Even with limits on movement, there’s plenty of wildlife to photograph in June! Tom Mason offers his top tips and techniques
All images by Tom Mason
It’s crazy to think that we have found ourselves in June, having spent much of the last two months at home! The natural world has been busy as always, as wildlife makes the most of the weather, and with restrictions easing slowly and our ability to access the outside again increasing, June is a fantastic month to be out making images throughout the entire day. Wildlife stays busy around the clock as the breeding season reaches full force.
For wildlife photographers, the summer season can certainly lead to panda-eye syndrome, since the light is workable from 4:30AM to near-midnight! The light being around from early to late can be great for those who have other commitments throughout the day; early risers can get a jump on the day and squeeze a good few hours of great photography time in before most of the world is awake, while in the evenings, as many people settle down in front of the TV, the photography opportunities are still fantastic, helping us stay away from the crowds whilst getting in some solid shooting time. Besides, you can always take a nap at midday, when things slow down and the light’s a bit harsh!
The early morning is a great time to photograph insects in June. Subjects are out in force, with moths, butterflies, damsel and dragonflies on the wing. Heading down to a local waterway or pond is a great way to start, with the surrounding vegetation often also full of workable subjects.
Damselflies make for a great focus, with multiple species often found in a relatively small area. The early morning is a key time, as the insects will be more subdued as they await the sun’s warmth. In terms of gear, a macro lens with a decent focal length of at least 100mm is a great option. This will allow you to get close for frame-filling images while also giving a reasonable working distance.
A pair of damselflies
Another option is to use a telephoto lens with extension tubes. Generally affordable, extension tubes are placed between the lens and the camera, reducing the close focusing distance of the lens for higher magnification ratios. A 70-200mm lens with a set of these can be perfect for photographing larger insects like dragonflies and butterflies, with the flexibility of the zoom being great for compositional purposes.
In the early mornings, the cooler temperatures will often force insects to be stationary, but as the sun rises, soon they will be on the wing. When working with damselflies and dragonflies be sure to watch your feet. Upon spotting a subject, move with care as you get closer, as accidental vibration of the vegetation can cause these insects to fly away.
A resting dragonfly
An additional challenge is lighting, as in the early part of the day the light can be overly harsh for macro images. A reflector can be a key piece of gear in the field, allowing for the bouncing of full light onto your subjects, balancing out exposures for great results. When using a reflector, the material is important. Silver surfaces give a harsher style of light, more akin to high fashion, while gold and white reflectors can provide a more natural look. Of course, with lots of things to hold, an extra arm can be handy, and this is where I find my Wimberley Plamp can really come into its own, offering an extra set of hands to hold a reflector or bounce card in place, while I’m busy setting up my image.
A perfect morning subject: the kingfisher!
June is a great time to sit by the river and catch up with kingfishers as they get busy feeding their young. Arguably one of the UK’s most beautiful birds, these blue and orange stunners can be found on almost all UK waterways, pinging up and down the river looking for fish. The morning is often a great time to watch and photograph kingfishers. Use a pair of binoculars to search for them; this will allow you to scan the river ahead for signs. Pay special attention to low-level branches, maybe three feet or so from the water – kingfishers will often sit in shade while hunting, as this helps them see the fish underwater. Be sure to listen out for the unmistakable ‘beep’ call as they fly downriver.
With the birds tracked down, photography becomes a waiting game. Select a position to set up, either close to a known perch or by placing your own, and in this case a hide is often the best method for success. This keeps your outline disguised and allows the birds to become comfortable with your presence. When working in public locations and on public waterways, a tent hide is often impractical, and so a bag hide – like the Wildlife Watching Supplies hide I’ve had and used for years – is great. A simple cover hide, it can be thrown over yourself and your tripod to conceal you from your subjects. A comfortable chair is a must as well, as sessions waiting for kingfishers will often be long. When getting into position, make sure you are level with the perch for the best backgrounds. Working from a parallel position allows the depth of field to stay shallow, producing cleaner foregrounds and backgrounds.
Find a perch and play the waiting game
When the birds turn up, be sure to be slow and steady with your images, firing off a few shots at a time to reduce shutter sounds, and restrain yourself from making too much movement. With regard to camera gear, most often you’ll require a longer lens of 300mm or more to get close-up views of kingfishers, but also think about pulling back a little for more environmental images. Exposures can be tricky on the riverbank, with harsh highlights as well as deep shadows being common on the surrounding vegetation. If you have positioned your perch in the sun, be sure to spot-meter on the bird for a better exposure, as darker backgrounds can throw off metric metering, overexposing the scene.
Often it will be many hours of work for a handful of images, but photographing kingfishers is pretty addictive so I can guarantee you’ll keep going back!
When it comes to the afternoon in summer, subjects are often quieter, and with less than flattering light available, often I’ll focus on editing or getting in a snooze to help limit the panda eyes!
If the middle of the day is your only available time, there are still options, as many birds are busy raising young, meaning activity can be observed throughout the day. Swallows, swifts and house martins make for challenging photographic subjects, and are often prevalent in urban areas, so can be a great fun project for a few hours just outside the house.
Another bird of choice is the starling. Urban breeders, they are often found on rooftops and in housing estates, feeding on the ground or in back gardens. Framing them against the urban backdrop can add some interest to images, with chimney stacks, roof tops and even telephone lines acting as useful compositional elements to build a frame.
Starlings are at home in an urban environment
With urban subjects often being more approachable, try working with a shorter focal length such as a 70-200mm to think differently about framing and space. You don’t always need to see every detail in a bird’s feathers to get the impression of it as a subject, and the process of learning how to frame up subjects small, while still producing a well-composed frame that delivers the “feel” of a subject, is a great way to challenge yourself as a wildlife photographer.
As the sun starts heading towards the horizon, it’s a great time to be back out in nature, and a chance to catch a glimpse of nocturnal subjects as they wake up for their shift.
Badgers with young cubs now above ground are active in June, and they’ll often surface well before dark in some places. Long evenings watching and photographing badgers are great fun, but do require some persistence if you want images. Scouting out setts in the day is advisable in order to locate the likely entry and exit points of the badgers, as well as the locations where the light will linger longest. Often locations that are a mix of woodland and farmland work best, offering opportunities for the badgers to be more out in the open. A good scattering of peanuts can help encourage them into the more photogenic spots!
Badgers take perseverance, but the results are worth it
You’ll want to position yourself downwind as much as possible in order to give yourself the best chance of an encounter – stay low to the ground, and wear subtle colours. A camouflage net thrown over the top of you and your gear also doesn’t hurt. Gear-wise, it’s ideal to have a bright telephoto such as my much loved 300mm f/2.8, but a 70-200mm f/2.8 can also be ideal for those setts with closer interactions.
Another method that I very much enjoy is to position remote cameras. Get to the location early, and you can position a wide-angle with flash to maintain exposure, and which you can then trigger via remote or even motion detector to get the shot. This allows you to keep working even as the light fades beyond the reaches of high ISO, and can offer a more unique style of image.
Barn owls are another favourite for the early summer. Busy breeding and often feeding young, their activity is often more consistent. Present in most areas, barn owls love to hunt over rough grassland and scrub. Urban wasteland can often be fantastic as a pocket of habitat for owls in built up spaces, while in more rural areas, the rough grassland edges of arable fields are good places to start.
Barn owls won't let you get too close, so think about how to fill the frame
Often the first few days are all about finding the spots: driving round rural locations or scouting with binoculars to find the birds. Listen out for the screeching call, or a pale flyby along a hedgeline – both of these are certain indicators of a barn owl’s presence. Once the birds have been tracked down and seen perching or hunting, the relevant locations can be revisited for photography. Position yourself well ahead of time and await the birds’ return. Using a car as a hide can be fruitful, as it allows you to wait in comfort alongside a verge or known scrubland field for the owls to appear. Relatively consistent, barn owls will often hunt over the same fields night after night, which gives the opportunity for consistent effort and repeat visits!
Long evenings watching barn owls and badgers really rounds off a fantastic day of wildlife photography in June. With so much happening in the natural world around the clock, no matter when or where you can get out, you’ll find there is always wildlife to point your camera at. Even with restrictions in place, it doesn’t have to mean a limiting of your photography, as by planning and working on a project, consistent effort working with the same species can yield far better results.
As a professional, one of my greatest pieces of advice for anyone who wants to improve their wildlife photography is to work on a project you can dedicate time and consistent effort to, as this will always help develop your creative eye for more interesting images.
Stay safe and enjoy your wildlife photography!
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