Today’s blog post comes from the fantastic wildlife photographer, Andy Howard. We first spotted Andy on Twitter and fell in love with his photographs, we got in touch and he kindly agreed to share some of his expertise with our community. Over to you Andy…
As a wildlife photographer living the Highlands of Scotland I can be assured of one thing, changeable weather. A few years ago when I started my journey into wildlife photography I would often shy away from poor weather conditions, then one day that changed.
I spent a very cold and windy day photographing mountain hares in a blizzard conditions, the images I captured on that day changed my approach to wildlife photography, the fact that one of the images made it onto national television and was shown on the BBC Springwatch programme, that was an achievement alone not to mention the favourable comments about the image made by Chris Packham, this made the efforts and the discomforts of that day even more worthwhile. I had finally fledged into being an ‘all-weather photographer’.
I’ve found that best way to really capture the essence of a given species is to make multiple visits to one location and in all weather conditions, seasons and at different times of the day.
TOP TIP: Choose a species that’s easy to find in your local area. Local parks are a great location to start with. Wildlife within parks are used to humans being close by, so are therefore far more approachable.
I feel very privileged to have a population of Mountain Hares within an hour of my home; it’s this delightful and endearing animal that I’ve been spending most of my time with for the past few years.
Mountain hares are a shy and elusive animal and often live up to their Latin name Lepus timidus, most people’s first encounter with a Mountain hare is as at high speed it disappears over the horizon never to be seen again!
TOP TIP: Perseverance will be rewarded – Keep at it!
The more time you spend with an animal the more you will understand its behaviour, after a while you may even be able to predict what it’s about to do.
Mountain Hares are found on the step sided slopes and higher regions of the Cairngorms, they are masters of disguise. Most photographers concentrate on them in the winter months when they are almost totally white, I on the other hand try to capture them in all seasons and conditions. There’s no doubt they are stunningly beautiful in their winter pelage but I also like them in their smart Summer finery, it’s at this stage that they have a grey blue’ish’ hue to their coat, this is where they get their other name The blue hare. In between their winter and summer coats they morph slowly through different stages, mid-way through the Spring the coat is mottled brown and white, interestingly this is exactly the same colours as the surrounding mountain sides as the winter snows thaw. The moult in both the spring and autumn always seems to start from the head and ears, recently whilst sitting with a hare it occurred to me that this is due to the fact that they can easily scratch their heads with their back feet and often do so.
Over regular visits to one particular area I’ve actually got to know individual hares and in turn learned the characteristics of these individuals, some are fidgets, they predominantly sit quietly but every twenty minutes or so do ‘something’ this could be have a feed, a scratch, a starch or yawn.
TOP TIP: Use Social media and the internet to do research on your chosen subject, email or contact others that are experts on that subject, experts love to share their passion with others.
Spotting the tell signs about what they are about to do comes from hours of time in the field, others may sit quietly for well over an hour before actually doing something, patience is the key with these hares.
TOP TIP: Be patient
This is the most important ‘tool’ in any wildlife photographer’s arsenal. Letting wildlife come to you or taking a very slow approach means everything is on the animal’s terms. Their welfare must always come first.
All wild animals have a certain tolerance to humans, some instinctively run at the first sign of a human approaching; some will sit tight and use their camouflage as their defence. I’ve also found that within the community of mountain hares I frequent there are huge differences from one individual to another. I have one male hare that I’ve now photographed for the past three years. How do I know it’s the same hare I hear you ask? The answer to that is that his markings are very distinctive, his behaviour is almost unique and he tends to be in one of three positions on the mountain. He kindly lets me get incredibly close and is very tolerant towards me.
Getting up close and personal to any wild animal takes a good knowledge of ‘field craft’, it can take up to three house of crawling on my belly and lying very quiet and still for very long periods of time, often in pretty uncomfortable positions to slowly gain their trust.
TOP TIP: Good field craft is essential for close up encounters.
Again a park or a busy town centre is an ideal location to practise your field craft. When in the country a vehicle doubles up to make a perfect mobile hide, just sit quietly with the engine switched off.
In situations like this good clothing and equipment are an absolute must, there’s no point in spending hours stalking an animal, crawling through wet grass only to start to shiver and feel miserable because you’re wearing jeans and a hoodie! Invest in the best clothing you can afford remembering to buy outer garments that are soft and don’t rustle when you move.
A good waterproof and warm hat will keep you head nice and warm, I always carry a spare just in case one gets really waterlogged. The same applies to gloves; I also carry a pair of mitts which I use to keep my hands dry and warm, and then a pair of thinner gloves I can operate the camera settings with. If I’m working on rocky ground I wear a pair of gardener’s knee pads. In the winter I wear a goose down jacket and Gore-Tex skiing trousers, even with this all this equipment I still get cold and for my own safety have to walk away and retreat to the warmth of the car, there’s always tomorrow!
TOP TIP: Always know your limits, stay safe and know when it’s time to go home!
All images © Andy Howard
If you’d like to see more of Andy’s amazing work, head over to his website: http://www.andyhoward.co.uk/