20 Sep Making the most of Autumn and Winter Bird Photography
I am soon to set off on an incredibly exciting trip to southern Malawi to carry out a photographic project for a new lodge. Besides the adventure of meeting new people and seeing new places and birds, I am especially excited about this trip, as the owners are also focused on empowering local guides and supporting the communities in the area… but more on this in a future newsletter.
In this issue, I hope to give you a look into autumn and winter photography and why these seasons offer so much to us as photographers. I love how each season brings with it so much variety and change. Summer and spring bring breeding plumages, migrants, new life and longer days while autumn and winter bring a kaleidoscope of colours, cool tones, misty sunrises, winter breeding efforts and bird parties in forests.
I hope you enjoy what follows and that it encourages and inspires you to take advantage of each season and the wonder they bring.
Making the most of Autumn and Winter Bird Photography
My first real exposure to winter bird photography was at Marievale Bird Sanctuary near Nigel in South Africa. My love for rallids was often the driving force for waking up in the dark, putting on every conceivable piece of clothing I could find (including balaclavas, beanies and gloves) and driving 2 hours to get to a very cold and inhospitable wetland. Once there, however, the peace and tranquillity combined with subtle light and wonderful rallid sightings made up for the discomfort.
It was during these times that I learnt some of what winter has to offer us as bird and wildlife photographers. Just before sunrise the light was a cooler, bluish tone, the reeds changed a golden hue and created equally golden reflections and the air was clearer and more photography-friendly than normal. I also learned that African Rails were easier to see, given the lower density foliage, and seemingly more active. All these factors combined to create some of my most memorable moments behind the camera.
Since then I have grown to love what each season brings and how to maximise the opportunities that they each provide. Here are just a few things to consider when the days start becoming shorter, the leaves start to fall and winter starts to set in.
What can wildlife/bird photographers take advantage of in Autumn and Winter?
Making the most of a kaleidoscope of colours: South Africa does not experience quite the same incredible colours that autumn brings to much of the northern hemisphere. That said, there are special areas in our country where certain trees or crops have been planted, which give us our own taste of colour at its best. I am blessed to live in one such area, as given the English heritage, our home in the Natal Midlands is surrounded by oaks and maples. In fact, our estate often reminds us of Connecticut; where Eileen lived before we got married, and the magnificent autumn display that we were fortunate to witness while there. Before winter sets in our surrounds transform into the most amazing display of pinks, oranges, yellows, greens and reds.
I have just completed another blog for “Nature Through The Lens” on “The Power of Colour” (which I will share with you as soon as it is published) and there is no doubt that autumn gives us the opportunity to harness these powerful effects. Colour is one of seven elements we get to play with as photographers, each element providing one of the critical building blocks with which we get to apply the principles of composition. I love teaching about colour and how it can as easily add to our compositions as it can subtract from them. Colour can evoke emotion, it can significantly influence harmony and balance and it can be used to provide emphasis, framing and indeed, a focal point.
Autumn in the Midlands is a great time to put these qualities to the test. The following images are two of my favourite from this year’s autumn colour fest and show a little bit of what is possible if we make the most of the changing seasons.
Taking advantage of dramatic weather conditions: Winter can bring with it some of the most dramatic conditions for photography. It is when we get to experience moody, misty mornings, frost on the ground and even the chance of snow on the mountains. Most people select to stay indoors during these moments. but this is when we should be donning our winter gear and exploring the outdoors with our cameras. It is these conditions that can make for the most evocative and story-telling moments and images.
Cold, misty conditions provide some of my favourite shooting conditions in the Natal Midlands. Although it can be difficult to find subjects in these more uncomfortable temperatures, it is worth searching for birds and wildlife that are known for their habitual movements; such as Kingfishers, Ducks, Eagles and Waders. If you can combine your knowledge of their habits with atmospheric weather, you may be given the opportunity to take some unique images.
Seeking out opportunities with winter breeders: Knowing which birds breed in winter and where they may occur in your area can provide some “once in a lifetime” moments. Bearing in mind that we always need to put the welfare of our birds ahead of our photographs, we should be cautious during these precious periods. This being noted, the lower density of foliage in winter combined with good observation skills and fieldcraft can allow you to immerse yourself in these bird’s environments and take advantage of winter bird behaviour at its best.
From a Natal Midlands perspective, Half-collared Kingfishers start their breeding operations in May, while all three crane species come to the area to breed in the winter months.
Soft light and more subtle, harmonious hues: There is little doubt that autumn and winter provide conditions that spring and summer do not. Recognising this potential and going to environments where the beautiful, soft light of the winter sun can combine with the more subtle hues of this season’s foliage can make for peaceful and moody atmospheres in your imagery.
Less foliage, unusual events and changes in behaviour: With winter comes a dying of the old so it can be replaced by the new and hence, what was dense and challenging for photography can become far more open and conducive to achieving our goals. Learning how winter impacts your local surrounds allows you to take advantage of these opportunities. For example, during the winter months the birds that our resident in our Afromontane forests join bird parties and often have habitual routes they follow. This combined with a much drier and more open shooting environment makes photography much easier. I have also learned that the birds move down “ouhout” valleys during these months; when food is scarce, which allows for eye-level photographs that are not possible (or at least not likely) in summer; when the birds tend to be high up in the canopy.
We also have some area-specific events that take place in the Natal Midlands, which are more unique to the area than elsewhere. For example, being a farming community, the end of winter brings with it the burning of firebreaks and grasslands. This annual undertaking, although definitely not my favourite, offers some interesting photographic opportunities. Backgrounds suddenly enable black and chocolate brown bokehs and fires can attract hunting birds as insects try to escape. Being aware of these opportunities can lead to images that move beyond the ordinary and towards the unique.
Conclusion: As much as the onset of winter brings with it challenging weather conditions, less birds and less vibrant colours, I hope this newsletter has provided you with the other side of the coin and the exciting possibilities that autumn and winter present. Indeed, this is another season to be jolly, as winter brings incredible atmosphere, soothing light, calming colours, unique events and behaviour and some of the most dramatic moments we will ever get to capture as photographers.
Mentorship Programme Testimonials and Intakes
My mentorship programme is now in full swing with intakes throughout the year. These personal, online, one-on-one sessions have been such a joy to be part of and I have seen incredible growth in my participants. Here are just a few testimonials from the last 6 months:
“Do this programme! It is a game changer and it will take your photographic perspectives, understanding and creativity to a different level. Richard is a phenomenal teacher and mentor! Worth it and highly recommended!”
Johannesburg, South Africa
“I can’t tell you how happy I am that I decided to do the whole mentorship programme. Having attended numerous photographic tours I always felt that there was something missing in my images and that was creativity. I have learnt so much in such a short time. My approach at imagining how I want my images to turn out is so different … for the better. I never before would have thought of taking the picture of the cardinal in such a way. I just wish I had done the programme earlier and before going on specialist photography tours. I truly cannot recommend this program enough. And to top it off he is also a super nice guy to sit and chat with.”
“I just completed Richard’s mentorship programme and thoroughly enjoyed it. He presented everything in such a professional way and I so enjoyed his passion and reason for doing what he does. He taught me so much through not only sharing his skills, knowledge and practical experience but also bringing it to life in my own work. It was such a privilege to spend the last few weeks with him. I can highly recommend the programme. I just wish I had done it a few years earlier!”
Johannesburg, South Africa
“Richard designed my sessions entirely around my individual needs and through his excellent understanding, knowledge and coaching skills, he enabled me to find the right photography path to follow. I cannot do full justice to the difference he has made to my confidence and my photography. He’s such a lovely person as well. I cannot thank him enough.”
London, United Kingdom
“I have just finished the first 4 parts of Richard’s mentorship programme and thoroughly enjoyed it. I learnt a lot about composition and design and the importance of shifting my mind-set to be intentional in terms of the stories I want to tell. I really enjoyed the way Richard put the material across as well as his passion for the subject matter. I felt the course was tailored towards me and that he prepared specifically for each of our sessions.”
KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
To book your mentorship spot for next year, please contact me on email@example.com
My Next Creative Workshops
Having had a very successful workshop in July this year, my next workshop is going ahead in the Natal Midlands from the 10th to the 13th November 2023. If you would like to be part of the next one, I still have space available for my April/May 2024 workshop in the Natal Midlands and for my October/November 2024 workshop at Tenahead Lodge & Spa. For more details, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send you all the specifics.
To hear what July’s workshop participants had to say, here are two testimonials from the event:
“I attended the workshop with Richard from 30 June to 3 July at Bosh Hoek. The setting, the lodge, the food, the atmosphere, superb. What lifted it above other workshops was the host, Richard. His knowledge of photography and birds, and his willingness to share was outstanding. His kindness and deep love of what he does shone through in all that he shared. I loved the theory, and the walks with Richard around Bosch Hoek were so informative and special. Richard, thank you so much – and it was so special to meet your family too. I am a fan for life.”
KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
“I attended the “Flack Photography workshop 30th June to 3rd July” which was held at the Bosch Hoek Golfing Estate.
The workshop was extremely informative and the knowledge shared by Richard was without limitation. I have a tendency to always zoom in too far and the creative aspect of the workshop has given me a completely new perspective in telling the story and including the environment and habitat of the subject. I am a lover of bird photography and Richard has opened a completely new perspective to me as a photographer.
Richard allowed generous classroom and practical time – I never felt under pressure, in either the classroom or the field.
Richard took time to spend with the workshop attendees and ensured individual attention – sharing his methodology and approach when preparing for a photograph. The thought processes and planning that I have never before considered.
The venue selected for the Workshop could not have been better – hospitality was excellent, location to the accommodation and the general environment for photographic opportunity. The lodge itself was very comfortable and relaxing – I would definitely like to return.
Thank you Rich for an extremely informative workshop which at the end of the day – I felt like I had a weekend break away! It was wonderful.”
KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
I hope you enjoyed issue 30 of The Flack’s Photography newsletters and that it will give you some inspiration and ideas for the seasons to come! I am now getting excited for the summer months and the return of our local bishops and widowbirds. There are just some things that winter cannot deliver!
Yours in bird photography,