One of the most important things that we have learnt as wildlife photographers is to try and tell a story with our images. This means getting out of the mindset of taking a random selection of good pictures and instead aiming to link photos together with a common theme. A set of images that describe an environment or a particular animal can often be much more valuable than a single “winning shot”.
On our recent trip to the Falkland Islands, we tried to document the sea birds that nest along the rugged coastline. We aimed to capture a variety of images, using focal lengths ranging from 14mm to 600mm, that showed the birds’ behaviour and habitat.
Two species of shag (birds similar to cormorants) nest on the Falklands; Imperial and Rock shags. We wanted to photograph both species and show the differences in their nesting habits. The only problem was that the rock shags nest on vertical cliff faces that are almost completely inaccessible! This meant that we had to get creative!
One afternoon, we noticed a pair of Rock shags that were nesting underneath an overhang, 50 metres above the crashing surf. As soon as we saw the birds, we knew that it would make a beautiful image if we could photograph them with the sunrise behind. We spent the evening devising a method that would enable us to get the camera into the right position.
We came up with the “puppet technique”; a makeshift device involving a tripod and lots of string that gave us full control of the camera’s position in terms of angle and height. One of us could take the photos with a wireless remote trigger and provide instructions for the puppet master. We obviously had to maneuver the camera very slowly and carefully so as not to disturb the birds. It worked like a charm, and we were able to get a set of images that would have otherwise have been impossible to achieve.
Another technique that we regularly employ is the “tripod lift”. We use this when we want to get an aerial perspective. In this case, we were trying to photograph a colony of Imperial shags from above, showing the amazing pattern of nests that arises as a result of each bird needing to be outside of the pecking range of its neighbours! We attached the camera to a fully extended tripod and lifted it as high as possible above our heads. This took a lot of strength, and it needed two of us to hold the tripod and trigger the remote shutter-release.
In order to complete our set we also wanted to photograph the shags’ breeding behaviour. At this time of year, the birds were still constructing their nests and were regularly bringing back clumps of kelp to build up their towers. We positioned ourselves in their flight path and were able to get frame-filling images of them using the 600mm lens. This required a fair bit of practice and used up an embarrassing amount of storage!
You can see more photographs of us in the field on our Facebook Fan Page.