Guest blog by Ally Hoadley, Minsmere volunteer guide
Recently, on a cold windy day in December, I arranged to go on a walk around Minsmere with Ivan, one of our guides, for tips on photography. Ivan has been a volunteer at Minsmere since the 1970s, and in fact started the guides in hides! He also founded the RSPB Lowestoft group, and has run camera workshop days at Minsmere. I’ve known Ivan since I first became a volunteer as I went on a guided walk he led to re-familiarise myself with the reserve; it was a great chance to get my bearings back and ask any questions I had about the species and habitats here. Knowing that I’d bought a digital camera a few months back, Ivan kindly offered to take me out on the reserve and give me some advice on photography.
We started off in the North Bushes, which were speckled with crimson berries, and busy with feasting blackbirds and robins. Ivan told me the best mode to work with was aperture-priority: this allows you to control the aperture depending on light levels (the larger the aperture the more light is let in), but the camera takes care of the shutter speed (the exposure time - it controls how long the shutter is open when taking a picture). First we took a picture of our surroundings to gauge the best setting. Redwings coming in from the coast flew overhead, while a fieldfare perched just out of reach of the lens.
After a stop in North Hide - the bushes and gorse outside of which can be a good place to spot bullfinches - we headed off to the Discovery Centre. Unfortunately it was rather a grey day so not ideal for wildlife photography, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t practise! Ivan placed a small bag on the top of the log wall (built as a home for mini beasts and flanked with fungi): I took two pictures of it - one without zoom, one on full zoom - on every aperture setting, to see how it affected the depth of field. Rather confusingly the higher the aperture (or f stop) the smaller the hole letting the light in: a high aperture allows for a greater depth of field, meaning more of the picture will be in focus. A higher aperture is therefore needed when taking photos of larger birds, like bitterns, so the whole bird is in focus rather than just the tail or the head. Auto-focus can also be useful especially with moving subjects, though as it works on contrasts it can occasionally focus on the wrong thing - such as reeds instead of the bird amongst them - and one may have to put it on manual “to think for it” as Ivan said.
Above: high aperture, wider depth of field - more of the photo is in focus
Below: low aperture, smaller depth of field - less of the photo is in focus
I tested out my new knowledge on some fungi in the woods, or as Ivan called them “a subject that will keep still!”.
We finished up our day wandering from Wildlife Lookout to Island Mere; between which we heard a coot-like call, yet the roundness of the call revealed it as its cousin the water rail: the coot’s tones being sharper though both are members of the rail family.
It was a great day where I became more confident with my camera thanks to all the advice Ivan gave me; it was also wonderful to spend a day discussing Minsmere and its wildlife with someone who knows it so well. We made a plan to go around with our cameras again in the spring, when hopefully the sun will be shining and allow us to take a few more photos!
Bittern Hide on a Saturday morning seems to have been Canon tutorial time in the last couple of weeks :-)
I know Ally is keen to develop her photography skills so any advice she gets will be very welcome. I'm sure she'll spend more time with Ivan, and hopefully share some more tips with us.
Good to hear that our photographers are happy to share their knowledge. That's what wildlife watching is all about, after all - sharing knowledge, skills and experiences to help everyone to enjoy their hobby. That's why our volunteer guides are so popular too.
Perhaps you'll meet Ally in a hide soon and she can learn from you too WJ
Good to hear of someone experimenting with their camera. Minsmere's a good place to do that as there are often other photographers in the hides happy to chat and give advice, especially when the birds are hiding!
Not sure I'd always agree that Aperture priority is the best option for wildlife though, it depends on a lot of other factors too complex to cover in a comment :-)
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