Photography Monthly - Chasing the fleeting light- interview with wildlife photographer Simon Booth

Well, it's been another typical wet, wild and unpredictable British summer again this year and many of you may be wondering how to make the most of the fleeting light before we and the wildlife hide ourselves away for hibernation.

Wildlife photographer Simon Booth spoke exclusively to Photography Monthly about his favourite places to photograph wildlife and shared his secrets on what and where to photograph and what kit to take with you at this time of year and into the coming months.

What are your favourite locations to shoot at the end of summer/ beginning of autumn?
The Martin Mere Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in Lancashire, because at this time of year you’re starting to get the winter migrating birds in and it’s one of the few places where you can still shoot things and still practice and you’re guaranteed that stuff’s going to be there. The highlight of any visit is the many species of ducks and geese including whooper swans, which are fed at 3pm every day at the front of the swan link hide, so it’s a really good opportunity for people to get shots of birds that have just arrived after the long trip south from the Arctic.

One of the other reasons for being able to see so much at The Wildlife Trusts is they have a selection of birds that are captive so it’s a really good opportunity to get nice pictures of British species without having to put a lot of time and effort in. Any of the Wildlife and Wetland Trusts sites are worth a visit but my particular favourite is Martin Mere.

Normally I would rather avoid all the usual wildlife photography locations that many tick off each year, and subsequently I’m constantly trying to find locations with fewer footprints were I can work alone, rather than going to the more frequented photography haunts. I would much rather get a picture of a local starling doing something unusual or in a nice situation than constantly visiting well known photography hotspots. It’s each to their own of course. Martin Mere is often busy but mostly with families, so it is great for photography and no one’s ever disappointed when they go there, especially in winter.

Simon Booth

What kit do you use on a day trip and why?
My equipment is Canon based. I have two cameras; I have an EOS 5D Mk II and also I have an EOS 1Ds Mk II but I prefer the latter camera in terms of its build quality and it’s also nicer in the hand. If I’m going out, not really looking for anything in particular, and it’s just a general walk around, I will take the 5D Mk II because of its reduced weight. I have two lenses that I take out with me in such situations, which are the Canon 70-300mm DO lens, which is optically very good and it’s also very compact with a good focal range. I also take out a 100mm macro lens along with reflectors, cable release, angle finder, bean bag and a Benbo Trekker for lightness. If I’m going to a planned site without too much walking then my kit changes and I’ll take my sturdier and bulkier camera body, which would be the 1Ds Mk II as it’s more robust and when it rains, I don’t have to worry too much. I also take an additional selection of lenses, such as the Canon 100-400mm zoom and 500mm LIS telephoto along with a 17-40mm wide angle. I also use a large Gitzo carbon fibre tripod as it’s a sturdier piece of kit albeit bulky by comparison to the Benbo Trekker. It’s important to have a tripod that is flexible that can get you into any situation such as down low, among branches and under roots.

It all really just depends what I do on a given day. For Martin Mere for example, I would just use a 100-400mm lens. I generally wouldn’t bother with a tripod there as there are hides that you can rest bean bags on. When shooting pictures of birds that are captive around the lagoons I would normally use an angle finder and a bean bag on the floor and just shoot low. It depends on what you want to shoot and how much you can realistically carry.

What kit would you recommend to beginners and enthusiasts alike?
I would spend a little bit of money on a second hand camera and a couple of lenses and see if you like the hobby. If you enjoy it, from that point on I would not buy anything less than the best that you can afford. I’ve made mistakes with lots of kit in the past, buying cheap alternatives, and ended up buying twice as a result. Filters are a prime example; I went through three or four sets before I ended up with the ones that I currently use.

In terms of cameras, lenses, and certainly with accessories, you do seem to get what you pay for; with the exception of the latest very big Canon lenses. I think Canon is taking the mickey a bit at the moment with their latest group of telephoto lenses! At £10,000 a go, I think it’s all just gone a bit stupid price-wise. I consider myself very lucky to have one of the older 500mm lenses and will hang onto it as long as it still works.

For a starter kit I don’t think pixel count is as important as it once was if you are buying new; I still manage quite happily with 17 mega pixels and that’s perfectly acceptable for what I need. If you want to shoot in low light conditions without noise then you’ll probably want something newer. I would buy a second hand camera first and give it a go and then look at what you can afford and then spend as much as you can.

I just use SLR type cameras because I personally find compacts very limiting. They’re good for quick snaps, recording shots and holidays but if you want to be serious about wildlife photography you have to look into SLRs and a number of interchangeable lenses with pretty decent optics.

You’ve also got to be shooting Raw to get the best out of your images. I’ve never had any of my cameras switched to JPEG as it’s more difficult to save an incorrectly exposed shot. I also don’t mess around with any of the in-camera settings but do all the adjustments at the workstation. I think camera manufacturers should stop putting all these options on cameras and just stick with the basics like the old cameras used to have. Less is more as far as I’m concerned and we shouldn’t be swayed by gadgetry unless it offers you something that you will use often. Anything between 12 and 20MP is ideal.

What are your experiences with using hides and tripods and other pieces of outdoor kit out in the field?
I’ve got four Lowepro camera bags and the latest one, which is a great little bag, is the Pro Runner 200 AW, which is great for getting your basic nature or landscape kit in. It’s got an all weather protection cover on it and it holds all sorts of filters in the front pocket. It doesn’t really do very well for sandwiches and things like that though! Two other bags I regularly use are the old Photo Trekker AW bags. They seem to have lasted forever.

Lowepro are all I’ve ever used and I am faithful to them. I’ve also got a Vertex 200 AW, which is a great travel bag and will take a range of lenses including a 100-400mm and a couple of bodies. It will also take a laptop in the front pocket, which is useful when I’m away, and there’s lots of storage for cards, card readers and batteries and filters.

In terms of hides I normally build my own but you can buy them direct from Wildlife Watching Supplies, which is a good retailer. I often use natural materials or go to army surplus supplies to get camouflage netting and things like that.

The only time I really use hides is when I’m working at feeding sites or at the nest where I will work a hide in slowly. I don’t use bag hides as I don’t find they work very well and the idea of sitting in a place randomly sounds like a waste of time photographically, and that’s really what bag hides are about. It’s better to have a hide in place for a number of days on a route that’s frequently used by something and let it get used to it before you use it. My hides can be in place from anything from a couple of days up to about six months. If it’s a long period of time I’ll build them out of hardboard; they’ll be painted up and covered in natural material. Rhododendron is a particularly good material because it’ll stay pretty green through the winter, which is something you have to be mindful of with other broad-leaved species which, as soon as you cut them, their leaves fall off and the whole world can see your hide.

Most garden birds will take to a hide pretty quickly and it’s generally the crow family including jays, magpies and rooks, who are more wary of hides. Once a hide is in place I leave it for a few weeks before I use it. Once the birds know the food source has appeared they’ll soon come to it on a regular basis. If it’s a hide at a nest then you need to introduce it sensitively according to the species, which could be a day for a small species like a grey wagtail, to a week for species such as oyster catchers. The only time I’ve used hides with mammals is with badgers but the hides have always been established for long periods and they can be a difficult subject.

Birds are a good starting point for wildlife beginners; you get a feel for their behaviour very quickly and they’re also quite forgiving. It’s best to work up to things like badger, foxes and deer.

You should always get the landowners permission to put hides up. It’s better if you can find some private land because in a park, park rangers and members of the public can damage hides. Ask a farmer to spend a season on their farm and have a look around for projects. Farmers are usually quite approachable when it comes to photography as an extra pair of eyes on the land is always a good thing. Woodlands are also a good place to go and gamekeepers are normally quite happy to have you work alongside them.

Simon Booth

What is your favourite time of year to shoot and why?
Autumn and spring because I hate the heat and the cold. In autumn and spring it’s quite fresh but not uncomfortable. Spring is a nice time of year to take pictures of commonly occurring things like plants opening up, seedlings and concepts of new life. Autumn is the other end of the scale, with things dying off and leaves changing colour. Autumn time is also a good time for fungi which are great for anyone wanting to do macro photography.

Simon Booth

My favourite months are April to May and then October and November. There does seem to be more activity in the April and May months though. At this time you get to hear all the bird calls and if you can familiarise yourself with them, it’s a sure way of finding nests. Generally birds in woodlands have quite small territories and so you can almost guarantee that the bird you hear calling will be nesting just a few metres away.

What is the most challenging time of year to shoot and why?
Around now in September as everything seems to be in transition; the autumn colours haven’t really got going and the birds are all moulting. Nothing looks in good condition and so I don’t find I shoot much at this time of year and it’s a good time to sit in front of the computer and edit.

What would be your tips for photographers who are determined to go out into the field to shoot wildlife images at this time of year?
Berries and nuts are good to photograph at this time of year and the red deer are coming into their best during October, so it’d be a good idea to photograph these subjects. Red deer are great to photograph and if you can capture them in the afternoon, silhouetted against some dark brooding skies, then that’ll make a great dramatic shot.

Simon Booth