"I love volunteering with the RSPB as Wild Challenge Ambassador and Phoenix Assistant Leader as it allows me to work with young people and their families to help foster connections to the wonderful nature all around us. Plus I get to feel part of a team, working with incredible, likeminded individuals.”

These are the words of Laura Elliot, an RSPB Scotland volunteer who recently won the Scots Magazine Photographer of the Year competition. In today's blog, Laura discusses what nature photography means to her and the process which led to the award winning shot.

 

Photography has always been a form of escapism for me. A chance to wander around on my own, capturing shots of the exciting wildlife that has made an appearance that day - the perfect escape from a busy family life. Despite having dabbled in some landscape photography, it really is wildlife that captivates my interest, specifically, birds. The one aspect of landscape photography that hugely appealed to me however was the ‘slowness’ of it. Once you decide upon the composition, there is never a rush to take the photo straight away. There is time to reflect on the lighting and decide if to add a filter or polariser to enhance the colours. You have time to adjust the composition to ensure all the aspects you would like to include, are in the frame. You can test out a different lens, or change the height of the tripod. A landscape is always going to stay put, unlike birds who sometimes only give you a split second to capture them before they fly off. I loved the idea of this slow, methodical process but struggled to see how it could ever be applied to bird photography.

As much as I revelled in the actual process of taking photos, I was starting to feel overwhelmed by rapidly filling memory cards. Sitting down to process photos was such an arduous task as it meant wading through hundreds of images per card. Knowing where to start became impossible. Any time I needed an empty card for heading out on a specific trip, it would require ‘dumping’ the current images in a folder on my hard drive, simply to go and refill the card all over again. I kept telling myself I needed to buy SD cards with more capacity.

I quite often take my camera on walks around my local area. The SUDS ponds within the new build housing estate in which I live, are home to ducks and swans, and there are a number of trees dotted about the place too, so there is always something to take photos of.

On a cloudy day in early spring, I came across an alder tree and noticed a flock of siskins feeding away on the cones. Immediately, I had the camera in position and began firing off shots, thinking they would spot me and would be flying off any second. To my amazement, they just ignored my presence. I slowly lowered my camera and just stopped. I began watching them as each individual engaged in an acrobatic performance around the cones, prizing out the seeds with their specially adapted bills. I saw the intricate patterns streaking their backs in yellow and green hues and watched as they moved silently from branch to branch. After a good 10-15 minutes of observation, I identified a cluster of cones that were perfectly framed by a selection of others, and also had a nice clear background. I took my camera back up in to position again and just waited. Before long, a female took up position right on target and began her slow weaving dance around her cone. I began to take occasional shots as she continued to feed, undeterred by my presence. Soon, a vibrant coloured male came into the shot too and began the now familiar movements to access his food. Again, I took a few shots, that aimed to encapsulate his process. Despite wanting to stay in that moment for as long as possible, I decided to leave them in peace - they weren’t showing any signs of distress at my presence, but they also had the right to feed alone!

The winning photograph in the 2022 Scots Photographer of the Year award. It shows a siskin feeding on a cone while hanging upside down from a branch.

Laura's winning photograph, "Siskin Feeding Time"

As I slowly walked home, I had a real light bulb moment - THIS was the kind of photography I had been seeking. None of the quick fire shots that had been my practice up to that point. Instead a much slower pace of photography where first and foremost, I took the time to just stop, observe, learn and above all, connect with my subject on a much deeper level. I could then take the time to think what kind of photograph would encapsulate all of that learning and work out a way to creatively achieve that. I decided that going forward, this would be my process for taking photographs. I know sticking to this process will mean I miss out on a lot of opportunistic photos - that split second chance to grab a photo of an impressive bird. But as hard as that may be, I am fully signed up to that prospect, because the photos I do take, once a connection has been established, will be worth so much more and hold far further meaning to me.

Returning home and looking at the 30 or so images I had just taken, confirmed what I was already anticipating - these were the best set of photographs I had ever taken. The photographs didn’t just show a bird, they represented an experience that I had been fortunate enough to have had.

I was so proud of my siskin photos and felt that they represented a real turning point in my photography. I decided to enter one with the female feeding, into the Scot’s Magazine’s Photographer of the Year award. Initially I was selected as one of 12 finalist and then following a public vote, eventually chosen as the overall winner. This achievement confirms to me even more that this slow approach is exactly the one I should be taking.

 

To see more of Laura's photography, visit her Instagram page, @lauraelliotphotography.

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