Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth and you will know the key to photography. George Eastman
As I walked into the big hide at the Welney Wetland centre, for the second time in a week, I was totally stunned by the view. It was one of those pin sharp days photographers long for, when blues are blue and the crispness of the air startles the skin. There before me, was the stillness and tranquillity I had often yearned for, whilst working in the mayhem of schools in Special Measures! Swans preened and bobbed on the water and hundreds of godwits rested on small islands of green. I stood and watched, absorbing the light, the colours and the birds, almost forgetting that I was there to take photographs.
Three days earlier, having joined another Photography Meet Up group based in Ely, I had signed up to watch and photograph the floodlit night swan feed. Les from our local camera club also signed up and we agreed to meet there on the cold and damp Wednesday evening. As always I arrived early and made my way across the bridge to the big hide. As I stared out into the blackness swans suddenly appeared as if by magic. It was an eerie scene of black and white with just the odd flash of yellow and orange from their beaks.
For an inexperienced photographer like myself, the scene was more of a challenge than I had anticipated. Getting the settings spot on to capture moving birds in darkness, was way above my technical skills! Armed with the edict about keeping the ISO as low as possible to avoid noise, I set my ISO at 200, as low as I thought I could get away with. Turning the dial to shutter priority I began my test shots. Some worked some did not. I became so obsessed about getting it right I completely forgot the time, so whilst the group met each other and enjoyed a hot drink in the cafe, at the other side of the bridge, I continued my struggles with the settings alone, in the darkness of the hide.
The group led by Emily, appeared through the hide door suddenly and Les set up next to me. Within minutes and with the new expertise he had gained from a recent course on night photography, he had taken some excellent shots. We all compared settings and when asked what settings I was using I confidently said I was shooting on ISO 200 having checked and rechecked my quick menu. It wasn’t until the following day, when I explored the metadata on my PC, that I realised once again, how little I know about my own camera. It would seem that whilst displaying the ISO chosen by me, the camera, realising I didn’t know what I was doing, had applied automatic settings. My ISO actually ranged from 800 to 3,200. Perhaps someone reading this blog can let me know how my camera managed to change the ISO without my permission.
We all continued shooting into the eerie blackness and I hoped I would get just a few recognisable photographs. Despite the very difficult photographic conditions, at least for me, it was a spectacle not to be missed. Swans flew in and stumbled onto the bank to grab the morsels being offered by the ranger. White necks curved and twisted through gaps as over one hundred swans pecked their way to the food, vying with the less aggressive ducks for the best positions. The more aloof, floated liked angels in the darkness, suddenly appearing bright white against the darkness of the winter evening. Small male pochard ducks, with their bright burgundy heads ducked and dived, and the coots as usual, pecked and fought their way through the crowds. Despite the hide being heated, my feet were cold and my hands very tired from manipulating my very basic tripod head. Although I had enjoyed the spectacle immensely, I was disappointed with my photographs. They were not as sharp as I had hoped and the following morning I realised why, I had left the lens stabiliser on whilst using the tripod. Will I ever do everything right?
I was delighted when, at the last minute, Ann Miles, an experienced and brilliant photographer, invited Cambridge Camera Club members to join her at Welney on the following Saturday. Once again I arrived early to take in the totally stunning scene and set up my equipment. When Ann arrived she was quick to help Mike and me with settings as she set up her impressive lens, tripod and Gimbal. ( I immediately added this wonderful tripod head to the wish list in my head.) She explained that she was keen to capture birds in the air rather than on the water and hoped the godwits would take off all together, so we could capture the spectacle. As if on cue, the swans began to fly in and out. It was like watching from the viewing platform of an airport as the birds took off and landed, mainly in pairs. Their watery landings and ungainly running take offs were hard for a beginner like me, to capture well and my first few photographs, although not disastrous, were cluttered with other birds or tail ends. I began to believe that Ann must have some kind of telepathy with wildlife, when the godwits were suddenly spooked and hundreds of them took to the air. Flying like a curved cloud in and out of the sunlight, their stomachs glowed a soft gold. It was truly spectacular. Jane arrived looking very cold, having spent time with Chris in the open hide. Removing her many layers of clothing she set up her tripod, checked the settings she needed with Ann and settled down to capture the scene. Gradually the light underpinning the sharp blues began to change from pale yellow to dark gold and then to pink as the sunset arrived in all its glory. It was like staring into a kaleidoscope where the stained glass had been replaced by flying birds, as they swirled around reflecting the pinks and golden hues of the skies and the water beneath them. There were even moments when I thought Midas himself, had reached out and touched them.
Changing conditions of course means changing settings. Using the Manual setting, as advised by Ann, I opened up the aperture, lengthened the shutter speed and with more advice from Ann worried less about keeping to a low ISO. I finally felt as if I was starting to take charge of this once, very mysterious threesome.
As the spectacle of another swan feed ended and the floodlights went on, I attempted some more creative shots. Lengthening the shutter speed, I tried to capture the ephemeral essence of these beautiful birds as they wafted with fluttering movements across the now eerily dark water. It was a majestic ending to a truly awe inspiring afternoon.
Whilst I cannot compete with the amazing prize winning wildlife photographers at Cambridge Camera Club, as I do not have the lenses or the technical skills, I was very pleased with some of the photographs I took that day. I hope the viewer can enjoy them, not as wildlife pictures, but as the moments of time, light and colour that they really attempt to portray.
Welney is a truly spectacular place to visit with its changing light box of colours and wildlife. I will wait for the next pin sharp winter day and try once again to capture the magic of this stunningly beautiful place in my lens.
If you would like to look at Anne’s great pictures they can be found at http://www.pin-sharp.co.uk/