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Elliott Neep on Safari with David Lloyd

Farewell Nikon. Hello FujiFilm Medium Format!

In my previous blog post and newsletter, I explained that I was leaving Nikon – sounds rather melodramatic, lets just say I no longer have a Nikon system – and since then I’ve had about a hundred enquiries (and growing) asking what system I was moving too. Well, here’s your answer.

This latest ‘system move’ has taken over a year to conclude. Yes, you read that right. A year! Since my move to Nikon, eight years ago, I feel I have appreciably developed as a photographer. My work has evolved and most importantly I have matured – photographically speaking.

Most importantly, I know what I like and exactly what I want. I can honestly say that I’ve reached a point where I genuinely no longer care whether anybody likes my photography or not, because I do. It feels really good, completely liberating – a great place to be as a creative. It’s not arrogance, just confidence and contentment.

Some background

A little over a year ago, I trialled the XF 100MP IQ3 medium format system by Phase One. It was incredible. Sensational. Ridiculously good. It literally blew my eyeballs out of my sockets. The rich tonality, silken quality, and sharpness of the images are simply unrivalled. Unfortunately, so was the price tag: £40,000+ for one body, the digital back, and a couple of lenses. It’s enough to make anybody feel nauseous. There’s no way that I can justify that level of expenditure.

The XF Camera System

The XF Camera System. Medium format digital camera system with IQ Digital Backs and Schneider Kreuznach lenses

However, the look and ‘feel’ of a medium format image has a certain quality that goes far beyond simple sensor size, no matter how gigantic – the one I trialled was 100MP!! The format itself was a revelation, as it was precisely this ‘quality’ of depth of field that I have been seeking and, rather stupidly, I had just not made the connection.

So what is it about the depth of field?

Simply put, the larger the area of the imaging surface (film frame or digital sensor) the more shallow the depth of field will be. In essence, if you use a fast lens with a wide-open aperture on a 35mm DSLR, you can create a shallow depth of field – think ‘diffused background’ with any of the millions of ‘bird on a stick’ photos you’ve seen. The effect is more pronounced if the subject is closer to the camera.

If you do the same on medium format or large format, that depth of field becomes even more compressed. You can create images with breathtaking effect – if you love bokeh and mushing. And I do. It is my thing. You may have noticed.

Conversely, if you want to shoot landscapes and have front-to-back sharpness, you’ll need a far slower shutter speed to expose the film, with both wind motion and cloud movement becoming an issue. This is why large format cameras have bellows so the focal plane can be altered like a tilt-shift lens in order to maximise and counter the innately shallow depth of field.

My style of photography

Up until now, to achieve silky smooth backgrounds and hazy foregrounds with 35mm, I’ve used my 600mm f/4 behemoth, shooting wide-open, positioned low to the ground. [Tip of the cap to fellow mushers out there] That ‘effect’ is something that I fell in love with years ago, but it’s difficult to transfer to a wider angle. Maybe with a 50mm f/1.0 shot wide open or a tilt-shift lens?

Lioness & Cub (Novemner 2010)

Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya with NIKON D3S and 600.0 mm f/4.0 lens at ¹⁄₂₅₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6 on ISO 800

Using a combination of wide-open shutters and close proximity, I have occasionally managed to capture an impressionistic contextual background for the subject. You can recognise where the subject is, but it’s not distracting. It just implies. It gives the impression of a location, without competing for your attention.

Whether the background is an impression or not, I just get a kick out of photographing an animal in context. When I browse competition galleries, other photographer’s books and work, it is these images that I personally find arresting – example below.

The Investment Argument

Essentially, my income is based on the number of prints sold, images licensed, safari seats filled. Changing systems, or even purchasing more kit, requires serious deliberation and a reasonable expectation that the ROI will be worth it. I am operating a business after all, so it always come down to black and white numbers. This is why this move has taken so long. Really dull, yes I know. Please keep reading…

A change in direction

For the change in direction that I feel is necessary, I haven’t moved just from Nikon, I’ve moved from the whole 35mm format and (dare I say it) mainstream wildlife photography.

I’ve taken a considerable step into Medium Format territory with the incredible FujiFilm GFX 50s with the FUJINON GF32-64mm F/4 and FUJINON GF110mm F/2.0. Just as an FYI, I’ve also bought the EVF-TL1 Tilt and Swivel Adaptor for the GFX 50S viewfinder.

My time with giant telephoto lenses and bla bla frames per second is over. I know I will miss the 600mm occasionally – especially when there is something amazing happening out of my range, but then again, something will always happen out of range, no matter what lens you have.

I certainly won’t miss the weight of the 600mm f/4, manoeuvring it inside a safari Landcruiser or zodiac inflatable, nor the collective weight of three DSLR bodies, three lenses, battery packs, etc. For the FujiFilm GFX 50s and two FUJINON GF lenses, all I’ll need is the one small shoulder bag/backpack.

 

[My back muscles are currently tap-dancing the fandango]

 

FujiFilm GFX50s

The FujiFilm GFX50s with 51.4 million pixels on a 43.8mm x 32.9mm sensor producing 14-bit 8256x5504px files

FujiFilm GFX50s front and rear views

The FujiFilm GFX50s front and rear views

This move to Medium Format is more significant and meaningful than a simple ‘business move’. It goes back to what I was talking about earlier in the post – an inner confidence and conviction that this is right for me.

For one reason or another, it has been a very difficult year so far. I feel the need and the desire to move in a different direction and perhaps follow a path less trodden. Like photography itself, it’s a calling. The contextual shot pushes my button. I know that now. It’s taken me over a decade to realise it, accept it, understand it, and welcome it. Now, it’s time to develop and progress. It’s time to stop chasing £££s and simply relish the art.

Yes, my wildlife photography will change, without a doubt. There will be far more living landscapes and far less (if any) full-frame, in-your-face portraits. My work now will be all about animals in their environment and, in-line with my other passion, conservation, I will be looking at more environmental documentary photography.

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They always say time changes things…

 

‟They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” ANDY WARHOL

 

2018 has already become one of the most turbulent years in my 13-year long career in wildlife photography. I’ve had to take a little ‘timeout’ to reflect and evaluate. Along with stuff going on outside of my photography world (that I’m not discussing here), I’ve also made some huge changes within.

Farewell Social Media

You may have read on my blog that I’ve decided to pull the plug on my social media accounts. I want to expand on that, just a little, from a business perspective. On reflection, I think social networks definitely work for some, but they’re certainly not a ‘cure all’ solution and there are other ways. Also, not all ‘social platforms’ are equal. LinkedIn, for example, generates actual tangible real-life connections, that I just do not find elsewhere (online).

Success with social media, from my point of view, all depends on your photography business model and whether you have a  network that you engage with. I have one friend that uses Social Media purely for its ‘paid advertising’ reach and accepts the cost. I have another that said “Social what!?” Many more caught in a middling state of flux, not really sure whether it’s doing anything for them, apart from staving off boredom at home or in the hide.

Most of my ‘traffic’ flows from this blog and from Google searches directly. When I look at the analytics for the social platforms, the traffic flowing to my sites (the place where business happens) is almost non-existent – next to zero for Instagram and a few click-throughs from posted blogs on Twitter. OK, social media might be raising ‘brand awareness’ but that is an extremely difficult measure to quantify. It might be my negative slant, but it does feel rather like a big con. Like “The Emperor’s New Clothes” We’re told this is what we need to do to stay current, be relevant in a digital age, be successful, be popular, or whatever… But is it really?

Considering the amount of time and effort required to maintain an ‘adequate’ online presence across the many social platforms, the ROI is non-existent – for me anyway. Maybe I’m doing it wrong. Maybe, I just had tens of thousands of ghost account followers. Who knows?

Business aside, I guess, I’m really too much of a private person to constantly want to share ‘news’ about myself. It never felt comfortable. I like ‘old skool’ and I like to keep in touch face-to-face over a coffee or a pint, or via a thoughtful email – rather than the very shouty, trumpet-blowing ‘look at me’ medium. I digress.

Farewell Getty Images™. Thanks for the 25%!?

I'm a Getty Images Artist

Something that has become very clear to me is that ‘the image’ has been aggressively devalued, since I entered in the industry as a pro in 2005. Why? Quite simply, there is a glut of imagery, a surplus of photography. It’s just supply and demand economics – whenever there is a surplus in supply, prices will inevitably fall, especially when there is so much free content. Hard copy publishing is worth less, the stock libraries are paying even less, if that’s possible!?

If I have a future in photography, it is not as a ‘stock photographer’. Especially one supplying the monopolising Getty Images. In the early years, it was a very useful revenue stream. Now…? Well, it’s laughable. Seriously, what is the point when you see statements values for less than £1.00!? No thanks. That’s just a slap in the face. It’s not worth the time it takes to complete a W8-BEN. So, going with the theme of change, I’ve terminated my Getty Images™ Contributor Agreement.

Oh no! I won’t be able to have the “I am a Getty Images Artist” logo on my correspondence… I shall weep. On the plus side, I can once again market my own work. Exclusive Agreements really are complete and total bollocks! My images are also represented by FLPA but it’s a non-exclusive agreement, so that’s fine.

Farewell Nikon. Thanks for the memories.

Eight years ago, I moved from Canon to Nikon. At the time, it seemed to me that Canon was failing to innovate or actually develop their cameras, beyond the ‘drip drip drip’ of incrementally increasing sensor sizes. It’s always the same with technology companies.

“When I worked for the Intel Corporation, I learned that most, if not all, tech companies have finished products ready for release, approximately 5-7 years down the line, sometimes even further. However, they can’t just release their latest innovations. They have to release countless models before, so they can reclaim their ROI – the expenditure laid out on R&D.”

At the same time, Nikon made a significant leap with their ISO performance and high-performance focussing with their D3 and D3s. Investing in Nikon kit made reasonable business sense, as most of my work is/was low-light crepuscular wildlife photography.

The focussing and metering systems vastly outperformed their Canon counterparts. With my commissions requiring more video, I swapped in the D3s and D3x for a D800e and D800, so that I could shoot 1080p HD video and have a huge high-quality image file. The NPS team have been awesome, with my kit (usually) turned around in less than 72-hours. They were always supportive with loan kit, when mine was in for service and dibs on newly released/announced gear.

The Nikon kit has been fantastic! I am very satisfied. The kit has paid for itself and then some. I would still highly recommend Nikon. Not just for the tech, but for the support that goes with it, especially if you’re a professional. Nevertheless, it is definitely time for me to change direction. So here I am now. My entire Nikon system was collected last week and I am currently without camera… Guess I’ll have to update my photography gear page.

Where to next?

When I look back at my work, my favourite shots (with the odd exception) are my Living Landscapes, where I have the subject really close or relatively close to the lens, but with a wider angle so the subject has context – a habitat and environment with which to frame it. To me, it speaks so much louder, conveying a far greater story, compared to a full-frame headshot that rarely says anything about the animal and nothing about where it is. So, what will be in the kit bag? Not a 600mm f/4, that’s for sure!

To be continued…

Today, I left Twitter and Instagram. Why? You may well ask…

Twitter, Twitter, Twitter… you just really depress me!

And I’m not making light. I mean that in every sense of the word. I’ve suffered with depression for years, but you just seem to make it worse. I can’t scroll for more than a minute without seeing something that makes me want to spew molten crazy lava and smash whatever device I’m currently hold against the nearest wall. The toxicity of the ‘feed’ is actually infective. It’s like that ‘hate slime’ from Ghostbusters II. I feel angry when I am with you and that just isn’t right. It isn’t healthy for sure. For my own sake, I am moving on… Adieu.

Instagram, I loved you soooooooo much…

You were the photographer’s friend. A positive place for artists to shine. I felt warmth and kindness. Not the negative, repellent, bitchy, opinionated crap within Facebook – it was fresh and inviting. You were the enabler, allowing me to grow a following of more than 20,000, just for posting good photography. But, you went and hooked up with that loathsome, sneaky, duplicitous Facebook, didn’t you!?

Why!? You were perfect. Since you’ve been with FB, I can feel you changing. The filth of FB has rubbed off on you. You’ve buggered around with my feed (am I looking at today’s images or last weeks? Oh, it’s from last month that someone commented on today), you brought in truckloads of ads and sponsored posts (regardless of whether I say their irrelevant, you seem to think you know what’s best), and really… I’m just tired. I’m done. The Instagram experience has mutated, from one of genuine enjoyment and inspiration, to one of incredulity, disgust and, oh yeah, just expecting another bloody ad or sponsored post!!! I wish it were different… but alas… Sayonara!

 

My dear LinkedIn…

You were among the first social platforms that I tried. I know I left you before, but I truly didn’t know what I wanted, or what I should come to expect from a ‘social media’ relationship. This time, I’m staying. It’s not all one way with you. You give back. You have proven yourself to be viable, efficacious, even – generating actual business leads and meaningful career developing connections. You don’t ask too much. I don’t have the dreaded FOMO. You’re there when I need you and you occasionally pop by for a cuppa and a chat. Nice. Dear LinkedIn, please don’t change. Just keep doing what you do best.

Your pal,

EN

P.s. I left Nikon too, but that’s a whole different story! Phew! What a day!?

Everything You Need To Know About Photographing Mountain Gorillas

You have a single magic hour, so do not waste every minute considering apertures and sweet spots. Try and have a pre-conceived idea of the images you wish to shoot. Read my mountain gorilla guide and prepare yourself!

The Mountain Gorilla Trek

Trekking up densely forested volcanos, encountering wild Mountain Gorillas – arguably the most enigmatic of all wild animals – has to be in every wildlife photographer’s bucket list. I’ve been fortunate enough to do several treks in the Virunga and compiled this article that should go a long way to preparing you for this unforgettable adventure.

A Little Gorilla Info

There are two populations of Mountain Gorillas, one is found in the Virunga volcanic mountains of Central Africa within three National Parks: Mgahinga in south-west Uganda; Parc National des Volcans in north-west Rwanda; Virunga in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The other population is found in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.

Within the lush cloud forests of the volcanoes, the Mountain Gorillas live in relatively stable, cohesive family groups, held together by long-term bonds between adult silverbacks (males) and females. Some of these family groups are for the researcher’s ‘eyes only’, but others have been habituated for tourism.

Which ever tourism ‘group’ you visit, you will need to prepare for a moderate to strenuous trek that could last 1-3 hours in the wet season and up to 7 hours in the dry season. You may also need to cope with very low-light levels, humid and damp conditions, and limited manoeuvrability… so is it worth all the effort?! Of course it is!!!!!!!!!

Costs are escalating though. On the 7th May 2017, Rwanda’s Gorilla Trekking fee doubled to $1,500 per trek! An astronomical price and well out of the reach of most. I’m sure there is wisdom (more likely greed) behind the move. If money is no object, then you can pay $15,000 for a Private Gorilla Trek with you or your own group with an exclusive personalized tour guide service. There is a 30% discount for visitors who plan to stay longer (3 days or more), visiting mountain gorillas and other Rwanda national park like Nyungwe Forest, Akagera National Park and other attractions. So, if you do three gorilla treks, you’d pay $3,150 or $1,050 per trek. However, Uganda’s Bwindi National Park only charges $600 per trek, so I would assume most (if not every photographer) will be heading there instead.

The Rules

After arriving at the visitor’s centre, you are assigned a Gorilla Group. A ranger will talk you through the trek and, most vital, how to behave in front of the mountain gorillas. There is a strict one-hour time limit in force. There is no point pleading for more. It is an absolute rule and one that I totally agree with.

The one-hour limit is for the gorilla’s protection, not to frustrate you. When the hour is up, the gorilla’s behaviour changes, quite noticeably. They know the time is up and often wander away anyway. Within the hour, a group can be controlled more effectively and the risk of cross-contamination of airborne viruses (from humans to gorillas) can be reduced. Their DNA is so much like humans, that they are easily susceptible to influenza and respiratory infections.

There is a 7m buffer rule in effect. You are not allowed to approach the mountain gorillas at all. However, in some locations the 7m rule is very difficult to put into practice. Another hurdle is the fact that gorillas cannot read or measure.

The youngsters are very curious and will often plough right through the 7m buffer and tourists as can the silverbacks (a brown trouser moment!). Always listen and follow the guide’s and tracker’s instructions to the letter. When they say “Move!” you move without hesitation, without delay! You may think 7m is too far, but to put it in perspective, AECO guidelines in the Arctic stipulate a 30m rule! Now, doesn’t that 7m buffer sound pretty great?

Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla Beringei Beringei)

Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda with NIKON D3S and 24.0-70.0 mm f/2.8 lens at ¹⁄₁₆₀ sec at ƒ / 8.0 on ISO 400

The Mountain Gorilla Trek

You must remember that the aim of each gorilla trek is to arrive, observe, photograph, and leave in the calmest most quiet manner possible. You are regularly moved by the wildlife rangers to maintain the 7m buffer and (most appreciatively) to find you a clear view. Sometimes the trackers will even cut away vegetation, if it is in the way and safe to do so.

Porter

Pack only as much gear as you need (need not want) into a backpack, plus some water and an energy snack. As the climb can be very strenuous at times, the last thing you need is for lenses to be swinging around your neck. If you have any sense, you will dip into your pockets and recruit a local porter.

Your guide might suggest US$10, but please give them US$20 – they will definitely earn it. The climbs are steep and can be very hard-going. They’ll carry your backpack and give you a helping hand. It’s good for you and good for the local villagers. Also, rather than give them foreign currency, withdraw some local cash from the airport ATM on arrival. This way, the villagers don’t get ripped off my the exchange sharks. (Thanks Daryl for tip!)

Besides, the trek can be treacherous enough without the added burden of a fully laden camera backpack. You are each issued a hand-crafted walking pole, made by the porters or local villagers. Use this or bring your own as they are brilliant for the climb! Actually, just use the local made one. I bought mine after the trek as a souvenir as it was old, worn, and very smooth… as opposed to the shiny new poles on sale in the visitor’s centre.

Altitude

If you struggle with the climb, you are not weak. The mountain gorillas live at altitude and the guides, porters, and rangers are used to this – you are not. One of my treks began at 2,500m (8,000ft) and we found the gorillas at over 3,100m (10,000ft). At this altitude, you will definitely feel the effects.

Once you meet the Rangers (who have been with the gorilla group since dawn), you will be asked to leave ALL bags, food, and water about 50-100m walk away from the gorillas – do not burden yourself with non-essentials. If you have multiple cameras, then bring a modular photo belt or photo vest. My LowePro Outback 200 proved invaluable!

The goal is to arrive at the gorilla group calm and composed. You will have a few minutes to catch your breath and take on some water before venturing in. Do not forget why you are there and remember that it is not all about the photographs, so look up and watch our hairy characterful cousins with your own eyes. You have a single magic hour, so do not waste every minute considering apertures and sweet spots. Try and have a pre-conceived idea of the images you wish to shoot – are you going for close-up portraits, animals in their environment shots, family interaction?

What kit do you actually need?

DSLR Cameras

One of the reasons I switched to Nikon was for their phenomenal ISO capabilities. During my gorilla treks, the light levels were extremely low and I was always shooting between ISO800 and ISO3200. You will have to expect to shoot at ISO1600+, with anything less being a luxury.

Which ever brand of camera you have, as with all wildlife safaris, my recommendation is to have a minimum of two bodies. One camera for a medium telephoto lens and one grab camera/backup with a short zoom or wide-angle lens for when the wildlife gets VERY close – maybe a fast 50mm or 24-105mm.

The other main consideration here is the environment. You’re up a mountain, so the rain and drizzle can move in at any time. Be sure to have a camera body with a good environment seal or pack a camera cover.

Camera Lenses

Use your fastest lenses with maximum apertures of f/2.8 or f/4. These will suck-in as much light as possible for fast-focussing and faster shutter-speeds. This is definitely one of those occasions where you should consider hiring a fast lens, if you don’t already have one. Shorter lenses are easier to hold, are less susceptible to camera shake, and are more manoeuvrable. Plus you can always crop into the image later. Tight portraits are very popular, but a 50mm f/1.4 will give you a beautiful point of view, capturing the habitat and groups of grooming gorillas.

I can highly recommend zoom lenses. Your movements are restricted in the dense jungle vegetation and the zoom provides the most versatility. The guide and trackers will move you about to get the best views. They know everybody wants a clear shot of the silverback and any youngsters. Work with them and listen to their instructions. You can ask to move, but it’s strictly their decision.

An ideal lens for most situations is the 70-200mm f/2.8, preferably with image stabilisation or vibration reduction. Other lenses to consider are the 200mm f/2 (if you have deep pockets or are hiring), 28-300mm or 100-400mm, but both have maximum apertures of f/5.6 meaning you will need higher ISOs. Although the 300mm f/2.8 is heavier, it will give you the extra reach for close-up portraits.

The Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 IS L and Nikon equivalent are incredibly sharp and, even in poor light, they can retain excellent colour saturation. In my backpack were a 24-70mm, 70-200mm, and 200-400mm. Depending on the situation, I chose two of these to bring with me into the gorilla groups. Although my 200-400mm was very heavy to handhold, it did give me that reach to zoom tight-in and through the vegetation.

Conditions are often wet, so bring suitable lens and camera covers to protect your equipment. Attach your lens hood to protect the end-element from rain and splashing vegetation. With the moisture and humidity, it is a tough environment and changing lenses (exposing the mirror/sensor in any way) is very unwise.

Support Options

This will be a short paragraph… Tripods and monopods are not allowed near the mountain gorillas, neither are walking poles. Some of the gorillas are old enough to remember the dark days of spear-wielding poachers and react to any similar object with fear and aggression. Your only option is to handhold or sit on the floor and rest the lens on your knee, or a friend’s shoulder.

Miscellaneous Kit

Make sure you have spare batteries, memory cards, and a back-up camera, even if it is a point-and-shoot or camera phone. Bring memory cards rather than a downloader. As you have such a strict time limit, you do not want to waste time waiting for images to copy across. As a rule, don’t burden yourself with gear. You have one hour. Don’t worry about getting wet – you can dry off back at the lodge.

Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla Beringei Beringei)

Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda with NIKON D3S and 200.0-400.0 mm f/4.0 lens at ¹⁄₂₅₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6 on ISO 800

Photographing Gorillas

Exposure Settings

Under the forest canopy and overcast conditions, set your ISO relatively high (800-1600+) to preserve faster shutter speeds. In brighter conditions, you may be able to shoot portraits on a minimum of ISO 400. Just don’t be surprised if ISO settings soar passed ISO 3200! I switch between Aperture Priority and Manual Exposure as and when the situation dictates.

I use manual mode, so I can shoot a constant exposure without worrying about how much ‘black fur’ is filling the frame. Switch on Auto-ISO, if you have it. Then, if light levels change, the ISO with scale up and down to maintain the exposure.

Focus Settings

When you’re handholding your cameras, switch on the lens image stabiliser (IS / VR). Nikon users can use Normal mode and Mode 1 for Canon users. Knowing the gorillas can often come very close, I also switch off the focus-limiter. For 98% of the time, mountain gorillas will be restful, calmly grazing vegetation and grooming themselves or one another. So, for most purposes I use AF-Single (One Shot) and a single focus point. You have the time to move the focus point around to maintain compositions.

When the youngsters begin to play, I switch to ‘AF-Continuous’ (AI Servo) and ‘dynamic’ focus points. If I lose focus with one focus point, the surrounding focus points maintain focus acquisition. They youngsters move surprisingly fast and pile through dense bushes like they’re not even there.

Flash photography is NOT permitted and you will be asked to remove and switch off any flash.

Weather & Light

Do not fear cloudy skies and a forecast of rain. The best conditions to photograph mountain gorillas is with overcast skies that diffuse the light and ease contrast. In bright sunlight, the gorillas eyes ‘black out’ and their fur has a high-gloss sheen which easily burns out.

The dry season is the most popular because of the drier trails, but it’s incredibly busy. Another major consideration is the gorillas. When it’s dry and hot, they travel high-up the volcanoes to graze on the remaining lush vegetation. A 3 hour trek in the wet season, becomes a 7+ hour trek in the dry season! Generally, you can visit Rwanda’s gorillas any time of year. It’s worth avoiding mid-April as this becomes a wash-out with a two-week period of constant rain.

Gorilla Trek Clothing

Wear light layers that you can strip-off and re-apply with changing conditions and levels of exertion. A light shower-proof, breathable jacket will help keep you dry although it maybe uncomfortable in very humid conditions. So, one that you can stuff inside a camera bag pocket is ideal. Technical fabrics are best, especially long-sleeved t-shirts that wick away moisture and dry quickly after rain.

Waterproof / weatherproof trousers as the vegetation is usually dripping wet. Waterproofs also provide more protection against the stinging plants and thorns. Jeans will not protect you against the stingers but will, almost certainly, soak through chafe! Wide-brimmed hats are a good move, keeping stinging ants and water drops from going down your back. Wear sturdy footwear (plus gaiters in the wet seasons) for the trek. Conditions under foot are often muddy and slippery.

Whichever clothing options you choose, always wear darker colours rather than ‘safari khaki’. Avoid dark blue and black which attract mosquitos and tsetse flies!

Quite Simply The Easiest Way To Photograph Grey Herons

Grey herons are one of my favourite bird species. They are handsome birds of superb elegance and are extraordinarily patient hunters. I get all nostalgic when I see a grey heron. They take me back to my childhood – summer days spent fishing with my father at our lake. From January through to April, the herons are resplendent in their best breeding plumage, with long dark head plumes and a deep orange/red, dagger-like bill.

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Regent’s Park, London, United Kingdom with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and 100.0-400.0 mm lens at ¹⁄₁₂₅₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6 on ISO 200

Herons are exceptionally wary birds and in the true wild, they are tremendously cautious and vigilant. It takes a great deal of skill and patience to creep up on a grey heron and it often requires a hide to capture close-up images. The one exception is when grey herons are breeding.

Take Advantage of Heronries

Grey herons congregate at large nesting sites, in the tallest trees, close to a canal, river or lake. These ‘heronries’ are great locations for photography as the birds are normally preoccupied with the necessities of reproduction. They are active all day: flying back and forth, courting mates, collecting nest-building material, and hunting.

There will be a greater concentration of herons here than anywhere else during the year. Instead of trying to photograph a solitary bird, you’ll be able to photograph dozens of breeding pairs.

Get yourself to a park heronry

The task of photographing herons is even easier if you visit a park heronry which is busy with people. The two most popular sites in the South East are Regent’s Park in London, and Verulamium Park in St. Albans. At both locations, herons nest on man-made islands in the middle of large ponds, but are still within easy reach of a modest telephoto lens.

In Regent’s Park, the task of photographing grey herons is particularly easy. Here, the herons are accustomed to being fed by people, just like domestic wildfowl. When I first visited, I was astounded by how close the herons were to people, given their reputation for wariness. A few local residents even feed the herons directly by hand with fish. When this happens, you can witness a rarely seen spectacle – a human surrounded by a dozen adult and immature grey herons. It’s really bizarre!

Timing your visit for the best light

To capture my grey heron images, I visit both Verulamium Park and Regent’s Park for a couple of days during January, February and March. I prefer photographing herons in that low-angled winter sunshine. I haven’t managed to time my sessions for snow yet, but that would be very cool. Timing-wise, I always ensure that I arrive early to enjoy the best of the crisp, bright mornings and before the public masses arrive. Grey herons are very active during this time.

At Regent’s Park, they hunt around the edge of the Boating Lake and fly in from local gardens having raided ornamental ponds. Download the Regent’s Park map.

Regents Park Map

At Verulamium Park, they’re fishing from the islands and fly in from local fields and meadows where they hunt for invertebrates and amphibians. Download the Verulamium Park guide.

Verulamium Park Map

Photographing at heronries

With a little patience and 100-400mm lens at the ready, I can capture full frame images of these large birds in flight as they sweep passed. Grey herons are quite slow in the air, giving you more time to prepare. With enough time, a DSLR should easily lock on to a heron in flight.

I used to only take flight shots in bright or sunny conditions where I had a fast enough shutter speed to freeze-frame the action. With our weather, this isn’t exactly practical. So, like with other subjects, I use motion blur to capture action images in poor light – using the naturally slower shutter speed to my advantage.

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Regent’s Park, United Kingdom with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and 100.0-400.0 mm lens at ¹⁄₅₀₀ sec at ƒ / 6.3 on ISO 200

On sunny days with clear blue skies, the light is more or less constant so I set my exposure manually. Starting in Aperture Priority (Av) mode, I shoot a series of test exposures on f/5.6 – f/8 and review the histogram. Then I switch to Manual mode and enter the best exposure setting and periodically review the images if I sense the light levels changing. With the exposure set manually, you can shoot away without worrying about compensating for different backgrounds – just as long as the subject itself doesn’t pass though any shadows.

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Regent’s Park, United Kingdom with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and 100.0-400.0 mm lens at ¹⁄₈₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6 on ISO 200

With the exposure set, prepare yourself to react quickly to any bird taking off or coming into land. Herons are great subjects to practice flight photography. They are very large and slow to take flight. For a detailed guide to help your ‘bird in flight’ technique, be sure to read/bookmark my “6-Step Guide To Photographing Birds In Flight.”

Grey herons against a blue sky are great, but watch out for distracting twigs and branches. Unless they are in context, such as a heron returning to its nest with twigs, they can ruin the shot. Photographing herons as they fly in front of golden willow trees or reed beds can produce vibrant images with a great sense of habitat and environment.

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Regent’s Park, London, United Kingdom with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and 300.0 mm lens at ¹⁄₃₂₀ sec at ƒ / 8.0 on ISO 200

Nesting herons are great for behavioural images, although it can be difficult to get a truly great shot. The herons are normally obscured by twigs and branches and the elevated angle is unappealing. If you find a clear view, it is worth exploring as many possibilities as you can.

There is always great interaction when herons meet, so wait for the adult herons to return to the nest with building material or food for their young. Herons often call to each other as they come to land on the nest. I am confident this is to ensure they have the right nest, so use the call as an indicator to where the heron is going to land. Then be prepared to track and pan with the herons as they depart the nest and fly away.

Photographing grey herons at Regent’s Park

Regent’s Park is one of the best places in the UK to observe and photograph herons. However, if you are a professional photographer you will need a permit that costs over £280+VAT per 4 hours. If Royal Park staff or the Royal Parks Constabulary observe you with a big lens and tripod, they WILL stop you and ask your purpose. No permit? Then you’ll receive an official caution. However, for an amateur, it is simply heron heaven.

Once I received my permit, I entered the park armed with a bag of whitebait and looked for a group of herons. I arrived early as this is a very busy location with joggers, dog walkers, day-trippers, and families. In spite of the hustle and bustle, the herons did not seem bothered in the slightest. I quickly found several herons standing underneath a willow collecting nest material.

Always avoid walking directly at the herons as they will usually take flight. Instead, I tempted them towards me with an offering of fish. I approached the water’s edge, making sure I looked out to a clear background and threw out a few silvery fish. The bright flash of silver was enough to grab their attention and one-by-one they flew over to queue for a handout.

It is just soooo odd having these massive birds fly down to you and wait in turn for a little fishy. Every so often, they returned to their nests to feed partners or young and promptly returned. I moved around, so I could change the background. The herons were unfazed by my movements, so rather than wait for a heron to land in the ‘right spot’, I just slowly moved around those that were already there. To get the intimate eye-level POV, I sat down on the grass, shooting wide-open to diffuse the background.


Within a couple of hours, I had a sack-load of great images including: close-up portraits, full-frame profiles, full-body, take-off, flight, nesting, and landing shots. I just took the one small bag. I didn’t want to tread on the toes of the local regulars that go there every day. It was enough.

A rather smelly drawback was handling the fish. My solution was to set my camera on a tripod. I could then frame the shot with just one hand. With the other hand in a disposable glove, I tossed out the whitebait to the herons. After this rather fishy session, I gave the kit a thorough cleansing with alcohol wipes. If you know any willing volunteers that don’t mind handling fish, it pays to take somebody to feed the herons. Even if it’s just to keep your gear from becoming encrusted with fish slime! Yuk!

Now it’s time to get out there and find a heronry near you!

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Photographic career began in 2002, freelancing as a commercial photographer. In 2005, I turned full-time 'wildlife pro', winning my first award and gaining agency contracts. Since then, I've travelled the world, photographing in the greatest wildlife hotspots.

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