Wildlife in January - the practical photographer's guide

Once the festivities of Christmas are over, January provides a much needed break from all the hustle, bustle and stress, making it the perfect time to focus on some wildlife photography. This month we're planning for snow and heading out in search of one of the UK’s most charismatic raptors, the red kite.

Snow is quite a rarity in the UK, especially down in the south. And when it comes, it’s often only around for a matter of days, which means that as a wildlife photographer, you need to be prepared.

We all know the scene - it was a cold evening and on waking up you discover a world blanketed in snow. It’s the perfect winter scene. But what to do? Where to go? What subjects to work on?

Making the most of snow is all down to planning. Not in the days before, but in the weeks and maybe even months leading up to it. Get working on building some ideas and gathering knowledge of locations that will be perfect for when (if ever) the snow comes.

One of the easiest things to do is build and maintain a bird feeding station in your back garden or outdoor space. Simply set up a feeder or two and then add a number of photogenic perches for the birds to rest on in-between feeding. Keep the feeders topped up each week and then when the snow comes you have a pre-made back garden bird photography studio, all set up and ready to go. To get close without disturbing the birds, work from a pre-positioned hide, or better yet set up the feeders so you can shoot from an open window of your home. It makes long sessions shooting images in the cold far more comfortable when you have great access to a kettle.

In terms of equipment you can easily take some excellent clean portraits with a lens of 200mm or above. Use the widest aperture you can to throw out the background and create some wonderful winter images. If you don’t have a long lens then don’t despair, instead try working remotely and triggering your camera close to subjects via a wired or wireless remote. Take a look at Practical Photography’s February 2016 issue to find out how to do this.

If you do use or leave your camera outside for long periods in the cold, be sure to reacclimatise it slowly when you come home. Place it inside a large plastic bag, tie it up with an elastic band and leave it to warm up. This reduces the risk of fogging up your lenses internally.

Red kites
Brought back from the brink of extinction through solid and consistent conservation work, the red kite is now once again a common site across much of the UK. With birds originally released in Wales and the Chilterns, they are now regularly seen up and down the British Isles, and make for a perfect photographic subject.

Mainly opportunistic feeders, red kites feed mainly on carrion, although will additionally feed on small mammals or worms. In flight, the birds have an obvious brownish-red colour with a prominent forked tail. They often circle over possible feeding grounds before eventually coming down.

Great places to see kites include all along the M4 and M40 motorways, as well as the Chiltern hills, central Wales, central Scotland and certain areas in Cambridgeshire. Well known feeding stations such as Gigrin Farm also offer excellent opportunities for close up views and photography.

Image wise, try and capture the birds in flight, showing off their true acrobatic skills as they twist and turn before swooping down to feed. When working with birds in flight, remember that you will need to compensate for the bright sky behind in order to get any underside details in the bird’s feathers. This will often require overexposure of around 2/3 of a stop. Check your histogram to make sure you don’t clip the highlights in the sky.

In terms of lenses, you will most likely need a longer focal length of around 400mm to fill the frame with the kites, but also remember that they can be included within the habitat for equally powerful images. Working with a tripod can be annoying, so handholding often allows for the fastest reactions when working with birds in flight. Keep your arms tucked in close to your sides and your feet set one in front of the other to maximise the strength in your stance. Shooting at 1/1000sec and faster to reduce the effects of camera shake.

Tom Mason is one of the UK’s most exciting young wildlife photographers and conservationists. He leads workshops and seminars and writes a monthly blog for the RSPB. See more of his work here