Here to help you capture new and exciting wildlife images in 2020, Tom Mason gives his top tips for the start of the year
All images by Tom Mason
It’s January, Christmas is over and the new year is here, a disappointing realisation for some… a welcome relief for others! As the new year settles in, it’s the perfect time to think about your wildlife photography, and specifically about planning for the year ahead!
Getting cracking on developing ideas and putting the wheels in motion for new projects can be a perfect way to shrug off the January blues and also help you make 2020 the most productive year of wildlife photography you’ve had yet!
To help you out, over the coming year, I’m going to be doing a series of blogs detailing some ideas and subjects that are worth looking out for each month. These will be focused on making sure you’re ready to make the most of your time out with the camera! A month that many lack fondness for, January can be a tricky time to be motivated to get out and shoot. The post-Christmas come-down paired with the bleak midwinter weather can make for a rather uninspiring month, but for certain wildlife subjects, it’s the perfect time to head out in search of them. Here are a few suggestions!
Probably top of the list for quite a few wildlife photographers in the UK, otters are fantastic subjects to work with in January.
Being the UK’s largest semi aquatic mammal, at easily over a metre in length (head to tail), otters are fascinating to watch in the wild as they swim, dive and make their way along UK waterways. Over the last 25 years, otter numbers in the UK have increased drastically, mainly due to the increase in water quality up and down our shores, with every river in the UK now hosting signs of active otters. In addition to the increased habitat space, one of the unique traits of otters is that they breed throughout the year, meaning that even in the winter, a local pair might be feeding their young. This opens up increased opportunities for spotting activity and of course, photographing it!
Where to look
Otters can be found in a variety of habitats in the UK, including rivers, lakes, reedbeds, wetlands and coasts. When setting out to look, you’ll ideally want to be up early or out at around dusk. However, if otters are feeding young, or are just enduring particularly harsh times of the year (such as January), they can be fully visible throughout the day.
Field signs of otters can often be found on muddy banks – look for footprints that are around 9cm long and 5-6cm wide, with five toe marks and a large padded foot with webbing between. They can be hard to distinguish, so often the more usable signs are those of otter slides and spraints. Otter slides are as they sound: small, obviously worn patches of vegetation or bank that flow into the river system. They will appear throughout an otter’s territory, however those at more active locations will appear far more used, often still wet. Spraint is another key thing to note – otter poo can often be found on prominent rocks, tree roots or man-made objects. Full of fish bones, they are 4-10 cm long and give off a very obvious aroma. A good indication of activity.
When looking for otters themselves, taking note of other wildlife can give you a clue to their location. Ducks suddenly taking flight or swimming away are good things to look out for, as are commotion and splashes made by fish. Once you’re surveying, look out for a small break in the water and then a set of trailing bubbles. Sprainting points are good locations to remember, as often otters will come back to these time after time to get out of the water for a few moments – a perfect time to capture them on the river bank.
Key to capturing memorable images is predicting movement and getting ahead of the animals in order to get ready for your photograph. Much of the time when otters dive down or are swimming, they will maintain direction until reaching a location for sprainting or resting. Slowly moving along as the otters feed or investigate the waterway, is a great way to try to get in front of them for a better vantage point, using any known locations or spraint points to get set up ahead of time and hopefully capture them as they emerge.
With otters, you’ll generally be needing a long lens to get in close enough for decent images. Working with focal lengths of 300mm or above will be helpful to get close enough for portrait shots, however, sometimes if you are working with individual otters that have become accustomed to humans, you’ll find you can get away with 200mm or less. As you’ll likely be working in the morning and late evenings, shooting wide open will be common practice to maintain high enough shutter speeds for sharp images, often additionally requiring you to raise the ISO on all but the sunniest of January days!
As otters move quickly, I find that working handheld allows me to react more quickly, but using a beanbag can work wonders as a makeshift means of camera support. Fast to deploy somewhere low on the river bank or shoreline, they mould to the lens, giving you a rock-solid support without the hassle of trying to set up a tripod. Brilliant when you’re working with a constantly moving mammal!
Additionally, autofocus can struggle with locking on to otters in the water, as the constantly moving water causes the AF system to get distracted. Learn to override quickly with manual focus to pull them back and get them sharp. Working with a group metering mode can help, and of course cameras with autofocus systems rated to a lower minimum EV will have a distinct advantage in lower lighting conditions.
A true challenge, photographing otters can be highly frustrating, difficult and infuriating. However, when it all comes together, getting close encounters and photographic opportunities with one of the UK’s most incredible mammals is worth it hundreds of times over. I can’t quite do justice to the excitement that comes through spotting that line of bubbles heading your way, or the sound of an otter slipping back into the water after a moment up on the bank that made for the perfect photo. You’ll have to get out there and experience it for yourself!
Top locations to find otters
- Druridge Bay – Northumberland Wildlife Trust
- Little Ouse River – Norfolk
- RSPB Minsmere – Suffolk (Island Mere hide)
- Isle of Mull – Scotland (Coastal habitat)
- Westhay Moor – The Somerset Levels
- Langford Lakes – Wiltshire
- Barnes Wetland Centre – London
If you don’t happen to be close enough to a great otter location, another awesome subject to work with in January is the rook! One of my favourite birds, rooks are highly intelligent corvids that are often found across fields and arable countryside, as well as increasingly in urban areas.
Communal nesters, rooks nest in huge colonies called rookeries. One of the first breeders in the year, they can be seen taking nesting material back as early as January, so it’s a great time to get out and photograph them. With their intelligence comes a huge amount of character, and when watching them you’ll find it hard not to fall in love with their intelligent approach to problem-solving, feeding and social interaction.
In the urban landscape, rooks take advantage regularly of human activity, and scavenge practically everywhere in towns and cities, from fast-food restaurant car parks to household bins and suburban parks. These are all great locations to work on photographing them, as they are far more used to people and will often allow you to get within close range for some great portraits. A great tip here is to work from a car as a hide. By simply positioning your vehicle and shooting from the window, you can stay for long periods in warm comfort, with the added benefit of reducing the disturbance to your subjects.
With rooks being a dark bird, your camera’s meter will have a tendency to underexpose, but a shift of +1/3 overexposure is usually enough to bring up the fine details in the plumage to really appreciate the tones and iridescent colours of the rook.
So there you have it – two subjects to get out and look for early this winter. Whether you get your feet wet looking for otters, or catch up with intelligent rooks in the city, you’ll be pleased you kicked off the year with some early wildlife photography!
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