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Category Archives: Wildlife Cameraman Diary

Santa Claus and the Covid Curse

Last year I worked on a wildlife film about the realm of Santa Claus. It seems likes years ago as it was a time before Covid. I remember missing a connection in Helsinki because the flight from Heathrow was late taking off. Flying for the wildlife cameraman and woman this year has been near impossible. It got me thinking about Santa Claus and the Covid Curse.

I experienced something in Finland that is hard to find in most parts of the UK. Silence! And by silence I mean the total lack of human noise, and the subtle beauty of nature’s soundtrack. When snow fell from the spruce branches you could hear it land below, and corvid calls carried from far away. At times I thought I could almost hear myself freezing up.

Santa Claus - the Covid Curse
Looking out of a hide in Finland

In Finland I spent many hours in hides filming magnificent golden eagles. Once, while in the centre of a forest, a wolverine posed in front of the camera, which was a life first for me. Then out on a snow covered pasture a great grey owl, took centre stage, and what a fine flyer she was. But not just a fine flyer, a silent flyer – death on wings if you’re a vole.

Back home with Covid

Back home a year later a remarkable thing happened in a field in South Wales. Yet another hide covered me up, but something was different. Silence here too. I could not hear the distant hum of the M4 motorway. Neither could I detect aircraft heading across the Atlantic to America, nor Easy Jet flights coming into Cardiff. Lockdown was near total. and the effect on noise pollution was startling. ‘If only it could always be like this, ‘ I thought. Though in all seriousness we’re sick of this bloody virus now, some of us literally.

I had permission to film kingfishers in the most self isolated way possible. For company I had their calls, an increasing chorus of warblers and finches and the babble of the brook. All was wondrous until lockdown eased. One morning a lone motorbike seemed to be using the M4 as a drag strip, minus exhaust pipe or regard for speed limits. Just that one vehicle wrecked everything for everybody, and that was just the start of business as usual.

Everyone had been talking about lockdown getting people used to a new kind of living. We would appreciate nature more, be nicer, reassess what we found important. Maybe governments would even redirect precious public funds into improving rich habitats instead of destroying them. Fat chance of that.

Santa Claus and the Covid Curse

Perhaps I was being naive about a seed change, or just impatient to see it happen. Covid has spelt tragedy for so many individuals and their families; there cannot be a person who has not been touched. While we look for cohesive and effective action we seem to witness disarray. As a wildlife cameraman out alone in the field it is easy to feel immune from life’s everyday problems. It’s a place where my mind wanders, sometimes down apocalyptic pathways.

The Demise of Santa

I had a vision of Santa breaking Covid protocol and flying across Christmas Eve skies. After distributing gifts to the children of France he heads for the White Cliffs of Dover, a welcome sight, you would think. Rudolph senses it first, a flash in the distance as activists release the first Covid busting anti aircraft missile. Rudolph regrets the warmth emanating from his glowing nose; it’s a heat seeking missile. They have no chance.

Days later in the aftermath I walk through the carnage of intolerance, antlers, gifts, wrapping paper and bits of beard strewn across the South Downs and wonder what it’s all come to. Under the blood stained remains of Santa’s hat I find a plastic toy resembling Donald Trump. I pull the ring on the back and it says, ‘Destroy all life on earth, we don’t need it. You’ll be glad you voted for me. It’s gonna be great, really great. ‘

Patience is a Virtue – isn’t it?

Patience is a virtue – isn’t it? And what is patience anyway. According to the Oxford English dictionary it is this. Recently I was discussing patience with another wildlife cameraman. Does a wildlife cameraman need to be patient?

Patience is a Virtue - isn't it?
Filming pine marten with IR in Mid Wales

Patience is a virtue, so goes the saying. The patience of Job. The patience of a saint. We consider patience to be a positive attribute and for good reason. Without patience we’d never achieve anything, or at least anything worthwhile. All wildlife camera people expect to have to wait, and sometimes it’s a long wait.

Everyone tells me that I must be really patient to do the work I do. So why did my colleague and I conclude that we were not patient people. Both of us lose the plot on a regular basis. I lose my patience with litter tossers and my friend gets mad at loud exhaust pipes. Why then, can both of us sit for days in a hide waiting for a wildlife subject to turn up and perform for the camera?

Patience doesn’t come into it

It’s obvious really. Patience is specific to whatever task you happen to be doing, so if you find a task interesting patience doesn’t even come into it. In the picture I’m sitting in yet another hide waiting for a pine marten to turn up. That night I don’t think it did turn up, but a fox did. I’ve done a lot of filming in the dark this year, mostly with a Sony A7s. I did get a little bored at one point, until the fox came along. Staring at a camera monitor when it’s dark and there’s nothing happening is no fun on the eyeballs. You still have to concentrate though, and there are still the sounds of the night to entertain you.

Is patience a virtue?

Undoubtedly yes. But being patient doesn’t mean that your mind won’t wander. In fact, I was filming kingfishers earlier this year, and had long periods of inactivity. While waiting I ordered a book on my phone and wrote this poem in my head.

I gazed upon a waterfall,

Perchance a kingfisher might call.

Five hours later, bugger all.

And that is the life of a wildlife cameraman. We love it, that’s why we don’t have to be patient. I still enjoyed that filming session but not for the amazing footage, because I filmed absolutely nothing. Was it an exercise in patience, or was it just me doing my job. You decide.

practice makes perfect – but make it real

Practice make perfect – but make it real. This is something that I suggest to people who email me from time to time. Hardly a week goes by without somoeone contacting me for advice and tips about becoming a wildlife cameraman. Usually I suggest people read this link because reading is often the first step to anything, especially when the advice is good. The second thing I suggest, because it’s important, is to practice.

practice makes perfrct
Graham Horder – wildlife cameraman – another saggy hide.

practice makes perfect in the Olympics too

Being a wildlife cameraman can be like a sports person waiting for the Olympics to come around. BTW, I’m not a top athlete and I’ve never been in the Olympics, but I think this is a fair comparison. Every four years you have the chance to make your wildest dreams come true, if you’re good enough. For all the time in between you train, practice, put yourself through hell and dream about victory. Filming wildlife can be a little like this because most of the time you’re preparing. Okay, that is almost certainly a pretentious comparison but please stay with me.

not much real filming – but practice will help to make perfect

This might sound ridiculous, but as a percentage of time spent, filming is a very small part of being a wildlife cameraman. By that I mean the actual time that you spend recording video of wildlife is relatively little. Most of the time you plan, travel, eat, rest, set up and wait. With all the background work that goes into wildlife shoots, getting the filming part right is quite important; the pressure is on. So how do you get the filming part right if it comes around so infrequently, especially as much of it is never that easy. You cannot expect to be competent naturally without work and application.

practice what you preach

So how do you go about practicing? Ask a wildlife cameraman that question and some will say, ‘Practice – you must be joking!’ If you receive that answer you will almost certainly be talking to a wildlife cameraman who is always on the road, or in the air, and always working. For the rest of us I think it makes sense to ‘keep your hand in’, even if it’s not a real job. There is a by product of practice: you’ll be adding to your personal film archive, which is worth real money.

Consider this morsel of wisdom that I dish out to people who contact me and want to be a wildlife cameraman. “Film what is local to you and try to film it in a different way.” I’ll say, “Why don’t you try to film a blackbird pulling up a worm from the worm’s point of view.” I have to be honest, I have not yet tried to do that shot at home, but I know exactly how I’ll go about it when I do. And it is a good challenge for someone who wants to be a wildlife cameraman. What I can claim to do though is film birds in the garden from time to time. I also go out locally, making each year interesting by selecting an aspect of wildlife behaviour to film. This for example was my project a couple of years ago great spotted woodpeckers.

perfection is an unrealistic goal – but practice will help

Why did I write this? Lockdown and Covid 19 was the main reason because it gave me a chance to film a few things in our garden. We don’t have a large garden and we’re kind of isolated from proper habitats. Chemicals are banned from our garden, and this year we’ve has several species of bird breeding right here. Blackbirds feed on the lawns, and they, in their way, are a challenge to film nicely. I’ve been filming them with a Panasonic GH5, Sigma 150-660 (1.4x) on a Sactler 20. It’s an unwieldy combination to be honest, and as I wasn’t using the camera with a loupe, even looking through the viewfinder is a challenge.

Have a look at the shot above. This is a random shot that I took from a batch I filmed while wedged against our conservatory. Take a common or garden species (in the UK) and a common behaviour. The more I filmed this blackbird the better the shots became, as instinctively you can’t help but tune in to the jerky movements of the bird. This shot isn’t particularly great, and I’ll explain why. But I’ll also explain how later efforts got better.

practice

Talk to a wildlife cameraman about filming any subject. They’ll often say, ‘I like to get on the subject’s wavelength’. That’s not pretentious bullshit, it’s a real part of getting the job done. Let’s just say that the brief for this blackbird was to film the bird pulling up and eating a worm. Simply, you need to keep the bird nicely in frame, in focus, and follow it until is does what you want. Sounds simple doesn’t it, but it’s a great exercise. After a while the subtle nuances of the bird’s body language help you to follow it. You’ll know when it’s going to move and where. Also, with a depth of field of just a couple of centimetres at most, you’ll be pulling focus constantly and critically. Get that wrong and the shot will be useless.

You have to bear in mind that a Sigma 150-600 with a 1.4 on it is not the crispest combination on a video camera. That said, it’s pretty good, and any focus issues are down to me. I know I have a tendency, when a bird has it’s back to me, to focus the near side of the bird’s head. It’s the eye that needs to be in focus most of the time – but not always. As I say, practice makes perfect, but let’s get real about this. When a subject this size is moving as it does, pulling focus becomes more instinctive than responsive. By that I mean that you’re actually tweaking the lens focus in response to how much the bird has moved closer or further away. You’re not focusing on the bird itself. I hope that makes sense.

conclusion

This particular take confirms that maybe my instinct was not that great…but I was just warming up. Here and there the shot is just off crisp, but, although the worms were tiny, I fulfilled my own brief! Practice did in the end make as perfect as was possible under the circumstances. Anyone can practice like this – make it real. Filming near to home is immensely satisfying and if you really want to be a wildlife cameraman you’ll relish these local challenges.

listen to the future generation

listen to the future generation “listen to the future generation” –  that’s the title of a film we produced recently, and here it is, released. I don’t work only as a wildlife cameraman. Sometimes our company makes corporate videos, and sometimes those videos are about nature conservation. This one is about a potentially devastating plan… Continue Reading

Great spotted woodpecker drumming sequel

Great spotted woodpecker drumming sequel Great spotted woodpecker drumming sequel: well, here’s the shot. I’m still not happy though. Ask any wildlife cameraman and you will rarely find that they are totally happy with anything they shoot. The shot could always be, ‘Just a little bit closer; if only there was no heat haze.’ And… Continue Reading