How To Be A Wildlife Photographer

February 17, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

This story was first published around Christmas 2010 on my personal blog.

Day 1, Friday. Still freshly lamenting the passing of the Copenhagen talks on climate change, the evening sees a thick blanket of the white stuff coating the fields, pavements, and roads. The little weather maps of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are completely covered in blue signalling temperatures at or below zero centigrade or thirty two degrees Fahrenheit depending upon your age and how much you have been europeanised. We are told not to drive unless absolutely necessary, and to stay inside in the warm and watch television even though it apparently increases your chance of heart disease. This would seem like the perfect time for me to go out and do some photography!

I put on my winter jacket, it is slightly bigger than my summer one, my fingerless gloves, grab my camera with its small wide angle lens, tripod, and head out to do some snow at night time shots.

‘Take your hat.’ Says Tina but I choose to ignore her, I am hard and a little bit of cold doesn’t scare me.

I route march my way to the local church to start taking my arty shots and try not to look like a weirdo idly standing around in a graveyard. Suddenly my attention is drawn to a rustling in the hedgerow. The fence has had a helping hand by vandals to ensure that part of it now forms a new public footpath across the church land. A small furry head pokes out of the hedgerow. It sees me and freezes but not due to the low temperature. Foxy turns and makes a run for it across the graveyard. Damn! An opportunity for some true wildlife photography but I am too slow and have the wrong camera equipment with me.

Trying not to look like somebody that will attract police attention for loitering in a suspicious manner, which is not really easy to do in a graveyard, I change locations and set up my tripod and camera on the pathway and start taking thirty second long pictures of gravestones in the moonlight. I’m guessing they are not going to move too much and if they do I will not be around long enough to worry about how the picture came out. Suddenly the red fur and bushy white tail of Foxy bounded from behind a headstone. Two things stopped dead, the red of Foxy’s fur and the red blood cells moving through my heart. We both recovered at about the same time the only difference being Foxy was off again faster than my flash gun … if I had taken it with me.

After satisfying myself that I had one or two shots which at very least proved I had been out, I decided the cold air had worked its way through my coat enough and my body temperature had seeped out of my head for not heeding Tina’s wise words. It was time to head home for the night. Passing the gated entrance of the churchyard gave Foxy and I one last chance to bid each other a goodnight.

Day 2, Saturday. I had more important things to do today like sit inside the warm increasing my chance of heart disease but it gave me the chance to ponder the previous evening’s encounter. These foxes may be cunning but a bit of research told me that the graveyard was probably a regular haunt for the fox. Pun intended. Tomorrow I would arm myself accordingly and head back. A fox in a snowy graveyard would be a most excellent photo.

Day 3, Sunday. Camera bag, check, camera, check, fully charged batteries, check, flash gun with charged batteries, double check, dark coat to blend into the trees, check, fingerless gloves, check.

‘Take your hat.’ Says Tina but I choose to ignore her, I am hard and a little bit of cold doesn’t scare me.

I stand on the footpath through the graveyard waiting to ambush Foxy on its diagonal trek across the gravestones convinced that it will follow more or less the same route as the night before. The temperatures on the little maps of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are starting to yield in places to pale green colours indicating slightly warmer conditions. Milton Regis graveyards are no different and the snow has turned to a wet sleet falling onto my head and lens. I wait. I wait some more, you need to be patient when it comes to this type of photography. I wait, less patiently, some more. People keep walking through the graveyard to reach a housing estate on the other side which is surely not helping my cause but it is getting later and only the really dodgy characters are hanging about now. Suddenly I hear a crash of a bin on the housing estate and shortly after Foxy is following the back of the graveyard where it meets the gardens on the estate, a veritable feast of thrown out food and small children’s pet rabbits and guinea pigs. It is hard to say if Foxy clocked me, I was standing as still as some of the graveyard occupants around me but Foxy kept to the back of the graveyard and then hugged the side fence of it until eventually it jumped through and out onto a footpath. After an hour or so, like an idiot I left the graveyard and walked along the footpath outside. Contact! Halfway along the footpath I happened to look back and saw Foxy walking out onto the open land beside it. Foxy had seen me and crossed in front of me some distance away but was trying to slowly arc around me back to the footpath. I crouched down in the snow slightly hidden by a small bank as Foxy moved back in towards me. I was in range and about to get a shot when somebody cycled past me. Foxy hid down and I couldn’t see it anymore. After a minute I slowly stood up and looked for it. Out of the corner of my eye I caught it standing on the footpath by the fence back into the graveyard. I swear it was laughing hysterically at me and for an instance it was not a photographic shot I wanted to take at it. In a flash Foxy was off across the graveyard past the spot where, not thirty minutes earlier, I had stood like an icy stalagmite. I returned to the graveyard in the hope of catching another chance but by now the cold metal of the lens was biting into my finger tips and my head was wet with icy sleet. It was time to go home for coffee. Shots taken in two hours and thirty minutes, one.

Day 4, Monday. Camera bag, check, camera, check, fully charged batteries, check, flash gun with charged batteries, double check, dark coat to blend into the trees, check, full gloves, my fingers got cold yesterday, check, my new thermos flask, bought from Millets – the outdoor store that I have never seen as busy since the snow arrived, filled with coffee, check.

‘Take your hat.’ Says Tina I have, I am not as hard as I thought I was and a little bit of cold is starting to scare me.

I have sussed part of Foxy’s route. Along the back of the graveyard, down the side, through the fence where it has been lowered by the vandals to form the new footpath, up the footpath and then back down again past the church, out onto the open land back in, back through the fence, diagonally across the gravestones around the a back of the church. Wildlife photography? Piece of cake! I plan a two stage attack. First walk up the footpath beside the graveyard and catch Foxy coming along the back of it. Maybe even sneak down to where the fence has been lowered by vandals and catch him coming out. I march up the footpath beside the graveyard but disaster strikes. I have mistimed it and Foxy was already down near the fence. Foxy sees me and engages warp factor 10 across the graveyard. Not an auspicious start! While I am wallowing in self pity and considering where to wait next, Foxy has ventured back along the back of the graveyard cut though another gap in the fence and hoofed it up the footpath and across onto the open land. All I see is a bushy white tail waving in defiance at me. Eventually, way off in the distance I see my cunning friend silhouetted against the sky on top of a hill probably barking manically at the moon, well if you could have seen it through the cloud cover.

It is time to implement the second stage of the attack. I will loiter in the graveyard amidst some trees where I know Foxy will cross; I have seen the paw prints. Once again I am waiting patiently beginning to wish I had not had the cup of tea before I left the house. Call me superstitious but it just did not feel right to have a jimmy riddle in a graveyard and I was not about to walk off and miss my second chance. Eventually Foxy came back down the footpath, it would carry on down, hang a left onto the open land, arc around it and then back in through the fence and straight towards me across the graveyard. The cold was starting to push through my winter coat and despite the nagging requirement for a comfort break I took the opportunity to try out my new thermos flask knowing I had some time before next contact. The coffee was good but the nagging was now becoming incessant. I closed my thermos flask and continued my wait.

I cursed the birds that occasionally fluttered in the trees. If there is one thing you do not need while standing alone in a graveyard at night it is sudden noises behind you! Worrying about comfort break nearly became a thing of the past.

Suddenly, after what seemed like an age, Foxy was just by the vandal commissioned hole in the fence. I gently raised the camera to eye level, the cold metal lens casing permeating through my gloves. I had the choice of pretending to be a thin tree or a gravestone. The mental image of my lithe physique made me opt for the tree when really my pointed beanie hat and three foot wide girth made me look more like a gravestone. Importantly my plan seemed to be working. Unsure, Foxy stood by the fence contemplating the appearance of a new gravestone pretending to be a tree on its usual path but then hesitantly started walking forward straight towards me. The camera was focused on infinity, there were as they say, two hopes of getting within 10 meters of Foxy and one of them may well have been a resident in the graveyard, so this seemed sensible. Slowly it edged forward and appeared to accept the new feature on the landscape. My finger hovered excitedly over the shutter button as Foxy started to fill the view finder. The tension was palpable and I was itching to press the shutter. There would only be one chance, the sound of the shutter and the range testing of the flash with its infrared beam would be enough to cause Foxy to be off faster than the Millennium Falcon out of the Death Star when the tractor beam was turned off. I could probably disable the pre-flash using one of the countless programmable functions on the camera but standing in a cold, dark graveyard with large gloves on was not the time or place to be trying to work that out.

“Snap.”

I pressed the shutter. Sure enough Foxy turned and run back out of the graveyard. It didn’t matter, I had the shot. With trepidation I raised the LCD screen up to review my work, pressed the playback button and saw … the phrase black cat in a coal cellar springs to mind. There was nothing but blackness. The flash had not fired. I was mortified. I chose to wait hoping Foxy would return. I sent a text to Tina to tell her I had blown it and to let her know I had not been mugged. The cold continued to eat through my coat but I could not risk the warm refreshing coffee in my flask for fear of not being ready for another shot and of wetting myself. What seemed like 10 minutes but was in fact nearly an hour past and save for a domestic moggy little more wildlife was seen. It was twenty to twelve and over three hours of standing in the cold had taken its toll. It was time to go home relieved that I had not relieved myself. Shots taken, one, a very dark one. Semi-professional camera, £1200, pro-series lens, £1500, flash that doesn’t fire, priceless.

Day 5, Tuesday. I am embarking on a new type of photography, indoor still life.

 

 


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