Photography masterclass Summer 2010
Whether close up or from afar, the natural world is full of startling visual patterns. Peter Cairns shows how to capture them with his surprising fascination for dead birds
We’re all very busy these days, aren’t we? There are a million and one things to do and not nearly enough time in which to do them. We’re not always sure why we’re busy, we just are. So busy, in fact, that even our walks have to be squeezed in between the school run and the shopping. A consequence of our busy lives is that we’ve stopped seeing. We still look, but I’m convinced we don’t ‘see’ like we used to.
It takes time to see. You need to sit down, switch off from the busy-ness and tune in to what’s around you. When did you last take the time to really ‘see’ – as in visually explore – the intricate patterns of tree bark, the rhythmical swirls of fl owing water, the repetition of dewdrops on a spider’s web, or the map-like mosaic of lichens on a stone dyke? You don’t even have to go far to find these visual jewels: your own back garden can be a veritable treasure trove.
Speaking of back gardens, it was in my grandfather’s that, as a child, I was introduced to the exquisite patterns of birds’ feathers. An unfortunate song thrush had flown into the kitchen window, but instead of smuggling the victim into the nearest dustbin before we succumbed to an unimaginable disease (as is our tendency today) he held the bird in his hand. He stretched its lifeless wing back and forth to show me the design of the fl ight feathers; he explained how, from within its speckled chest, the angelic voice with which we’re so familiar could be projected so far. I cried for the thrush and buried it, but from that moment on, I was hooked on birds.
That lesson of youth has manifested itself into a bit of an unsavoury obsession as an adult photographer: I actively look for dead birds! Yes, it’s true. If I spot a potential photographic subject in the road, seconds later it’s being thrown into the passenger footwell of my car. It’s the patterns that get me going. I love patterns in nature, but those found in birds’ plumage are something else. The design, the definition and the subtle blend of colours – when you really look, you can see how evolution has created such perfection.
And it’s not just close-up, macro shots that reveal nature’s hidden patterns. A longer telephoto lens can pick out ones at a distance, such as clouds, receding hills, or light catching the surface of water. Wherever there is repetition, rhythm or the potential for abstract, there are images to be made. The possibilities are endless – you just need to make the time to really ‘see’.
It was with mixed emotions that I found this dead long-eared owl while out walking. On the one hand, it’s sad to see the demise of such a wonderful bird; on the other, it offered a terrifi c opportunity to photograph its beautiful feathers.
- Identify the most attractive section of your ‘pattern’. I often find it’s the area that first caught my attention. In this case, I selected the sweep of the owl’s primary feathers.
- To keep the feathers sharp across the entire image area, I laid the wing flat and secured it with a couple of paperweights.
- Selecting a narrow aperture (f16) to ensure maximum depth of field, I positioned the camera, tripod and 90mm macro lens directly above the wing, ensuring that the camera was parallel with the subject.
- With a slow shutter speed of ½ second, I used a self-timer to avoid vibration – a cable release does the same job.
- Now, the more observant among you may have noticed a flaw in this image. (If not, you’re not ‘seeing’ properly!) I shot this image outside initially but preferred the even lighting of my conservatory. What I didn’t take into account was the inevitable reflection of a dormer window in the water droplets. Beware!
- There are patterns everywhere in nature – you just need to look. As for birds, pheasants are frequent victims of car collisions and their markings make great macro subjects.
- Most images that need to show maximum detail are best shot in overcast light. There are exceptions, but generally close-ups work best without harsh shadows.
- Take your time to ensure you photograph the best example of the pattern you’ve chosen – moving the camera a few inches either way can make a big difference.
- Focus carefully and use a tripod. Don’t touch the camera during the exposure when using a slow shutter speed.
- Use a longer, telephoto lens to pick out distant patterns in the sky or landscape. Look out for any repetition, rhythm or potential for abstraction (such as the snow-blasted crags of a mountainside, shown left).