Recent Posts

Merlin Magic

I first photographed merlin, Britain’s smallest bird of prey, in the Peak District about twenty years ago but of course that was all on film and so I have been putting feelers out in the last few years to try and find a site to have another go at them. They are fairly widespread on the heather moorland around the Cairngorms National Park, but go largely unnoticed mainly due to their small size – they’re no bigger than a mistle thrush – and preference for hunting low over the moor. They sometimes use old crow’s nests in trees but more often nest on the ground amongst long heather and this offers the best chance of trying to photograph them.

On Glen Tanar Estate in Aberdeenshire, where I have been doing quite a bit of work on breeding raptors in the last few years, there are several pairs of breeding merlin so this was the obvious place to start looking. With a lot of help from the ranger, Colin we eventually located a breeding pair in a sheltered side glen and so I set about trying to find the nest. This meant sitting in the heather several hundred metres away and watching and listening for sight or sound of the birds. For almost the entire breeding season the male does all the hunting and once in the vicinity of the nest he calls to the female to pass the prey to her to either feed herself or the chicks once they’ve hatched.

Merlin (Falco columbarius) adult female perched, on moorland

This is the crucial bit so once the female is off the nest it’s a matter of keeping her in sight through binoculars the whole time and watching her back to the nest site. This is harder than it sounds from distance and its easy to loose sight of her. After several hours I thought I had the nest more or less located but having tramped across the moorland and up the other side of the ravine things looked very different and there was no way I could find it easily so I opted to put my photographic hide in place a good 100m or so away and left the birds to it.

I came back a few days later with the intention of moving the hide closer and locating the nest but having watched the birds for a while I noticed that they were favouring an area of short burnt heather for exchanging prey. With no obvious perches on this side of the hill I decided it would be worth putting one in with the hope that they may prefer to perch off the ground. This proved to be the case as on my next visit the male seemed to come up from exactly where the perch was and on closer inspection I could see obvious signs of use. Great news. But stupidly I hadn’t brought another hide up with me so I had to go all the way back to car to fetch one, which I erected 50m away hoping that this wouldn’t put the birds off using the perch.

Merlin (Falco columbarius) adult female perched, on moorland

I needn’t have worried as not only was the perch still in use on my next visit but there was a lot of white splash marks (i.e. poo) on top of the hide so they were obviously using this as well. I was getting excited now at the prospect of finally getting some shots but with a trip away (photographing pine martens – I know, tough gig) it would be another week or so before I could get back up onto the moor and I still hadn’t located the nest so had no idea at what stage the birds were at although I suspected there were small chicks.

Back on the moor 9 days later and everything seemed fine so I moved the perch hide closer and was ‘seen in’ by Colin so that the birds would think the coast was clear once he walked away and off the moor. It was 11am and I was hopeful that one of the birds would use the perch in the next few hours. I also had a view of where I thought the nest was from this position so would get a fuller picture of what was happening. During the next few hours there were several food passes as indicated by the excited calls from both the male and female and I finally nailed the exact spot of the nest – about 10m lower on the slope than I had originally thought. And surprisingly I could see movement which turned out to be one of the chicks moving about. Through the binoculars it was clear it was quite well grown and only had a few more days left before fledging.

Merlin (Falco columbarius) adult female perched, preening

The female whizzed by me quite closely a couple of times but didn’t land and the male was away hunting again immediately after passing food to the female so he obviously had no time for sitting around posing for pictures. I was less confident now of any success when all of a sudden the female alighted on the perch. It was just after 5pm. My heart jumped and I fired off a few frames, but she seemed nervous of the noise so I waited before taking another shot. But it was too much and she flew off. Cursing myself for not being more patient I wondered whether I would get another chance. Shortly afterwards Colin radioed to see how I was getting on and whether I wanted to get out. With only 5 shots in the bag I decided to see it out but the problem was that Colin couldn’t return to get me out until 11pm. I was in for the long haul!

Merlin (Falco columbarius) adult female shaking feathers after preening

At around 9pm my luck changed and the female alighted on the perch once again. Not wanting to jeopardise my chances I reverted to Live View mode so I could take shots more quietly without the noise of the mirror potentially scaring her off again. This worked well and she seemed completely relaxed. I shot some video too as she started to preen. After about 15-20 minutes there was a usual high pitched calls of the male indicating he had food and she slipped away to meet him. I watched her fly up into the nest a few minutes later and then after feeding the chicks I could see her heading straight make in my direction. It was way too gloomy now to try to capture her in flight but I videoed her as she landed and began to clean her bill on the perch.

Merlin (Falco columbarius) adult female perched, preening

She continued to use the perch for the rest of the evening with the last feed at 10.10pm and she was still sat on the perch when Colin radioed again at 10.45pm. He was coming up to get me out and fortunately just a few minutes before he arrived she flew back into the nest site where she’d spend the night with the chicks. Stiff from the 12 hours in the hide I stumbled my way back to the car trying to negotiate the steep ravine and burn as we descended. I had already decided to go back into the hide the next morning so settled down to spend a few hours in the car grabbing a bit of sleep.

The 3am alarm call came around all too soon and it was already getting light so I didn’t have long to get back into the hide unseen – I couldn’t really ask Colin to help on this occasion! The pull up to the hide was exhausting as I was panicking that I’d not make it in time and I slumped down into my seat sweating buckets. I quickly got set-up and sat quietly waiting for signs of life from the merlins. I didn’t have to wait long as just after 4am the male called from somewhere behind me and I assumed he was letting the female know he was off hunting again.

Merlin (Falco columbarius) adult female perched, calling to male

Shortly afterwards I saw the female slip off the nest and head up the glen and out of sight. I was desperately trying to keep by eyes open when she ghosted in and landed on the perch. It was just light enough to take pictures and I continued where I had left off the previous evening. Once again she was very relaxed, spending her time dozing and preening as she waited for the first feed of the day from the male. He was definitely a very successful hunter returning quickly with prey. The food pass was always a long way off so I couldn’t see what he was bringing in but the typical prey are small birds, predominately meadow pipits.

Merlin (Falco columbarius) adult female alighting onto perch

Over the next 4 hours the female was on the perch most of the time, just making short visits to the nest with food for her chicks each time the male returned, which was roughly every 45 minutes. By the time Colin came to get me out at 9am I’d filled a 32GB card of images and video and left very happy, albeit with a tinge of regret that the male hadn’t been in. I returned a few days later to have another session in the hide but the chicks were now out of the nest and the behaviour of the female seemed to have changed and she didn’t use the perch again whilst I was there, so I was glad I took my chances despite the sleep deprivation. And there is always next year!

Did you like this? Share it:
Posted in In the field | Tags , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Stay composed

If your wildlife images are let down by poor composition it’s time to brush up on the basics.

Whilst digital cameras can do most things these days the choice of subject matter and the way in which it is composed remains with the person behind the camera. And of course this is the crucial bit that can make or break a shot. Even the most mundane subjects can make great pictures when photographed well but many great subjects are let down by poor composition. Common problems are subjects that are too small in the frame with lots of uninteresting surroundings; subjects that are too central and subjects that are taken from an unsuitable angle such as from a standing position. With just a little extra consideration at the time of taking the shot all of these compositional flaws can easily be remedied and these simple improvements will make a huge difference to your images.

Framing the shot

Avoid unwanted clutter and distractions from around the subject by getting in close and filing the frame. This will add impact and focus attention firmly on the main subject. Central compositions work well for close-up portraits but also take alternatives with the subject placed to one side or on one of the compositional ‘thirds’. And always try to leave space in front of the subject for it to look or move into. It’s not always necessary to fill the frame with your subject but if you’re shooting it small in the frame then the surroundings need to add something to the picture.

Red Deer0465

This red deer was deliberately placed off to one side of the frame to give it space to look into the picture. It was composed fairly tight in the frame to avoid including an area of distracting background on the distant hillside.

Chose you angles

It’s natural to take pictures from a standing position but this is often not the best shooting angle especially for subjects that are low down. As a general rule try to shoot at the same level as your subject so that you get good eye contact and give the picture a more intimate and engaging feel. Low level shooting also helps to blur out the foreground and background parts of the picture which smooths out any distractions and adds extra emphasis onto the subject.


A low level shooting angle at eye level to the subject gives a much more intimate feel to the shot.

Crop in Photoshop

After downloading your images you can make compositional improvements in Photoshop although it’s always better to try get it right in camera if possible. Use the crop tool to remove unwanted surroundings and to re-compose the subject off-centre. With modern high resolution sensors its now possible to crop in considerably and still have enough pixels to produce an excellent image for printing. Don’t overdo it though as there will inevitably be some fall off in quality if you crop too drastically.


This shot of a brown hare was taken using the camera’s central focusing point leading to an unflattering composition.

Brown Hare (Lepus capensis) sitting in field of fresh green grassBy cropping the image in Photoshop the hare has been placed on one of the compositional thirds, which not only produces a more pleasing result but also removes some of the distractions at the top of the frame.




Did you like this? Share it:
Posted in Technique | Tags , , , | Leave a comment

Canon 600mm f/4 L IS USM Mark II lens review

As a wildlife photographer a ‘big’ lens has always been at the forefront of my armoury starting with the manual focus Canon f4.5 500mm and then the Canon 500mm f/4 IS USM, which served me very well for over a decade. As soon as I started to use a longer telephoto I saw a quantum leap in the quality of my images. Not only did I have greater pulling power to fill the frame with my subjects but the longer focal length also produced much cleaner, diffused backgrounds, making the subject stand out from their surroundings.

Siskin (Carduelis spinus) male taking flight from perch, UKThe minimum close focusing of 4.5m is great for shooting small birds without the need for teleconvertors or extension tubes.

Canon IDX, 600mm, f/5.6 @ 1/3200th sec, ISO 800

The reason behind my move up from the 500mm to a 600mm was really a result of the full frame 1DX since I felt I needed a little more pulling power having been used to using the 500mm on a 1.3x cropped sensor previously. My expectations of the lens were very high having read the specs and reviews not to mention the hefty price tag that suggested this was a lens of exceptional quality. I wasn’t disappointed.

Dotterel The long focal length produces lovely out of focus surroundings (bokeh) making the subject really stand out well.

Canon 1DX, 600mm + 1.4x III, f/6.3 @ 1/1600th sec, ISO 1600

It is significantly larger than the 500mm yet the new construction and use of lighter materials means that the weight is almost the same, which was a major consideration for me when deciding whether to upgrade and was the main reason I hadn’t bought the original 600mm.

The first time I used the lens I was very impressed with the way it handled for such a large lens. It is perfectly balanced when optimally positioned on a gimbal style tripod head or even a ball and socket, making it easy to track moving subjects. The autofocus is lightening fast and very accurate, and it tracked well even in low light, locking onto my lively Springer spaniel with ease.

Goldeneye pairI was amazed how well the autofocus locked on to these goldeneye even though there was a lot of vegetation in front of the lens.

Canon 1DX, 600mm + 1.4x III,  f/6.3 @ 1/1000th sec, ISO 800

You would expect a top end telephoto lens that costs a kings ransom to be well built and it is. The optics have a Sub Wavelength Structure Coating (SWC), which reduces ghosting and flare and this works well with flare less evident on backlit subjects. The front and rear lenses also have a water repellent fluorine coating that keeps watermarks and dust at bay. After a year I’ve not had to clean the front element so this technology must be working!

The defining attribute of any lens is image quality and I have to say I was blown away when I saw the evidence from the 600mm f/4L IS II first hand on my computer monitor. Of course this is partly due to the camera but speaking from my own experience this is the sharpest long lens I have ever used. The resolution of the image is phenomenal across the full frame and the images have an exceptional overall clarity, which really brings the subject to life. I routinely use this lens at apertures ranging from f/4 to f/8 and the quality is very consistent across all these apertures, with just some minor vignetting evident between f/4 and f/5.6 when shooting against a plain background such as the sky.

Fulmar in flight The autofocus remains very reliable even in difficult situations and it retained focus on this fulmar in low contrast light.

Canon 1DX, 600mm, f/5.6 @ 1/2000th sec, ISO 1600

This is not a lens that you will want to hand hold very often but it’s reduced weight makes this possible for short bursts and this is where the improved image stabilization comes into it’s own. It is rated as a 4 stop benefit meaning that in theory you could expect sharp results at shutter speeds down to around 1/30th when hand holding. This is pushing it a bit but I’ve produced sharp images at 1/60th second although I would usually opt for a faster shutter speed for better consistency. The IS also works well when using the lens on a tripod and can really help when shooting in windy conditions for example.

RoebuckThe lighter build of the Mark II 600mm means it’s possible to hand hold the lens – handy for stalking when a tripod is cumbersome.

Canon 7D, 600mm, f/4 @ 1/500th sec, ISO 400

What really surprised me was how well the lens performs with the addition of teleconvertors. I have always used a Canon 1.4X extender with variable results on my previous telephoto lenses but on the Mark II 600mm there is no noticeable fall off in image quality and only a slight decrease in the speed and accuracy of autofocus. This image quality is matched by the 2X (MkIII), which similarly produces blisteringly sharp images. And although I have less need to use this whopping 1200mm focal length it’s good to know it will produce the goods when required.

Brown HareThe image quality with teleconvertors is exceptionally good allowing me to get pin sharp close-up shots of wary animals.

Canon 1DX, 600mm + 1.4x III,  f/6.3 @ 1/1250th sec, ISO 800


• Features: The fast f/4 aperture gives a bright viewfinder image; ultra quick accurate autofocus; 4 stop equivalent image stabilization works a dream to reduce camera shake. 10/10

• Build quality: Lighter materials reduces weight and makes hand holding possible, solid construction with weather seals, coated optics reduce flare and improve image quality. 10/10

• Image quality: Superb at all apertures, sharp into the corners with a full frame sensor, slight vignetting at f/4 and f/5.6, beautiful bokeh (background blur). 10/10

• Handling & Performance: It’s large size and long hood make general handling slightly cumbersome but on a tripod it performs superbly and is very well balanced. 9/10

• Value for money: The eye watering price tag will deter many but the cost is falling gradually, good investment if you can afford it and built to last. 8/10

Overall: This is an exceptional lens in all departments and delivers images of a quality that will consistently blow your socks off. It is hard to fault in any respect and once you get over the shock of paying for it, it will perform at the very highest level in any situation.

Did you like this? Share it:
Posted in Gear | Tags , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Rubbish blogger!

To say I haven’t been a regular blogger would be a gross underestimate and you only need to scroll down my so-called recent posts to see that. There are no excuses. I’m simply a rubbish blogger! I set out with good intentions and in fact I was actually posting once a month to start with…quite an achievement for one’s of life’s great procrastinators! Then it was one every six months, then annually, then…well…it just stopped! But that’s not to say I haven’t been out there taking plenty of images over the eons since my last post. In fact my hard drives are brill full with images, mainly because I’m also rubbish at editing! The problem is I love being out in the field observing wildlife, experiencing new things and taking pictures of the natural world, and I’m less inclined to do the ‘serious’ stuff. I do actually spend an awful lot of time sitting in front of my computer.’Really?’ you may well ask as there is precious little to see for it it on my web site. Yes, I know I’m rubbish at updating that too! Well all this is about to change – maybe…possibly…sometime soon. In all seriousness, I am in the process of updating my web site and soon, very soon…soonish, I’ll be launching it to the world with a tumultuous fanfare. When I say a ‘tumultuous fanfare’ what I really mean is that I’ll let the world know by announcing it on Twitter and Facebook. Anyway, if you’ve nothing better to do on a wet Sunday afternoon, then come back and take a look at my all new shiny web site…best leave it a couple of weeks though!

For starters, this is the very last picture I took, now you can’t get anymore up to date than that!

Red Grouse female calling

Red Grouse female calling

Did you like this? Share it:
Posted in Random musings | Tags , , , | 3 Comments

Yellowstone winter

Having come to the end of the first of two Northshots photo tours to Yellowstone and the Tetons I’ve had a little time to reflect on our time in the white wild West of America and download my images. I’m out here with my esteemed (hmmm) colleague and co-guide Peter Cairns who will I’m certain, reflect candidly about ‘American absurdities’, over-specced vehicles, cappuccinos and the mountains of food thus-far consumed, so I’ll leave that to him!

Continue reading

Did you like this? Share it:
Posted in Uncategorized | 12 Comments

Springtime snow

To say I have neglected this blog would be rather an understatement. I could supply a host of lame excuses for the lack of activity but let’s just draw a line under the last 8 months since the previous entry and crack on! This week saw the biggest shift in weather patterns I can remember. From close to 24ºC just 9 days ago and signs of a very early spring here in the Highlands to sub-zero temperatures and more than 15cm of snow! It was of course forecast but somehow after the unusually warm weather of the week before I didn’t really believe it! It started on Monday evening and by Tuesday morning we were plunged back into the depths of winter. The daffs that had been nodding brightly in the sunshine were nowhere to be seen and my hide (set up for nesting jackdaws) looked more like an igloo!

Continue reading

Did you like this? Share it:
Posted in In the field | Tags , , , , | 5 Comments

Svalbard August 2011

After a long day’s traveling, the jagged peaks near Svalbard’s ‘capital’ Longyearbyen lay beneath me as we made our approach to the airport. It was close to midnight but the sun was still up bathing everything in its path in a beautiful golden light. The ‘sign post’ outside reminded me of how I had come in the past 16 hours and the mounted polar bear inside the terminal that overlooked the baggage carousel of what was hopefully to come. For now bed beckoned although a midnight flight for aerial photography was very tempting!

Continue reading

Did you like this? Share it:
Posted in In the field | Tags , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Roe shooting

With a good forecast I was out at dawn this morning on the hunt for roe deer amongst other things. Those of you sweltering in the south of the UK may find some comfort that the temperature reading in my car at 5am was just 2.5ºC as I ambled along one of the back roads close to home. In an area that is well blessed with large numbers of roe deer its not difficult to find them and the car serves quite well as a way of ‘stalking’ them. Early in the morning they are still feeding out in the open and will tolerate a car that is passing without alarm. The problem arises when that car stops and points, what could be construed by the deer as a very large ‘gun’ out of the window. This most often causes the deer to make a hasty retreat but sometimes there is a delay of a few seconds, just enough time to fire off a few shots.

Continue reading

Did you like this? Share it:
Posted in In the field | Tags , , | 4 Comments

Hen harriers

The past few weeks have been exceptionally busy trying to juggle 2020VISION office work with several photographic assignments. This week alone I’ve photographed hen harrier, white-tailed eagle and black-throated diver and have spent a total of 59 hours in various hides. And I have the bruises to prove it! But its been great – really great and it’s what nature photographers live for – extended time out in the field in the company of wildlife.

Continue reading

Did you like this? Share it:
Posted in In the field | Tags , , , , , , | 15 Comments

Nothing to grouse about

Black grouse or blackcock is a species with which I have a love-hate relationship. For the most part I love them. The hate bit comes in when the alarm goes off in the middle of the night and the last thing I want to do is get out of bed and drive for an hour and then stomp across a wet moorland in the dark to sit in a cold hide. It just isn’t very appealing and no one with any sense would do such a thing but then these people perhaps don’t know what they’re missing. To witness blackcock strutting their stuff on their display grounds (lek) at dawn is undoubtedly one of the greatest birding spectacles Britain has to offer. It is raw and often very aggressive animal emotion as males defend their turf near the centre of the lek where watching females eye up their suitors and eventually offer themselves for mating. Only the fittest, strongest males win this ‘right’ to mate whilst less able birds and younger males can only watch on the sidelines. It is really is dog eat dog out there.

Continue reading

Did you like this? Share it:
Posted in In the field | Tags , , , , , | 5 Comments