The British Wildlife Photography Awards 2017


Last year I managed to sneak a landscape image into the British Wildlife Photography Awards exhibition and book. I was delighted, but this year I’m very pleased to have had an actual wildlife image Highly Commended.

‘Wave Break’ is probably my favourite wildlife image from the past few years. Nothing about it was planned or pre-visualised, it was entirely reactive to an opportunity that presented itself for a brief few seconds. It is the polar opposite of the kind of wildlife photography that has provided much of my income this year, which mainly involved long hours waiting for pine martens.

It was great to see lots of familiar faces at the awards event at the Mall Galleries in London, and like last year I was humbled by the quality of work on display. The book is a big, gorgeous, coffee-table style hardback, and it was great to see that my image had been given a double page spread near the front of the book.



I’m so impressed so many of the images that made it into the book that there’s far too many photographers for me to mention. However I must quickly mention –
– Ben Andrew for his winning series in the British Seasons category. Four exceptional blends of wildlife and landscape – just wow.
– Caron Steele for her winning gannet image – one to stare into for a while
– Robin Goodlad’s otter image is beautiful and hilarious in equal measure.
– Steve Palmer for his winning Botanical Britain image. Wonderfully effective.
– Alex Hyde for his vibrant, mind-expanding insight into a square inch from a garden pond.

Also great to catch up/talk with Anthony Spencer, Andy Howard, John Moncrieff, Matt Cattell, Duncan Eames and plenty of others, and see the variety of work they had contributed to the final cut.

A final congratulations to Daniel Trim for his worthy overall winning image.

A win in Scottish Landscape Photographer of the Year

'Stand'Stand
Scottish Landscape Photographer of the Year – Four Seasons Award winner (Autumn)


Last October was a month I will remember with intense clarity. My dad was fighting an aggressive cancer, some big changes were happening in my work and social life, and I was in the depths of a fairly intense period of mental illness.

Everything felt to be crumbling, yet something new and good was stirring inside me. After a summer of commissioned photography work, I had a short few weeks free for some personal photography before the start of the winter wildlife guiding season. Perhaps it was inspiration born from a need to escape, but I found myself fixated with shape and form in a way that had never happened to me before. I shot almost everything on the same lens and for a short while everything seemed effortless, and October 2016 became the single most successful month of photography I’ve ever had. (Read more in this interview with TGO Magazine).

It also marks the point at which photography really started to become a major part of how I make my living, and consequently the start of a total change in how I perceive myself as a photographer.
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Making the grade, paying my way

In all truth I can find working in photography immensely intimidating. There’s an endless number of brilliantly talented photographers out there, all now able to share their work far and wide every day via the internet. I often find myself swamped in self-doubt at my own abilities and wondering if I have any hope of keeping up. ‘Standing out from the crowd’ for me has now evolved from being a simple case of seeking recognition, to being a crucial part of sustaining my income.

We enter competitions in search of validation of our talents. I try not to take them too seriously, but they become just a little bit addictive once you’ve seen some success.

It was huge surprise when I got the email informing me that I was one of the category winners in Scottish Landscape Photographer of the Year. I’m honoured to have been chosen amongst an exceptionally talented collection of photographers. It isn’t my first success in a major national competition, but to echo something Lee Acaster said in his latest blog, there is something really special about seeing your images in the big coffee table books produced by these awards.




I have been overwhelmed by the response I’ve had to the image since the results were announced. In particular I’m delighted that so many people have said the image ‘draws you in’, as that was my intent. I was looking to convey seductive silence rather than vibrancy.

And now, a few weeks after the initial euphoria, what has come from this win? If anything it’s given me a renewed energy to try harder, keep on my toes, and make the absolute most of being able to follow a childhood dream.

Congratulations to all the other winners and commended photographers – particularly Nick Hanson, Christopher Swan, Dylan Nardini, Lizzie Shepherd and Greg Whitton, all of whose work I greatly admire, and fellow TGO Magazine contributors Dougie Cunningham, Damien Shields and Stewart Smith.
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Image technical notes
Nikon D7200
Shot on the (ever wonderful) Nikon 50mm f/1.8g
1/40 sec at f/8
ISO 320

Black Isle Photography Hides Winter Tour 2017

Mountain hare


I’ve just finished a few days guiding for Black Isle Photography Hides Winter Tour 2017. Almost all of my work since the summer has been landscape based commissions for outdoors magazines, so I’d been looking forward to some wildlife guiding again for a while.

So far the defining this about this winter has been the lack of it. Snow has been largely non-existent in the Highlands apart from on the the highest ground. We knew this could be a bit of a disappointment for our group of 5 clients, and with this in mind it was our job to seek out the best possible light and conditions in which to photograph the target species.


Crested titA crested tit in exceptional light in the Black Isle woods


With the winds forecast to increase every day throughout the week, we started with the most difficult day first and headed up high into the Cairngorms to look for ptarmigan. The whole group did brilliantly and put in a determined effort in an environment outside of their comfort zone. A flock of around 30-40 ptarmigan was the reward, as well as being amongst the winter splendour of the mountains.


Black Isle Hides winter tour 2017The group in ptarmigan country.

Northern CorriesSome winter mountaineers on the ridge line


Mountain hares are always a highlight of a wildlife photography trip to the Highlands, so with the winds still looking reasonable on the hills we decided to head up high again the next day. Everyone had a superb day of photography, with the words ‘this is unbelievable’ being whispered more than a few times as memory cards were filled with hare portraits. A last-minute golden eagle was a bonus and a fiery sunset over the Beauly Firth rounded things off nicely.


Mountain hareMountain hares were a highlight of the week for the whole group. 

Mountain hare

Mountain hare


With the winds picking up we opted to stay low for the rest of the week and spend some time in the hides and forest sites on the Black Isle. Some very early starts allowed us close views of red squirrels in warm dawn light.


Red squirrel

Red squirrel

BullfinchWe had bonus views of bullfinches, buzzards and hundreds of pink-footed geese from the red squirrel hides.


In the afternoons we changed location to a different part of the forest in order to photograph crested tits. In the UK these tiny and charismatic birds are only found in the pinewoods of northern Scotland, with the Black Isle being one of their strongholds. They are an addictive species to photograph, especially in the exceptional light we were treated to on one of the evenings at the site. Good views of greater-spotted woodpeckers, ravens and bullfinches were an added bonus, and two of the group photographed red kites for the first time a few miles down the road.


Crested tit

Crested tit

Greater-spotted woodpecker

Crested tit photography

Black Isle woodlands


It is always a pleasure to share what we have in the Highlands with others. Thanks to Erica, Helen, John, Paul and Robin for being a pleasure to guide, the Priory Hotel in Beauly for their hospitality and to James Moore at Black Isle Hides for the work as usual.

We will be running another Winter Wildlife Tour in early 2018. For bookings and information, please visit http://www.blackislehides.co.uk/

Black Isle Photography Hides runs wildlife photography tours, guiding and hide rental on the Black Isle, in the Cairngorms National Park and along the North Coast 500 route. 

The British Wildlife Photography Awards 2016

'Highly Commended' - British Wildlife Photography Awards 2016Highly Commended – British Wildlife Photography Awards 2016 (Wild Woods category)


As a pair of newly fledged winter climbers visiting the Cairngorms in 2007, Alex and I hadn’t intended to spend so much time looking at trees. We had got in one good day of climbing and it had been everything I’d hoped it would be, but a decline in the weather shut down any further attempts to get up into the mountains. Slightly dejected, we decided to go for a walk in the woods instead.

Contingency plans can be so underwhelming, but Rothiemurchus Forest had us enchanted. It was a winter landscape unlike anything we’d seen as teenagers growing up in East Anglia.  Every lochan we passed was frozen hard and sparkling white, and a light dusting of frost covered the endless ‘beards’ of lichen hanging from tree limbs all around us. There were scots pines as twisted and grand as the English oaks in the woods back home.

Half an hour into the walk, I set eyes on a view which seemed like the most perfect marriage of woodland and mountain. Caledonian pine forest stretched for miles towards the drama of the Lairig Ghru, before gently thinning into heather, and then the near-tundra of the plateau above. I didn’t know it at the time, but there are few other places in Scotland where forest and mountains flow into each other in such a way. In fact, one is often absent in the presence of the other. At the time I had little idea of the significance of this type of view in the UK, and what battle-grounds the subjects of land management, re-wilding, and National Parks were becoming in Scotland.

As my knowledge of these issues has grown over the past few years, I’ve thought repeatedly about that first glimpse and I’ve returned time and again in the winter months to that view. I wanted an image that showed the forest as part of the mountains, and vice versa – the way that it is in this place, but only just. I wanted heavy snow cover throughout, and for the clouds to be as much a part of the woods as they are the hills. For several years it was too much to ask, with one if not all of the elements missing whenever I visited the viewpoint.

When everything finally came together last winter I was surprised to say the least. I was delighted to see a mist layer there at all, but when it shifted slightly to reveal the patchy forest extending onto the hill on the right of the frame I was ecstatic. This image is intended to show how the Highland’s mountains and woodlands do not need to be separate entities, and how indeed they must not be if positive change is to come to upland land stewardship in Scotland.

I had four images short-listed in the British Wildlife Photography Awards this year, but I’m happy that it was this image of the Cairngorms that ended up in the book, the exhibition and the calendar. It shows a landscape that has become the focal point of some of the most pressing issues of the day for Scottish wildlife, wild land and the people that live and work in our upland areas.


British Wildlife Photography Awards 2016At the awards event at the Mall Galleries in London.


Below are the three other short-listed images.
For more images from the BWPA, info on the exhibition tour and buying the book, look here  https://www.bwpawards.org/


Short-listed - British Wildlife Photography Awards 2016Short-listed – Wildlife Portrait category. A mountain hare at rest in flowering heather in the Monadhliath hills.

Short-listed - British Wildlife Photography Awards 2016Short-listed – Wildlife Behaviour category. An adult female bottlenose dolphin hunting Atlantic salmon in the Inner Moray Firth.

Short-listed - British Wildlife Photography Awards 2016Short-listed – Wild Woods category. Ancient oak woodland in Derbyshire, England.

Caving for Mountain Podcast Ep.6

Recording 'Mountain Podcast' Ep.6Christopher Sleight recording audio for Episode 6 of Mountain Podcast. This episode features me guiding Chris down Cnoc nan Uamh, one of Scotland’s classic caving trips.


A few months ago I got an email from Christopher Sleight asking if I’d be interested in helping him record a Scottish caving episode of Mountain PodcastI said yes without hesitation. The podcast is a brilliant series of stories and insights into adventure, and I’ve been so impressed with every episode I’ve listened to.

You can listen to the full episode here. http://mountainpodcast.com/episode/6-a-journey-inwards/

Chris had never been caving before, but he is an experienced climber and hillwalker who has a huge wealth of knowledge when it comes to the outdoors. Knowing this, I wanted to try taking him on a slightly more challenging caving trip than I might usually consider taking a complete beginner on. With the weather playing a crucial role in deciding which cave would be suitable, we made a final decision just a few days before the trip and decided to head up to Assynt.

Cnoc nan Uamh is a varied trip involving crawling, a bit of climbing, some optional easy squeezes, a wet streamway and some nice big chambers. Like most caves it is a fairly difficult environment in which to use equipment like microphones, recording units or cameras, so I was intrigued to see how Chris was going to go about recording our trip. It was impressive to see him handling his first ever caving crawls whilst holding out a microphone in front of him.


Recording in ‘Landslide Chamber’, the second largest cave chamber yet discovered in Scotland.


I had no doubt that Chris would handle the climbing in the cave without any problems, but how well would he handle the tight sections? Squeezes or crawls are commonly the greatest cause of fear amongst novice cavers and it can be hard to judge how somebody will react to the more confined areas of a cave. However it was no surprise that Chris tackled every obstacle with enthusiasm and rapidly learnt how to move efficiently through the cave.


Recording 'Mountain Podcast' Ep.6Chris coming through one of the tighter sections.


I took the microphone at the tightest section and recorded Chris coming through, and then we spent a while admiring the cave formations in The Grotto before climbing down into the streamway for the wetter section of the cave. We spent a while recording the thundering sounds of the stream before putting the equipment away for the crux of the trip. This comprises of two awkward climbs up past waterfalls, the second of which tops-out into a crawl through a small hole. It’s a great piece of caving and it was good to see Chris enjoying it, but I think he was a little relieved to enter the much more spacious passage that came afterwards.


Recording 'Mountain Podcast' Ep.6Recording the sounds of the streamway. Just to the left of Chris is the narrow hole which he’d climbed up through.

Recording 'Mountain Podcast' Ep.6Calcite formations


We spent about an hour talking and recording in Landslide Chamber – the second largest chamber yet discovered in Scotland. It is quieter here away from the drama of the streamway and it is an impressive place, so it was a good spot to pause for some food and to digest our surroundings more completely. Chris spent a while reviewing his audio whilst I took photos and enjoyed the novelty of having company whilst down a cave.

The return trip is slightly harder due to the awkward down-climbs, so the recording equipment got put away until we got back to the surface. Chris was a pleasure to go caving with and he made me feel totally at ease whilst I was being recorded speaking for lengthy periods. It was fascinating to learn about the process of radio production, and I know I will spend more time just listening the next time I’m on a caving trip.

You can listen to the full episode HERE . Please help spread the word about Mountain Podcast, it is a brilliant production. And if Chris gets in touch with you about recording an episode, do it – you’ll have a lot of fun.

The dolphin season begins

DSC_2376copyA good start to the dolphin ‘season’ in the Inner Moray Firth.


Whilst I have been seeing dolphins on-and-off throughout the winter, it is great to be seeing them again almost daily around Chanonry Point and Rosemarkie Bay. This time last year was quite uneventful at Chanonry, so it was a great surprise to see 8 or 9 dolphins hunting and breaching on only my second visit to the Point this month.

I’ve been on the beach several times over the past fortnight and it is brilliant to be seeing familiar dolphins again. The weather and light hasn’t been the best for photography but here are a few stand-out moments from the past few days. For more of my images of the dolphins of the Moray Firth, click here.


'Sundance'The huge ‘Sundance’ going at great speed.

Early-season dolphinsA bright day at Chanonry with 8 or 9 dolphins around.

Low-light dolphinsA long exposure image at dawn. I’ll be experimenting with more of this during the season.

'Sundance'Hunting

'Zephyr' and calfThe familiar curved fin of ‘Zephyr’ and her 8-month old calf. It was wonderful to see that the calf has made it through the winter.

Seven months with the Moray Firth dolphins


Moving to live within 5 minutes of Chanonry Point has been a dream situation. Most British wildlife photographers will have heard of Chanonry – it is one of the best places in the world to watch bottlenose dolphins from land, and on a good day it is an outstanding wildlife photography location. With some luck it is possible to get good dolphin images on your first visit without much preparation. However, despite the profusion of great images from Chanonry this often isn’t the case and a large amount of time, patience and skill is required to amass a really good collection.

Although you can watch dolphins for hours on end often only metres from shore, they can be a surprisingly difficult subject for photography. When a dolphin does something (like breaching) it does it very fast indeed, and although quick reactions are essential they’ll only get you so far without knowing what to look for, where and when. As I discovered this only comes with time, and the best collections of images out there are the result of hundreds of hours of effort spread over several years.


 

At their best the dolphins can put on an astonishing show. Getting really good images of the action requires very fast reactions and shutter speeds of 1/1250sec at the slowest. Everything happens very fast indeed.

‘Kesslet’ – a favourite of many dolphin-watchers for her acrobatic antics. She is regularly seen in the Inner Moray Firth with her son ‘Charlie’ .

Dolphins hunting at Chanonry. Learning about the dolphin’s ‘body language’ helps a lot in getting these kinds of images.

Dawn light catching a dolphin’s blow. Some 4am starts were rewarded with beautiful light and opportunities for some interesting compositions.


I first started to visit Chanonry about 4 years ago and managed to get a handful of good images spread over a few trips. On my first visit with a DSLR I photographed a group of very active juvenile dolphins for 2 hours, one of which repeatedly ‘spy-hopped’ only a few metres away. I came away buzzing but unaware of just how fortunate I’d been.

I moved to live on the Black Isle in January, and from the end of March I started to spend 4 to 6 days a week at Chanonry. April was a great month with lots of bright conditions and crisp light ideal for photography. The dolphins started to appear in larger numbers, rather than the 1 or 2 which might appear a few days a week during March. I was lacking full-time employment so I sometimes would be on the beach for 6 or 7 hours a day, and after a few weeks it started to feel a bit like a new way of life. I had begun the rewarding process of getting to know the behavioural patterns and characteristics of individual dolphins, and started to learn which dolphins to watch for getting images of particular behaviour.

Spending so much time on the beach meant that I befriended several of the Chanonry ‘regulars’ – local people who spend a great deal of their time watching the dolphins, and almost every day I’d learn something new from them. Some days we would get only 1 or 2 dolphins being quite inactive, but on occasions we were rewarded with big groups of 15+ dolphins socialising and hunting.


 

‘Kesslet’ breaching at sunrise. 

‘Kesslet’ breaching on a calm day with bright conditions. The socialising behaviour of the dolphins can range from dramatic to hilarious, and can result in some wonderfully dynamic images.

Juvenile dolphins are often very active especially when in amongst larger groups. 

Two dolphins breaching in an ‘up-side down’ position

Double breachAn impressive double-breach.


The beginning of May saw a change to more challenging conditions at Chanonry Point. Unseasonably cold conditions, strong winds and overcast skies became the norm with lengthy periods of rainfall. Days on the beach would sometimes be tests of endurance and I’d get home chilled to the bone despite wearing several layers of winter clothing. Additionally the dolphin activity seemed to drop rather than increase as would be normal, and the consensus seemed to be that the season was not shaping up well. Plenty of tides would go past with very few dolphins at Chanonry, with far more being sighted up towards Cromarty instead.


Zephyr’ – possibly the most regularly-seen dolphin at Chanonry Point this season.  Known for her dramatic hunting behaviour, she often provides opportunities for spectacular images.

‘Zephyr’ with a fish late one evening. Chanonry Point offers uniquely close views of the dolphins hunting.

‘Zephyr’ at the start of a breach. In the Spring she would often be the only dolphin present at Chanonry but later in the season she would often be seen breaching with other dolphins close to shore.


However the third week of May was spectacular, with some large groups of dolphins hunting and socialising for lengthy periods. I got more good images in two hours on the 18th May than I had in the previous 2 weeks combined. The individual dolphins were becoming increasingly familiar to me and I’d become totally fixated with watching their day-to-day life from the beach.

The challenging weather lingered into June and many of the regular dolphin-watchers were repeatedly saying how the dolphin activity wasn’t at the level it should be for the time of year. It has been a very bad season for salmon in many Scottish rivers, and with a very sporadic salmon-run the dolphins have been increasingly distracted away from Chanonry to hunt other fish instead such as migratory mackerel or herring. Many of the regular dolphins at Chanonry have been spread widely around the coast instead of being concentrated in the Inner Moray Firth as would be more normal for the time of year.


The massive bulk of ‘Mischief’ approaching Chanonry Point. The Moray Firth dolphins are amongst the largest bottlenose dolphins in the world and ‘Mischief’ is one of the larger males. A truly impressive animal.

A young male in mid-flight. The dolphin was still fully submerged only 1/4 sec before this.

Dolphins moving fast. At times they can appear to ‘surf’ over the surface of the water at great speed.

‘Moonlight’ and her calf were regular visitors close to shore during May. The calves usually only surface for fractions of a second so good images of them can be particularly hard to get.


June was a frustrating month and I got very few good images at all. In addition to the lull of dolphin activity and poor weather I seemed to have a run of bad luck, with the best tides for dolphins being the few when I was elsewhere. At times it became very frustrating but it was hard to stay away, and if anything my temporary lack of success made me more determined. And even on a bad day there would almost always be something interesting going on –  a surprise visit from a Slovonian grebe, fly-pasts by Great Northern divers, a dead long-finned pilot whale and the never-ending banter amongst the regulars on the beach.


A large group passing Chanonry at speed.

‘Fin-shots’ are often discarded by photographers. They have their place however, and can make some good and simple compositions.

Shooting in all weathers has been a necessity this season, with some very challenging conditions on the beach. I took this image as an hour of torrential rain set-in.


 Going into late June and July I became far busier with other things and I was only able to spend 2 or 3 tides a week down at Chanonry. It was disappointing to see from friend’s photos that I missed what looked like some very good dolphin days with good light, and it just goes to show that even when you put hundreds of hours into a project, luck can still play a major role.


Dolphins approaching Chanonry during a cold dawn.


A young dolphin breaching high just off Fort George. For a short period in early July a group of young males would breach repeatedly off Fort George but not come any closer to Chanonry.

‘Sundance’ with a large salmon. A huge male, ‘Sundance’ can often be found in the middle of impressive breaching displays.

 More of ‘Zephyr’s’ hunting behaviour.


The second week of July saw some very quiet days indeed. A lack of salmon was obvious, as for example on one day when we excitedly watched 20 or so dolphins appear and forage for quite a while without catching a single fish. This was followed by 3 days in a row with no dolphins at all, unusual indeed for the time of year. Then a wonderful day came out of nowhere, with the most salmon caught in a single hour that I’ve seen so far. ‘Zephyr’ alone caught 4 fish in quick succession. Was this the start of something more consistent? No, as the next morning only ‘Zephyr’ appeared and failed to find any fish after 2 or 3 hours of foraging.

Late July brought some good days with some groups of juvenile dolphins being quite active. Repeated large splashes in the distance would give them away on their approach to Chanonry and we’d wait with excitement for them to arrive. However, more often than not the best of the action rapidly stopped as soon as the dolphins were close enough to the shore for good images, and I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated.

Thankfully everyone’s patience was rewarded by the first two weeks of August. We had some spectacular breaching displays day-after-day for a while – close to shore and in good light. A particular combination of dolphins behaved in the same way several days in a row – ‘Kesslet’, ‘Zephyr’, ‘Charlie’ and ‘Sundance’ (and others) often putting on a great show for us. Additionally I was thrilled to spot a very tiny dorsal fin appear amongst a group of dolphins early one morning, the first new-born calf of the year that I’d seen. A few weeks later and we were all delighted to see that ‘Zephyr’ had a new calf too.


Sideways breachingSoft early-morning light.

'Zephyr' breaching‘Zephyr’ breaching very close to shore.

Head-on breach‘Kesslet’ breaching head-on to my lens. This was probably the most unusual breaching shot I managed to get this season.


All wildlife photographers have ‘dream’ days that come around every once in a while, and the 10th August was just such a day for me. A calm and clear dawn was forecast to coincide with a rising tide so I had decided to go down to the beach to try some images of the dolphins at first light. When I arrived there were no dolphins, but just as a fiery sunrise started I spotted some ‘blows’ in the distance. The dolphins appeared fast and started hunting just at the right moment. ‘Kesslet’ caught a salmon but behaved in a way I’d never seen before – repeatedly lunging sideways out of the water whilst throwing the fish. My heart raced and I couldn’t believe my luck as she did this 7 or 8 times all silhouetted against the golden light of the sunrise. Not only this, but the dolphins then started breaching and I got my most unusual breaching images of the season.

During the first two weeks of August I finally managed to nail the majority of images that I’d wanted, after months of learning, improving and waiting. I continued to go to the beach for the rest of the month but less often, and I’m still turning up for a few tides as the dolphin ‘season’ draws to a close at Chanonry.

The last seven months have been incredible for me and it has been a total privilege for the Moray Firth dolphins to have become a part of my every-day life. Whilst photography has been a major aspect of it, learning about these amazing animals and simply observing them has been by far the most rewarding outcome. I’m still awe-struck by some of the things I’ve seen at Chanonry in the last few months, but even all the quiet days there have been days well-spent. I am already looking-forward to next summer and the 2016 dolphin season.

James