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All the questions - for the Local Guardians article in Amateur Photographer magazine

These are the excellent questions asked by Keith Wilson for his article on Local Guardians where I was one of his five chosen photographers.

What wildlife subject(s) do you most like photographing near to where you live and how did it begin for you?

Leaping dolphin, Teignmouth
Leaping dolphin, Teignmouth

A difficult question as I have so many and the answer is usually the last wildlife subject I've photographed! Lately I have been photographing the local birds and enjoying the challenges of capturing them in flight. I am fascinated by their feathers - how feathers keep them warm, help them hide, show them off to the opposite sex and as if that's not enough, let them fly! I have a particular fascination for sea mammals, especially the Atlantic Grey Seal. Their scientific name is Halichoerus grypus which means 'hook-nosed sea pig'! The coastline is within walking distance and if I am fortunate enough to see an Atlantic Grey, it is usually resting on sheltered rocks, digesting fish after a feeding spree. The bulky adult males can reach an impressive 10 feet in length. It is essential to keep a distance, never disturbing them. They are one of the rarest seals in the world, a protected species. Between 50% and 60%* of the world's population live around the UK coastline.The bulky adult males can reach an impressive 10 feet in length. They are one of the rarest seals in the world, a protected species. Between 50% and 60%* of the world's population live around the UK coastline. There are now fewer Atlantic Grey Seals in the world than African elephants and red squirrels, making photographing them even more special. It is essential to keep a distance, never disturbing them. Apart from most sea mammals, I tend to get enthusiastic about whatever I find, like the delicate wings of the bees that buzz around flowers, or the intricate architectural engineering of a grasshopper or dragonfly - all right here in the garden. I am useless at remembering species names, but whatever the name I can usually wax lyrical on their beauty and tenacity to survive. It began as a young child when I drew animals all the time. As a teen I left school early to do a Fine Art degree where I made animal sculptures. I then became a nursery teacher where I loved working creatively with the children. After that I went on to work in web design and e-commerce. Although the money was good, my creativity became stifled over the years. To counterbalance, I used all my spare cash on travel and to be with wildlife instead - enjoying safaris and doing crazy things like swimming with orcas and whale sharks, animal encounters that will now flash before my eyes on my deathbed. Photography was always there, and I loved sharing my pictures with people at home, but looking back, I bitterly regret not understanding my camera better back then. My photography really began in earnest at the Wild Photos conference in 2013 (a weekend of wildlife photography presented by many of the great wildlife and nature photographers of our time) which both inspired and depressed me in equal measures. I was inspired to do more, feeling that if they could, then I could too. I was depressed by my full time job zapping all my energy and by my obvious lack of camera technique. Since that weekend I vowed to improve my photography. Whenever I had a spare minute, I worked through parts of the camera's menu and learnt various settings. I became determined to make the camera do what I wanted it to do, and not the other way round. This drive for control continued for several years. I spent that period photographing birds in the garden, clouds, or airplanes, not for creativity (that could come later), but to help me take command of the camera. Tell me about the locality where you shoot and how long you’ve been going there – is it a well-known location or somewhere that only a few people know about? Seven years ago I packed up my London life and now live in a small village in South Devon, on the Jurassic Coast, very close to the sea. My camera walks are along the country lanes from right outside my house, and I enjoy just wandering about and watching the birds flit in and out of the hedgerows. Often there is so much to photograph along the way that I don't get very far. All I tend to meet are occasional groups of ramblers and the odd dog walker. I also do a lot of photography from my front porch. I use it as a kind of sheltered hide. There is a beautiful fir tree right in front and a variety of birds come in from the fields, landing on the branches en route to and from my well stocked feeders. The soft seaside light outside is just beautiful, even when it's drizzly and cold. A short drive away is the seaside town of Dawlish, and along the river running through it live a colony of black swans that have become a symbol for the town. Brought over from Australia, they are managed birds, so not wild, but I find them exotic and unusual. Since I moved here I have been photographing them as they patrol the stream and nibble grass on the town's green spaces. To my amusement, I have occasionally been asked if I'm ok as I lie on my belly on the ground with my camera amongst the ducks and swans that live there. I was showing my black swan photography to the local camera club and someone came up to me afterwards and said that she walked past the black swans every day on her way to and from work, but before seeing my photos she never really knew what they really looked like. She told me she really looks at them properly now. Comments like that make it all worthwhile. My photography has connected someone to nature in some small way.. Why do you keep going back? Because I can never get enough of the countryside around me. It is so familiar now yet it is always different. I love nothing more than showing people the intricate lives and details of local wildlife. Do you have a preferred style or approach when photographing your local wildlife? [give an insight into the technique(s) you regularly use] I often take my camera out without a particular photo or subject in mind, preferring to photograph what I see at the time, and only if I feel there are photos there to be made. Dawn and dusk are my favourite times but anything that falls in front of my lens in the right place at the right time with the right light is a bonus. I shoot mostly in aperture control, handheld. I love the freedom of moving the camera about with ease, composing quickly on the hoof. I rarely carry a tripod, and if I do it inevitably ends up considerably annoying me and me wishing I'd left it at home! I concentrate more on backgrounds these days, ensuring the subject is captured in its natural environment, either zoomed in to show some incredible detail, or zoomed out to show habitat and to try to tell the subject's story. This is particularly so when photographing insects amongst flowers - my initial attraction is usually to the position of the insect against the flower, and how the light falls on the colours and shapes and any suitable background. When I look at the photos later on the big screen I see so much more than my naked eye did. I notice how flowers are exquisitely designed in shape and pattern to guide insects to their stamens, ensuring their pollination. This is my biggest joy of closeup nature photography - seeing surprising details that are impossible to see at the time. I do as little editing as possible, never changing anything in the photo too dramatically in order to retain authenticity. I am blessed with patience, and love to just sit quietly with my camera in hand and see what comes. I have been known to have little conversations with subjects under my breath of along the lines of 'come on little bee, land THERE, no, no, not on that flower, THIS one' And if the bee does land on the perfect flower with the perfect background and if I capture it successfully, then I do a little inward silent shout for joy and thank the bee. If the photo doesn't happen, then that's just how it is. Nature owes me nothing. How do you keep coming up with new ideas for different photographs? [mention if you use camera traps, hides, bait, or drones] Nature provides all the subject matter a photographer could ever need. Anything I encounter when out and about is going to be by nature different, so what I see in front of me, and what part of it, and how I choose to photograph it will therefore be unique. The combination of many years of learning technical skills, the dedication to practice in the field and the use of my creative eye all come together to give me confidence to take the photographs I want. I am inspired by other photographers, but not influenced by them. I prefer to take photographs that are authentic to me, reflecting my perspective of the world. In turn I hope to inspire others to find their own visual voices. I recently bought a LensBaby, and have had mixed results with it. I haven't worked with camera traps or drones but that's not to say I won't suddenly get the urge to try, which may well set me off on an exciting new tangent. I love that about photography. There are so many tangents to follow! Which picture that you have taken locally are you most proud of and why? How did you get it? The Leaping Dolphin was taken just off the coastline close to where I live. I am most proud of it because (a) it is only now and then that I can actually get out on the sea. (b) When I can get out, the dolphins are not always there and (c) photography is a nightmare when one is bobbing about at sea on a small boat, trying to focus with a long lens, with waves and wind and sea-spray to contend with, not to mention that dolphins refuse to give any indication of where they are about to pop up from sea's surface. When they finally do leap into view they are so incredibly fast. Most times I've ended up with thousands of photos of the tops of tails or just the waves where the dolphins have been. I was particularly pleased with this image. Not only had I got the camera settings right for that precise moment, but I also had the lens pointed at the right bit of sea, getting the important parts in focus. I captured the dolphin just as it was leaping out of the sea towards me. It was perfectly lit by the sun and the boat was in the exact right spot to make it all work (thank you, Devon Sea Safari!). There is an energy to the image that I hope shows the power and might of the dolphin as it leaps towards the viewer with the curious way that dolphins look at people. Can you list for me the main benefits of shooting locally - for you, for the subjects, for your photography? What has it taught you as a photographer? I think the main benefit of shooting locally is that I have a good knowledge of the area. If I was visiting the area for just a few days, everything would be new and exciting and I would be trying to capture everything at once with the Spray 'n' Pray approach! Sometimes there is a kingfisher or two that fish along the small river just a mile or so away from home. If I go looking for them and don't find them, I can just go back another day. Shooting locally has got me much more tuned in to small details and subtle changes in the nature around me and I have become much more choosy about the photos I take. The luxury of familiarity has enabled me to become far more critical of my own images, helping me understand my own approach a little bit more. What changes have you seen over the years that are affecting the future of wildlife in your locality? [mention positive changes also, if that is the case] I notice that there are far fewer insects in the garden in recent years. I remember the days when if you left a light on outside, there would be swarms of insects of all shapes and sizes, moths and other nighttime insects attracted to the light. Come morning you'd need a brush to sweep them up. Now hardly a moth appears at the outside light. I find this very worrying. That said, I am pleased to see on this sunny morning that the garden is full of butterflies and bees.

Bumble bee wings
Bumble bee wings

Please list the essential / core camera kit that you take on these shoots and include any accessories as well a sany special items that might not be photographic, but are vital to your sanity and comfort! [E.g. food bars, thermal gloves, Smidge repellent, etc] My essential kit comprises my Canon R5, my Canon 100 - 400mm lens, and sometimes my 180mm macro lens. If I'm out and about in winter, it's a wooly hat and fingerless gloves. In summer it's just a carrier bag to sit on. At all times it's a bottle of water. Other than spare batteries and memory cards I like to travel light. If I'm shooting from my patio, then the absolute non-negotiable item to have with me is a cup of hot, strong and milky coffee. Finally, we have seen the re-introduction of sea eagles, storks, beaver and wild boar to the UK in recent years. Which species would you like to see re-introduced next? Why? It would have to be the Eurasian Lynx. I have photographed the Eurasian Lynx at the British Wildlife Photography Centre in Devon twice. Both times I was impressed by these massive-pawed, long-legged enormous cats with their tufted ears, their powerful, muscular creamy-coloured bodies speckled with dark spots, and their white under-bellies. I can't get enough of watching them effortlessly and silently leap and bound as only cats can do. I don't pretend to know much about the complexities of it, but I have heard the basic arguments for their reintroduction. It seems based around the roe deer the lynx like to eat (who have no natural predators) and the benefits of the carcasses they leave behind. It can take the lynx up to a week to polish off a roe deer, so after they have taken their immediate fill, they bury the carcass under leaves or snow to the immediate benefit of many other species. Mammals such as foxes, badgers, pine martens, and polecats, and larger raptors such as buzzards and kites eat their fill, followed by smaller birds and insects taking their turn. The whole cycle enriches the local ecosystem. Of course, I am sure farmers would not be happy about the threat of these solitary hunters to their livestock. For purely selfish reasons, next I'd like to try photograph them in a completely natural environment. All the other mammals and birds attracted to the area will add to the photographic possibilities!

Photo of a kingfisher in Dawlish


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