The summer months are still rich with wildlife photography opportunities – if you know where to look
Keep your eyes peeled for August wildlife photography opportunities! All images by Tom Mason
How time flies! August seems to have come around in the blink of an eye! With longest days now behind us, and the combine harvesters at work in the fields around my home, it’s already starting to feel like summer is on the way out and we are heading to my much-favoured autumn.
Although not the busiest month in the wildlife calendar, August still provides some great opportunities to work with certain subjects around the UK, so here are a few ideas to get out and shoot over the coming weeks.
Arguably the cutest mammal in the UK, water voles are fantastic summer subjects. Having suffered a serious decline in recent history, their population devastated at the hands of the non-native American mink, water voles are finally on the recovery after some hard work by conservationists throughout the UK.
Today, water voles can be found on many of the UK’s fresh waterways and wetland regions. Not confined to a certain style of habitat, they can be seen along rivers, canals and throughout reed beds – wherever favourable conditions and plentiful food are available.
When searching out locations for water voles, look out for the tell-tale signs of activity, such as grass or rushes that have been fed on, cut low at a distinctive 45-degree angle, before being pulled back to a feeding platform. When searching banks, a dead giveaway is the classic “plop” sound of a vole jumping off the side into the water when disturbed. Once you’ve learned to recognise it, you’ll soon find it unmistakable, along with the chewing sound and low bank-side rustle that is heard when voles are feeding – another easy way to locate these wonderful little mammals on location!
A water vole feeding
When it comes to photography, water voles can be fairly tolerant of photographers, as well as predictable once you're familiar with their locations, as they regularly return to the same feeding platforms or river banks. When choosing a location, ideally you’ll want to get as low as possible for more flattering images, using a tripod or beanbag to support your long lens.
Voles are visible throughout the day, however, as with most wildlife photography, mornings and evenings are when you’ll likely see more activity. Personally, I find bright overcast days make for great water vole photography, as the reduction of strong contrast and heavy shadows (often accentuated by surrounding reeds and vegetation) help the more subtle browns of the water vole come though.
Equipment-wise, given the voles’ approachability, great images can be made with a 200-300mm lens. Of course, it depends on the site. Close focus is a key consideration, as the voles can come very close – often within a few meters if you are lucky – making lenses with a close focus distance ideally suited to this work. Personally, I find my 300mm 2.8 VR to be an ideal lens, focusing closely to 2m while allowing a great deal of light in for flexibility throughout the day.
A great investment if you’re not using a mirrorless camera with a tilt-able live view screen is a right-angled finder for long sessions. The ability to look vertically certainly reduces neck strain and can make a long day waiting for voles more pleasant.
In terms of images, you can go for a variety of styles. Try close-up portraits with simple clean backgrounds, or more environmental images that show habitat and context. I love using foliage as a window into the voles’ world, as often they are glimpsed through rushes and reeds, so using these as foreground and background elements works to provide a natural look.
With the voles constantly on the move, it’s best to try and maintain a fairly high shutter speed of at least 1/500 sec. These small mammals are constantly moving, shaking and adjusting themselves, so anything slower than this can often result in blur to the fur or facial features.
A little patience can allow you to get close
Water voles are certainly worth getting out to look for this summer, a challenge for sure. As they dart through vegetation they are a pleasure to watch and photograph, and when you do get a moment with them in clear sight, snacking away on a reed, they make for some wonderfully adorable images!
Some great locations to try: RSPB Rainham Marshes, Wicken Fen and Rutland Water.
With many of us likely unable to head overseas for our summer holidays, I am sure many will be planning some days on the UK’s fantastic coastline and beaches. The coasts of the UK certainly offer some of the best wildlife photography around. Sadly, the mass of seabirds that often are firm favourites with photographers have come and gone whilst most of us were in lockdown; however, there still are some amazing birds that pose a fantastic photographic challenge for more advanced shooters. One of these is the sand martin.
At this time, sand martins can be found throughout the country, and not only on the coast. However they do favour locations with sheer sandy cliffs that allow them to excavate their breeding holes. These areas are usually along sea cliffs, but can also be found on certain river banks and in gravel pits. For me, one of the best locations close to home is that of RSPB Minsmere in Suffolk, right on the coast, making it ideal for a summer day out to see some of these fabulous birds.
Sand Martins are the smallest of the European martins and swallows, making them something of a tricky subject to catch in the viewfinder! They have dark upper parts and underwing sections with an overall “Buff” appearance that will distinguish them from house martins once you’re accustomed to spotting them. Extremely agile in flight, they are awesome to watch as they feed, dropping low over water or sand dunes, with fast banking flights that are just spectacular, especially when they fly en masse!
A wider focal length is good for capturing flocks
Capturing them is something of a challenge given their speed and size, and it takes practice. Often I’ll work with the central autofocus point to get started, as this make it easier to pinpoint them as they dart past through a long lens. Getting used to their speed and movements again, I’ll then often move my point to one of the third lines for a better composition after I’m settled into the groove of keeping them in view. With regard to my AF settings, I find a small group mode ideal for aiding my focus acquisition; the slighting wider focus grouping allows for a slight margin of error if your main focus point moves off the subject when panning.
Shutter speeds need to be high as these guys can really move – 1/2,000sec or above would be recommended to really freeze the motion as they speed past. With their colouring, often a slight over exposure is necessary in order to gain the best amount of detail in their undersides, but this can depend on how low they are flying and if you have any extra fill light reflecting from any water or sand than can help even out the exposure.
When watching the birds, often you’ll find they will settle on wires or the ground in groups, frequently returning to the same locations. If you get in position and lie on the floor you’ll find they can be fairly tolerant of photographers, and if you’re sure to restrict your movements and are patient, often they will return and land close to you. This allows for some portrait images on the ground, or a chance at capturing them while they are landing or taking off for some action images.
The birds will alight on the ground, giving you an opportunity
Due to the small size of the birds and their unpredictability when taking off, stopping down your aperture to around f/8 provides a better hit rate for this style of shot. Allow a bit more leeway to nail the focus when the birds take flight, and be sure to work in rear-button focus in order to trap focus once the birds have landed, only firing the shutter when they take off so as not to allow the camera to try and re-focus and miss the key moment! If you’re not already confident with rear-button focus this is a great chance to experience some of its benefits.
With regard to lenses, I find that a focal range anywhere between 300mm-500mm tends to be ideal. However, the longer the focal length you use, the harder it is to pick the birds up in flight consistently. Of course, shorter lenses can also be used to good effect if you’re aiming to capture flocks of the birds in their environment, giving a slightly wider view to fit a good grouping of birds in frame.
Sand martins are certainly fabulous birds to see in the field and great fun to photograph. They’re frustrating and can be a headache due to their speed and size, but when you nail a sequence off images and get a few keepers in the bag, they’ll become subject you’ll keep wanting to come back to!
Closer to home
Great images are waiting in your back garden or local park
If you’re stuck closer to home, the garden and local outdoor space still offers shooting potential for August, with macro opportunities and fledglings still around from second or even third broods of smaller birds.
Dig out the macro lens and you’ll find the garden is full of miniature life in August, and the smallest of outdoor spaces still have potential, with even a simple patch of lawn boasting a variety of species.
Grasshoppers and crickets are out in force and seven-spot ladybirds are easily visible. Spend time sitting in one spot and you’ll soon be noticing all kinds of life, and an afternoon in one spot can provide a varied macro safari.
Looking through the bushes and hedge lines, you’ll see a variety of smaller birds are still breeding, with many youngsters on the verge of fledging. Once out of the nest, they can be fairly approachable, offering some great opportunities for close-up images. So even those with limited lacking lenses with longer focal lengths can still find some great opportunities for small bird photography.
So, there you go – a few projects for the month of August in a range of different habitats. It might not be the most picturesque month, especially after the fields have been cut and that lovely shade of green starts to turn to an off-yellow. However, it still does provide some great opportunities to get out and enjoy wildlife photography around the UK!
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