Andy Howard Nature Photography: Blog https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog en-us (C) Andy Howard - All Rights Reserved andy.howard1970@yahoo.com (Andy Howard Nature Photography) Thu, 11 Feb 2021 08:57:00 GMT Thu, 11 Feb 2021 08:57:00 GMT https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/img/s/v-12/u821977721-o770453553-50.jpg Andy Howard Nature Photography: Blog https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog 120 90 Cano R6 & RF 100 -500mm 4.5-7.1 L IS Field Test https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2021/2/cano-r6-rf-100--500mm-4-5-7-1-l-is-field-test  

Canon R6 & RF 100-500mm Field Test

Dec 20 - Jan 21

 

Introduction.

There’s no doubt that in the years to come most of us will be upgrading our camera systems to mirrorless, it’s where technology and innovation is leading us. I’m like a lot of others out there, in being lured to shiny new equipment thinking it will improve my hit-rate and in turn increase the number of successful images obtained. This in part is true, new technologies do help but only when in the right hands, we all know the person with all the gear and no idea, the poor soul that has fallen for the hype that they can be the best just by owning the best gear. All of us that are serious about photography are on a journey of discovery, both technically and emotionally. Once we get past the technical element of photography we develop a range of styles that will eventually become our ‘signature’ style, for me it’s shooting at a super low perspective, basically eye level and with clean uncluttered backgrounds. Why? Because I like it, it’s what pleases me the most, I don’t care if it’s not ‘in vogue’ or not the fashion especially when it comes to photography competitions. I take pictures to please me and no-one else, as arrogant as that may sound it’s important not to second guess what others will think of your imagery, this stifles your creative flow and personal development. Don’t think for a second I’m advocating that there is one way to take photographs (my way), I admire many of my compatriots’ work which is so different to mine, everyone to their own. On a personal level I’m not at all motivated by landscape or macro photography but I love looking at images of both these genres.

 

Crested Tit - R6 + RF 100-500mm - ISO1000 - f8 - 1/1600th

 

This blog is about my findings when using the R6 and 100-500mm, it’s not an extensive technical test, more of a pure ‘in-the-field’ test. I went about putting this kit through its paces by pretty much going about my workflow exactly as I would normally. I also used a 500mm f4L Mk2 and the 100-400 Mk2.

 

Leaping Red Squirrel - R6 + 500mm f4 Mk2 - ISO1600 - f5.6 - 1/1000th

 

My thoughts on the system

 

I’ve been a Canon user since the mid-eighties so the general layout of the controls and menus were very much as I expected and came to me intuitively. 

The Canon 1DX Mk2 and Mk3 are my everyday workhorses so it was a bit strange at first using a camera with a smaller body, I prefer to have the option of a vertical grip which I believe is an option with this system. The materials seem to be robust for his level of camera, how it would cope with some of more demanding conditions I shoot in, I’m not too sure. Obviously I didn’t push this demo model too hard, as I don’t think my friends at Ffordes Photographic would be too pleased if I handed back a camera that was battered and bruised. I’m notorious for the demands I put on my equipment, shooting in heavy rain and driving snow will challenge equipment to the limit.

 

Redpolls Fighting #1 - R6 + RF 100-500mm - ISO8000 - f7.1 - 1/1250th - Topaz Noise Reduction

 

In the field findings.

 

I initially went through the menus and set them up to my personal preferences, these high-end cameras take time to fine tune. The live view took a few hours to get used to, it’s very handy to get a live view of your exposure through the viewfinder or even better on the back screen. I had the info set to show the histogram on the back panel just to make sure I was going to get the results I was striving for.

Let’s move on to my finding and thoughts, please bear in mind this wasn’t a technical test, you will find loads of those on YouTube and on the internet, this is how I found the system worked for me.

One thing I should mention is that I had this kit in December 2020 and January 2021. Where I live in the Highlands of Scotland the days are short and the light challenging during these months, this first test was really going to show any issues this system may have shooting in low-light. I’m pleased to report there weren’t any major concerns.

 

Pros & Cons.

Pros -

Silent shooting - I love this, to be able to rattle off 20fps with no sound is incredible, this would be a huge advantage when shooting shy and spooky animals like Pine Marten or Otters.

Eye recognition - This feature alone is selling the virtues of the R5 & R6, and a mighty impressive tool it is, it will certainly help an budding wildlife photographer with their hit rate and for the more experienced photographer it will give you images that before would have been much harder to achieve. This feature works really well when the light is behind you, not so good when shooting backlit subjects, not surprising considering most DSLR cameras struggle with this scenario. During this test there are images I captured that I probably wouldn’t have without the eye-recognition and a few that I lost. All in all it’s a great leap forward and one I wish I had on my 1DX Mk3 (Canon are you listening?).

 

Running Red Squirrel - R6 + RF 100-500mm - ISO10,000 - f7.1 - 1/1000th - NO NOISE REDUCTION USED (for illustration of noise) - EYE RECOGNITION FOCUSING

 

High ISO noise performance - This blew my socks off, as I mentioned earlier in the blog I was shooting at the time of year with some of the dullest conditions I work in. I would, and did shoot at up to ISO 5,000 without using any external noise reduction software, 8,000 and above and I’d run the image through Topaz but with a minimal noise reduction setting. The way this camera handles noise is mightily impressive and to me is a major selling point.

I've run a few of the images on this blog through Topaz at lower ISO's when I felt it would benefit the image.

Tilt and rotate screen - I’m sure many of you reading this already have camera bodies that have this feature, for someone like me that uses just pro-bodies it was a novelty, great for when I was shooting low-level shots of our resident Fieldfare in our garden. 

 

Fieldfare - R6 + RF 100-500mm - ISO400 - f7.1 - 1/800th - EYE RECOGNITION FOCUSING

 

20fps - This is just fabulous, to be able to rattle off twenty frames per second greatly increases the chance of capturing ‘the shot’. this worked really well for me whilst photographing Redpolls fighting. It happens in the blink of an eye, having the high frame rate ensured I nailed some cracking images.

 

Redpolls Fighting #2 - R6 + RF 100-500mm - ISO8000 - f7.1 - 1/1250th - EYE RECOGNITION FOCUSING

 

Battery Performance - I’ve heard a lot about the poor battery life in mirrorless systems, I had no issues with this at all. A fully charged battery would happily last me a full day’s shooting circa 2000 activations. Shooting using live view did deplete the battery life faster than by using the electronic view finder.

 

Red Squirrel Superman - R6 + 100-400mm Mk2 - ISO4000 - f5.6 - 1/1000th - TOPAZ NOISE REDUCTION

 

Cons - 

Loss of focus on backlit subjects - This isn’t specific to this camera but an inherent problem across all camera brands, I have noticed since swapping back to my 1DX Mk3 that it most definitely out performs the R6 in this situation, then again it would be unfair to compare the R6 with one double the price. This was only a minor irritation and one I could live with.

 

Redpoll Sunset- R6 + 600mm f4 Mk2 - ISO1600 - f6.3 - 1/2000th 

 

Conclusion:

 

There’s no denying that the R5 & R6 are the future of Canon’s digital camera system, packed full of tech and built in the usually high quality we’ve come to expect from a leading manufacturer. If you’re looking to make the leap to a mirrorless system I would say this is a good time, the technology is now more advanced in the mirrorless cameras than the DSLRs, and with technology that works and will improve your photography, and after all, that’s what we want isn’t it?

 

Canon RF 100-500mm f4.5 - 7.1 L IS

 

A beautifully made and constructed lens that feels beautiful in the hand, optically superb and super fast at focusing. Having the flexibility of being able to shoot up to 500mm gives the majority of wildlife photographers all the reach they are most likely to ever need. For me the smaller aperture (f7.1) at 500mm did cause me a few headaches on duller days, my ISO would shoot up but as I mentioned earlier this is mitigated by the R6’s high ISO performance. Also I’m sure very few of you reading this and considering this lens/camera combination will be shooting in the depths of winter in the Highlands of Scotland on a regular basis. Therefore the extra 100mm of reach over the 100-400mm Mk2 is an advantage to most users.

 

Andy’s Ratings

 

R6 - 8/10

Would I recommend it -Yes

Would I buy one - Yes

Will I buy one - Yes as a replacement for my 7D Mk2, not to replace for my 1DX Mk2 & Mk3.

 

RF 100-500mm - 9/10

Would I recommend it - Yes

Would I buy one - Yes 

Will I buy one - Eventually, not in the short term as its its too similar to my trusty 100-400 Mk2 to justify the change.
 

Crested Tit - R6 + RF 100-500mm - ISO3200 - f6.3 - 1/200th - UNPROCESSED - NO NOISE REDUCTION

BELOW - 100% CROP OF THE IMAGE ABOVE  TO ILLUSTRATE THE NOISE HANDLING AT ISO3200             

 

Thank you to the good folks at Ffordes Photographic for the opportunity to put this gear to the test.

Please contact the team at Ffordes for any purchasing enquiries.

 

Please DO NOT contact me with any technical questions relating to this equipment.

Thank you.

 

 

 

 

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andy.howard1970@yahoo.com (Andy Howard Nature Photography) Canon R6 Canon RF 100-500mm Ffordes Photographic Field Test Product Test Test https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2021/2/cano-r6-rf-100--500mm-4-5-7-1-l-is-field-test Wed, 10 Feb 2021 22:45:42 GMT
Why I love my Leica's https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2019/8/why-i-love-my-leicas  

Why I Love My Leica's

And can't function without them

 

I’m often asked “what’s my favourite piece of kit” for photography and it has to be my trusty Canon 600mm lens. Ask me what my most essential piece of kit is and the answer would be very different. There is no doubt whatsoever what my answer to that question would be “my Leica binoculars.” 

 

Looking for Otters on Shetland - Photo by Ruth Rowlands

 

As obvious as it may sound, to function as a wildlife photographer you first need to be able to locate your subject. At times this is the most challenging aspect of my job, and this is where my binoculars come into their own.  

 

So, how do I write a blog extolling the virtues of why I chose Leica for my optics? Not an easy task through the medium of a blog, as it’s impossible to “show” you how good the optical quality is, so to tackle this I’m going to tell you through my own personal experience how I came to trust and rely on my Leica binoculars.

 

A video of Otters for which I totally rely on my Lecia's for.

 

In the UK there are a few high quality brands in this sector of the market, and I’ve had dealings with a few of them. Before we go any further don’t think for a second I’m going to slag off the opposition, most of these companies produce fantastic quality optics and if you purchase a pair of binoculars from any of these companies you won’t be disappointed. On a personal front I chose my first pair of Leica binoculars because of the quality and robustness, I tend to be quite demanding of my equipment due in part to the hostile environments I work in. From rough Cairngorm granite to slippery Hebridean beaches I’m forever whacking my ‘bins’ against rocks! They have to be tough to withstanding the abuse I subject them to.

 

At work in the Cairngorms

 

Stay with me on this one; for those of you reading this that remember the TV series ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’ you will remember the main character was a person called Steve Austin. In the series he was a test pilot involved in a serious accident, he survived and became miracle of modern medicine as ‘they had the technology to re-build him’ and as a result he became ‘bionic’ and benefited from some super-human powers. He could leap over buildings, lift a car with one arm and run at great speeds.  To me as a young boy of all Steve’s super human powers it was his bionic eye sight that I was envious of. Using my Leica binoculars is what I imagine looking through Steve’s bionic eye would have been like. The clarity and sharpness of the glass is truly stunning.

 

Black Guillemot

 

I’m not going to bore you with the scientific blurb and technical details of the chemical make up of the glass or components as you can find out all of that on the Leica website. But what I can do is share with you some of the images I’ve captured as a direct result of using my binoculars to help me locate and spot the wildlife. 

 

Recently whilst out in the Cairngorms  I forgot my Leica binoculars, I’d left them in my vehicle. I was guiding for a group of Austrian and German clients and was keen to impress them by finding lots of Ptarmigan for them. A wave of panic overtook me at the realisation that I was without my trusty ‘bins’, feeling somewhat naked without them having become so reliant on them. The day went well but only from my in-depth knowledge of the location, but if I’d been in a new area I didn’t know so well, things could have turned out very differently.

 

Ptarmigan on a day where I remembers my binoculars!

 

I’ve been using the 10 x 42 Noctivids for over a year now so this blog is a real field test and my love of them has been built up from hundreds of days use, not just a weekend or two. The plusses are they are very tough, super sharp and excel in dull or dark conditions. I’m notoriously hard on my equipment but these guys are still looking good, although they most definitely have a ‘used’ look about them, to me they are a functional tool to be used for the purpose they were designed for.

 

Boxing Mountain Hares spotted from afar using my Leica's

 

In our household we also have a pair of Leica Ultravids, 8 x 42s and as before with the Noctivids they are built to last, with top of the range materials. My wife uses these and loves the more compact and lightweight element to them. If you suffer from shaky hands I would recommend the 8 x 42s as they have a more user friendly feel. Saying that if like me the magnification is more important, then go for the 10 x 42s, as the detail you will see through these babies will blow your socks off. Whichever pair you choose they are sure to give you many years of pleasure for your initial investment; the golden rule when it comes to binoculars is you get what you pay for, buy the best you can afford. For me Leica are my number one choice.

 

 

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andy.howard1970@yahoo.com (Andy Howard Nature Photography) binoculars blog Cairngorm field-test Leica Noctovid optics otter ptarmigan Ultravids video https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2019/8/why-i-love-my-leicas Sun, 18 Aug 2019 17:31:10 GMT
A sad day by the loch side. https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2017/7/a-sad-day-by-the-loch-side Sad Day by the Loch Side

To have any encounter with a wild otter is always special but a close encounter takes it to another level. This morning my good friend Pete and I were out on a pre-Mull Photo Tour recce, and to be honest, the weather was really grotty, rain and a slight off-shore wind made for far from ideal conditions. As we drove along merrily chatting, I spotted an otter walking along the shoreline of a sea loch no more than 50 metres away. Nothing unusual about that, as we have both been visiting this location for years and are now photographing and working with the third and fourth generations of otter families. We quickly deduced that this was one of two possible otters we know along this part of the loch. It later became apparent that it was one of the cubs of a very good mother otter who has two very healthy cubs this year. In fact we had both been photographing this young dog otter since he was about three months old.  During many of our visits to the island during last year we witnessed him growing up to be a strong and ultimately independent sub-adult, and his holt was no more than 150 metres away from where his Mum gave birth and raised him.  From the comfort of Pete’s car we watched him whilst he fished and the moment he caught something we stealthily moved towards the beach, using some rocks for cover, though what he did next surprised the both of us. He walked straight up the beach towards us, crab in tow. For the next 15 minutes he sat on the beach no more than 20 metres from where Pete and I had concealed ourselves and snapped away as he devoured a swimming crab. After he’d finished he headed straight back out to sea to continue fishing. By now the rain was horrible and the sensible thing to do was to retreat back to the car, where we kept a watchful eye on our wee otter as he tracked along the shore.  Half an hour later I’m lying on beach watching the otter heading right towards me, and I mean straight down the barrel, and I’m thinking ‘oh God’ he's going to come right up to me. I had the camera on silent mode so with the sound of the wind whistling by I knew I could continue shooting up until he came really close, as it turned out this ended up being the 4.5 metre minimum focusing distance for my 600mm lens! When it was blatantly obvious he was going to totally ignore me I tucked my head down behind my camera so I could just peek at him without him seeing my face. He approached me so closely I was really afraid he’d get such a fright if he suddenly realised I was a human and it could cause him real distress. This is the last thing I wanted (remember I’ve been lying in seaweed nearly all week whilst guiding for a client), but not to worry as he just sauntered up to where I lay, casually sniffed the leg of my tripod, walked down the side of my body and sniffed my boots! It was only after Pete and I met up afterwards that he relayed this to me, as obviously while this was happening I couldn't move a muscle, so once he was out of my peripheral vision I lost track of him. So you’d think after an encounter like this I’d be overjoyed? Well no, I’m not. In fact I’m really quite upset and concerned about it. I’ll explain why.

After photographing and spending as much time as I do with a species you get to know its behaviour and habits, and something about this otter wasn’t right; its mannerisms weren't ‘normal’. Alarm-bells started ringing when he started to eat a dead barrel jellyfish, something I’ve never seen before. The full extent of what was wrong with this otter would become very apparent to us as we reviewed the images, apart from the obvious scarring on the otter’s nose, which to us looks like the result of a severe bite, it also has a puncture wound on one of its paws, scarring on the neck and what look like maggots in its fur. Another observation we made was the state of its fur, and I can't ever recall seeing the white under-fur on an otter before. Otters are fastidious at keeping their fur clean as it’s this that gives them essential protection and insulation against the cold. It looks like this young otter has had a harsh and potentially fatal encounter with the dominant dog otter on this territory. I know him well and he's a mighty fine specimen, big, strong and in his prime. I’m fairly confident that the injuries sustained by this poor wee otter is a direct result of an altercation with this large dog. Sadly bites to otters are one of the most common causes of death, especially in sub-adult and juvenile otters. So, I wish I had a happy tale to tell you all about this encounter but I fear that this young otter will eventually succumb to it injuries. Nature can be very cruel at times but this allows only the fittest to survive and therefore maintain a strong gene pool and ultimately the strength of the species. 

Let’s hope I can share more positive tales with you from the remainder of my time on Mull.

 

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andy.howard1970@yahoo.com (Andy Howard Nature Photography) Mull close guide guides nature otter photo photography tour up wildlife workshop https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2017/7/a-sad-day-by-the-loch-side Sat, 01 Jul 2017 20:29:28 GMT
New Keela Clothing Blog https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2017/6/new-keela-clothing-blog Still Loving My Keela Clothing!

Me & in my Keela gear whilst filming for a piece for Countryfile with Ellie Harrison

I’ve been a Keela clothing partner for almost two years now and I can’t recall a day I haven't worn at least one of their garments, I’m sure those of you that have met me or know me will verify that!

I’ll briefly recap on how my partnership with Keela came about (feel free to skip to the next few paragraphs if you know the story!) 

I’ve owned many outdoor garments over the years but have never found any that really perform when I need them to. A few years ago I spent £300 on a supposedly “top of the range” jacket for outdoor enthusiasts only to discover one particularly nasty day whilst out on the hills, the rain poured through it. Now in normal circumstances this wouldn’t have been a problem, but on this day I had a client with me and we were a long way from the car. On the hour long walk off the hill, I became soaked to the skin and thus chilled to the bone. It was potentially a very serious situation, not only for me but also for my client whose safety and welfare was my responsibility. This was a real wakeup call; don’t believe the hype of advertising! This jacket is now only worn for walking the dogs.

This got me thinking. What was the best outdoor jacket I’ve ever owned?

In a previous life I was a ski instructor on Cairngorm, the weather was always a challenge and at lunch time the chat in the cafe would often be about gear: What’s good? What’s not so good?  It was during one of these conversations with a ski patroller friend of mine that he recommended a brand called Keela. “Never heard of them” I said, “Where are they based?” “Scotland” he replied. Good quality, well made outdoor clothing from a Scottish manufacturer? No way!

I searched out a stockist and purchased a black and red Munro jacket. Fourteen years later and I still have that jacket and it performs as well today as it did on its first outing. Today, it may be a bit tight around my middle but that’s not a manufacturing issue, it’s an issue I have with donuts! 

Fast forward two years and I still rely on my Keela kit to perform day in day out, and I have so much confidence in the garments I don’t ever worry about anything the Scottish weather can throw at me. I have absolute peace of mind knowing I’ve got the correct gear for the conditions. 

So, as I’ve said before I don’t believe you can really blog about gear until you’ve really put it though its paces, and I don’t mean a weekend trip to the Lake District, I’m talking about daily wear and tear by wearing and challenging the gear for almost a year, crawling, lying, sitting and walking in the locations as extreme as the Cairngorms, Shetland, Mull. 

I took delivery of a range of garments from Keela in October last year, these consisted of the following:

Heritage Trousers

Harris Tweed Bush Smock

Belay Smock

Camouflage Belay SF Smock

Country Check Shirt

Pulse Fleece

 

I’ll give you my review and personal thoughts on each garment mixed in with some some technical information from Keela’s own website.

 

Heritage Trousers:

For me these trousers are as near to perfect for me as I’m going to find. They are comfortable, they dry really quickly when they get wet, they are robust and durable, they have lots of pockets (zipped and stud closure) ideal for lens cloths, lens caps, Werthers originals… you get the point! The material is a mid-weight green cotton with rather snazzy wax cotton knee, butt and boot scuff protection panels. One of the most simple but really effective features of the knee protectors is that the bottom seam is unstitched so you can easily insert knee pads - how simple is that?! I love these trousers so much I’ve got two pairs, I couldn’t stand the thought of them being in the wash, so I’ve got a second pair to ensure I’ve always got a pair to hand.

Keela’s Info:

Along with water and wind resistant fabric, the trousers feature British Millerain Stay Wax Cotton panels at the knee and inner leg. With extra reinforcement in the seat area and articulated knees for increased freedom of movement, these trousers are built for the outdoors.

Features

• Wax Cotton panels

• Belt loops

• Gusset

• Articulated knees

• Slant & Cargo pockets

 

Harris Tweed Bush Smock

For the fashionistas out there this is the garment for you. Harris tweed is really en vogue just now, it’s not uncommon to see it featured on the catwalks of London, New York or Milan. Let’s not forget why Harris tweed has passed the test of time, it’s warm, it acts as a barrier against the wind and has a natural water repellency. I must admit I’ve only worn this garment out “in the field” on a handful of occasions. Why? Because it’s too lovely to get dirty! I’ve worn it in our red squirrel hide and when I’m out photographing dolphins. It’s my garment of choice when I’m traveling around the country giving talks and lectures; not maybe what it’s designed for but as I said earlier this is a beautiful garment and is almost too good to be subjected to the wilds. BTW. This would make a fabulous gift for someone that wants a practical but fashionable top… Not long until Christmas!

Keela’s Info: 

Developed in partnership with Woodland Ways, the Smock combines a Harris Tweed body with British Millerain Stay Wax Cotton panels; creating an attractive water and wind resistant jacket which features a unique built in fire steel loop.

The Harris Tweed is sustainable and naturally fire resistant while the Wax Cotton offers strong abrasion resistance over the shoulder area.

Features

• Harris Tweed

• Wax Cotton panels

• Stand collar

• Button closure

• Side vents

• Fire steel loop on chest

• Chest pockets & pen pocket

  • Scoop back & button cuff

 

Me with Ellie Harrison form BBC Coutryfile (I'm wearing the Belay Smock & Heritage trousers. No idea what Ellie's wearing!)

 

Belay Smock

Ok, I’m going to get straight to the point with this one (please forgive the swearing) This garment is BLOODY BRILLIANT! It’s the best outdoor garment I’ve owned, EVER! Let’s put it this way, if I was able to (and I’m not) I’d offer you my personal money back guarantee on the Belay, I would. But why do I love it so much?

Well pulling on a belay smock is like putting on a warm and cosy sleeping bag, sounds crazy I know but it’s really hard to describe the cosiness of this garment. When warn on blustery days instantly the wind chill is drastically reduced, if not eliminated completely. It’s lightweight, dries really quickly after a rain shower and is made from rip-stop nylon, has a very practical large zipped pouch, zipped underarm vents, a micro-hood and velcro adjusters on the cuffs and sides. This is my definitive garment of choice, for dog walking, sitting in a hide, walking in the Cairngorms, lying in snow, you name it!

I’m about to embark on a month long photographic trip to Canada so I’ll be taking two belays with me, a black one and a green one, just to be different you understand?!

All I can say is that anyone that hasn’t discovered the benefits of this awesome garment needs to order one now!

Keela’s Info:

Originally developed for use by Tactical forces, the belay smock has now become a firm favourite for those that prefer a over the head design.

Featuring PrimaLoft® insulation with a highly functional design means this jacket takes its place for professional users.

Features

• Water resistant 

• Windproof 

• Neck baffle

• Rollaway hood (not insulated)

• Zip neck 

• Main chest pocket 

• Two hip pockets 

• Adjustable cuffs

• 2 way zip ventilation from hem to upper arm 

Adjustable side tabs

 

Me wearing the Camouflage Belay SF in the Cairngorms

Camouflage Belay SF

This is the Daddy of all outdoor garments, a serious piece of kit designed and manufactured for the most demanding conditions and to be worn by the most demanding and highly trained soldiers in the world; the special forces. Basically it’s the ruffty tufty version of the Belay smock and it’s specked up to perform and be effective to temperatures of below minus twenty degrees celsius. Everything has been toughened and reinforced, elbow pads, zips, outer materials, everything!

As this smock is super well insulated I can only wear this on days when the temperatures are well below freezing, and there were a few days last winter where it came in to its own especially as I lay in the snow for up to five hours whilst photographing mountain hares, and that’s when this garment showed its true colours, even if I did get mild frost-bite on my feet!

This garment is only available through selected outlets, for more details please contact Keela directly.

Image of a Ptarmigan taken on the same day as the image of me above

 

Country Check Shirt

A while back I noticed that almost every man (especially wildlife photographers) in the U.K owns a checked shirt! I joined the masses last October when Keela sent me one of their Country check shirts, though of course, mine has been beautifully embroidered with my logo so it's unique! 

I wear this shirt on days when I want to look a wee bit smarter, when I’m giving talks or lectures or promoting my business. It’s made from really soft and comfortable cotton, it washes and dries really well and needs little or no ironing. All-in-all a really nice piece of kit, and as it makes for a great travel shirt, mine will be getting a lot of use on our forthcoming trip to Canada.

Keela’s Info:

With button-up sleeves and a supersoft feel this shirt is perfect for everything from a UK summer stroll to winter travel. The classic cut combined with quick-dry feature means you can look stylish while staying practical and protected.

Features

• Classic cut

• Quick dry

• Easy care

• UV Protection

• Lightweight & comfortable

• Patch pocket

• Brushed handle

  • Roll-up sleeve tab

 

Me wearing my Country Check shirt at the opening of my exhibition

 

Pulse Fleece

I’ve reviewed the Pulse fleece before so this is a bit of a re-cap. I really love these fleeces, so much so I now have four of them, and there’s hardly a day goes by without me wearing one of them. They are so practical and perform for me, day in day out, without any fuss. The Pulse fleece is a mid-weight and highly practical garment, super lightweight and warm. I love them so much that my guests on my winter tours are given one by me as a wee gift. They wash time and time again without any sign of pilling, and they dry very quickly. In my opinion for the price this garment must be pound for pound one of the best value fleeces on the market. Don’t let the price deceive you, reasonably priced but delivers so much more.

Keela’s Info:

The Men's Pulse will quickly become an essential part of your outdoor kit. 

Lightweight for use in warmer conditions, and with excellent thermal properties for colder climates, it's perfect for use during a variety of activities.

The Olive Pulse includes specialised Heritage trims, including leather badge on left sleeve.

Features

• Breathable & wickable 

• ½ zip at collar for ventilation 

• Slight scoop at back 

• Quick dry 

• Easy care

• Works well as mid or base layer 

• Flat lock seams; improves comfort and fit when worn as part of layering system 

• Warm; high warmth to weight ratio 

• Lightweight, soft and compressible for easy packing 

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog, as Keela clothing partner I can share with you my own personal discount code (terms and conditions apply)

This will give you a 20% discount of non-reduced Keela garments ordered through the www.keela.co.uk website

20% Discount Code: AHAK36

 

Ellie Harrison of the BBC's Countryfile programme & Me (Wearing a Belay smock & Heritage trousers)

 

 

 

 

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andy.howard1970@yahoo.com (Andy Howard Nature Photography) Belay Countryfile Ellie Harrison Scotland blog cairngorm clothing highland keel nature photography wildlife https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2017/6/new-keela-clothing-blog Sun, 25 Jun 2017 20:24:26 GMT
It's a case of Otter Karma. https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2017/4/its-a-case-of-otter-karma It's a case of Otter karma!

Here at Chez Howard things have been an extremely hectic since December with tours, workshops, photography, processing, planning trips to Canada, the list goes on and on. And as a result my blogging has really suffered, in fact it’s become almost non-existent but from here on in that changes!

I’ve just returned from a flying three day visit to my favourite Hebridean island, two days of guiding plus a visit to the family home to have a catch up. As I arrived on the island I thought I may as well check out one of my quiet ‘secret’ wee corners to to see if there were any otters around. The first scan of the bay with my bins revealed nothing, but then I noticed a gull standing on the shore looking expectantly towards a rock, and a further scan revealed an Otter on the shore. As always the first thing I always do in this situation is to stay put, and I observed its behaviour from afar. Moments later it returned to the sea to fish, and this gave me time to gear up and make my way to the shoreline. 

Picking the correct spot to await the return of a Otter to shore is a bit of a lottery, but with experience you do get better at this. I positioned myself in front of a large boulder in what I thought would be a likely spot, and sat behind my tripod and lens (these help mask the shape of my face to the Otter) and within minutes the Otter had caught a fish and was heading back to shore, back to the same spot he’d been in when I first spotted him. The fish was quite small and was quickly devoured. Off he went again, back out to fish, only this time he tracked along the shore towards where I sat waiting. Almost instantly up he popped with a large crab and headed right towards the shore close to me. Happy days!

The light was fantastic, bright but not too contrasty as he left the water. I’m not sure what type of crab he’d caught but he seemed to like it. 

Lesson one when photographing Otters is never move from your position once the Otter is ashore, as this will nearly always disturb the animal. Stay put and bide your time, Otters will reward the more patient photographers out there! Wait for it to return to the water and only move when it’s diving.

After he’d eaten his crab he once again headed out to resume his fishing, and I watched him as he caught numerous smaller fish and ate them in the water, sometimes holding them in his paws whilst spinning around. It didn’t take long for him to catch another fish but this time much larger, and it looked to me like a flat fish. What he did next really surprised me, as he took the fish back to his holt about five hundred metres from where I was. I’ve never seen or known an Otter to do this before. We live and learn!

The next day, on my first day of guiding we had a nice encounter with another young dog Otter. At one point as he was ‘crabbing’ in and amongst the seaweed he popped his head up and looked straight towards us, only for a second or two before returning to his quest for food. He eventually passed by us to within a few metres not knowing we were there lying in the weed holding our breath in case he saw or heard us. My client couldn't believe he had come so close to us without knowing we were there.

The second day dawned dark and wet and whilst going to pick up my client I thought it could well be a bit of a damp squib, and a real challenge to keep us and our gear dry. I’m pleased to report that as the skies lightened, so did the weather and as the day went on, it got better and better.

It didn’t take us long to find a single Otter fishing quite far off shore. Whilst we were in the process of kitting up, we lost sight of the Otter, and this normally means it’s come ashore, which is exactly what it had done. It was quickly located in the margins in and amongst the seaweed, and we patiently watched it as it foraged, occasionally catching a small fish or crab. This type of behaviour is very typical of a young animal as it’s an easy option and an effective way to fuel up on some protein. Our patience was eventually rewarded when he headed back to sea. This time it looked as if he was heading parallel to the shore. Otters often do this when they’re heading back to their holt and I feared this may be the case. Luckily for us he decided to stop and continue fishing, albeit a hundred metres or so away from our position. We decided to re-position and find a ‘comfy’ spot to sit and wait. We sat in front of a dark coloured rocky outcrop, as this helped to camouflage us. I jokingly said to my client “See that pile of seaweed in front of us? That’s the perfect spot for him to sit in front of us and scoff a large fish”. Well guess what? Yep, you’ve guessed it he caught a decent sized fish (this later transpired to be a Three Bearded Rockling) and headed right toward the very same spot. At first he sat with his back to us but suddenly the fish broke free and made a bid for freedom. It was quickly re-caught and this time the wee darling sat perfectly facing towards the waiting paparazzi!

Lesson two would be if you ever find yourself this close to an Otter, resist the temptation to photograph it for the first few minutes, let it settle and become comfortable. When you do eventually take your first picture do so on the silent mode and take only one, and if there’s a reaction from the Otter wait a while before you take the next one. Carry on like this and when the Otter shows no reaction to the sound of the shutter, now’s the time to take your pictures. This can take anything from five to thirty minutes depending on the individual Otter. Also remember don't cough, sniff, move or fidget. Do so and you’ve blown it, not only for you but more importantly you will spook the Otter and force it to abandon its catch; not a smart move! 

Considering we sat in our position for a full fifty minutes whilst the Otter devoured the fish, it felt more like ten; time flies when you’re ‘in the zone’. Time becomes irrelevant as you are totally absorbed in the spectacle in front of you. One thing that I was acutely aware of was that the tide was slowly creeping up towards us, and eventually we ended up sitting in a pool of water with our boots, socks, trousers and pants all soaking wet. Well worth it I’d say.

Any of you that have been guided by me for Otters will be familiar with a few phrases I talk about, Golden tickets and Otter karma are a couple. 

A golden ticket experience is when we have a really good encounter, a close up or to witness a bit of amazing behaviour. These are never guaranteed but do come along with good field craft, patience and an understanding of Otter behaviour, though there is alway a big dollop of luck!

Otter karma is all about respecting the Otters and being relaxed about capturing images. There is nothing worse than being too hasty and desperate to get close. Take your time and be patient. Let the Otters come to you, this may not happen in the next hour, on that day, or even in the next day, but trust me it will happen and when it does you can hold your head up high and say I did it with dignity and good ethics. If you’re in a situation where it just doesn't feel right, for example if you’re not confident the wind direction and it’s not favourable, walk away and leave the otter in peace to do its thing, and just enjoy watching it from afar. Your Otter karma will be rewarded! ;0)

This encounter well and truly ticks both boxes, Otter karma was well and truly restored although I’m not sure this was a ‘golden ticket’ moment, more like a diamond encrusted platinum one!!!! 

 

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andy.howard1970@yahoo.com (Andy Howard Nature Photography) Mull close guide guides nature otter photo photography tour up wildlife workshop https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2017/4/its-a-case-of-otter-karma Sun, 23 Apr 2017 08:15:22 GMT
Waxwings In The Garden! https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2016/12/waxwings-in-the-garden Waxwings in the Garden! The third of December dawned like any other day, if there is such a thing for a pro-wildlife photographer! A friend of mine was staying with us that week and we had decided to take advantage of a weather window to pay a visit to the ptarmigan in the Cairngorms. 

Later that same day whilst in the process of photographing a ptarmigan my mobile phone started to ring but I chose to ignore it as I was kind of busy (ptarmigan are rather important you know!) After I’d finished the business in hand I checked to see who had called, and it was ‘the Mrs’ so of course I immediately called her back. “Guess what we’ve got in the garden?” she asked. Now over the years we’ve had some exotic and exciting avian visitors to our garden, Crossbills, Woodcock, Barn and Tawny owls to name but a few so nothing really surprises me anymore. ‘Waxwings” was excitedly yelled down the phone, “How many?” I enquired, “Hundreds” Lyndsey screamed. “Close enough for a photo?” I asked, ‘Yep, and they’re really tame” came the reply.

Although I was a tad jealous I was really pleased for Lyndsey, as in the past month I’d spent quite a bit of time photographing Waxwings, I’d even had a decent run of my images published in the national press, so I couldn’t really complain.

On returning home I was shown amazing Waxwing images with clean and uncluttered backgrounds. On asking Lyndsey how she managed that? She casually said, “I moved the car into a good position, opened the panoramic sunroof and put my tripod on the roof to give me more height!” We spent the evening talking about how cool it was that we’d had them visiting our garden and wondered if they would return?

I awoke on Sunday morning, drew back back the curtains and was greeted by a flock of Waxwings in the tree right outside our bedroom window, a sight I shall never forget! They must have roosted in the trees that surround our home. I ran downstairs and into our backyard, to find that the rowan tree no more than ten metres from our back door was covered in Waxwings! Within minutes we were all dressed, kitted up with cameras, lenses, tripods and were ready for action. The birds behaved as they normally do by sitting in the high tree-tops and then swooping down en-mass, gobbling down berries at the rate of more than one-per-second and then retreating back to the high branches, and this went on all day! The interesting thing was that as the day progressed they became more and more accustomed to us moving around and getting closer, by the end of the day it was possible to stand just a few metres away from them as they happily gorged themselves on berries. We made a few phone calls whilst we still had berries left and some of our friends that live near by were able to come over and share the experience with us. Many mugs of coffee and biscuits were consumed during the day along with a good helping of friendly banter! As the afternoon wore on we decided as an insurance policy to skewer some red apples on to deer antlers which we had jammed in our hedge. The Rowan tree by this point was almost completely bare so we were hoping they may switch to apples when the berries ran out.

One thing that I have failed to mention is that a few weeks previous a Mistle Thrush had staked its claim to our Rowan tree as its very own, and until that day it had been aggressively chasing off all manner of birds that dared to land in its sacred tree. Hence why we had so many berries left! It goes without saying that trying to chase off a couple of hundred waxwings was going to be futile and sadly this proved to be the case. By the end of the day the tree had been stripped bare despite the Mistle Thrush's best efforts to keep the tree intact.

As the light began to fade the majority of the flock moved to a small coppice of trees about 300 metres from the house, so we followed them and watched as they drank from a puddle in a field. They also appeared to be taking frost from the grass, or that’s what it looked like to me; could this be another way for them to take on fluids? 

Just as the sun was setting they made one last purge of berries from the garden, and once they'd devoured them they switched to the apples, but only for a brief moment. The flock then retreated to a nearby tree and settled down for the night. 

The next morning we were again visited by the Waxwings albeit in progressively smaller numbers, not surprising considering by now there was nothing left for them to eat.

To experience such an amazing phenomenon on your own doorstep was a joy to behold and one that will stay with me forever, and if I ever meet you in person and we get on to this subject, please do shut me up if I go on and on about it!  

Happy New Year!

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andy.howard1970@yahoo.com (Andy Howard Nature Photography) Berries Garden Highland Photography Rowan Scotland Tree Waxwing Waxwings https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2016/12/waxwings-in-the-garden Fri, 30 Dec 2016 17:58:47 GMT
Tamron 150-600mm f5-6.3 Di VC USD G2 Field Test https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2016/12/tamron-150-600mm-f5-6-3-di-vc-usd-g2-field-test The New Tamron 150-600mm f5-6.3 Di VC USD G2 Field Test.

Canon 7D Mk2 - Tamron 150-600mm G2 - Settings: 500mm - f8 - ISO1600 - 1/640th sec.

In April you may recall I put the Tamron 150-600mm f5.6-6.3 lens through its paces; fast forward to November and Tamron asked me to do another lens test for them. This time using their brand new 150-600mm f5-6.3 Di VC USD G2. I knew during the month I had a couple of trips planned to the beautiful Isle of Mull to photograph Otters, and for a wildlife photographer there’s no better subject to point a new lens at!

Canon 5D Mk3 - Tamron 150-600mm G2 - Settings: 600mm - f8 - ISO1000 - 1/320th sec.

First of all let’s talk technical - not that I’m a technology freak, I’m more interested in something being functional and being up to the job - but this lens is totally new; everything has been re-designed and upgraded. Three of the glass elements are made from ultra-low dispersal glass, thus reducing the chance of flare when shooting back lit images, something I do a lot.

Canon 1DX - Tamron 150-600mm G2 - Settings: 600mm - f7.1 - ISO2000 - 1/1000th sec.

The focusing is more accurate and a hell of a lot faster. During my test the lens only struggled to lock on to a target once and this was a White-tailed Eagle wheeling around the sky no more than 100m away from me! The rest of the time it was quick and reliable at locking on to the subject.

Minimum focus distance has now been reduced to 2.2m.

There are three modes for the VC (vibration control) that equates to approximately 4.5 stops, and this can be critical when hand-holding the camera or when working in low-light conditions.

Canon 1DX - Tamron 150-600mm G2 - Settings: 600mm - f7.1 - ISO400 - 1/1000th sec.

The barrel for zooming has a very handy ‘zoom lock’ which stiffens the resistance of the twisting motion of the barrel. The lens has seals in it giving you some protection against moisture and dust but I would never recommend being too reliant on weather sealing. It’s best to err on the side of caution and use a rain sleeve.

The buttons are very functional and easy to operate even whilst wearing gloves and the lens hood has also been improved (see my previous blog). For me one of the best new design features has to be the new foot, including a built-in ‘Swiss plate’ which makes mounting the lens on a tripod (or monopod) more sturdy and secure.

To summarise, this lens has a totally different look and feel to its predecessor and all-in-all is a completely new beast. I was pleasantly surprised by the cosmetic improvements and couldn’t wait to get it into the field and give it go.

In-the-field

On my first outing with the new lens I thought I’d pay a visit to my Crested Tit and woodland bird feeding station, as here the lens would need to focus quickly and accurately on the super-fast and agile Cresties. I also hoped the light would allow me the opportunity to shoot some back-lit images. I’m pleased to report I was gifted some decent light and the birds performed well and posed perfectly.

Canon 7D Mk2 - Tamron 150-600mm G2 - Settings: 273mm - f6.3 - ISO800 - 1/640th sec. Canon 7D Mk2 - Tamron 150-600mm G2 - Settings: 552mm - f8 - ISO400 - 1/2000th sec. Canon 7D Mk2 - Tamron 150-600mm G2 - Settings: 500mm - f8 - ISO1600 - 1/2000th sec.

Field trip to Mull

Otters are one of the most difficult species to photograph as they are super sensitive and extremely alert to minor changes in their surroundings, either by smell, sight or sound. The word 'challenging' comes to mind! The good news is I love a challenge, so off to Mull I went in search of Otters.

Canon 1DX - Tamron 150-600mm G2 - Settings: 600mm - f9 - ISO3200 - 1/1000th sec.

For the majority of the time I used this lens, I used either a monopod or hand-held it, making sure I had the vibration control switched on. I’m used to humping around a massive Canon 600mm f4 lens which is an absolute brute to manoeuvre, especially whilst navigating over and around slippery rocks. Saying that it is in my opinion optically unbeatable, but as I said in my previous blog at over £9,000 this lens is beyond most people’s reach, which is why it’s important to look at the more viable options for the keen amateur photographers out there. Anyway, back to the Tamron, at a fraction over 2kg hand-holding this lens is relatively easy.

Canon 5D Mk3 - Tamron 150-600mm G2 - Settings: 600mm - f7.1 - ISO1600 - 1/640th sec.

For the majority of the time I spend photographing Otters I use the same settings on my cameras. I manually set the aperture and shutter speed and put the ISO setting to automatic, this then only leaves me with exposure compensation to worry about, and trust me when you’re photographing a dark brown animal against bright and reflective water, exposure compensation is crucial. One moment the Otter could be in the water, the next walking across dark coloured kelp. I’m constantly checking my histogram and making adjustments.

Canon 1DX - Tamron 150-600mm G2 - Settings: 600mm - f7.1 - ISO1250 - 1/1000th sec.

Canon 1DX - Tamron 150-600mm G2 - Settings: 600mm - f10 - ISO4000 - 1/4000th sec.

Canon 1DX - Tamron 150-600mm G2 - Settings: 600mm - f9 - ISO5000 - 1/1000th sec.

The image below is a tight crop of the image above and shows the optical quality of the lens.

Canon 1DX - Tamron 150-600mm G2 - Settings: 600mm - f9 - ISO5000 - 1/1000th sec.

As with its predecessor the sweet spot on this lens tends to be at f7.1-f8 and this came in rather handy when photographing a mother and cub, at one point I was photographing them at f10 just to insure they were both in the focus plane.

I genuinely wish this lens had been available to me at the beginning of my journey into nature photography; this lens is perfect for a budding photographer looking to improve and advance their wildlife photography. I rate this lens very highly and with its current retail price standing at £1350 I would have no hesitation to give it two thumbs up. 

Canon 1DX - Tamron 150-600mm G2 - Settings: 600mm - f9 - ISO3200 - 1/1000th sec.

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andy.howard1970@yahoo.com (Andy Howard Nature Photography) 1DX 5D 7D Canon Crested Tit Lens Test Mull Otter Scotland Tamron nature photography wildlife https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2016/12/tamron-150-600mm-f5-6-3-di-vc-usd-g2-field-test Thu, 01 Dec 2016 20:53:18 GMT
Keela Clothing Blog https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2016/7/keela-clothing-blog Keela - Testing Outdoor Clothing in Testing Conditions

How do you write a blog about outdoor clothing? Wear it for a week, go out for a walk in your local park and then write about how marvellous it is? Or do you test it day in day out in some of the harshest and most inhospitable conditions found in the British Isles? This is exactly what I’ve been doing for the past year for Keela who are my clothing partners.

Me 'in the field' wearing Munro kit - Pic by Christoph Ruisz

 I believe that to really give an honest and true review of technical outdoor clothing it has to be both put through its paces and tested to near destruction. I have a reputation within the Howard household for not treating my photography gear with the utmost of care but to me they are tools and there to help me to perform my job as a professional wildlife photographer.

Posing for the camera, with a camera! - Pic by Jason Curtis

I’m in a very privileged position to be able to call the Cairngorms ‘my office’ but like all things that sound too good to be true they often are. For example, take a recent day out I experienced in the mountains when I had a client booked for a day of Ptarmigan photography. The forecast was marginal and could have gone either way, but in the end it turned into a foul day with low cloud and persistent rain, the type of rain that seems never-ending, and by 2pm it was time to call it a day and leave the Ptarmigan to the conditions they are more adapted to. It’s on the decent off the Cairngorms that I realised my feet were sodden, my hair was dripping wet and my hands were swollen and freezing from the wind-chill and rain but my legs and torso were all but dry. It was at this moment that it dawned on me that I was now ready to write my review of my Keela clothing.

Rather than repeat myself about how my partnership with Keela came about here’s a link to a blog I wrote last year. Keela Clothing Blog

Me wearing a Pulse fleece & Op's Pants - Pic by Christoph Ruisz

Pulse Micro Fleece

The first garment I’m going to review is the Pulse Micro Fleece, which retails at less than thirty quid. This essential base layer is the garment I wear almost every day, not only in the mountains but to the shops and around the house. I have two of these and they have been washed dozens of times. Often with fleeces after a few washes they show signs of piling and the pile will flatten. Not so with the Pulse Micro Fleece, mine still look fresh and like new. Features of the Pulse include a half-length zip and collar, high thermal property for the weight, and being soft, it makes for an excellent makeshift camera protector/spare clothing layer, especially when using a rucksack rather than a camera bag.

On the coldest of days of last winter I’d wear a merino wool thermal base layer then a Pulse Micro Fleece. This would be then supplemented with a heavier pile fleece or thin down jacket and finally a wind and waterproof shell, in this instance a Munro Jacket and salopettes.

Mountain Hare Photographed in 'Challenging' Conditions.

Munro Jacket & Salopettes

The Munro range of outerwear was designed in Scotland and is constructed to be worn in the harshest of conditions, not only in Scotland but worldwide. Packed full of well thought-out features this is a serious outdoor jacket and at less than £200 it packs a punch way above its more expensive and inferior counterparts. Trust me I know, I fell for the hype from other outdoor clothing manufacturers before re-discovering Keela and blew almost £400 on a top-of-the-range jacket that was as waterproof as a teabag. It has a nice label though and celebrity naturalists seem to like it!

I’m not going to beat around the bush here, if you spend time out in the country and want a tough and functional shell jacket you’d be mad not to consider a Munro. I’ve worn it in blizzards, gales, driving rain and sleet, just about all that Mother Nature could throw at me. It’s been scuffed against abrasive Cairngorm granite, dragged over sharp rocks on Mull and has survived me crawling along on my belly. Put it this way, if it’s good enough for mountain rescue teams that’s all the recommendation I needed.

The Munro is packed full of features (Click here) and has a high breathability and waterproofness due to Keela’s System Dual Protection. To make it nice and simple for you the material is made from two layers of high-tech materials, the outer layer is for waterproofing and robustness, the inner layer is for breathability and insulation.

A word of caution before we go any further, I don’t care what outdoor clothing manufacturers say, no jacket is or can be totally waterproof and breathable at the same time. If you are heaving heavy camera equipment up a mountain and are layered up with a zipped up outer shell on, you will get sweaty, so how do we combat that? Take the shell jacket off and put it on when you’ve stopped exerting yourself, if it’s raining, take off a couple of mid layers. As far as being waterproof is concerned again in sustained and torrential rain there will inevitably be a small amount of water ingress, with the Munro jacket I’ve found this to be minimal, virtually non-existent if the double zip flaps are fully Velcroed up and the map pockets are zipped up.

So you’ve heard the good news, here is the bad news. The outer material isn’t made from a quiet soft material; this isn’t an issue for me for all but one of the species I photograph, Otters. The rustling of the material on a calm windless day can be a wee bit too noisy. Keela are addressing this with a new product line called the ‘Heritage Range’ and I’m hoping to test some of that range very soon.

Me in my Keela kit as seen on BBC's The One Show

Soft Shell

There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t wear my Keela soft shell jacket or gilet. Mine are black and are embroidered with my logo on them, so not only are they extremely practical garments they are a great advertising tool for me. I wash them using a Nikwax soft shell proof as this adds water repellency to the material. Again these garments just wash and wash and come out like new every time.

Op Pants

I love my Op pants; they are supremely comfortable and extremely durable. Whilst striving to find the perfect low angle image I spend a crazy amount of time crawling around on my belly, and this type of activity really tests the durability of my trousers.

Op pants are made from a stretchy and tough material that is lightweight enough to prevent perspiration but are thin enough to make them ideal as wind stoppers. I wash mine in Nikwax Techwash as this adds an extra bit of water repellency.

On a recent trip to Shetland whilst I was stalking an Otter I ended up a lot closer to the sleeping Otter than I had expected, as the Otter slept just five metres away from where I was.  I didn’t want to (and couldn’t) move as any slight noise would have alerted the animal to my presence, so I had to lie down where I was and stay put, and this happened to be on very sharp and painfully uncomfortable rocks. After I’d lain there in a contorted position for about twenty minutes, the otter awoke, gave me a cursory glance and headed off to do some fishing. It goes without saying I got the image I was hoping for!

The point of this story is that despite my legs ending up covered in blood from cuts sustained by the sharp rocks, my trousers showed no signs of cuts or tears! I just wish my legs were as robust!

Otter in Shetland - The results for the suffering!

​If you want to try some Keela clothing for yourself I have a discount code I can share with you, this is only valid on items purchased through Keela's website. Terms and conditions apply and the code is only valid until 31/12/16

20% Discount code - AHAK36

www.keela.co.uk

​T & C's apply - Voucher not valid with any other offer. Not redeemable for cash. Limited to one use per customer.

Ptarmigan at First Light - The Type of Conditions I love working in.

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andy.howard1970@yahoo.com (Andy Howard Nature Photography) Clothing blog cairngorm clothing partner discount code extreme keela munro jacket pulse fleece snow soft shell test weather winter https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2016/7/keela-clothing-blog Fri, 01 Jul 2016 13:56:58 GMT
Orca in Caithness https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2016/5/orca-in-caithness Orca in Caithness - A Wildlife Encounter Worth Waiting For.

May the 23rd 2016 is a day I shall never forget, for it was on this day that I fulfilled one of my life’s ambitions to see wild and free Orca in Scotland.

During the previous week I had noticed a flurry of activity on social media from one of my Twitter friends Karen Munro, as she had been having some good Orca sightings. Karen lives on the north coast and on numerous occasions has seen Orca passing by her house! On Sunday more postings were popping up on my Facebook and Twitter timelines that the whales were back in the Pentland Firth, and I commented to Lyndsey (my wife) that one day I’d like to just spontaneously pack the gear away and at ‘the drop of a hat’ head north, after all it's only a two and a half hour drive away. Lyndsey then said ‘Just go!’, so I did. I flung the camera gear and a sleeping bag in the 4X4 and off I went. I arrived at Duncansby Head lighthouse at 5pm to be greeted by dozens of whale watchers and photographers, which was quite a shock as I'd had visions of me standing on a windswept headland all on my lonesome. It was only later that I discovered it was ‘Orca Week’ in Caithness and both the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDC) and the Sea Watch Foundation had representatives there all week. Anyway, being the chatty chap I am I had soon gleaned from them that they had indeed seen Orcas twice already that day. Just my luck I thought, missed them again. It’s only when I spoke to Colin of Caithness Sea Watching that he geed up my spirits by saying they may be back as they were last seen heading into Scapa Flow on Orkney and often will head back across the firth in our direction.

At this point I should really explain to you what it’s like at Duncansby Head. The headland is the most north-easterly point on the British mainland, and the headland itself is surrounded by high rocky cliffs. To the south you will find a superb sea bird colony on and around the famous sea stacks, and to the west the rocky shoreline drops down to John O’Groats. The headland looks towards the North Sea to the east and the Pentland Firth and the Orkney Isles to the north; it’s only six miles across to the islands.

The Pentland Firth can be a violent and dangerous body of water for shipping. Only last year a large cargo ship got into difficulties with the loss of all on board, and this happened within eyesight of the shore. It’s the combination of the convergence of tides, the geology of the sea bed and the sheer power of the Atlantic and North Sea that creates such strong currents and large swells. For the time I spent there it was anything but violent and stormy, and looked almost serene, perfect conditions for whale watching.

At about 8pm without warning one of the remaining whale watching group shouted ‘ORCA!’ I couldn’t believe it, was this really my first chance to see these elusive creatures? ‘Where?’ we all shouted, now this is where it got a bit comical. The lady who spotted them was probably the worst person for giving verbal directions I’ve ever met, ‘over there’ she said’, ‘over where?’ we all shouted, ‘Over by the fish restaurant’, Eh? ‘What fish restaurant?’ ‘The one on Orkney’ she said, and what ensued was the most comical and useless set of instructions ever, though eventually we all had them in our sights. A pod of five possibly six Orcas were heading from the direction of Scapa Flow easterly towards a small group of islands called the Muckle Skerries. The only problem was they were at a range of four to six miles (far too far for photography) but to be honest I didn’t care as I had seen my first Orca. In the end we tracked them for about half an hour or so as they headed off towards the horizon. I stayed out until 11pm until it was almost dark. The next morning I awoke at three just as the light was creeping in, enjoyed a very quick breakfast before capturing some images of the sunrise. What a fabulous experience being in this amazing location; just me, my camera and a Short-Eared Owl, a pair of Meadow Pipits and a rather smelly and bustling seabird colony for company, life doesn’t get much better!

4am Sunrise over the Muckle Skerries Meadow Pipit at Dawn​

Nothing really happened until mid-morning by which time the rest of the whale watching gang had arrived. Once again the first Orca sighting of the day was towards the island of South Ronaldsay on Orkney, and the Pod took the exact same line as the previous evening. In the afternoon we had a further sighting of two males and a female out towards the Muckle Skerries, though sadly once more at long range. I did take some record shots to try to illustrate the size and scale of the Orca. Remember that the Skerries are four and a half miles from where we were. (For the camera enthusiasts out there, I was using a 600mm lens with a 1.4 extender plus a 7D Mk2 with a 1.6 crop sensor giving me a focal length of a whopping 1344mm.)

Orca sighting at a range of almost six miles!

Again this pod was lost from view as they drifted to the south-east. At approximately 4pm there was yet another sighting but once again frustratingly miles away. I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever see an Orca at close quarters. However, one thing I’ve learned about wildlife is that the more time you invest in watching and waiting for them the greater the reward, and this is exactly what happened next.

Meadow Pipits keeping me entertained ​A beautiful Twite made an appearance just as things were hotting up 

My friend Karen came running over to us and said excitedly ‘There’s a pod been spotted off St. John’s point just half an hour ago, they’re heading for Orkney’, and by now we were all willing them to come in our direction, but first we needed to locate them. As I scanned the vast area of open water before me I thought about our beloved Dolphins in the Moray Firth and where they would be if they were in this area, and just off the shore of Stroma (another small island in the Pentland Firth) I spotted a patch of rough water, worth a look I thought to myself. And as I scanned the area through my binoculars something caught my eye! Something large and black came up through the smooth mirror like surface of the water like the periscope of a surfacing submarine, quickly followed by the unmistakable blow of another whale, then another, I had spotted my first pod of Orca and totally unaided. Before telling the rest of the group I decided to check just once more, in case my mind was playing tricks on me, after all I had been up since before four in the morning! I was delighted to inform the others that this was indeed the pod of whales we were looking for.

Orca - They're coming closer! 

This group were obviously fishing in the same way as I often see our dolphins doing; slowly they began to move in our direction, diagonally towards us to start off with then straight towards us and by now clearly visible to the naked eye. Then we lost them. Where the hell did they just go? We were all frantically scanning the water hoping they hadn’t dived and snuck past us. Then once again I spotted them this time less than 500m away and heading right for us. I can’t describe the sense of excitement that I was feeling. I moved position to the furthest point of the headland, and I could then hear the excited chatter from the others and the clicking of their camera shutters, but I couldn’t see the Orcas! Then I saw them, and they were so much closer than I expected. Two bulls and two cows passed us to within 150m. WOW!

This is it, well worth waiting years for!

​Orca heading away to the south-east

My only regret is taking photographs, as when you’re behind a camera you lose that connection to what’s happening in front of you, as your field of vision is only a fraction of how you would see it naturally,  and I’m sure I missed some of the action by concentrating on getting the settings and focus points correct. Anyway, it was still one of my best wildlife encounters ever and a day I will never forget.

Thank you to Karen for encouraging me to get my ass up there and for the camaraderie, banter and laughter of the others.

Early Evening Short Eared Owl - Photographed whilst waiting for the Killer Whales to appear 

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andy.howard1970@yahoo.com (Andy Howard Nature Photography) Caithness Duncansby Head Lighthouse John O'Groats Killer Whales Orca Orkney Pentalnd Firth Scotland South Ronaldsay photography short eared owl wildlife https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2016/5/orca-in-caithness Thu, 26 May 2016 08:51:10 GMT
Tamron SP 150-600mm f5.6-f6.3 VC Lens Test https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2016/5/tamron-SP150-600mm-lens-test Tamron SP 150-600mm f5.6-f6.3 VC Lens Review

Away back in the distant past in the days of film, 1988 to be precise, I acquired my first SLR camera. It was a Minolta X300 and came with a Tamron lens. Fast forward twenty eight years and so much has changed. We now have the luxury (and kids trust me it is a luxury!) of the ability to take virtually limitless numbers of images each and every day we venture out with our super high tech DSLRs. Last year my friends at Ffordes Photographic in Beauly summoned me in to their store for a chat. Crossing the threshold of their store is a very dangerous thing for someone like me, as the rows upon rows of lenses, cameras and shiny, exciting gadgets call out to me “buy me, just hold me, I need a kind and loving home to go to!” but in this instance I managed to resist making a purchase (a first) and had a chat with the guys. They pitched an idea to me which I thought would be a great challenge; to test some of the latest lenses available from Tamron. Being a Canon prime user I must admit I kind of look down upon the third-party lenses as something I would never consider using. I agreed to the challenge and off I went with a bag full of lenses, thinking how can I test these in the best possible way? I decided the best option would be to just do what I would normally but use the lenses provided, to make the test more realistic to what the everyday person would use. So, I ‘borrowed’ my wife’s Canon 7d Mk2 (a 'prosumer' camera), instead of using my 1DX, which wouldn’t give a true and accurate representation to what is achievable to everyone. For what I do in my day-to-day work the Tamron SP 150-600mm f5.6-6.3 VC is the lens that is most suited to me. My Canon 600mm f4 is my preferred weapon of choice and I absolutely love it, except for the back-breaking weight of the brute.

The  Tamron 150-600mm on the 7d Mk2 with its 1.6 crop sensor magnification gives a true focal length of 240mm-960mm and for any budding wildlife photographer this is more than adequate.  So on to the test and my thoughts and conclusions. At 1951g this lens has a good sturdy feel to it. It’s bulky enough without being overly heavy, but for those with weaker arms a monopod would make a good investment. On the other hand the lens hood does feel a little bit on the flimsy side. The barrel used for zooming the lens is in and out is in a good intuitive position and has a lovely smooth action; the same applies for the focus ring. The control switches have a positive ‘click’ to them.

In the field depending on the subject and circumstances I normally use a combination of a beanbag and tripod. This helps with the stability and can aid in lowering the shutter speed to way below what would be achievable by hand-holding, the image below was taken at 160th of a second using a tripod.

As I’ve mentioned earlier to make this test as fair as possible, rather than putting the lens through a series of performance tests, I’d just go out and use it in exactly the same manner to which I’d use my other kit. Most of my time is spent photographing Ptarmigan and Mountain Hares in the Cairngorms so naturally this was the logical place to start. Immediately it became apparent to me that the flexibility of the zoom was going to be a huge advantage over my fixed prime lenses; to be able to zoom in and out to the equivalent of 4x magnification. This came in particularly handy when photographing the hares. Most lenses have what’s referred to as a ‘sweet spot’ and this is an aperture that is fairly wide open (allowing more light in and gaining the fastest shutter speeds). On this lens at the 150-300mm focal range this is f7.1 and at the longer focal range it’s f8. This is one of the only drawbacks to this lens, as shooting at f8 with a camera with low-noise ISO capabilities will in low-light conditions mean your shutter speeds will be fairly low, but the good news is that the ‘vibration control’ (VC) really helps combat this. For the vast majority of photographers considering this lens, this won’t be a major concern as most leisure photographers won’t put themselves into the more challenging low-light conditions us ‘pros’ do! To summarise, if you are looking to improve your wildlife photography and are on a limited budget and are looking for a versatile lens to learn the ‘craft’ of wildlife photography, then this is ideal. Considering this Tamron lens sells for less than ten percent of the price of my large Canon prime lens it punches well above its weight in performance, and it far exceeded my expectations. I just wish I’d had one when I was in the earlier stages of my photography career. I also gave a very brief test of the Tamron 70-200mm f2.8 on a very dull and drizzly morning at a Black Grouse lek, and all I can say about this lens is WOW! It was fast at focusing and the images came out razor sharp. The only minor niggle is that the barrel for zooming in and out is at the front of the lens, and this isn’t ideal when working in a hide with scrim netting as your hand has to reach forward of the scrim netting to adjust the focal length, but if you can live with that, this lens has superb optical qualities. If you are thinking of entering the wonderful world of wildlife photography I run both residential and day long photography workshops in and around the Cairngorms. These are aimed at all abilities from novices to professionals, and details can be found on my website. I’d love to see you up here one day soon.

Andy Howard

Professional Wildlife Photographer & Photo Guide.

May 2016

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andy.howard1970@yahoo.com (Andy Howard Nature Photography) 150-600mm Guiding Scotland Tamron Workshop black Grouse highland lens nature photography ptarmigan red Squirrel review test wildlife https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2016/5/tamron-SP150-600mm-lens-test Tue, 17 May 2016 12:02:25 GMT
2015/16 Cairngorm Winter Photography Review https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2016/4/2015/16-cairngorm-winter-photography-review 2015/16 Cairngorm Winter Photography Review
 

I have confession to share to you, I have a mistress. She can be kind and sharing but on the other hand harsh and unforgiving, yes folks I'm in love with Cairngorm in all her winter finery! Our love affair began in 1982 when I started to ski, for the next two decades depending on her mood we would have an on-off relationship. I prefer her best of all in her thick snowy white coat; this is when we had the greatest fun. Five years ago our relationship changed forever, for she revealed to me a totally new side of her personality, her wild side.
 

Anyway enough of the silly stuff let’s move onto my review of the 2015/16 winter season!
 

Please sit back and enjoy this 5 min video before you read the remainder of the blog.
 


 

 It will come of no surprise to those who follow me on social media that the winter months are my absolute favourite time of the year to be out and about with my camera, the days are short but when the conditions are right the quality of light is spectacular. Turning professional in the summer of 2015 has enabled me to get out this winter far more than ever before. In addition to this, my guiding, workshops and tours have meant that I've literally been out almost every day. The weather has been at times brutal but for someone that always looks at things in a positive light, the good days are the ones I remember most.
 

October
 

For me I look to my trusty friends the Ptarmigan and Mountain Hares for the first signs that winter is approaching. On 16th of October Rita, one of my regular Hares started to show the first signs of change in her pelage. This manifested itself in small white patches below her eyes and on her ears. A few days later as part of a lens test I was doing for FFordes Photographic and Tamron I paid a visit to the Ptarmigan, and again they were showing early signs that winter was just around the corner. Their plumage was well into the transition to white.   
 


 

November
 

As temperatures started to fall and the nights started to draw in I could feel the winter chill in the air.

I started to think a bit more seriously about how light affects the mood of an image and how to maximise the available light. This came into play and became very evident on a bright sunny day in the Cairngorms. The target for this particular day was Ptarmigan. Bright conditions don’t make for good images so in this instance it was decided to work the margins of the shadow cast by the mountain, easier said than done and to get a Ptarmigan and the very narrow band of light to come together was extremely tricky, after more than two hours waiting for everything to come together, eventually our patience was rewarded. Rita, a Mountain Hare I’ve been following for a while, now really started to show signs of her pelage turning white, and I caught up with her on a glorious evening in near perfect light conditions.

On the 18th a familiar friend showed up. I’ve known this Hare for over four years and his nickname is Bagpuss. Weirdly I found him in exactly the same form I found him in four years ago almost to the day! It was great to see him return and I looked forward to sharing some wintry photography days in his company. I went on to have many more encounters with him over the winter.


 

December
 

While we saw very little snow in during this month, this didn’t stop the Hares though as they continued on their mission to turn white. As most of you will remember December 2015 will go down in history for the tremendous and sustained rainfall and strong winds, the clouds were dark and heavy and this severely reduced the opportunities to head out with the camera. Mid-month saw Lyndsey turn thirty so as part of her present I decided to take her to Mull to photograph Otters as they had always been her bogey species. We decided to treat ourselves and stayed in a hotel and the deal was I would guide Lyndsey, as I would a client, on an Otter workshop. On day one we saw eleven different Otters and had an amazing close-up encounter with one as it caught and devoured a large Scorpion fish. Needless to say Lyndsey was delighted to be just five metres away from the action whilst capturing some stunning images.


 

January
 

Hallelujah! At last some snow and by jiggers did we take advantage of it, not only on a personal level but with clients visiting on tours and workshops. On occasions we definitely had Lady Luck on our side and were gifted the most perfect photographic opportunities possible. Although we have less daylight hours during this month, the quality of it when it’s there is unbelievable. It’s soft, clear and almost dreamy. If only all months of the year could have this type of light! Many trips were made to the Mountain Hares, as well as a few to the Ptarmigan. In January they are looking mighty fine in their pure white plumage. I’m always searching for new styles of images of my five key species so I was particularly pleased with some of the new images I captured.

Red Deer are featured as part of my Winter Tours so to once again get nigh on perfect conditions to photograph them in was especially pleasing. As too was a crazy day out with Lyndsey photographing Red Grouse. We knew it was going to be fun as we drove across a moorland road one snowy day. Let’s put it this way, you’re glad of a 4X4 with winter tyres when the drifts of snow are coming over the bonnet of the vehicle!

The Crested Tit feeding site still continued to deliver and was buzzing to the sights and sounds of the birds taking advantage of the extra source of food provided by our feeders. Over the past few years we’ve seen a noticeable increase in the bird life in our area of woodland, sometimes in biblical proportions!


 

February
 

Much to the relief to both me and my clients the snow arrived within the first couple of days and stayed right throughout the month. Some of the days were particularly challenging with driving snow and deep drifts, as I’ve said in the past. To really understand a species you have to experience the weather they do. I was out almost every day during the month either to the Mountain Hares, Ptarmigan, Crested Tits, Snow Buntings or Ptarmigan. Lyndsey and I even managed to squeeze in a flying visit to London. Ironically we spent most of our time photographing some urban wildlife in Hyde & Regents Park.

I think it’s fair to say that everyone that spent time with me during February must have enjoyed it as most have re-booked for next year!
 


 

March
 

The first week of March was taken up with the second of my Winter Wildlife Photo Tours. The week started off with a trip to the Mountain Hares. There was a lack of snow on the lower ground but it wasn’t difficult to find some large patches to work around, and fortunately the Hares played ball, and used the patches we had chosen. Day two was a combined day of Crested Tits in the morning followed by a couple of hours photographing Red Deer Stags, and we were delighted to be gifted a very snowy day to play in. On the third day we took full advantage of the mountain forecast and headed to the high tops. En-route we said hello to the Snow Buntings and some very compliant Red Grouse. It was difficult to ignore these temptations but our target species for this day was Ptarmigan. Both the weather and the Ptarmigan were spectacular and a fabulous day was had by all.

On the final day it was decided we should re-visit the Mountain Hares, nothing to do with the fresh snow that had fallen over night you understand?! Once again the Hares delivered and we managed to capture some very unusual images as fat flakes of snow floated lazily down to cover not only the Hares but the photographers too. After sharing such a fabulous week it was sad to say goodbye to my clients but I’m delighted to say that they have both re-booked onto one of my future tours.

My next client was very specific about what he wanted, and this proved to be very difficult, but we rose to the challenge and delivered the goods! It’s good to be pushed out of your comfort zone and made to work that bit harder. The images taken on those days certainly are some of the best of the winter season, and says it all really, nothing comes easy. One of the highlights of our time in the mountains has to be a close fly-by from a magnificent White-Tailed Eagle. As I write this, towards the end of March, Winter is by no means over and I hope to share many more snowy images with you yet!

On a parting note I'd sincerely like to thank you all for the support & encouragement in the past few years. To make the leap of faith to give up my twenty-eight year career to do this full-time was an extremely difficult decision and one that wasn't taken lightly. I love to share my passion and love for photography with others and I hope to do so for a very, very long time to come.
 

 


 

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andy.howard1970@yahoo.com (Andy Howard Nature Photography) Crested Tit Mountain Hare Photography Tours Photography Workshop Scotland highland nature photography ptarmigan wildlife https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2016/4/2015/16-cairngorm-winter-photography-review Fri, 01 Apr 2016 12:56:39 GMT
Gigrin Farm Red Kites https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2016/3/gigrin-farm-red-kites Gigrin Farm - Red Kites
 

In early March whilst on a trip to England Lyndsey and I met up with our good friend Pete Walkden, it had been decided that whatever the weather we would make the two hour journey from the Midlands to Gigrin Farm in mid-Wales to photograph Red Kites.

Coincidently as it turned out a rare but welcome high pressure system was dominating the U.K. and was providing us with gloriously clear and settled weather. It had been many years, decades since I'd been to Wales and had forgotten how beautiful it was (mental note to oneself; get back to Wales soon!). It took about two hours to reach Gigrin and as we drew closer we started spotting Kites and Buzzards by the dozen, a refreshing site to see.
 

The farm sits on a hillside with commanding views over to the Wyr and Elan valleys. In 1992/3 with the encouragement of the R.S.P.B the farm started to establish a Kite feeding station, in the beginning there were only six roosting kites, now there are 300 - 400! Feeding time is at 14:00 GMT (15:00BST) and consists of diced fresh meat spread out in a field by the shovel load!
 

There are a choice of hide options available depending on what your intentions are, prices start from as little as £5.00 for the basic hides but we opted to pay £20.00 each and take advantage of one of the specialist photography hides. For obvious reasons ours was called the tower hide, this open fronted hide is able to accommodate four photographers with tripods. Gigrin Farm Hide

As we were all rather relishing the spectacle about to happen, like children going to a birthday party we arrived long before the action started. Even an hour before feeding time the Kites were gathering, in small groups at first but as time moved on the numbers grew, these birds know the score. At first the more dominant birds chased each other around the skies, the birds lower in the pecking order just chilled out in the surrounding trees.
 

In the distance we could hear the tractor approaching, we weren’t the only ones, by now the skies were filled by Kites, Buzzards and Crows. I've never seen anything like it in my life and nothing could have prepared us for the sensory overload we were about to witness.
 

At exactly 2pm the tractor drove onto the small paddock/feeding area, out got the chap with a shovel and spread out maybe ten good shovel loads of the prepared meat, even as he did this the Kites were swooping down and grabbing their lunch.

As he disappeared from the paddock all hell broke loose, the sky was literally filled with birds swooping and wheeling in all and every direction, trying to photograph a single bird in this maelstrom would be neigh on impossible. In order to capture the event in the best way I could I started with a 24-105mm wide-angle lens, then switched to a 70-200mm and finally as the frenzy died down a bit I then switched to my trusty 600mm.

The main feeding frenzy lasted for about half an hour and as the more dominant and confident birds had their fill the birds lower in the pecking order came in to feed, this is the best time to use the longer lenses. After doing some online research into the best techniques for photographing Kites, I opted to try and track individuals in flight using the Servo Focus setting on my camera. Also as I most often do I was using manual exposure, ISO and shutter settings, this was made easier by the consistently good light conditions, most of my images were taken on 1600th/sec, f8 at ISO400.
 

Amusingly the Kites weren’t the only ones that were hungry, at the height of the activity they were joined by a couple of the farm kittens and a few peacocks!
 

I find that when you're concentrating as hard as we were time really is an irrelevant concept and before we knew it a couple of hours had drifted by. Even after the Kites had moved away to roost we still had great photo opportunities with the Buzzards still in the vicinity, one of us even managed to grab an excellent shot of a Rook in flight!

There's no deigning that to see so many Kites feeding at Gigrin is an amazing spectacle, it’s certainly something I can highly recommend and I’m already looking forward to returning.  It did however raise questions in my mind, why we can't have that many Kites in the Highlands? This questioning was ringing in my ears as we drove home continuing to point out Kite, after Kite to each other.
 

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andy.howard1970@yahoo.com (Andy Howard Nature Photography) Farm Gigrin Farm Kite Photography Red Kite Wales red https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2016/3/gigrin-farm-red-kites Sun, 20 Mar 2016 20:04:29 GMT
Award Winning Dolphin Watching Trip with EcoVentures https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2015/10/award-winning-dolphin-trip-with-ecoventures Award Winning Dolphin Trip One Saturday morning back in September Lyndsey and I headed off with great excitement to Cromarty. As part of my prize for winning the Scottish Nature Photography Awards wildlife behavioural category I had been given a trip for two on the Ecoventures boat. I was particularly excited by this as twenty five years ago; in the infancy of my career as a photographer I used to spend many a fine day on the Dolphin Eccose dolphin watching boat. That’s where I first met Sarah, the owner of Ecoventures. Of course back then we were nothing but young loons! Ecoventures is based in the beautiful village of Cromarty on the Black Isle. Sarah and her team have been running wildlife watching tours now since 2004 and they operate a very impressive 12 seater, 300hp Rib. I must admit that not only was I highly impressed by both the comfort and smoothness of the ride, the performance from the twin 150hp outboards is rather impressive. That boat can really shift!
 

As Saturday dawned we were slightly concerned we may not even get out on our trip. A thick vale of fog hung over the Inverness and Moray Firths. I’ve lived here long enough to know that with the aid of a gentle breeze and the help of the rising sun, the fog can clear very quickly. This is exactly what happened and by the time we arrived in Cromarty the water was calm and the skies were blue. After a safety briefing we were issued with wet weather clothing and life jackets. It was then a very short walk down to the picturesque harbour and in no time at all we were out on the water.  Firstly Sarah took us for a close up look at the many oil rigs that anchor in the Cromarty Firth. Some of these are in limbo until they are required; others are being de-commissioned as they have past their ‘use by date’. The base of one of these rigs was covered in Shags and Cormorants, it never ceases to amaze me how wildlife adapts to what we provide for it and on the previous day there had even been a sighting of a Peregrine, probably attracted to the pigeons.
 

We then left the mirror calm waters of the Cromarty Firth and passed into the more open waters of the Moray Firth, this is done so by passing through two opposing headlands called the Suitors. A quick scan of the area yielded no dolphins, although we did see Eider, Razorbills and Guillemots. I was particularly excited to see one of my all-time favourite bird species, an Arctic Skua. Sarah decided our best bet to see Dolphins was to hug the coastline and head south, apparently sightings in this area over the past few days had been good. We cruised down to Rosemarkie before we made contact with a large pod of about twenty five dolphins, the engines were cut and we just held station. Happily the dolphins decided to check out the boat and a one point we were literally surrounded! The look on Lyndsey’s face was priceless as one of the adult dolphins passed right underneath us. Within the group there were two very young calves and a couple of yearlings. The calves are very hard to photograph from a steady shore, so to try to capture an image of one from a wobbling boat is a real challenge. Some of the adult dolphins had a play around and breached a couple of times. I’m disappointed to say my reactions weren’t quick enough, so no pictures of that then! What I did manage to get was lots of interesting close up details of the individuals markings. These vary from raking teeth marks to chunks taken out of the dorsal fins. The unique characteristics of these nicks and scrapes are how to identify the individual dolphins. Time flew by and before we knew it we were whizzing northwards back to the harbour at Cromarty. Isn’t amazing how the minutes melt way when you’re so engrossed in something? Both Lyndsey and I really enjoyed our trip and look forward to our next. Thank you to both the organisers of the Scottish Nature Photography Awards and to Sarah and the crew at Ecoventures, not only for donating the prize, but for their hospitality. It comes as no surprise to us that they are in the running for the Highlands & Islands Tourism Awards. We hope you win it girls, you deserve it!
 

 

 

 

 


 

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andy.howard1970@yahoo.com (Andy Howard Nature Photography) https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2015/10/award-winning-dolphin-trip-with-ecoventures Mon, 26 Oct 2015 20:20:03 GMT
Keela Clothing partnership https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2015/10/keela-clothing-partnership Keela Clothing Partnership
 

A recent image taken in the Cairngorms - Mountain Hare
 

Working as a wildlife photographer in the Cairngorm National Park means I’m out in all types of weather. From hot sultry summer’s days (not very often!) to the brutally cold dark days in January, it’s not unusual for the wind-chill to dip below minus forty.  It’s my job to capture nature at its rawest; to do this takes commitment, planning and a passion for nature.  Staying warm, dry and comfortable is also an important factor of me being able to perform my job.
 

Hard at work - Photographing Ptarmigan wearing a Pulse Fleece & Op's Pants 
 

I’ve owned many outdoor garments over the years but have never found any that really perform when I need them to. Last year I spent £300 on a supposedly ‘ideal jacket for outdoor enthusiasts‘only to discover one particularly nasty day whilst out on the hills, the rain poured through it. Now in normal circumstances this wouldn’t have been a problem, but on this day I had a client with me and we were a long way from the car. On the hour long walk off the hill, I became soaked to the skin and thus chilled to the bone. It was potentially a very serious situation, not only for me but also for my client whose safety and welfare was my responsibility. This was a real wakeup call; don’t believe the hype of advertising! This jacket is now only worn for walking the dogs.
 

This got me thinking… What was the best outdoor jacket I’ve ever owned?
 

In a previous life I was a ski instructor on Cairngorm, the weather was always a challenge and at lunch time the chat in the café would often be about gear, what’s good? What’s not so good?  It was during one of these conversations with a ski patroller friend of mine that he recommended a brand called Keela. ‘Never heard of them’ I said, ‘where are they based?’, ‘Scotland!’ he replied. Good quality, well made outdoor clothing from a Scottish manufacturer? No way!
 

I searched out a stockist and purchased a black and red Munro jacket. Twelve years later and I still have that jacket and it performs as well today as it did on its first outing. Today, it may be a bit tight around my middle but that’s not a manufacturing issue, it’s an issue I have with donuts!
 

My trusty old Munro Jacket - Still looking good!
 

Little did I know that this relatively unknown (in photography circles) brand were still on the go. After searching the web I found that not only were Keela still based in Scotland, they were also developing exciting new ranges of clothing, working with a mix of tried-and-tested materials and using ultra-modern manufacturing technologies. I’ll not go into full details of ranges and garments in this blog that will follow on at a later date.
 

In June and September this year I went to Keela’s factory in Glenrothes to see for myself what all the excitement was about. Not only was I shown sample and prototype garments for their future ranges, I was delighted to see that they’re still manufacturing my trusty old ski jacket, the Munro! Well if it isn’t broken, why fix it!? After all, in my own and many other people’s eyes the Munro jacket is a modern classic.
 

I am delighted to announce that Keela and Andy Howard Nature Photography are now clothing partners. Not only will I be wearing their current range of clothing, I’ll be testing new garments as they are launched and developed, something I’m really excited about. My feed back to Keela will be very much on the suitability of the garments from a wildlife photographer’s perspective rather than their traditional mountaineering clients. 
 

Andy on a visit to the factory meeting some of guys from Keela
 

Keela garments I’m currently testing.
 

Op’s Pants - Pulse Micro Fleece - Munro Jacket – Munro Salopettes
 

Test results will be posted on the soon to be launched, ‘Gear’ page of my website.
 

Ptarmigan - Taken whilst wearing Keela clothing!
 

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andy.howard1970@yahoo.com (Andy Howard Nature Photography) Cairngorm Cairngorms Clothing Keela Mountain Hare Outdoor Photgraphy Ptarmigan blog guiding nature wildlife https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2015/10/keela-clothing-partnership Fri, 02 Oct 2015 08:01:42 GMT
New season begins with the Ptarmigan https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2015/9/new-season-begins-with-the-ptarmigan New Season Begins with the Ptarmigan. For me September signals the start of the autumn and winter Ptarmigan season. All the chicks are now well on and almost indistinguishable in size from the adults. At this time of the year the Ptarmigan mill around in small family groups and as winter approaches they gather together in much larger coveys. Last year was a phenomenal breading season, with record numbers of birds seen in the Cairngorms. In the autumn I saw huge congregations of birds and witnessed one mega-flock numbering in excess of two hundred birds! To me Ptarmigan represent the most developed and well adapted bird found in the U.K. First of all they have to endure massive variations in temperature, from plus twenty five degrees in the summer to minus thirty (and more) in the winter, that’s a swing of over fifty five degrees. In addition to this they are the absolute masters of disguise, blending perfectly into their environment whatever the season. Today, after a few months away from them even I struggled to ‘get my eye in’. Basically you’re looking for a small grey bird amidst a massive mountain covered in grey rocks! This is where local knowledge and experience really helps. We found our first group today in an area where I had located them in previous years. That still didn’t stop me getting a fright when the first four birds flew off from right beneath my feet. This group flew high up into a boulder field, the other half dozen or so birds sat tight. Only after a short while did they start to meander up through the rocks, I followed them at a discreet distance and once they’d settled, I gradually moved up the slope to join them. I was lucky to find a very relaxed and compliant bird amongst that group.  She happily sat, posed then after half an hour she and her friends headed off up the hill to join the rest of the group. Similar experiences at this time of the year and in this location had taught me exactly where they were heading. For the past three years on the trot, I’ve photographed a group of ptarmigan in that very same place, and this group were heading straight for it! As I moved up the ridge to get in position, I thought to myself, there must be more birds around here somewhere? Literally, as that thought entered my mind, just a few metres away up popped the head of a ptarmigan! I had found another small covey. Occasionally when photographing wildlife you come across an exceptional bird or animal, one that just ‘blows your socks off’, one that stands out from the others and gifts you with an unforgettable experience. I’m delighted to report that this happened to me today with the most relaxed and chilled out ptarmigan I’ve ever come across (at this time of the year). Not only did she stay with me for well over an hour, she allowed me to manoeuvre around her so I could make use of the different backgrounds and lighting.

In the end after taking over four hundred pictures, I decided to leave her in peace and made my way back down the mountain. What a fabulous day, wall to wall sunshine, light winds and lots and lots of beautiful ptarmigan.
 

 

 
 

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andy.howard1970@yahoo.com (Andy Howard Nature Photography) Andy Howard Cairngorm Scotland blog cairngorms mountain nature photography ptarmigan wildlife https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2015/9/new-season-begins-with-the-ptarmigan Mon, 07 Sep 2015 22:21:38 GMT
Summer Mountain Hare Leverets in the Cairngorms https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2015/6/summer-mountain-hare-leverets-in-the-cairngorms Summer Mountain Hare Leverets - Cairngorm
 

I’m beginning to wonder if winter has ever left us this year. Here we are just two weeks away from mid-summer's day and it feels like November.
 

I recently spent a cracking day out in the company of a client from London. For most of the day we sat on a windswept hillside hunkering down against the biting wind and driving rain. It really did feel like the conditions I’d normally expect to endure in November. Even hats, gloves, waterproof jackets and trousers couldn't halt the onset of the shivers. The only saving grace was the ultra-cute and extremely compliant mountain hare leveret we encountered. I estimated this hare to be no older than two months old, at approximately 20cm long it looked so fragile and vulnerable to the inclement weather. Saying that it was obviously very well adapted to its environment, and when a squall blew in it was smart enough to seek shelter behind a boulder, as did we! In the brief interludes between the rain showers it did find time for a bit of sunbathing, not that there was much heat from the sun’s rays. I explained to my client that every second spent with a hare is an investment which normally rewards the more patient photographers. This wee beauty didn’t fail to deliver. We were gifted with many photographic opportunities by this active wee fellow. In its relaxed state it allowed us to approach to the minimum focusing distances of our telephoto lenses. This was done with no alarm to our wee furry friend. It was only a passing Curlew’s alarm call that spooked it, but after a few soothing words from yours truly it began to settle again. I know you may have heard this from me before but I’m going to say it again. Talking to mountain hares really does settle them. My theory on this is that no predator would ever talk to its prey. Hey! Don’t laugh. It works for me; you should try it. As the hours ticked by the leveret relaxed more and more, and after three hours it was behaving as if we weren’t even there. After waking up from a quick siesta it would yawn, stretch and then sit there for a moment or two in a bit of a daze, with one of its rear legs fully outstretched. It actually looks a wee bit stoned. (Maybe too much grass!) Occasionally it would awake and leave the shelter of its form and have a wee hop around. One of these ‘walkabouts’ took it to within a few metres of where we sat.  It then stopped, looked straight at us as if to say ‘where did you appear from!’ and then carried on munching on some grass. It was brilliant to be so close to what is supposed to be a timid creature, and for it to be so accepting of us being so close. For the sake of my client and his ‘summer mountain hare’ portfolio we then moved on in search of an adult hare. Luckily we located one fairly quickly and spent the remainder of the afternoon in the company of yet another very relaxed hare. I must admit to find two mega chilled hares one after to the other is not that common in the summer months. On a typical session at this time of the year it can become frustrating. At this time of the year the need to reserve energy isn’t as imperative as in winter; therefore they are a lot more flighty. Anyone can spot a white winter hare on hillside devoid of snow, but it’s a real challenge to spot one at this time of the year with their perfectly camouflaged summer pelage. On a parting note, I’m going to admit to you something that to most of you will hardly come as a revelation. I really love these hares, I cherish every moment spent in their company. Through these encounters they allow me (and my clients) a glimpse in to their secretive lives and each visit educates me more about them and the life they lead.* *Yesterday I’m sure I witnessed some unique and very interesting behaviour from one of the hares. Its going to remain a secret for now, if possible I’m going to try to capture it on video. If was doing what I suspect it was doing, it was pretty amazing stuff, and has never been seen before (to the best of my knowledge) Fingers crossed it repeats it. 
 


 

 


 

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andy.howard1970@yahoo.com (Andy Howard Nature Photography) Andy Howard Cairngorm Cairngorms Scotland blog guiding highland highlands lepus timidus leveret mountain hare nature photographer photography summer wildlife https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2015/6/summer-mountain-hare-leverets-in-the-cairngorms Mon, 15 Jun 2015 13:30:46 GMT
Cairngorm Dotterel the Dream Makers https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2015/5/cairngorm-dotterel-the-dream-makers Cairngorm Dotterel - The Dream Makers
 

Friday’s weather forecast was for bitterly cold winds slowly easing towards evening. It was with that in mind that my client (Steve) and I decided to start our day later than normal. The trek up to the Cairngorm plateau started at 11am. The walk had literally just started when we were distracted by the antics of a few Ring Ouzels, but we made the difficult decision to press on and continue with our mission to find our first Dotterel of the season. After twenty minutes of walking I was burning up and pouring with sweat (so much for the minus eight degrees wind-chill) so we stopped briefly so I could remove my thermal base layer, a move I came to regret later on in the day.
 

Laden down with our heavy camera gear we slowly plodded our way up the first of the steep ridges, the temperature seemingly dropping with every step. By the time we stopped for a well-earned rest the wind was gusting to 30-40mph and the wind-chill was now really kicking in. We quickly refuelled with chocolate and resumed our ascent, and as we approached the first of our three potential Dotterel ‘hot spots’ the weather really started to close in, the cloud base dropped and it looked as if the forecasters had got it wrong. I decided the best course of action would be to search the lower areas and then head to the higher ground once the weather improved. After an hour or so of searching our hearts were lifted by the familiar high pitched ‘peeping’ call of a Dotterel.
 

Over the years I’ve found that Dotterel have two distinct behaviour patterns, they’re either flighty or compliant. It’s as simple as that! I’ve also found that the best way to approach them is not to; let them approach you. This is exactly what we did. The male bird was the first to come and investigate what we were, quickly followed by the female. I love the way they scurry across the ground, with their little legs just a blur. As I always shoot at a low perspective this seems to intrigue them even more, especially when they hear the rattle of the camera shutter. The male ran right up to me and stared at me with a rather quizzical look. This is classic Dotterel behaviour. 
 

After a short while they decided we weren’t that interesting after all and flew off into the distance. At this point in time the weather was still pretty dodgy and the wind-chill was chilling me to the bone. I even considered putting my thermal back on!
 

Luckily for us we quickly came across a very relaxed pair of Ptarmigan. As so often happens, at first we only noticed the cock bird, and it was only as I crawled towards him that Steve pointed out to me that the female was sheltering on the leeward side of a rock only a matter of a few feet in front of me, so I made a hasty retreat.
 

The cock bird then started to lure her towards him with a very soft and delicate high pitched call, hardy audible to us. As they relaxed and started to feed they allowed us to get reasonably close. They then moved into some dead yellow grasses, resulting in the images just coming to life. It’s refreshing to be able capture a different style of image, especially of a species you’ve photographed on many occasions.
 

I find it quite baffling why so many wildlife photographers choose to ignore the Ptarmigan when they’re not in their white plumage. Yes they look fabulous when they’re all white and sexy! But in my opinion they look equally as stunning in their perfectly camouflaged summer plumage.
 

I’m glad to report that by 16:30 the forecast was coming to fruition. I decided that we should make the effort to push for the main plateau.
 

The Cairngorm plateau is a vast area consisting of approximately 600 square kilometres of upland ground higher than 900m. This area is intersected by deep valleys and corries. So in effect when searching for Dotterel you’re searching for a small 20cm bird in a vast relatively flat and barren landscape. Anyway, shortly after we reached the plateau we found another pair, then another! Sadly these were both of the flighty variety and didn’t even give us an opportunity to photograph them. Steve then noticed another small bird of the wader variety running around, I could hardly believe my eyes, it was a Ringed Plover! I’ve never seen one in this area or as high as this, maybe it had followed the Dotterel whilst on migration?
 

As so often happens, as the evening was drawing in, the best was saved until last. For the remaining two hours we were joined by seven more Dotterel. It looked to me like they were drawn to this particular area for a very good reason. I’m not going to mention that reason here as it’s will give away the exact location, and then none of you will ever book me as a guide!
 

 Steve I were now experiencing Dotterel at their finest. The hills were alive to the sound of camera shutters and the constant ‘peeping’ from the Dotterel. We were surrounded and were rapidly filling our memory cards.The sun by now beginning to dip below the horizon and we reluctantly had to ‘call it a day’.
 

We made the long and arduous descent back to the car park. I must admit that by the time we made it back to our vehicles I was absolutely exhausted. Humping a heavy tripod* with Wimberley head, a 600mm lens and 1DX plus enough food and drink for a full day had really taken its toll.  It was 23:30 when I arrived at home, my body was aching but my mind full of memories from what had turned out to be a wonderful day. That night I slept deeply and soundly, and dreamt of the beautiful and delightful Dotterel.
 

*I’ve now ordered a light weight wooden tripod from Germany. I’ll write a wee review of it once I’ve tried it.
 

 


 

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andy.howard1970@yahoo.com (Andy Howard Nature Photography) Cairngorm Cairngorms Dotterel Photography andy Howard guide guiding location photo plateau rare bird https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2015/5/cairngorm-dotterel-the-dream-makers Mon, 25 May 2015 22:01:08 GMT
Trees For Life Supporters Day https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2015/5/trees-for-life-supporters-day Trees for Life - Supporters Day
 

Andy with a germinated Hazelnut
 

For those of you that have been on a guided day or photo workshop with me, you will have received a gift card from me supporting a charity called 'Trees for Life'. Each gift card explains a bit about a tree that has been planted on your behalf and the work of the charity. I may have even talked to you about the organisation and the great work they do.

I was therefore delighted to receive an invitation from them recently to visit their flagship Dundreggan Estate in Glen Morrison and be able to see for myself some of the working they are carrying out.
 

Young Rowan Saplings
 

Dundreggan has been in the ownership of T.F.L since 2008 and is a 10,000 hectare upland estate. The estates previous owner used it on occasion to stalk Red Deer and interestingly at that time it only employed one person, the stalker. I was very impressed today to hear that there are now six full time and five part time employees working at this location, one of which is Alan the original stalker.
 

As well as the main body of work being carried out, the regeneration of the native Caledonian forest and ecosystem, other activities happening here are a tree nursery consisting of six poly tunnels. The lodge on site provides accommodation for the workers and also the volunteers during conservation weeks. There are also students and other organisations working on the estate conducting studies and experimental work in various specialist fields, tree canopy biodiversity and re-generation of montane scrub to name just a couple. All in all it’s quite a busy place!

Birch Saplings in root trainers
 

Why were we there?
 

Both Lyndsey and I have had a love of the Caledonian pine forests for as long as we can both remember. When my photography business started to grow I thought it would be a good idea to support a cause close to our hearts, it was a totally natural decision to pledge our support to these guys.

In the future as my business develops and grows so will my commitment to T.F.L, call it 'corporate social responsibility' if you like. I call it 'Giving back to nature' (Read about it HERE).
 

The day started with a choice of activities, we opted to go on a guided walk with the Operations Manager (Doug) and the Stalker (Alan) to meet and learn about the three bracken bashing Wild Boar!
 

One of the girls!
 

Apparently Wild Boar are one of only a few species that eat bracken. Bracken chokes most other plant species that try to compete with it and therefore is not very helpful in regenerating a native forest.

Not only do the Boar eat the bracken they also turn over the ground which helps to provide the ideal conditions for tree seeds to germinate.

As we moved past the Boar's enclosure we were told about the Goat Moth and how the larvae burrow in to Silver Birch and live on the sap of the tree. To the trained eye these trees are fairly obvious, not only do they look a bit sickly but as a result of the larvae’s activity, there are often accumulations of butterflies feeding on the tree sap emitted.

The amount of dedication to one particular species was quite evident when it was explained to us that in August it is possible to see a very rare solitary bee called the Scabious Mining Bee (Andrena marginata). The issue with this particular bee is that it only feeds on one species of plant called scabious. This in turn only flourishes in clear and sunny positions. Luckily for the bees the volunteers have recently cleared some juniper scrub and planted lots of their preferred plants grown at the on-site nursery.

Row upon row of native seedlings
 

After Lunch Lyndsey and I fancied getting our hands a bit dirty so we volunteered to do a shift in the nurseries poly tunnels, the choice to do this was in no way influenced by the cold and rainy conditions!

It takes a lot of concentration to get it right!
 

It was heart lifting to see row upon row of young trees and seedlings. All of TFL’s stock is grown from native seed and cuttings. We spent a couple of enjoyable hours sorting through Hazelnuts, picking through germinating nuts and then planting them into deep root seed trays.

Lyndsey checking hazelnuts for signs of germination
 

The day was wrapped up by a lovely slice of cake and a talk from TFL’s founder Alan. I first met Alan in 1986 when I was more interested in becoming a ski racer! His ethos and vision shone through to me then and I’m pleased to report it still shines bright and strong today if not brighter. It was also great to hear about the projects this wonderful organisation has planned for the future.
 

I’m so proud to be able to support such a great cause and thanks to my clients both past, present and future together we will continue to support them.

Read more about Dundreggan and Trees for Life HERE
 

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andy.howard1970@yahoo.com (Andy Howard Nature Photography) Caledonian Charity Conservation Dundreggan Glen Gary Trees for Life Volunter native nature pine re-wilding scotland wild Boar https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2015/5/trees-for-life-supporters-day Mon, 04 May 2015 20:30:07 GMT
Winnings and New Beginnings https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2015/3/winnings-and-new-beginnings Winnings & New Beginnings!

Well what a month March has turned out to be. I recently made the decision to take the plunge and turn ‘pro’. I absolutely adore spending time photographing wildlife and being in the outdoors, I equally enjoy sharing this with my guiding and workshop clients. I’m sure this harks back to my days as a skiing instructor and Salmon fishing guide. I used to get an immense sense of satisfaction from teaching someone to ski or to help them catch their first salmon. I’m now getting the same buzz from seeing my clients’ faces light up when they look at the images they’ve just captured.

As well as concentrating more time to guiding and running workshops there will be more products launched in the near future. Other projects will involve working a lot closer to home with the amazing array of species on my doorstep (sometimes literally!) and I’ll keep you posted as and when these develop. Other projects in the pipeline will involve a lot more planning and due to the complicated logistics these will run over a period of years, one of which I’ve been excited about for a very long while but time limitations have always put this on hold.

I was taken aback earlier this week when I received a call from the organiser of the Scottish Nature Photography Awards. I’m delighted to share with you that I was awarded second place in the portrait category and first place in the behaviour category. To say I’m ‘over the moon’ is an understatement. Here are the two images and a wee bit about how they came about.

 

2nd Place - Scottish Nature Photography Awards 2014 - Portrait Category 

This Mountain Hare image was taken on the 23rd of January of last year on a day spent in the Cairngorms with my friend James Shooter. The day didn’t particularly look promising but as it turned out, it has now become the most commercially successful day I’ve ever had. The first hare we photographed ended up in The Times.

Towards the end of the day we literally stumbled upon the ‘award winning’ hare. We started off in a position above the hare and after surfing down the snowy slope on our bellies we ended level with it. After a few minutes the hare decided it didn’t like us and hopped off out of sight. I said to James it may be worth waiting just in case it decided to return. It didn’t take long to do exactly this. Only this time it stood bolt upright and posed beautifully for us. I decided this image would look great as a canvas so I turned the image into black & white and cloned out the boulder. I was so pleased with it I tweeted about the canvas and shortly afterwards I received an email from Photobox inviting me to be a guest blogger. I agreed. Then to top it off, a second place in the S.N.P.A!

This is a great lesson in what can be achieved if you’re willing to go out in conditions that most others wouldn’t!

 

1st Place - Scottish Nature Photography Awards 2014 - Behaviour Category 

There’s always a story behind an image and this one is no different.

Lyndsey and I had just returned from a trip to our family home in Mull. As I stood in the office unpacking the camera gear, my attention was drawn to the antics going on in the adjacent field. There were two roe deer bucks squaring each other up, and without warning they charged across the field and ended up either side of the gate right in front of our house. They paced up and down the fence line, pawing the ground whilst walking parallel to one another. Eventually one made the brave decision to leap the fence and launch a full blown attack on its rival. When you’re photographing a scene like this if you actually see the action through the viewfinder whilst pressing the shutter, you’ve missed the shot. I knew something good had happened when Lyndsey said to me (in a very serious tone) ‘tell me you got that?’ It was only when we reviewed the images on the computer that I realised I’d captured something a bit special.   More images of this epic battle can be viewed here.

 

A Dedication & Thank you.

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank all of my friends, family and clients who've supported me in the journey thus far.

These awards are dedicated to a very special lady called Betty Morris (Aunty Betty, as I called her) She was my primary school teacher when I was seven years old, she was also a close family friend. I wouldn't be sitting here now typing this if it wasn't for her sharing with me her passion and love of nature and the wonders it holds, she encouraged me to study books on birds and wildlife and sowed the seed of enthusiasm that has grown within me. For this I will always be indebted.  

Betty Morris - An inspirational teacher and much loved friend - Died 26th March 2015

 

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andy.howard1970@yahoo.com (Andy Howard Nature Photography) https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2015/3/winnings-and-new-beginnings Thu, 26 Mar 2015 20:05:17 GMT
Black Grouse and Ptarmigan for breakfast https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2015/3/black-grouse-and-ptarmigan-for-breakfast Black Grouse & Ptarmigan for Breakfast!

The beauty of living in the Highlands of Scotland is the sheer array of wildlife available to photograph within a relatively small distance to home. Take yesterday as an example, I found myself experiencing something that this year has become a bit of a rarity… a day off all to myself.

Isn’t it strange how easy it is to get up 03:20 in the morning when you’re excited by the prospect of what the day ahead holds? An hour and a half later and I’m in a pop-up hide on a hillside in Strathspey.  Snuggled up in my cosy down sleeping bag I listen to the soothing sounds of the heath as dawn creeps in, the Snipe are drumming and in the distance Red Grouse are calling. I must have drifted off as I’m suddenly awoken from my slumber by the rasping hiss of a Black Grouse just a few feet away from my head, now that’s  what I call a wakeup call!

This morning at the lek there are eight Blackcock. Four in the ‘main arena’ strutting their stuff, whilst in the nearby heather the others stand paying little or no attention to proceedings. It’s not really until April and the arrival of the Greyhens (female Black Grouse) that the real showing off begins.

By 07:30 the action is over and the Black Grouse have departed from the lek. I pack up the hide with intentions to check out the location of another lek I’ve been given permission to photograph at. As I drive past the Cairngorms looking fabulous in the morning sun, I make a spur of the moment decision to pay a visit to the Ptarmigan. An hour or so later I’m photographing a stunning hen Ptarmigan in near perfect light. Black Grouse and Ptarmigan for Breakfast! I’m in heaven.

As the day progresses I find more and more birds, many more than I’ve ever seen before.  Now that they’re starting to pair up I find them much more approachable than on resent visits.  The rest of the day passes in a whir and before I know it the sun is dipping behind the hills to signal the end of a long, tiring but immensely rewarding day.

 Spring is a great time to photograph Ptarmigan. Details of my guiding/workshops for Ptarmigan can be found HERE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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andy.howard1970@yahoo.com (Andy Howard Nature Photography) Scotland cairngorm cairngorms guiding nature photography wildlife workshop https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2015/3/black-grouse-and-ptarmigan-for-breakfast Wed, 18 Mar 2015 21:45:20 GMT
Ridgline Clothing Review - Extreme weather testing https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2015/1/ridgline-clothing-review---extreme-weather-testing Ridgeline Clothing - Extreme Weather Testing 

I was recently given, by team at Ridgeline clothing, some garments to test/trial. At this point I have to come clean and admit that at the time I was recommended this range by a friend I hadn’t actually heard of it. This review is totally impartial and I have not received any payment for writing it, in fact when I initially talked to Ridgeline they said ‘if you don’t like the gear just say so!’. Well I’m pleased to report that I’ve been genuinely impressed by its performance. In the past I’ve spent upwards of £300 on a jacket only to rip it or find the material too noisy to stalk (stalk to photograph, not shoot!) a nervous animal. I’m not saying that these other garments aren’t good in certain circumstances but for what I do they just don’t ‘cut the mustard’. I’m quite demanding of my equipment so durability is very important to me. The toes of my walking boots have been worn through by me crawling on my belly across super abrasive Cairngorm granite, I’ve torn numerous jackets and worn through the sleeves of many a fleece, I’ll not even mention the untold damage caused to my camera equipment!

As some of you will already know I specialise in photographing Mountain Hares, Ptarmigan, Dotterel and another one of my favourite species is Black Grouse, all of these have one common denominator, The Cairngorms. This is where I spend most of my time photographing these mountain specialists. I’m a great believer in the ethos that to truly understand a species one must spend the maximum time with it, in all conditions and at all times of the year. This can result in spending many hours in what would seem to many as uncomfortable conditions.
It’s these conditions I find myself in that makes good clothing so important to my comfort. 

The garments I was testing were the Monsoon Elite Smock, the Grizzly Smock and the Roar Trousers

Mountain Hare - Image taken whilst wearing Ridgline Clothing

On first impressions the idea of a smock didn’t really appeal to me but I went along with the suggestion from my contact at Ridgeline, after a lengthy conversation he suggested that this garment would be the most practical garment for the type of conditions I work in. The outer material feels a wee bit like a synthetic moleskin, it has a ‘quiet’ soft outer layer which comes in really handy when moving across noisy heather or boulders, there is a little bit of rustling from the inner layer, but nothing like as much as my previous speciality ‘wildlife photography’ jackets. I’ve never worn a smock before and it did take a bit of getting used to. When walking on more strenuous ground they are a lot hotter than a traditional jacket so I’ve learned to wear the fleece smock on the walk-in, then put the Monsoon smock on once I’m in situ. Saying that, on the harshest day of the winter so far I wore it on the walk-in as the temperature was minus eight (plus wind chill) and it was snowing really hard so on that occasion I wore both.

Wearing a fleece smock is never going to be flattering so for the fashionistas out there, you should look away now! On the other hand, for those of you that are interested in staying warm, you should seriously consider one of these fleeces. As you’d expect from a three quarter length garment, your backside and thighs are protected by the added length. It’s amazing how much less energy you use in your leg muscles when those muscles are kept warm. If you’re like me and you spent time lying on cold and damp ground this is also made more comfortable by the length of the smock; it also works better when crawling across the ground commando style!

The Roar trousers are well constructed in the same type of soft material of the Monsoon Smock, reinforced in the right parts, the backside and knees. The knee length zips are wide enough to pull the trouser leg over a pair of boots. Recently whilst photographing a mountain hare I could feel that I was sitting on cold and wet sphagnum moss, saturated might be a better term!  After an hour or so it felt like my backside was wet but much to my amazement it wasn’t, it was my skin that was just really cold. I’ve also tested them in deep snow, again very impressive performance and after one of the hardest days I’ve ever experienced in the mountains, I went home dry.

To conclude, Ridgeline clothing although designed primarily for the shooting industry is in my opinion a very well made, practical, rugged and well thought out products. The price may also come as a pleasant surprise to you. I very much appreciate the guys at Ridgeline for the opportunity to put some of their gear to the test.

 

 

 

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andy.howard1970@yahoo.com (Andy Howard Nature Photography) Ridgeline Clothing Scotland cairngorm camera highland mountain Hare photography wildlife winter https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2015/1/ridgline-clothing-review---extreme-weather-testing Mon, 12 Jan 2015 20:59:10 GMT
Let It Snow, let in snow, let it snow. https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2014/12/let-it-snow-crested-tit-mountain-hare Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

It won’t come as much of a surprise to most of you that wildlife photographers (me included) have a bit on and obsession with snow, get any collective group of TOGS together and it won’t be long until you hear the phrase ‘oooh I’d love to photograph that in snow” to be honest, for many of us it’s a bit of an obsession.  

Well I’m delighted to report that the first snow of winter has arrived in the Highlands. The first outing in winter conditions always comes as a bit of a shock, there are so many things to reacquaint yourself with, the different clothing and equipment to dust off, snow shoes, head torches and so much more, there’s even different weather and avalanche forecasts to carefully study and consider.

Yesterday I spent the day at our crested tit site, it looked amazing with over a foot of new snow. The Cresties were in top form (as usual) and their cheeky antics are great to lift ones sprits. At any one time there were four to six buzzing around with many others close by, when I did try to count them I lost count at nine!

Photographing any species in snow has its own challenges. Staying warm is one, it helps to wear and layer the correct clothing (I’m now testing a range of clothing called Ridgeline of New Zealand  - more on that on my next blog) although I’m still searching for a pair of boots that will keep me dry and warm in temperatures below freezing. Another challenge is to set the camera to the correct exposure. A camera thinks that snow is grey and will under expose the image to what it thinks is correct to compensate for this I either increase the exposure by one-two stops or use manual settings, I find this works best.

On a recent trip to the mountain hares both equipment and photographer was tested to the limit, the weather was brutal, with strong winds, deep snow and blizzard conditions This day was one of the hardest I’ve ever experienced. (Again there will be a blog about that coming very soon.)

As I write this my thoughts turn to my beloved Ptarmigan and the thought of them in deep pristine snow is rather appealing, you never know I may even get an opportunity to try out my new snowshoes.

This image was taken in a previous winter. Hopefully I’ll have something new to share with you very soon.

I wish you all a very Happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year.

 

Andy.

 

 

 

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andy.howard1970@yahoo.com (Andy Howard Nature Photography) Strathspey cairngorm camera crested tit highland mountain Hare photography scotland snow wildlife winter https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2014/12/let-it-snow-crested-tit-mountain-hare Wed, 17 Dec 2014 21:30:08 GMT
Cresties, Cresties, where are you? https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2014/10/how-we-established-our-crested-tit-site Cresties, Cresties, where are you?

At the beginning of September our thoughts started turning to winter photography, and to which species to focus on (pardon the pun) with this in mind Lyndsey and I talked about the possibility of establishing a Crested Tit feeding station. To those of you that haven’t ever seen or photographed a Crestie, once you’ve had a close encounter with one, I guarantee you’ll fall in love. They are beautiful and characterful wee birds, they can be brazen, they’re always cheeky and most of them are extremely confiding.

In the past when I’ve photographed Crested Tits, I’ve often been left frustrated by the poor light or messy backgrounds, I suppose it’s the nature of photographing a forest dwelling bird in the midst of a dull Highland winter, or is it?

Could it be possible to find a location with good light and decent backgrounds?

The Answer is ‘Yes’ and this is how we did it.

Weeks before heading in to the forests of Strathspey and beyond, Lyndsey and I spent many hours studying O.S maps and Google earth, we were looking for clues as to which direction we should concentrate our efforts. In an ideal world we were looking for a south east facing perspective and preferably at the top of a hill, this would give good light throughout the short days of winter and with nice clean backgrounds. After pinpointing a few possible locations on the map, we donned our walking boots and headed off in search of Cresties. It took a few attempts but then one day it happened!

After trekking up a steep hill we paused to take a well-earned rest, as we gathered our breath all of a sudden we were joind by a wee friend, a Crestie! He flitted from branch to branch only a matter of a metres above our heads, it looked as if he was checking us out, at the same time as he did this he was trilling loudly.  To me it sounded like he was berating us. This was a clear message!

We raced back to the car, drove all the way home and hastily grabbed some peanut feeders. By the time we arrived back to the location it was getting late and the light was fading fast. We hung up the feeders and were overjoyed when only after a short time we were again joined by our wee pal, only this time he’d brought along a couple of friends. We both wore huge grins as we sat and watched the three amigos investigating both us and the feeders, we couldn’t believe our luck to have found our perfect Crestie location.

We have had a few sessions at the site and I’m delighted to say we have had up to eight Cresties Buzzing around at the same time………..to be continued.

 

 

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andy.howard1970@yahoo.com (Andy Howard Nature Photography) Crested Tit Scotland Strathspey cairngorm cairngorms heather highland nature photography wildlife https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2014/10/how-we-established-our-crested-tit-site Tue, 28 Oct 2014 20:21:21 GMT
Summer Hares and Purple Heather https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2014/9/summer-hares-and-purple-heather Summer Hares in Purple Heather

This summer I had big plans to photograph both the Mountain Hares and the vibrant and glorious purple heather; the aim was to get them together. The preparations started a way back in May when I started to recce a few potential locations. I now find myself taking a similar approach to that of a landscape photographer, research a location, determine where the best light will be and watch for a desirable weather window. The main difference would be the all important final element, the hare! This unsurprisingly proved to be the trickiest part of the project, photographing Mountain Hares is difficult enough in the summer months without having to stress about the other elements.

I was very fortunate, as my beloved hares didn’t fail me and gifted me some brilliant photographic opportunities. The last session involved spending over five and a half hours with one individual, one and a half hours of which entailed lying out in the a rain storm on cold and damp and uncofortable ground, towards the end of the session I was shivering so hard I could barely hold the camera steady.

 This hare proved to be an absolute dream come true, she was relaxed, entertaining and knew exactly how to pose, on three occasions she positioned herself in near to perfect spots.

She preened, scratched, stuck her tongue out at me and at one point lay down and slept and all this just a matter of metres away from where I lay. It’s extremely difficult not to become emotionally attached to a creature that is so confiding and trustful and I will freely admit I really do love these creatures.

It was also interesting to see the jowls of this hare were just starting to turn white, this first indications of the autumn moult, I’ve noticed that the first areas of the hares to change colour are the ones most frequently scratched. It’s nice to know they’ll soon be lovely and white, saying that I like them in every stage of their amazing coats of many colours!

I’ve got a few more projects lined up for the hares but for now I’m keeping those to myself, I’ll keep you posted!

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andy.howard1970@yahoo.com (Andy Howard Nature Photography) (Lepus (Mountain Hare) cairngorm cairngorms heather highland nature photography purple scotland summer timidus) wildlife https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2014/9/summer-hares-and-purple-heather Tue, 02 Sep 2014 22:08:59 GMT
1st Session at the NEW Woodland Hide https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2014/9/1st-session-at-the-new-woodland-hide 1st Session at the New Woodland Hide

It’s been a while since I spent time in a woodland hide, but I’m delighted to say that this morning that all changed.

Our home is surrounded with forestry plantations just brimming with wildlife. This summer Lyndsey and I have spent time searching our local woods looking for a suitable site to develop. Two months ago we hung three nut feeders in a pine forest very close to our home, within ten days we had the first visit by a Red Squirrel.

We already know this site reasonably well and know it contains a rich array of nature, Badgers, Roe Deer, Pine Marten, Owls, Red Squirrels, Woodpeckers, Tree Creepers, Jays, Sparrow hawks all of these species, plus many more live here. I’m not saying we’re going to be able to photograph them all, but you never know!

This morning was my first session at this location and it didn’t take long for me to realise how much I’d missed working from a hide, I don’t know what it is but there’s something magical about being immersed into the heart of busy and bustling woodland. I love the periods of activity when it’s all happening and it seems you’re surrounded by life, equally I enjoy the spells of inactivity when nothing much is happening. I find this causes ones senses to become very acute, my hearing becomes super sensitive, hear a Tree Creeper scrabbling about on a tree from 30m away, no problem!

I also notice that when you’re in a woodland hide time seems to just drift by, hours seems to just melt away.

As well as the usual suspects making an appearance this morning, it didn’t take long for a Jay to pay its first visit. I’d been watching them from afar for the past half hour but I really hadn’t expected them to accept the hide so quickly, we only put it in this location last night. The Jay made five visits to the feeding station before heading deep into the forest to join the rest of its family.

A juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker was the next visitor. She was very nervy and really didn’t like the noise of the camera shutter, saying that she did return on numerous occasions.

I left the hide after a few hours feeling very pleased with the results of the first morning spent there, no sign of the Squirrels, but I was a bit late getting up this morning. It will take many months to establish exactly where the best light and backgrounds are but if this morning’s efforts are a taste of things to come, we’re in for a treat.

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andy.howard1970@yahoo.com (Andy Howard Nature Photography) Hide Scotland Woodland deer highland jay nature photography squirrel wildlife woodpecker https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2014/9/1st-session-at-the-new-woodland-hide Mon, 01 Sep 2014 14:04:24 GMT
Roe Deer Rutting on the Doorstep https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2014/8/roe-deer-rutting-on-the-doorstep  

Roe Deer Rut On The Doorstep!

Tonight Lyndsey and I were treated to ring-side seats at one of the greatest wildlife events, a deer rut and it happened just 25m from our door!

We had just returned from a weekend away and were both busy unpacking, I glanced out of the office window and noticed a Roe buck walking along the edge of the field, nothing unusual about that. I then noticed another deer in the adjacent field, again nothing strange as we have up to four of five in the vicinity of the house. 

I watched as the first buck (I’m going to call him ‘Grey-face’) made his way over to the other deer, at this stage I hadn’t realised it was ‘White-face’ our most recognisable buck in the area. All of a sudden they had quickly crossed the fields towards each other and ended up right in front of the house. ‘Grey-face’ then started to paw the ground and it suddenly dawned on me that we had two Bucks about to square off to each other. I hastily grabbed the camera and beanbag then gently opened the office window.

By now there were on opposite sides of the fence and ‘Grey-face’ had adorned himself with some greenery! ‘White-face’ was busy prancing in parallel to his challenger. They met face-to-face at the gate and stared at each other, only when one moved did the other follow suit, lots of pawing and gesturing ensued.

‘Grey-face’ then seemed to lose interest and started to move away, as he did so ‘White-face’ jumped the fence and was now face to face with his rival. What happened next was so quick that I barely had time to react.

  

Just as their larger cousins the Red Deer do, both Bucks charged towards each other, reared up and locked antlers. I pressed the shutter release button and hoped I’d caught some of the action. The whole thing only lasted for a few seconds, they then separated and headed off in different directions, and every now and then one would turn around and keep a watchful eye out for the other.

What an absolute thrill to have such a wonderful spectacle on your own doorstep.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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andy.howard1970@yahoo.com (Andy Howard Nature Photography) https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2014/8/roe-deer-rutting-on-the-doorstep Wed, 20 Aug 2014 20:53:20 GMT
Au revior to the Dotterel. Best of luck my Friends. https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2014/7/au-revior-to-the-dotterel-best-of-luck-my-friends View towards Aviemore on the decent down from the Cairngorm Plateau

One last chance to visit the Dotterel?

Last night my friend took the long walk up to the Cairngorm plateau with the hope to see for the last time this season one of my favourite birds, the Dotterel. We expected there departure to sunnier climes would be fairly imminent, but with a heavy heart I have to report that, within the past week it looks like they've taken flight and headed south. 

We left the car park at 17:30 and headed for the Cairngorm plateau, we literally searched high and low and found nothing. As the evening progressed the cloud base lowered and the wind chill factor dropped to one degree, I was very glad of the hat and gloves I'd taken. By the time we'd made our way off the mountain it was almost dark.

Dotterel arrive around the mid to late April and after a brief time taken to refuel and re-energise they get down to the serious business of pairing up, establishing territories and mating. Once the females have laid their eggs all the incubation and brooding is done by the dowdy looking male bird. the female then departs. That's equality for you!

I wish them well on their journey to Africa and look forward to there return next spring.  

 

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andy.howard1970@yahoo.com (Andy Howard Nature Photography) Cairngorm Cairngorms Dotterel Scotland Scottish blog plateau https://www.andyhoward.co.uk/blog/2014/7/au-revior-to-the-dotterel-best-of-luck-my-friends Wed, 30 Jul 2014 23:01:03 GMT