Mike Lane’s Latest Wildlife Images by Len Shood
For those of us who have travelled down A Lane in Poland, experienced A Lane in Brazil, wandered Back Down a Country Lane and journeyed along A Lane around the UK, attendance this week was a must to see Mike Lane’s latest presentation, Latest Wildlife Images. He always has new material to show, presents lots of tips and is an accomplished speaker. Even for those with little interest in photographing natural history, his enthusiasm and knowledge are infectious and enjoyable. Has he run out of Lanes, we wonder? He explained that his many trips to exotic locations were financed out of income attainable from subsequent sale of images, but the internet has virtually destroyed this as an income for the free-lance photographer. This talk therefore centred on work nearer home in Warwickshire. Notwithstanding that, he also showed us photographs of Komodo dragons in Indonesia and Black grouse in Finland. I was fascinated by the former because I have just been reading David Attenborough’s account of seeing and filming them eating a stinking goat carcass in the 1950s when travel to such locations was not for the faint hearted.
Natural history photography has now become an industry with loads of equipment for sale. Hides have become big business with different styles of portable models being produced in different countries. In Finland where Mike went to photograph black grouse there is a manufacturer of particularly good ones, necessary when you are spending many hours in one and need to stretch out. Birds do not keep the same hours as us, and you need to rise when they do! He had some splendid images of males fighting and then went on to show us them on ice against a perfectly white background. We were astonished to see his hide on the snow which was a traditionally camouflaged model, very conspicuous as you’d have expected, but although the company does sell white ones, in Mike’s experience the colour of a hide is immaterial wherever you are. The advantage of a camouflaged one is that ramblers and other people do not notice it and therefore ignore it. The same goes for his car, shown concealed beneath a net covered with leaves.
Nowadays Mike does a lot of his photography on a private estate in Warwickshire to which he has exclusive access. Here he has a more substantial, shed like hide with perspex windows to which he attached one way mirror film so the birds cannot see him. Although he can see through it, it is unsuitable for photography so his windows slide open for a lens to peep through. Talking of which his favourite lens on his Canons (full frame and ASP-C) is an 800mm so he can work a good distance from his subjects.
The secret of his success is his very detailed knowledge. A former zoo keeper he clearly has a deep understanding of wild life and this is why he is able to get such superb photographs. But he also goes to a great deal of effort in helping the birds come to the most appropriate place to suit him where he gets a good background and good lighting. He collects old branches to make perches, maybe with fungus on them. He considers the wind direction — birds, particularly large ones always take off and land into the wind. He knows their favourite food, and provides it, whether this be nuts, roadkill (the latter is not popular in the fridge at home so chicken from Aldi is sometimes substituted for buzzards), or acorns for migrating jays which last year he had to buy on ebay as there was no native crop. They prefer peanuts but eat them with their head kept down so you do not get a good image. To consume an acorn they lift the head so it can be dropped down the throat.
By placing appropriate food on a prepared branch or perch birds will repeatedly come back to it. While some will stay a minute or so, others are in and out within a second. Here a short burst is the best approach. The technique for kingfishers is to provide a perch which they get used to coming back to regularly. Suddenly removing it causes a sensation. The bird returns and the perch has gone! Perplexed, momentarily it hovers, providing a unique alternative view. A plank, just under the surface of the water in a lake will attract birds, particularly if there is a dead fish just beside.
Other tricks used include using a small mirror on a branch; a nuthatch will see the reflection and think it is another bird. Niger seed sprinkled on teasels will attract gold finches. Apples are attractive to many birds. When in the hide with the bait in situ do not take the first bird that comes along: wait silently and observe, the bird will return. Let it get used to coming back.
Just when we were thinking that without hides and a private reserve such bird photography was out of our reach Mike showed us house martins nesting beneath a public toilet roof and told us he sometimes goes to the zoo — not to photograph the caged animals but the wild birds living within the surroundings. And he said there is lots of interesting wild life in our city parks, proving it with Coots in Regents Park being very aggressive. High up in a tree there was a heron’s nest. What have you photographed recently in Pittville Park?
Few of us have an 800mm lens — together with 1.4x and 2x extenders — but Mike also uses shorter lenses, a Canon compact camera close to his prospective subject but controlled from a distance, and most recently a Panasonic GH4 which shoots 4K video (he doesn’t know what that means) and provides 8mg files from each frame. He likes it and foresees this as the future.
Mike’s style of bird photography is to show the bird’s detailed features against a very out of focus background that appears almost plain, usually green or blue. There is very little of the environment present except in a few instances, e.g. when taken with his compact camera. This style is in contrast to that we saw earlier in the season from others where more of the environment was included in bird pictures. It could be of course that those photographers have neither the wherewithal to buy nor the stamina to carry, such a long lens! Mike concentrates on the birds’ behaviour and antics and is unquestionably a master of this technique, spending many hours awaiting action as all natural history photographers and film makers do.
While birds are his prime subject, in addition to the afore mentioned dragons, we also saw excellent photographs of hares, but none boxing despite his spending many hours with his lenses trained on them. He wonders if it is a regional thing, but that is the wonder of nature; there is always more to see, more to photograph and another Lane to travel.