October means it’s time for me to head out to the Isle of May, an incredible island off the coast of Fife (Scotland) which is home to thousands of breeding seabirds and seals every year. The puffins may have gone but the seals are just starting to arrive and I’ll be here for the next eight weeks to study them as part of my job at the Sea Mammal Research Unit (for updates on the science happening on the island, check out out science blog here).
The colony is still growing at this time of year, and we have lots of pregnant female grey seals waiting to give birth on the shores of the island. The number of mother – pup pairs is growing daily, and we are out every day looking to identify study individuals from the seals that are on the island who have tags in their flippers to aid in picking them out among the crowds. Soon the seals will be everywhere on the island, especially as the pups wean from their mothers and start to explore the interior of the island, they even come up to check out the old lighthouse keeper’s house we stay in!
In other news, the website has been updated with a review for Cotswold Wildlife Park in Oxfordshire here and I’ve uploaded a load of new pictures from my trip to Edinburgh zoo last weekend in the ‘Latest Photos’ section. Finally, I’ve given into peer pressure and joing twitter (@KJRScience if you would like to find me there), I’m still learning the ropes but everyone keeps telling me how wonderful it is so hopefully I’ll take to it!
Nine years. When you write that figure down, it seems like a very long time for a ‘hobby’ to be a feature of your life. For me, it doesn’t seem too far in the past when those few days that lead me into picking up a SLR camera happened. I can remember them very clearly; meeting with my undergraduate project supervisor at Durham University to talk about getting into marine mammal science and the skills it would be useful to have. A chat with one of my friends who took pictures on his Canon SLR, and his generous offer to lend me his gear for a term and give me a crash course in how to use it. The first afternoon after he left me with the SLR and a head full of, what sounded to me at the time, technical jargon (aperture? ISO? what?) and all the shots I took came out completely black. Setting up a bird feeder outside my college room window to draw birds close by so I could practise using the camera. Ultimately being enthusiastic enough about my new pastime to get my own camera gear, including my beloved Nikon D200. At the time, the D300 had just come out and there were many photographers trading up, so listening to the age old advice about investing in your lens more than the camera body, I ended up getting a second hand D200 to start my own gear collection. Thus began a nine year relationship which has spanned the globe and every weather condition imaginable. To me the D200 is a juggernaut, no matter what I threw at it, it kept going and kept giving me images I could be proud of.
Whether it feels like it to me or not, nine years is a long time for one item (no matter how amazing it is) to shape how you approach and execute an art form. So having been fortunate enough to upgrade my camera body to a D810 this year, I welcomed the change but was terrified by it at the same time. Did I have the abilities to use this new SLR to its full potential? Would the new images be that much better than the ones from the D200, making the investment worthwhile? Would it hold up in the same shooting conditions I was used to subjecting my D200 to, or would I be too afraid to expose it to the wilds? All questions that I have seen photographers ask when debating upgrading their camera gear, which is never an easy decision. But I told myself to stop worrying and just get out there and shoot with the thing, practise and familiarity would surely make me as comfortable with the D810 as I had been with the D200, and I could figure out all the special features given time.
Sadly, this was not quite the case! I went out on one shoot with the D810 and the entire day was an exercise in frustration (although that can partly be attributed to the exposure bar being inverted from what I’m used to on the D200, which I’ve now fixed). Shooting wildlife at dawn in the highlands, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed with the results. My shots were dark, colour representation was poor and no matter what I tried, my images were not the crystal clear sharpness I was hoping the D810’s phenomenal sensor would produce. I knew I could do so much better if I just switched to the D200 that was lying in my camera bag beside me, but the adage that a poor workman blames his tools was certainly applicable here. Mulling over the shoot at home, I knew that the potential for me to be missing key knowledge about using SLRs was pretty high, as the only ‘formal’ training I’ve had in photography comes from three ‘tog afternoon sessions at bird of prey centres and two lessons from friends who are also interested in photography. So I went in search of a training course that could rectify this, and as luck would have it, the Nikon School in London had a course named ‘Getting started with D810/D800/D800E Part 1’ running the following month…
So a month on from that disaster shoot, I flew south with my camera bag as my only baggage, stuffed with all the gear I owned (sans D200) and a couple pairs of knickers to sustain me over the weekend. I freely admit that I am not a city person, and I can count the number of times I’ve been to London on one hand, so I rode the train into the city with a fair amount of trepidation. But I was only mildly traumatised riding the tube during rush hours and soon found myself stepping in the Nikon School building ready to learn (or at least get my massive bag of gear off my back). You can read a more detailed review of the day here on this site, but the take home message is I loved this course and am so relieved that I went for it despite the massive trip south I had to make.
The course not only greatly increased my knowledge of how to use the D810 camera, but my confidence in using it to produce amazing images. Surrounded by incredible photos on the walls of the school and people as enthusiastic as you about the intricacies of photography, it was hard not to feel inspired while there. I would love to go back for more if getting to the school wasn’t such an issue for me, hopefully in the New Year I will get the chance to return and increase my knowledge and venture outside my ‘wildlife photography’ comfort zone. One slight downside, seeing all the ace equipment they can lend you for the day has made me think about upgrade my lenses too, if only I could! The full frame sensor of the D810 means I should really get a full frame short lens to replace my Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8, and I would love a longer lens for shooting wildlife when I’m not on a boat. I’ve heard many good things about the Nikon 200-500mm f5.6 and getting to try it out at the course got rid of my concerns that it would be too heavy or large to handhold when shooting for a day. Better get saving I suppose, I’m hopefully going to be venturing to South East Asia to try and find some rainforest wildlife in 2017 so its tempting to try and get a lens upgrade of some sort before that trip… but we’ll have to wait and see.
After the course ended I hightailed it out of London to visit family for what was left of the weekend, and happily everyone was game for an afternoon at the Cotswold Wildlife Park despite some heavy rain, giving me the perfect chance to have a rematch with using the D810 out in the real world. The difference was night and day (you can see the best of the shots in the ‘Latest Photos’ section), the D810 this time round was a joy so I had a great time getting good snaps at the zoo and feeling excited about the upcoming field season I’ll be going on in the winter with the Scottish Grey Seals. The low light capabilities of the D810 are amazing, and the resolution of the photos is unbelievable, I could take images of a bird for example and even hand held, you can zoom in to see the filaments of individual feathers, all perfectly sharp!
I will still be taking my D200 with me into the field, it’s not let me down come rain, frost or sea salt so I cannot leave it behind while my D810 is currently untested in similar conditions. I also cannot bring myself to part with my D200, despite 9 years of shooting its only just halfway through its life (on 65K shutter actuations) so I see no reason to give up on this amazing camera. I’ve always been told its best to have a back up SLR body when out in the field, and I don’t think I could do better than my D200 which I know so well. And while we were at the restaurant of the Cotswold Wildlife Park I had a reminder of how good the D200 can be on the wall, as there was one of my photos from a few years ago of one of their pallas cats.
It is easy to fall either side of the debate in photography about improving the tools you have or the knowledge you have to use them, but the last month transitioning to the D810 has clearly shown me that it’s important to keep both in mind. Your gear, like it or not, will impact on your work but equally the best gear in the world will not give you amazing images, that’s down to your own knowledge and hard work.
I had to smile thinking to myself in that restaurant, if nine years with the D200 got one of my images on that wall, then where might my images be after nine years with the D810…?