RAW
Active D-lighting or Auto Lighting Optimizer (ALO): Auto or off unless you're taking a picture into the sun and want detail in the shot (It's a kind of in-camera HDR to squeeze the histogram for images that would be too contrasty otherwise.)
Lens lock (off, obviously - you don't want to miss a shot because you can't zoom in!)
Artificial horizon: if you have symbols in your viewfinder to tell you when the camera is straight and level, then do use them. It’ll save you an awful lot of time later on straightening horizons in Lightroom…!
What should I do on the actual game drive itself?
Although you may end up spending many hours on game drives without seeing much of interest, it's very important to be ready for anything. That means paying attention to a few simple guidelines:
Tell your guide what you want to do or see. For most people, the epitome of the safari experience is to see a kill. To make sure you have the best chance of doing that, I’d suggest asking your guide to try and find the big cats for you and then - crucially - to stay with them for as long as it takes. Leopards are ‘ambush’ hunters, so that won’t work unless you’re very, very lucky. Lions are possible, but they tend to hunt in the evening. The best are probably cheetahs as they hunt during the day and - when they do - offer spectacular opportunities to see the fastest land mammal sprinting at up to 70mph! However, if you’re a bit squeamish or if you’re worried about your children seeing something that might upset them, you might ask your guide just to drive around with no particular plan in mind, stopping to take pictures of whatever you happen to see. If you have a specialist interest such as birds, for example, you’ll need a different strategy. Birds don’t come very high up most people’s list of things to see, so you might need to arrange a one-off day for all the birders in the group. In general, though, you should just make sure that you let the driver know when you want to stop and when you’re happy to move on. It’s your holiday, so don’t be afraid to ask for what you want!
Make the most of the sunset. If you’re in a national park, it can be very frustrating towards the end of the day when you have to get back before they close the gates, which is usually around 1800-1830. That means missing out on all sorts of possible opportunities, including taking pictures at sunset. The good thing about going to a privately owned ‘conservancy’ is that, first of all, you’re allowed off-road and, secondly, you’re allowed to stay as long as you like! One way to get great shots is to drive to the brow of a hill around half an hour before sundown, find a herd of animals and then take shots of them in silhouette against the sky. Just make sure the horizon is nice and low so that you make the most of all the colours.
Make sure you're camera settings are correct. It may sound obvious, but it's no good being lazy and thinking, "Oh, I'll set the shutter speed and the aperture if an animal comes along." There's often very little time to get a good shot before the animal turns or moves away, so the last thing you want to be doing is checking your settings. Just stick to the basics, with the shutter speed at 1/1000, aperture at f/5.6 or f/8 and the ISO on auto. If it's still a bit dark in the morning, that might not work, and you might have to reduce the shutter speed or increase the aperture, but the important point is to make those decisions in advance, not when you're about to take a picture.
Get into a comfortable position from which it's easy to take pictures. If you have more than one camera or a camera with a long lens, find a good spot for all your equipment so that it'll only take a few seconds from spotting an animal to taking a picture. If you're in a jeep, that might mean winding the window down half-way so that you can rest your lens on it or taking your shoes off so that you can stand on your seat if there's a pop-up roof. Just don't end up in the same predicament as a friend of mine, who thought his camera wasn't working when he'd actually just left the lens cap on!
Keep a good look-out. Your guide or driver will usually be very good at spotting animals and birds and stopping in the right position so that you can take a picture, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't pay attention. I generally sit in the front seat and point things out as we go along. If the animal is far away or it's something common like an impala, I'll just say, 'Impala on the right', but I'm quick to tap the driver on the shoulder if I spot something more interesting. Even if you end up right at the back, don't be afraid to tell the driver to stop. He may have seen it all before, but it's your trip and your memories!
Tell everyone where and how far away the animal is. If they see an animal, a lot of people will just point and say, "Oh, look!" or "Over there!" but that's not terribly helpful unless it's a herd of elephants on a treeless plain! It's difficult to follow someone's arm when they're pointing from a different position, and it's hard to know where to look if you don't know how far away the animal is supposed to be. I'd suggest using the 'clock' method and giving a rough estimate of distance. For example, if you see a lion on the right side of the vehicle, you might say, "There's a lion at three o'clock about 100 yards away."
Take care of your kit. A lot of safari destinations are very dusty or sandy, and it's easy for your camera and the front lens to get covered with a film of dust, so be sure to clean them regularly. It's often hard to tell if you have a lens hood, but it's worth checking. When I was in India, I wiped the front of my 800mm lens with a lens cloth after a couple of hours on the road, and it turned almost completely red from all the dust!
Keep the noise down. Animals and birds are easily spooked, so try to keep your voice low, either when you're chatting to other guests or when you spot something. There's nothing worse than getting a great sighting of a leopard or something, only for someone to scare it off by talking too loudly...
Don't rock the boat. The best wildlife shots need a rock-steady platform, so twisting around in your seat, standing up, sitting down or generally moving around too much is a nightmare for the other photographers. If you have to change position, either wait until other people have taken their shot or do it very slowly and gently.
Be considerate. Tempers often get a little frayed in the excitement of the chase, so do be aware of the other guests and what they're trying to do. If you jog someone's arm or tell the driver to move on before someone has finished taking pictures, just apologise. You're there for a once-in-a-lifetime experience, not to hack off your fellow guests!
What makes a good photograph?
Dust, air and spume. That's the Holy Trinity of wildlife photography, according to Paul Goldstein, who is a wildlife photographer and also a great speaker and raconteur. I went on two of his trips to Spitsbergen and Tadoba, and I've seen several of his presentations. The idea is that 'dust' is thrown up by the movement of the animals and gives you a sense of dynamism and energy, 'air' means that an animal is in the air and about to land - so we have a sense of anticipation - and 'spume' is the spray that is thrown up by movement in water.
That's just Paul's view, and there are obviously other aspects to the question. One thing that he also points out is the difference between a 'record shot' and a 'photograph'. To him, a 'record shot' is just a snapshot, a picture that records exactly what's in front of you, but a 'photograph' is something that obeys the rules of composition and has been consciously constructed by the photographer to provoke an emotional reaction. There aren't that many rules of composition in wildlife photography, but it's worth bearing them in mind when you're out shooting. Here are a few of the common ones:
Fill the frame. Robert Capa once said: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” People don't want to have to search the image for the animal, so zoom in or ask your driver to get closer so that you can make it the centre of attention!
Use leading lines. Where available, they can lead the eye of the viewer into the image, for instance in a picture of an impala on the horizon crossing a road leading into the distance.
Use the Rule of Thirds. Human eyes don't like things that are too symmetrical - unless you can manage a perfect reflection - so try to put the focal point of your shot off-centre. That adds dynamism and a different kind of balance.
Focus on the eyes. People don't care if 99% of an animal is out of focus as long as the eyes are sharp.
Capture the moment. A guide in the States once compared my shots to those of another guy on the trip. He said that Stefan's were always technically perfect, very sharp and with gorgeous, saturated colours, but mine were all about the moment. I take that as a compliment. It means you have to wait for the right moment to take the shot. Don't just keep clicking away like a Japanese tourist by Big Ben. Compose your shot and then wait for the animal to do something to make it more memorable. It could be a sneeze, a yawn - anything! - but it will mark your picture out as special.
Tell a story. The tagline to this website is 'Every picture tells a story', and that's a goal we should all aspire to when taking pictures. What are we trying to say? What mood are we trying to create? What's the emotion behind the shot? It's not always easy, but picking exactly the right composition can create humour, joy, sorrow, horror and any number of other powerful reactions - which is just what we want.
Break the rules - selectively! Obeying the rules will give you a nice, balanced image, but Paul for one hates 'nice', and I can see his point. Sometimes, the best way of creating a strongly emotional image is to break a rule or two. You have to do it sparingly - and consciously - but it sometimes gives you that much more of a chance of creating a genuinely arresting image. One of his favourite techniques is the 'slow pan', which means following a moving animal or bird with a slow shutter speed and taking a number of shots as it goes past. The idea is to create a sense of movement by blurring the background and the legs or wings of the animal or bird while keeping the body and especially the eyes sharp. It's a technique that's very difficult to master. You have to do a lot of experimentation, and it helps to have a tripod! I once went on a boat trip in Svalbard and took 1,504 pictures of guillemots using the slow pan - but I only kept four of them! It sounds like a lot of effort, but it's worth it in the end.
Teaching Greek children is like watching France play rugby: you never know what you're going to get...
I just spent two weeks in Greece preparing a Greek boy and his twin sisters for 10+ and 12+ entrance examinations at a school in England. Highlights included spending a long, sunny weekend at a holiday home in Lagonissi, spending another long, sunny weekend skiing near Delphi - I wonder if the oracle saw that one coming! - and seeing the Parthenon every day from my hotel balcony.
Political refugees take many forms, but, personally, I prefer shipping magnates fleeing with their adorable (if strong-willed) families from Communist governments in the Mediterranean...
I live in an Art Deco mansion block in Putney, and every year the porters put a Christmas tree in the entrance hall. Last year, I took some pictures of some of the baubles, inspired by an email from one of the photographic magazines about how to capture bokeh lighting. This year, the tree and the baubles were different, so I decided to have another go.
Ormonde Court, Upper Richmond Road, London SW15 6TW, United Kingdom, around 2100 on 12 December 2014.
- Nikon D800 DSLR camera
- Nikon AF-S VR Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED lens
- Nikon SB-910 Speedlight flash
- Manfrotto 190XProB tripod with 496RC2 universal joint head
- Hähnel HRN 280 remote release.
I’ve just managed to remortgage my flat in Notting Hill, so I’ve been investing in a few photographic supplies. Ever since a German called Stefan took a magnificent shot of Old Faithful at night using flash, I’ve wanted a proper flashgun. Well, now I have one. I bought the Nikon SB-910 Speedlight a couple of weeks ago, and it arrived just in time for this shoot. I didn’t know whether I’d need it or not, but I was prepared to experiment.
- Manual ISO 100
- 1 second
- Tungsten white balance
- Single-point auto-focus
In the last of these posts, I mentioned how I’d got used to taking a tripod with me in almost all circumstances, and last night was no exception. Last year, I was generally pleased with my shots of the baubles, but the ISO was far too high. I was using my tripod, funnily enough, but to hold the bauble rather than my camera! This year, I decided I would definitely mount the camera on the tripod, but that left me with nothing to hold the baubles. I thought about using a light stand from my flash kit, but I needed something horizontal rather than vertical so that I could hang the decorations from it. I then had the idea of using my golf clubs. I could stand the bag in the lobby and balance one of the clubs on top, held in place by the other clubs.
As it turned out, I’d forgotten that the bag would be at an angle of 45 degrees, so my original plan didn’t work, but I simply pulled my 4-iron half-way out and hung the first bauble from that. It was a silver reindeer, but the green wire loop wasn’t very long, and I wouldn’t have been able to get the shots I wanted without the golf club getting in the frame. I needed a piece of string. I thought about going back to my flat, but leaving my golf clubs and my camera unattended in the entrance hall didn’t seem like a sensible idea! Fortunately, I was wearing trainers, so I just used one of the laces. It took a few gos to get each bauble to point in the right direction and remain still – particularly as there was a stream of curious residents opening the front door on their way home from work! – but I managed in the end. Phew!
I took lots of pictures of the silver reindeer, a red bauble with a spiral pattern on it and the red star shown above, and I played around with the flash settings to try to make the background a bit darker. Sadly my new flash was so powerful that I couldn’t manage that – even with -3.0EV of exposure compensation! There might’ve been a better way, but it was the first time I’ve ever used a flashgun, so I’m still a newbie.
The main problem I had in taking the shots was actually getting enough depth-of-field. The reindeer was fine, but the round baubles and even the star were proving a nightmare. If I focused on the front of the bauble, the metal cap and wire loop were out of focus, but, if I focused on those, the rest of the bauble was out of focus. I’m an absolute stickler for sharpness in my images, so I wasn’t sure what to do. In the end, I stopped down a little bit and hoped that f/5.6 would be a small enough aperture to keep everything acceptably sharp. I tried ‘chimping’ (or checking the shots on the LCD screen) a few times, but it was tricky to tell. My problem was a kind of Catch-22: the three variables controlling depth-of-field are normally the focal length, the aperture and the relative distances of the camera to the subject and the subject to the background. I couldn’t change to a wide-angle lens, as I needed to limit the background to just the Christmas tree; I couldn’t change to a much smaller aperture without making the bokeh circles of the blurred Christmas lights in the background too small; and I couldn’t change the relative positions of the camera, bauble and tree without changing the composition completely. Hmm… As you can see from the shot above, the two arms on the right of the red star didn’t turn out completely sharp, but it was ‘good enough for Government work’. Shutterstock obviously didn’t accept it – they’re very hot on sharpness! – but I did win an award on Pixoto for the sixth best image uploaded to the Christmas category yesterday!
I made three changes to this shot:
- I had the camera on ‘Tungsten’ white balance, as I’d just read somewhere that I should use the amber filter on the flashgun when shooting indoors in order to avoid a clash of different light sources. However, it turned out that the shot looked a lot warmer with the ‘Flash’ white balance, and that was just the look I was after at Christmastime.
- A lot of my images end up being quite dark, and I’m not sure whether it’s just because I’m lucky to spend a lot of time in very sunny places or whether there’s a problem with my camera! In this case, I actually had to push the exposure up by +2EV in Aperture to make it look like all the others. I have a feeling that’s because I changed from f/2.8 to f/5.6 to get more depth-of-field but forgot to lengthen the shutter speed to compensate. Silly me…
- I was desperately trying to frame the shot perfectly so I wouldn’t have to crop, but the balance of the bauble with the ‘negative space’ on the right wasn’t quite right, so I cropped in slightly to position the star a third of the way into the frame.
I’m a photographer (among other things), and this is the first of a series of posts about my favourite photographs. I’ll tell you how I took them and break down the shot into the idea, the location, the equipment, the settings, the technique and any post-processing.
When I took this shot, I was at a Battle of Hastings re-enactment at Battle Abbey in Sussex. I was there to take pictures of the battle scenes between enthusiasts dressed up as Normans and Saxons, and I had no idea there was going to be a falconry display until I bought my ticket and was given a flyer with the plan for the day.
The golden eagle is my favourite bird (isn’t it everyone’s?!), so I was very excited to be able to see one in action. The falconers from Raphael Historical Falconry put on a couple of displays with a variety of birds, including a gyrfalcon and a Harris hawk, but the golden eagle was the highlight. Afterwards, I wandered over to their tent, and I was able to get within just a few feet of all the birds. The falconer was happy to chat with the spectators with a bird on his arm (so to speak!), and later he fed and watered the birds outside. That gave me the chance to set up my tripod and get a few good close-ups, and this was the best of the lot.
Battle Abbey, High Street, Hastings and Battle, East Sussex TN33 0AD, United Kingdom, around 1500 on 11 October 2014.
- Nikon D800 DSLR camera
- Sigma 50-500mm F4.5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM lens
- Manfrotto 190XProB tripod with 496RC2 universal joint head
- Hähnel HRN 280 remote release.
I was a bit worried about using my ‘Bigma’ to take this picture, as I hadn’t been very impressed with it on my trip to Spitsbergen to see the polar bears. Admittedly, the bears were usually a few hundred yards away, and no zoom lens is at its best when it’s at its longest focal length, but I was disappointed that my shots were so soft. As a result, I did a manual focus check and discovered that the calculated auto-focus fine tune setting was a whopping -12! Armed with this new improvement to the sharpest tool in my box, I was ready for anything…
PS They call it the ‘Bigma’ as it’s made by Sigma, and it’s enormous!
- Auto ISO 110
- Daylight white balance
- Single-point auto-focus
I had the camera on Manual with ISO on Auto, which I thought was appropriate for a day when lots of things would be happening, and I’d be taking candid shots without much opportunity to sit down and check my settings. However, I should probably have set the ISO to its optimum value of 100 for this shot, as I had plenty of time.
I’m generally a travel and wildlife photographer, but I normally don’t use a tripod as it gets in the way and doesn’t work too well in a Land-Rover moving at 40mph! However, I learnt a new perspective from a professional photographer called Mark Carwardine. He happened to be on a cruise to Spitsbergen that I went on a few months ago, and he was always carrying around his tripod with the legs fully extended – even on the Zodiac inflatables that we used to land on the islands. I thought to myself, If he can do it, so can I! After that, I’ve tried to use a tripod wherever possible. I love really sharp wildlife shots, and a 36.3-megapixel DSLR and a tripod make a winning combination.
Another important thing about wildlife shots is to get down to the level of the animal or bird you’re shooting. You can see from this shot that I’m right at eye-level with the eagle, and that gives the sense of power and intimacy I was looking for.
Finally, I’ve learnt from a couple of portrait shoots the value of the ‘catchlight’. This is the reflection of the light source that you see in the eye of your subject. It’s just as important with wildlife as with people, and I was lucky enough to get a break in the clouds that allowed the sun to provide the perfect catchlight. Lucky me!
I changed from a PC to a Mac a few years ago, so I do all my post-processing in Aperture. I suppose I should upgrade to Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw or Photoshop, but iPhoto was the default image-processing software on the Mac, and Aperture was the cheapest upgrade!
I only had two changes to make to this shot:
- Even at 500mm, I still wasn’t quite close enough for the bird’s head to fill the frame, so I had to crop in later. I’ve found from experience that 6.3 megapixels is the minimum size that the major online photo libraries accept, so I never go below 6.4 MP (to avoid rounding errors), and that’s the new size of this file.
- In the end, the automatic ISO setting was close enough to the optimum of 100, but the shot was slightly overexposed due to the dark colours of the eagle’s feathers and the grassy background, so I had to reduce the exposure by 0.5EV.
Pool, beach or hammock? Hammock, beach or pool? Hmm…
That was the decision that faced me every day during my teaching assignment in Turkey. I was staying at Club Isil in Torba, near Bodrum, for six weeks to teach three Kazakh brothers and their cousin. They were seven, seven, 11 and 14 years old, and I was there to teach each of them English or Maths for an hour a day. I only worked a maximum of five days a week, and the cousin was only there for a month, so I had plenty of time to do my own thing. Sometimes that can be a bit difficult on a residential assignment, as you don’t know anyone apart from your clients, and there’s no guarantee of where you’ll be staying or what facilities or transport will be available. Fortunately, my Kazakh clients put me up at a five-star all-inclusive beach resort called the Isil Club, so I had the choice of pool, beach or hammock every afternoon, plus the use of wi-fi throughout the grounds and the opportunity to participate in a host of sporting activities, including tennis, volleyball and Flyboarding.
Every weekday morning, I would have breakfast from the buffet on the terrace and walk to the front of the hotel, where I’d get picked up at 0845 by a chap in a golf cart and dropped off at my clients’ pair of luxury houses in the grounds of the next doorVogue Hotel. The first time I walked down the steps to the villas, I thought I’d walked on to the set of Beverly Hills 90210. Each villa had an infinity pool on the terrace, with a view looking out over a sweeping sunlit Mediterranean bay dotted with the odd luxury schooner or motor yacht. Inside, the houses were both chock full of marble and gold leaf, and there was a constant stream of staff to keep the place looking immaculate and look after our every need. I’d teach for three or four hours and then hitch a lift back to my hotel with one of the staff or even one of the boys. It’s not often I get driven home by an 11-year-old pupil, but that’s what happens when he’s given a Renault Twizy for his birthday…!
I got along pretty well with the boys, although they were rather reluctant students, and their mothers generally left me to my own devices. I’m told that’s fairly typical of clients from the old Soviet Union, but it’s just a bit disconcerting when nobody comes to pick you up and you think you’ve been sacked until you get a belated text to say it’s just someone’s birthday!
I quickly settled into a routine of teaching in the morning and then reading the paper online, sunbathing and watching sport and movies on my laptop for the rest of the day. My main problem was trying to do too many things at once. It would’ve been nice to be able to sunbathe with my laptop out on the terrace or alongside the various incarnations of Bambi and Thumper on the dock, but it was too hot and bright. It was two weeks before I saw my first cloud, so I didn’t even have the excuse of bad weather to stay indoors. Everywhere I go these days, it always seems to be 35° – either in Centigrade or Fahrenheit!
The Isil Club wasn’t quite so luxurious as the Vogue – where I was greeted by a couple of beautiful girls and offered a free cocktail when I arrived from the airport – but it still offered everything I could possibly want. I had to switch rooms initially, but that was only because of a glitch in the wi-fi signal, and I ended up in the ideal spot. My front door opened on to the main bar and reception area, but I also had French windows giving access to a grassy lawn at the back (where I found the hammock!), and the restaurant and water sports centre were within easy walking distance. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were all available from a buffet out on the terrace, and there was a wide selection of salads, hot dishes, deserts and anything else you might fancy. The hotel was run on an all-inclusive basis, so I never had to pay for anything, and it was very tempting to eat far too much. After a couple of weeks, though, I decided to eat what I actually liked rather than everything in sight!
The facilities were fabulously comprehensive, including a huge swimming pool, volleyball and tennis courts, artificial five-a-side pitches, table tennis and pool tables, a sauna and spa and a water sports centre down by the dock equipped with catamarans, Jet Skis, banana boats and Flyboards. (There was even a zoo next door, although it was even smaller than the one in Hong Kong!) I hardly ever go on beach holidays, so it should’ve come as no surprise when I swam two lengths of the pool with my iPhone in my pocket! That put me off swimming for the rest of the trip, and I didn’t even do many of the other activities – even though I used to love sailing when I was a boy. However, I’d always wanted to try Flyboarding, and I booked a lesson in the final week. I was strapped into boots attached to what looks a bit like a snowboard, except with two nozzles for the water jet on the underside. There was also a red hose or pipe hooked up to a Jet Ski, and that was what provided the power. It was pretty difficult to get the hang of it, but I did manage to hover around ten feet off the water a couple of times for a few seconds. I asked Yusuf to take some pictures, but the memory card in my camera stopped working, so I don’t have anything to show for it! Typical…
Fortunately, I did manage to take a few shots myself. I recently took up photography fairly seriously, so I’m always looking for great photo ops, and I was very excited about the idea of getting pictures of the instructors. I ended up getting to know one of the instructors quite well, and he was an expert Flyboarder. The first time I saw him, he was soaring 20 feet into the air then diving into the water, only to shoot up into the air again and dive again. It was spectacular! The only problem was trying to work out when he was due to go out. I asked Yusuf to let me know by text, but he never did, so I ended up camping out on the terrace with my laptop, checking the dock every few minutes to see whether the Flyboard had moved from its usual spot. At least it got me out of the house – and the photos were worth waiting for…
I took lots of shots of Yusuf, a couple of the other instructors and a few holidaymakers trying it for the first time. If you want to sell pictures of people online (as I do), you have to get a model release from everybody in the shot, so I did a deal with everyone: you sign the model release, and I’ll give you all the photos for free. Yusuf was particularly chuffed. “Many photographers ask to take my picture,” he told me once, “but it would not be the same as you.”
The other big chance I had to take pictures came when the American singer/songwriter Akon gave a concert at the Vogue Hotel. One of my pupils told me about it, and I went along to check it out. It turned out to be a very professional gig – just like something you’d expect to see in a big outdoor arena – and it was a great chance to take some good close-up shots. The grounds were so big that there was plenty of room, even quite near to the stage, so I was lucky to be there. The good thing about going to a private concert at a five-star hotel is that you don’t find any of the usual drawbacks of live music. You don’t have to queue up to get in, you can get as close as you like, and you don’t even need a ticket!
When I wasn’t taking pictures or staring at a laptop screen, I tried to meet a few people in the resort, but it was always difficult. I asked a couple of girls to dance and complimented another couple on their dresses, but it never got me anywhere. Eventually, I gave up and started taking my lunch and dinner plates back to my room rather than eating out on the terrace beside the buffet. However, I did go along to the regular scheduled volleyball and tennis tournaments, and that paid off during the last couple of weeks of my stay, when I met a group of Belgians who were very keen on volleyball. They played every morning and evening and invited me to join them, so I went along and got to know them pretty well. There were Goodness knows how many Belgians and other Francophone tourists in the resort, so I’m glad I could speak French. The social ostracism is the worst part of any residential assignment abroad, so it was good to be able to have a chat with a few people over the age of 14!
All in all, I had a very good trip. The clients were happy, I came back with a proper tan for the first time since I ‘retired’ at 29, and I tried out something I’ve always wanted to do. I also managed to take hundreds of pictures. What could be better? The only disappointment hit me when I got back home to the UK and found that all the sunny beaches and beautiful girls in bikinis had disappeared. My turkey was cold after all…
Tweets from Turkey
Sunbathing in Bodrum is like watching French films – you end up thinking breasts aren’t special at all. I need someone to set me straight…
I saw a dolphin playing in the sea and someone having sun cream rubbed in by two beautiful Thai girls. I’m not sure which impressed me more…
When a woman spends 5 mins putting on her bikini top, should you a) ignore her, b) offer your help or c) ask the topless woman next to you?!
The area around the swimming pool here is like a walrus haul-out in the Arctic, except the creatures are 700lbs lighter (in most cases)…
They may not be as glamorous as polar bears in the Arctic, but there’s still a place for French blondes in bikinis called Aurélie…
I’m the least observant person in the world. It’s taken me a week to find the muesli! Now, where’s the champagne and caviare…
One day, I’ll get bored of dining on the terrace while watching the sun set over the Mediterranean, but it won’t be this week…
This hotel is so posh they put soy sauce in a sherry glass. Impractical, but classy.
I’m going to write a book called The All-You-Can-Eat Buffet Diet. It’ll have the same hundred recipes on every page…
For dinner tonight, I was tempted by the ‘turkey chest’ with ‘potetoes’ or ‘fish from the owen’, but I chose pizza instead. Easier to spell…
We almost had a Casablanca moment today. When a hundred Germans are singing German drinking songs around the pool, it can only end badly.
It’s a sad day when a pretty French girl in a bikini asks if she can lie next to you on the sun lounger but then calls you ‘vous’. Sigh…
I just heard a French woman say, “Un, deux, trois – cheese!” to her children. Photography, the universal language…
It’s hard to be one of the lads when you’re playing volleyball with Frenchmen. I call them ‘tu’, but I’m so old they have to call me ‘vous’!
“Due to the Belgium National Feast, the 21st. of July, we would like to invite you to a cocktail at the pool, today at 19:30pm. Isil Club”
I’m in the middle of a Transformers marathon, and I’m feeling more and more admiration for director Michael Bay (and Megan Fox, obviously)…
Living abroad means watching every sporting event live, so I now have three windows open for the cricket, the golf and the motor racing…
Great to see Jon Favreau’s Chef. I haven’t seen such a fine feel-good foodie film since Tampopo and Babette’s Feast!
Why don’t web pages from The Daily Telegraph load properly in Turkey? Is the paper still being punished for its Gallipoli coverage…?
When your profile is being viewed by 63-year-old women, you know you’ve reached the bottom of the online dating pool…
Middle-aged guys should be banned from water parks. I think I’ve broken my ankle…!
I just lost an air rifle competition by 14 points to 10. If we’d been using AK-47s, it would’ve been a different story…
When I won the singles and doubles matches to win the tennis today, everyone just walked off. It’s the opposite of ‘all must have prizes’…!
That’s the first time I’ve ever had to score a tennis match in French. I suppose it’s better than volleyball in Russian.
Flyboarding is just like snowboarding, except you have 20 feet further to fall! Ouch…
I went to the zoo today – if you can call it that. The Vogue Hotel is having a competition with Hong Kong for the world’s smallest zoo…
I spent last night on the beach with three cats named Hobie, shooting the stars and watching shooting stars.
I’ve just realised from my photographs which way the stars rotate in the northern hemisphere. Any guesses…?
I just offered to send someone a few photos, and he told me he didn’t have an email address! I didn’t know what to say…
Here I am, watching Lois & Clark and the US PGA on my laptop, sitting on the terrace at midnight while my camera takes photos of the stars…
Thank God that’s over. No more sunshine, no more beaches, no more pretty girls in bikinis. I’m really, really happy to be home. Really…
Turkey’s the only place I know where storms don’t involve either rain or even clouds…
I just saw Akon perform last night at the Vogue. I think in future I’ll only go to private concerts at five-star hotels…
Does anyone want an iPhone? I have one that swam two lengths of the pool with me this afternoon…
I was shaken awake by an earthquake this morning…
When they built Hong Kong, they put the sun in the wrong place. It’s always either behind a building, hidden by a cloud or on the wrong side of the island to see a decent sunset. Having said that, I did arrive during the monsoon season, which didn’t help! I was there for six weeks from April to June 2014, teaching four families various subjects including English, Maths, Science and tennis. All the families were very hospitable, lending me iPhones, chauffeuring me around and inviting me regularly for lunch and dinner. They also had a few diary issues, so I ended up teaching twice as many students as I was supposed to… The tuition agent who had arranged the job had given me a handy introductory guide to Hong Kong, but it took a while to get used to the place. I felt like Alice in Wonderland in my bathroom, where everything was six inches lower than I was used to, and the bottle labelled ‘Drink me’ was replaced by a dispenser of ‘horse oil! The water also left me feeling queasy, but the worst part was finding my way around. The apartment block was right next to the Grand Hyatt and Renaissance hotels, and there were two different entrances, north and south. The client who was putting me up in her flat had kindly sorted out a SIM card, wi-fi dongle and an Octopus card for the MTR, but I felt like Captain Oates whenever I left the building. Would I ever find my way home again…?! I had two objectives in Hong Kong. First of all, I was obviously there to keep my clients happy. After that, I saw it as a great opportunity to take photographs. I deliberately limited my lessons to around four or five hours a day in an effort to maximise my chances of picture-taking. The only problem was the weather. I had one sunny day on my first day off, which I used to go up to the Peak, which has spectacular views of Victoria Harbour, but I didn’t see blue skies again until my last week. As a result, my daily routine revolved around anything I could do within the confines of my apartment block. Fortunately, one of my clients had lent me the use of a very nice one-bed flat in Wan Chai, complete with golf driving range, two tennis courts and three outdoor and indoor swimming pools, but none of that was very appealing when my iPhone predicted thunderstorms every day of the week! Instead, I generally stayed at home during the morning and early afternoon. I read the papers online (using a very handy 4G dongle a client lent me), watched British sport when I could (thank Goodness for www.vipboxasia.co!) and spent a lot of time taking and processing my photographs before taking one of the cheap and cheerful taxis in the early evening to take me to my first lesson. The main ideas I’d gleaned from the travel guide and a quick trawl on the web were: climbing up to Victoria Peak to see the panoramic views of the harbour; going on an open-top bus ride; catching the Star Ferry to Kowloon to watch the Symphony of Lights (a regular son et lumière show put on by most of the office blocks around the harbour); going to Happy Valley to see the regular Wednesday night horse races; wandering around one of the ‘wet markets’ that sell fish, meat and other goods on the street; visiting one or two of the outlying islands; and perhaps going over to the Chinese mainland. I never made it to China proper, as a meeting with another agency was cancelled, but I did do all the rest. My first photographic excursion was a trip to the Peak. I was very lucky to have sunshine on my first day off, and I ended up spending all day up there. There are two buildings at the top, which both look a bit like alien space ships: the Peak Galleria and the Peak Tower.
The views from both during the day were spectacular, but it got better and better as night fell. My only mistake was in leaving 20 minutes before the Symphony of Lights was due to start! The open-top bus ride was a great way to see all the extraordinary architecture in Hong Kong. The island is a strange mixture of Gibraltar, New York and Monaco – very hilly, full of skyscrapers and offering several switchbacks akin to Loew’s Corner for the wannabe Formula 1 driver. As I drove around with an audio guide pointing out all the landmarks in my ear, I was constantly taking pictures left, right and centre. It took hours to transfer them to my laptop and edit them all, but I was happy with one or two of the more abstract shots.
The Symphony of Lights happens every evening at around eight o’clock on both sides of Victoria Harbour. Dozens of skyscrapers switch on their lights in time to a musical soundtrack that gets piped through speakers on the shoreline, and there are even lasers fired from some of the rooftops. I caught the Star Ferry to Kowloon and watched it from the Avenue of Stars, which is just a posh name for the concrete waterfront. I chose that side of the harbour deliberately, as most of the iconic buildings are on the other side of the water on Hong Kong island, including the distinctive M Pei-designed China Bank Tower.
I thought getting a night off to go to Happy Valley was going to be a problem, but one of my clients helpfully cancelled a lesson one Wednesday, which allowed me to spend the whole evening there. Happy Valley must be one of the few racecourses in the world that’s located slap bang in the middle of a city, but it certainly makes for a unique backdrop. There were thousands of people in the floodlit arena, most of them dressed up in their glad rags as if they were about to quaff a bottle of champagne in the Royal Enclosure at Ascot, but the fare on offer wasn’t always so classy. I took a few shots of one very attractive woman in a red dress having an Ed Miliband moment with a cheeseburger and a packet of ketchup! The racing itself was as you’d imagine, but it was still rather strange to see Chinese jockeys wearing the traditional silks.
A ‘wet market’ in Hong Kong is just a food market on the street that ends up having to be hosed down to get rid of all the detritus at the end of the day. I went to the one on Bowrington Road and benefited from the delightful insouciance of the locals when it comes to having their picture taken. There are so many cameras and iPhones being used over there that the last thing people worry about is some random bloke taking yet another picture! Some of the items on sale were certainly interesting, and the live fish flapping about on the slabs were a magnetic draw. Once food becomes waste at the end of the day, though, it undergoes an ugly transformation, and I was reminded of a Jonathan Swift poem, A Description of a City Shower, that compares the cleansing effect of the rain to the Old Testament flood:
“Sweepings from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts, and blood,
Drown’d puppies, stinking sprats, all drench’d in mud,
Dead cats, and turnip-tops, come tumbling down the flood.”
I was keen to get to some of the outlying islands in Hong Kong, but the weather rather limited my options. However, I had a friend over there who lived with his family on Lantau, and we arranged to have lunch with a few of his friends. We went for dim sum, which is rather a local tradition on a Sunday, and then spent the rest of the day together. A few weeks later, his wife organised a 40th birthday party at a beach bar at Pui O, so I decided to use that as an excuse to explore the island properly. I’d cancelled all my lessons to go to the party, and I decided to make a day of it. The big attraction – literally! – on Lantau is the Tian Tan or Big Buddha, and I reached it by taking the cable car from the MTR stop in Tung Chung. The ride up wasn’t that spectacular, but I had a personal reason for going. A girlfriend once sent me a postcard of the Big Buddha when she was in Hong Kong, and she said it reminded her of me because I close my eyes when I laugh! I wasn’t convinced when I saw it with my own eyes, but I took plenty of pictures just in case.
Lantau has changed a lot in the last few years, and it’s very difficult to find any indigenous peasant culture – everyone seems far too well off! However, I’d heard about the stilted houses in Tai O, and I wanted to see them for myself, so I took a taxi there from the Big Buddha. Tai O used to be a busy fishing village, but it’s turned into a bit of a tourist trap. When I went, it was just gearing up for a dragon boat race, and there were dozens of little stalls by the river selling seaside delicacies such as ‘super fish balls’, ‘fresh cuttlefish’ and ‘crisp fried fish skin’!
After wandering round the village and stopping off for a quick ‘lime and salt’ drink (when in Rome…!), I took the bus to Pui O for the party. At the bus stop, I met an American art student and had a good chat with her while we were waiting for the bus and then on the bus itself. It was nice to have a ‘normal’ conversation with someone for a change, but I had to jump off pretty quickly when I realised I was close to the resort. I had plenty of time on my hands, but it was quite a stroke of luck that I went down there early, as there were three or four kite surfers out in the bay. They were all very good, and I was happy to spend an hour and a half just taking pictures of their jumps and tricks as the sun went down over the headland.
Mavericks was a pretty good venue, and the party went off well enough, but that marked the end of my stay in Hong Kong. All in all, I enjoyed my six weeks over there. It was not too long and not too short. My clients were very kind and friendly, and I got along very well with them and their families. Hong Kong is to China as Goa is to India: if you can’t face the real thing, it will ease you gently into the local culture while providing all the trappings of Western civilisation to keep you sane. You may see the occasional amusing sign, such as ‘Please wrap spittle’, or see the odd Ferrari burst into flames when you’re on the bus, but it’s definitely worth a visit.
My best experience in Moscow could easily have been my worst.
“Would you like to come to dinner with us at Café Pushkin and then see the Spasskaya Tower international military music festival in Red Square?”
“Yes, I’d be delighted.”
“Shall we meet you at the restaurant at six thirty?”
Oh, dear. My heart sank. It was my first time in Moscow, and I had only one hour to make sense of the Moscow Metro system all on my own. My clients had kindly given me the equivalent of an Oyster card and an iPhone with a local SIM card in it, but I had to get to the station first. The nearest one was more than 15 minutes’ walk away, so I decided to try and get the bus. The only problem was that I didn’t know whether my smart card would work. Fortunately, it did. The next problem was knowing which platform to use in the Metro. I don’t speak Russian, and all the signs and the names of the stations were in Cyrillic, so it was no easy task! Even when I got on the right train, it was very difficult to know where I was. There are so few signs on the Metro stations that it was almost impossible to see one and decipher the station name as the train flew past. Even the announcements over the PA system were no help, as I didn’t even know how to pronounce the names of the stations en route! I eventually had to make do with counting them. That worked out fine, and I got off at the right one, only to get lost again. I thought I’d be safe with Google maps, but the network was so slow that my phone wasn’t telling me where I was but where I’d been five minutes earlier! The weather was so poor that I couldn’t navigate by the sun, and there were so many major roads and sliproads that it was impossible to cross them without taking the underground subway – which was even more confusing! When I finally reached the restaurant, I was lucky enough to see my clients on the steps. Phew! Never again…
The food at Café Pushkin was delicious, and my clients Dimitri and Yana encouraged me to try the local specialities and generously paid for my meal. Before we left for the festival, their son Boris showed me round the gorgeous antique interior. He was 12 years old, and I had come to Moscow for three weeks in September 2013 to help him prepare for his entrance exams at various private schools in England. Everything had happened very quickly. From being told about the job to getting on the plane had only been seven days! During that time, the only real obstacle had been getting a visa. In return for a couple of hours online and a visit to the Embassy (involving an obligatory lie about being in full-time employment), I was given my Russian visa name. This is similar to your pornstar name, except it’s decided by the Russian Embassy. Mine was NIKOLAS UILLIAM ДЭИЛ, by the way…
Despite the travel nightmares, that evening with Dimitri, Yana and Boris turned out to be the highlight of my trip to Moscow. After dinner, we walked to Red Square from the restaurant and spent the next couple of hours watching a succession of international marching bands play music and go through their parade ground drills in front of the spectacular backdrop of a floodlit St Basil’s Cathedral.
It was my first ever visit to Red Square, and it was quite an introduction! I was keen to take as many photos and videos of the event as I could, and Boris was doing the same sitting next to me. By a freakish coincidence, he had almost exactly the same camera as I did (the Nikon D800E), so we had plenty to discuss that night and for the rest of the trip when it came to photography.
The only disappointing thing about the evening was that the family decided to leave early. I only discovered this later, but there was a firework display at the end of the show. How spectacular would that have been to see fireworks over St Basil’s?! Sadly, I missed out, and I don’t think I’ll ever have the chance again…
The bad news continued on the photography front when the weather stayed cloudy, misty, rainy and miserable for the entire trip. I had been keen to see St Petersburg and the onion-domed churches of Zagorsk and elsewhere, but there was no point in those conditions. One result of that was that I didn’t have very much to occupy my time. There were a couple of people that I’d planned to see, but it wasn’t possible in the end, so I spent a lot of time in my hotel room. I got on with Boris and his parents reasonably well, and Yana very kindly provided me with lunch most days (although I could have wished for something other than borscht and black bread almost every day!), but it was a bit lonely sometimes. I’d have been pulling my hair out if I hadn’t found a free VPN service that gave me 24/7 access to Sky Sports! My agent Andrei was also just a quick Skype call away to sort out any problems or just to pass the time. I really appreciated that, and we met up for a curry when I got home to cement our friendship.
I did take a few photographs while I was over there. I’d seen a nearby church out of my hotel window, so I walked over there on my day off and captured the onion domes for posterity.
There was another old church just across the road in a residential gated community, but the security guards at the entrance wanted a bribe to let me in!
In the absence of any exciting landscapes or architecture to shoot, I decided to be a bit more creative. I was up on the 23rd floor of the Astrus Hotel, so I got a good view down Leninsky Prospekt. I took a few ‘miniatures’ of the tower blocks first…
…and then I went a bit ‘arty’ with my zoom!
The only other pictures I took were of one of the receptionists downstairs called Polina. She bizarrely felt she had to ask permission from her colleagues before she would agree, but we ended up having a good chat. We’re even friends on Facebook now, so perhaps I should’ve plucked up the courage to talk to her a bit earlier. Who knows what might’ve happened? You know what they say about Moscow girls…
I have a few other memories of my trip: the phenomenal upload speed of my hotel’s DSL connection (23.36Mbps!); the water pressure in the shower – which made me feel like a rioter being hosed down by a water cannon; seeing a picture of Boris Johnson on his bike on the bedroom wall of my student Boris; finding a Russian medal on the kitchen table that Dimitri had won for his service to the motherland; seeing an abandoned car in the middle lane of Leninsky Prospekt; getting through the Moscow traffic honk-a-thon every morning, when my driver would get so close to the other cars that the parking alarm would regularly go off; and trying to negotiate the return of my laundry in English with an old Russian woman speaking German!
All in all, I’m glad I had the opportunity to go to Moscow. The family were very kind and generous and easy to talk to, and I made a good friend in Andrei. It’s also another place I’ve been able to tick off my bucket list. Now, where next, I wonder…?!
Before I went to Belarus, I was warned it would be like going back to the Soviet Union: brutalist architecture, statues of Karl Marx and a hankering after the Communist era. In fact, I ended up teaching English to a very nice couple called Mikhail and Natasha, who were very generous and hospitable to me and had a far from typically Russian (or Belarusian) attitude to politics and economics. She ran a chain of pharmacies, he worked in the agriculture business, and neither of them could understand their friends’ passion for Russian imperialism.
I flew out in March 2014 after a last-minute scare when the agency tried to bring forward my flight with only three days’ notice! Fortunately, that was resolved happily enough, and I was met at Warsaw airport by a driver who would take me across the border to Brest (aka Brest-Litovsk). The city didn’t have its own airport, so it was a choice between driving across the border from Poland or flying to Minsk and facing an even longer trip by car. When we arrived at the border, big men with big guns stopped the car to check our papers, and we waited to be allowed through. An hour and a half later, we were still waiting! That has to be the worst border crossing I’ve ever had in my life…
My driver took me to the Hermitage, which was the best place in town (I checked: it was €83 a night – or free if you knew the owner!), but I had a shock when I unpacked my bag and tried to boot up my laptop. LOT Polish Airlines had managed to drop it from a great height, and was so battered and bruised that the only thing it could do was beep forlornly! (In hindsight, I should perhaps have put it in my carry-on rather than my checked luggage, but I had all my photographic equipment in my camera bag, and there wasn’t really enough room…) I met Mikhail and Natasha in the hotel restaurant and told them what had happened, and Mikhail very kindly offered to ask his IT department to have a look at my laptop and see if it could be fixed. Natasha even lent me her MacBook until eventually I got mine back – minus a memory card slot that was too damaged to fix…
I was in town to teach Mikhail and Natasha, but they generously farmed me out to a couple of friends of theirs and even Natasha’s mother at one point. (Same iPhones, just different brand of luxury German saloon…) We quickly slipped into a daily rhythm. I’d start the day by having breakfast in the hotel. On the way to the restaurant, I’d always pass an old German shop till that looked rather photogenic. I planned to come down and take a few pictures of it one day, but it wasn’t until my final week that I eventually got round to it. Unfortunately, I left the ISO rating on 1600 by mistake, so I had to do the shoot all over again, but I was rewarded when the users of Pixoto voted this my best photo ever!
Breakfast was a struggle, not just because of the rather limited Eastern European rations but because of having to listen to Lana del Rey’s latest album on a loop every morning. I asked at reception if they had any other CDs, but I was told that there was an exhibition of paintings in the foyer, and the artist had made it a condition that Lana del Rey would be played all the time to set the right mood! One day, the barman tried to compete by playing drum ‘n’ bass at full volume to drown out the sound of Miss del Rey, but it didn’t last…
At nine o’clock, I’d leave the musical torture chamber and walk over to my clients’ apartment, where I would teach Mikhail for an hour and a half and then swap to Natasha for a similar period when she got home from work. I’d then have a couple of hours to myself before meeting them both for a (very) late lunch at Caffè Venezia, which Mikhail always paid for. They knew the owner, and it was right next door to Mikhail’s office, so it was his favourite place. There would always be someone to talk to, and the Italian owner knew enough English to be able to keep up a good conversation. After lunch, Olga would pick me up for her lesson, and I’d spend an hour and a half at her house before getting dropped off at my hotel again. In the evenings, Mikhail and Natasha would usually invite me to dinner, either at a restaurant or at their place. Mikhail explained that there were only three decent restaurants in town – Caffè Venezia, Times Café and Jules Verne – and we ate at all of them. Natasha was also an excellent cook, and Mikhail had a very well stocked wine fridge, so a typical meal would consist of smoked salmon and caviare washed down with champagne followed by salade de magret de canard and lightly grilled sea bass accompanied by a rather nice Puligny-Montrachet! We also had dinner with Olga and Sergei one evening, and I had the novel experience of helping Olga and Natasha make ‘pierogi’, a kind of semi-circular dumplings similar to tortellini, which we filled and wrapped. I also had the rather dubious honour of nibbling on black bread topped with carpaccio of pig fat! Well, nothing tastes too bad after four glasses of vodka…
Another constant part of our routine was talking about the Crimea. The annexation by Russia was on the news every day, and we inevitably ended up talking about it as part of our lessons and over lunch or dinner. Today, Crimea. Tomorrow, the Ukraine. The day after that, perhaps Belarus. You don’t quite realise the difference in your countries’ political traditions until you hear stories about living next door to the Russian bear. Natasha told me a couple about her own family. Once, when Gorbachev was briefly threatened by a palace coup in 1991, she and Mikhail had actually emigrated to Poland for the day – just in case perestroika and glasnost had come to an end and the borders had been closed. How many times do we feel we have to leave the country before a British General Election?! She also told me about her grandmother, who decided to take her family to Poland back in the 1920s, when it was briefly possible to leave the old Soviet Union. She was waiting on the station platform, ready to catch the train, when she suddenly realised her wallet had been stolen! With all her money gone, they couldn’t possibly afford to leave home – and their family history was changed beyond recognition for the next 60 years…
Mikhail and Natasha were also very sporty, and they were kind enough to include me in their regular plans. We went for a long (and very energetic!) walk around the city before dinner one night, and I even had games of volleyball and tennis with Mikhail. I hadn’t played volleyball for about 30 years, so I rather embarrassed myself on court, but at least I beat him at doubles – although that was probably because I was playing with the coach! We also spent the final Saturday cycling in the Białowieża Forest with Olga and Sergei, which is now a National Park and World Heritage site that spans the Belarusian/Polish border a few miles north of Brest. The forest is great for cycling as it has a grid of roads from which cars are banned. We drove there in an old van that was big enough to hold all the bikes. Once we’d arrived, I was given a mountain bike, and we set off into the woods. Our first stop was the zoo, which was a series of enclosures containing all the local animals to be found in the forest (and a few others). This was my chance to take a few pictures of my very first Russian bear, together with wolves, ostriches and a family of European bison.
We then cycled around the forest for a couple of hours and had a picnic lunch at the residence of Father Frost – a kind of Santa’s Grotto but without the snow! I always like a civilised picnic, but this was the first time I’d had one with pancakes, venison and samogon – or Russian moonshine…
I always try to take advantage of my foreign residential jobs to take pictures of the local landscapes, flora and fauna, so it was good to have a chance to use my camera again. There weren’t many photogenic sights to be seen in Brest, apart from a few onion-domed Russian Orthodox churches, but I found inspiration in the animals. The following day, I went walkabout and visited the Brest fortress, which is where the first battle was fought in Hitler’s 1941 invasion of Russia. To commemorate the occasion, they’ve installed an enormous block of stone with a Russian soldier’s head carved out of it called the Courage Monument. CNN once ran a story placing it first in a list of the world’s ugliest monuments, but they swiftly had to remove it when the Russians and Belarusians took offence!
That evening, I walked back into town to find St Simeon’s cathedral, which I’d first seen on my walk with Mikhail and Natasha. Russian Orthodox churches all have the distinctive ‘onion domes’, often painted gold, and they can look spectacular under floodlights.
I have to say that I really enjoyed my fortnight in Belarus. It was sometimes quite hard work spending so much time with my clients, as I had to concentrate on their English (and my own) even when we were just chatting together, but I was very lucky to be placed with a couple of similar ages with such similar interests and values. When people come home from holiday, they often say, “The people were very friendly,” but I’m never quite convinced. After my trip to Belarus, I can safely say I’ve changed my mind. Whatever the economic, political and military history of the country, I’ve never been looked after quite so well, and I have to thank Mikhail and Natasha for showing me the best of Belarus. I’m also even more thankful to have had the English Channel to protect us from invasion. Our history would have looked very different without it…!