Well, it's that time again where all photographers gather their favourite images and write how they captured the best moments of the year with their camera. I for one really enjoy writing these blog posts as it means I can look back through my archives and remember those incredible moments I spent with nature doing what I love. That doesn't mean I had it easy, none of the images below were taken without weeks or even months of hard work, constantly going back to locations to try and get 'the better shot' and never giving up until I got what I wanted. Where should start? I know, the beginning... 2012 started with a bang just like every New Year, the fireworks had finished and just like most people waking up on January 1st I had a hangover. Projects were on my mind, I wanted to take my photography to the next level and try and get out of 2nd gear. At the time I was already working on quite a few projects in the Merseyside area which included Short Eared Owls and Whooper Swans at Martin Mere. I had already captured a few nice shots of the Owls but nothing that I was really proud of, so I told myself I needed to spend more time there to get what I wanted. For about 3 weeks after New Year I was going around 3 times a week to photograph these incredibly beautiful birds on their winter feeding grounds spending around 6 hours a day there so that I didn't miss anything. On the third week many other photographers started turning up at the site, this didn't affect the birds hunting at all which I feared it would do. So to not get the same shot as everyone else I walked about 100 yards to another field which I had seen one of the Owls hunting in and just waited. Eventually I worked out the flight path this Owl was taking while out on 'patrol' and hid myself in one of the bushes so it couldn't see me easily, after about 20 minutes she came out and flew straight towards me! I barely moved, trying to keep the bird in the frame and waiting for that perfect moment to click the shutter button. She flew right past me, at least 20 yards to my right and from this I was able to capture the whole sequence (at one point she was so close my lens couldn't focus!) and I'll never forget that moment till the day I die. You can read about my work with the Short Eared Owls HERE.
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By February I had lost complete faith in my equipment (mainly the 7D) I wasn't getting the shots I wanted and I missed a lot of good opportunities I'm not going to go over again why I moved back to Nikon as you can read it in a previous blog post "Why I Said Goodbye To Canon And Hello To Nikon". So in the end I went 3 months without touching a camera and doing what I love, it was a very frustrating time as everyone else was out creating amazing images and I was either stuck inside or working. But there was a good reason why I chose that time to change my gear, my girlfriend and I had decided to move to Scotland for a better way of life and I was offered a job up in Ayr so we jumped at the opportunity. We eventually got our own place by the start of May and at that time all my new gear was ready so I was able to get out with the camera again which was hugely satisfying.
As I don't make much money from my photography and I don't have a car it limits me on where I can go but I don't let that ruin my opportunities with really interesting wildlife so when I moved to Ayr I started to do a lot of research in to local areas that wildlife are seen and the first place that came up frequently on the Ayrshire Birding website was Doonfoot which is an area south of Ayr where the River Doon meets the sea. A great area for where you can see many different birds from Whooper Swans to Greenshanks. After a few months of learning the area I started to document the lives of a Mute Swan family that lived on the river, they became very interested in my work and always came towards me for a closer look (probably thinking I'm going to give them some bread). I'm not going to go into detail about the Mute Swan family as I'm currently starting a new series on my website called "Visual Stories" where I write about certain subjects that I've spent many months documenting. But out of all the shots I got the image below is my most favourite as I love photographing wildlife on a black background and this one worked very well.
During this time I only had one lens so I couldn't do any landscape work which was very annoying as I wanted to photograph the night sky and other amazing views around South-West Scotland so to fulfill my needs I picked up a cheap 24-120mm lens from eBay to keep me busy until I could afford something else. Some of my best landscape images were taken from at least a 5 minute work from my parents house in the Galloway Hills, I try to spend as much time as possible there due to the amount of wildlife I see while I'm there and the beautiful scenery.
The image below was taken near to my parents house at one of streams that runs into the Loch, I had no ND filters at the time so to get a good long exposure I had to wait until the light had completely disappeared and get the required shutter speed for the look I was going for. I find this image very peaceful to look, the smooth cotton-like water gently crashing on the rocks has quite a calming sensation on the viewer sending them in to a daydream state. Well, that's what it does to me anyway!
After purchasing my new toy it was great to be able to get out and photograph the night sky, I had dabbled here and there with it in previous years but never felt I fully understood how to photograph the stars and do a good job at it. So I started from scratch, learning about different techniques from the pros to see how I can improve my work to get some amazing starscapes. My first challenge was to get a really nice star trail photograph showing the earths rotation around the North Star but also get something in the foreground. I wanted the format to be landscape but as the widest my lens could go was 24mm I had to shoot in portrait so I could get the foreground detail in and most of the stars. I took about fifty 30 second exposures and then combined them all into one single photograph using a software called StarStax and you can see the final result below. If I could create the image again I'd have taken a lot more images to make the trails a lot longer, I couldn't have done that when this image was created as clouds started to come across and it then started to rain. Later in the year this image was used in the German photography magazine: Profifoto when they wrote an article on my work which you can see on my Biography page.
I love the Ayrshire coast, you can get some spectacular views looking across to the Isle Of Arran as the sun sets behind it and the beach being so close to where I live. During October I tried for a few nights to see if I can get some picturesque views of this beautiful coastline. I spent a few hours before the sun had set walking up and down the beach looking for possible shots so that when the sun sets I'm all ready to click the shutter button. I don't have any Lee filters or anything like that just a cheap graduated ND filter I got on eBay, it does the job but I desperately need to upgrade to something to a higher quality that doesn't create a colour cast like this one can do. The image below was taken around 15 minutes after the sun had disappeared behind the Arran hills and while walking to one of my other shots I saw these rocks and liked the shapes they created amongst the patterns on the beach. I feel I'm a better at photographing wildlife than landscapes but as a nature photographer I want to master both of them equally so as a New Years resolution I'm going to put more time and effort into photographing along the Ayrshire coast as there are so many places that I'm yet to explore.
During October I felt my photography as a business go to the next level, I had been contacted by a few magazines that wanted to feature my images which was amazing as I've never had any of my work in a magazine but what was really great was when the BBC Wildlife magazine contacted me to see if I wanted to feature my Red Squirrel images on their website and also have one of my images in the magazine which was a huge honour to. Seeing my gallery next to two of my all-time favourite wildlife photographers: Jari Peltomaki and Ole Jorgen Liodden it was a great feeling to say the least and I'm very grateful for the BBC Wildlife team to letting me show my favourite mammal: The Red Squirrel.
Autumn was here and at my local river Whooper Swans began to arrive which was a great opportunity for me as I've only ever photographed them at Wetland centres, only around 8 turned up at Doonfoot but they were quite friendly and were inquisitive of my presence which made it possible for me to spend many hours with them. But I wasn't just after the Whooper Swans at the time, rumours had circulated on local birding forums that a Black Swan had been spotted at the river feeding amongst the other Swans so I just had to get down there and try to find it. When I arrived at the beach it didn't take me long to spot it, hidden amongst a group of Whooper Swans the Black Swan was quietly feeding with them and seemed to have just tagged along. Locals said it was an escapee from an animal park and others said it had came off one of the near-by Lochs, either way it seemed like it wanted to spend its Winter here with all the other Swans and I don't blame it!
I remember that this was the first morning where I felt winter was really on its way, there was a cold northerly wind chilling my face and I was glad I decided to wear thermals that day. I could see the Swans in the distance where the river meets the sea so I decided to make my way slowly towards them, if I rushed I may spook them and they'd go further out to sea and I didn't want that to happen. So I took my time and eventually I arrived at the waters edge and they were now about 70 yards from me and seemed quite comfortable with me being there so I sat down and started to take some shots of the Whooper Swans on their own. They stuck to together as a group and I could see the Black Swan coming in closer to the group so I thought this would be a great opportunity to get a very contrasting image of a Black Swan with the white Whooper Swans.
I carried on photographing the Whooper Swans for another month as I love Swans that much, I can never get bored of them. My goal was to get some really nice shots of them flying, this was proven difficult as when Swans settle themselves down that'll be them down all day unless they are disturbed or fly off to roost. So my best chances were to be in the morning due to the position of the sun at that time and this when they were most active. I got to the beach for 7.30 and they were already a few there but not as many as I've seen in past days so I got myself setup and ready for any other Swans that might be flying in. I couldn't see them but I could definitely hear the distant sound of Swans coming in my direction, trying to pinpoint the incoming honking of Whooper Swans I could see a group of six flying along the coastline heading straight towards me. I had one chance to get a fly-by shot before they would land and gather with the other Swans so I focused on them early, checking my exposure was correct and followed them with my lens until they pretty much filled the frame.
I didn't just photograph Swans during November, I also wanted to photograph Red Squirrels in Scotland as I had never had the chance to do it. These are probably the best Red Squirrels I've ever worked with, very friendly and photogenic as they were always pulling funny poses for the camera. I would talk more about these Red Squirrels of the Galloway Hills but I'm currently writing a blog post on my experience with these characteristic animals so keep an eye on my blog to see the other shots I got that day. But out of all the shots this was my favourite, the green lichen on the tree gives the image quite a peaceful and fantasy-like feeling. When it eventually snows and I can get there I really want to photograph these little fellows running around in the snow hopefully there will be some in January.
While out photographing the Red Squirrels I was greeted by some Waxwings which was a huge surprise, you may have already seen my Waxwing images in a previous blog post: "A Brief Encounter With The Waxwings". Sometimes the best shots of the year happen in mere seconds, this was one of those times as the Waxwings landed on the tree, stuffed their faces full of berries and then buggered off and I didn't see them again all day. I would have loved to have seen them again but I was already extremely happy with the shots that I'd got.
As with most people December is a quite a busy month, everyone is getting ready for Christmas and every photographer is checking the news every 5 minutes to see if we're going to get any snow at any point. Well we've already had some snow here but I've always been there at the wrong time as I'm either working or in the wrong part of the country, just my luck haha. But with these very cold days and nights it's meant that nearly every night there has barely been a cloud in the sky so I've been making the most of this to photograph the beautiful night sky in the Galloway Hills. During two nights of walking around in the freezing cold, this is probably my most favourite starscape image I've taken all year. Throughout the year I had struggled trying to get something that I thought was photographically pleasing to the eyes so I tried to compose the shot like I would during the day using leading lines to guide the viewer towards the Milky Way which seemed to work perfectly. This shot was taken on a very cold night in the Galloway Hills, so cold that my gear was constantly getting covered in frost which made things very difficult indeed but while I was trying to photograph the stars I wasn't alone... Walking through one of the fields I heard a rustling sound behind me, I slowly turned around and used my headlamp to find the source of the rustling. There, only 50 yards from me were two eyes staring directly at me. I stayed perfectly still trying to work out what it was but it was already walking closer and closer towards me. I moved my torch to get a better a look and there slowly walking towards me was a bloody Sheepdog! Panic over! I gave my Dad a quick call and he told me it was one of the local farmers dogs that likes to wander around in the fields at night. Roy decided he wanted to keep me company while I was out with my camera for the rest of the night and I was very grateful for someone to be with me even if it is a dog as it can get quite lonely standing all alone for hours at time time with no one to talk to.
Well, this has been my most busy year as a photographer so far and I hope that next year can bring me more of the same. Next year will be a year where I will really push myself to be better as a person, a photographer and a visual story-teller. I don't want to follow the same patterns as other photographers but make my own path into the world of professional photography. I don't have many plans for next year, I'll take it as it comes but everyday I'll try to capture the natural world differently than I did the day before. In the last 6 months since I moved to Scotland I feel my work and business has gone to the next level especially when I compare my work to last years 'end of the year post'. I'm taking my work at my own pace but I'm really enjoying my photography and I can't wait for what adventures await me next year!
I hope you all have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!!
If you enjoyed these photographs please feel free to leave a comment below.