Steve Davis, our Volunteering Programme Manager, gives his top ten tips for capturing great wildlife pictures in the middle of winter:
The beautiful crisp mornings, with wall to wall blue sky and a frost on the ground all add up to make some amazing opportunities to some fantastic wildlife pictures. It's not at all easy though to bring it all together and get that 'perfect' shot! Here are my top tips for winter wildlife photography:
No 1. The welfare of the animal must always be your priority!
No matter how much you might want that bird to be a little closer to you, or that mammal to move from it's refuge - do not be tempted to disturb wildlife in any way, particularly at this time of the year. It's not just the obvious disturbance of getting too close and the animal being forced to break cover or fly off. Watch the animal closely as you start to approach. If it shows signs of being agitated, then back off. Once the animal is accustomed to your presence you will be surprised at how close you can get. When you are in position, take your shot and then move away.
Don't be tempted to use calls to lure your subject closer to you. The effort expended by the animal in trying to find the new intruder and defend its territory or food source will not only cost it a lot in precious energy but also valuable foraging time.
No 2. Keep warm!
How can you hope to hold your camera steady if you can't feel your fingers and you're shivering like an aspen leaf in a gale? Get yourself tucked away out of any wind, ideally with the sun on your back and make sure you have plenty of layers on and most importantly a woolly hat. A flask of tea is a good idea, and the sachet type handwarmers work well in your boots, as well as inside your gloves. They can get very warm though so be careful not to burn yourself!
No 3. Watch the light levels
With such a low angle, winter sun is invariably quite weak and it doesn't take much for it to quickly fade. Keep an eye on this and be prepared to compensate by either adjusting the aperture accordingly, or upping the ISO levels on your camera. If all you want your photos for are to share with friends or to post online, then you can easily get away with ISO up to 800 or more. Ian Kirk's image of a waxwing demonstrates this point. A thin, watery sunshine was struggling to get through the thick cloud but with the ISO level at 800 on his camera, he was able to get stunning shots of this winter visiting beauty!
No 4. Take spare batteries
Cold temperatures drain batteries very quickly, and you don't want to have to return home with no shots because your camera battery has gone flat after an hour. Always take a fully charged spare, and keep it warm in a pocket - making sure that it is safely in its clip-on cover so that the terminals can't short on anything. If you do a lot of outdoor photography in cold conditions, it would be well worth investing in a battery pack for your camera. These enable you to have two batteries worth of power available to you - and for most DSLRs, it simply screws onto the base of the camera and effectively becomes part of the camera casing
No 5. Get to know your quarry
No, not adopt your local stone working site! If you have a particular species you want to photograph, firstly find a site where you can observe them from a distance. It won't take long to work out where they tend to be at different times of the day. Popular feeding sites are a good place to consider. Next, find a selection of suitable sites where you can hide, yet have a clear view. (for mammals, you'll need to have a site downwind, hence the need to find several alternatives). Get yourself in place, get yourself comfortable, and wait.. Again, don't disturb the animals if you can avoid it. If you stand up and frighten them from their feeding grounds as soon as you've got your shots, they will take a long time before they feel able to return - using up valuable feeding time in the process.
No 6. Stay static
There's no better feeling than finding a likely looking spot, settling down, getting comfy and just waiting to see what comes your way! You'll be amazed at how close birds and small mammals will approach, fully aware of your presence as long as you don't make any sudden movements. The great advantage about staying static is that you can set up your camera on a tripod, a valuable resource for taking sharp images with slow shutter speeds in poor light conditions.
No 7. Feed the birds!
What a great way of getting close to birds that are already used to seeing you around as you come out and feed then every day. Garden birds make great subjects - there are plenty of species to choose from, each can be very endearing and the squabbles make for good action shots as well. Putting up a makeshift hide can work well here, as you can take your time over it, wait until the birds have accepted it as yet another item in your collection of garden furniture and then take your place. Try putting a handy log or branch at that perfect angle for a great shot. Sooner or later, it will get used! As always, be prepared to keep feeding especially during the really cold snaps as birds will quickly become dependent on an easy food source.
No 8. Look after your equipment
Cameras and lenses cost quite a bit of money, so take care of them. It's not just a matter of keeping them out of the rain. Bringing them into a warm house after a day out in sub-zero temperatures is asking for trouble with condensation. There are two methods to use. Graduate the temperature change slowly so that you don't go from one extreme to the other. This can be done be carfeully building up the temperature over the course of the car journey home, or by using the garage as a mid-range temperature for twenty minutes or so. Alternatively, you can pop your camera and lenses into a large zip-lock poly bag with a few silica gel sachets, with as little air in as possible. Do this outside, as cold air carries less humidity than warm air.
No 9. Think safety
Always let someone know where you will be going, and what sort of time you intend to return. Accidents can happen anywhere, and even something a small as losing your car keys can quickly escalate if the weather closes in and the temperatures start to plummet. Being out in the middle of nowhere in that situation is no joke, so at least you know that someone will be looking for you - and know where to look.
No10. Show off the results!
Finally, after all you hard work has paid off and you've got winter wildlife photographs to be proud of... Share them! It's always good to get a pat on the back for a shot that took hours of sitting in the cold waiting for that moment, so get the pics seen by everyone! Flickr is a very popular site for showing off your shots and it's free to join. Have a look at The Dorset Wildlife Trust Flickr group and see what you can be a part of. You could also join our Photography and video group, for loads of support, advice and monthly meetings.
Go on, give winter wildlife photography a go!