Situated on the rugged Yorkshire coast, this nature reserve is a natural wonder which reflects the incredible diversity of British wildlife.
It’s with heightened anticipation I approach the cliffs at RSPB Bempton at sunrise. As the sun awakens and morning light reflects off the water’s surface, the imposing chalk face is framed within a rich palette of golden colours, textures and tones. Listen carefully and you cannot fail to hear the chatter of Northern Gannets build to a crescendo of frenzied mayhem somewhat reminiscent of a Tokyo water park on a hot summer’s afternoon. A veritable tsunami of the senses pervades the soul and you're left with that intense feeling of wonder when all's good with the world.
Situated on the rugged Yorkshire coast, this protected nature reserve is one of the treasures which reflects the diversity of British wildlife as differing species and behaviours shift and change with the seasons. With the onset of March up until September the reserve is awash with activity and home to around half a million seabirds as they raise their young families before migrating to far off shores.
The Gannet beguiles and enchants
Look carefully as you tentatively negotiate the small winding path along the cliff edge and you’ll find Atlantic Puffin, Razorbill, Guillemot, Kittiwake and Fulmars all squabble for real estate as they frantically establish their nest sites. But without doubt it is the Northern Gannet which inevitably steals the show, as I find the unique characteristics of this most remarkable seabird never fail to beguile and enchant, calling me back to this magical location in an annual state of pilgrimage.
It was the American architect Louis Sullivan who coined the phrase “form follows function”; and the Northern Gannet perfectly encapsulates this notion. With its streamlined body, long neck, subtle markings and slender wings; the Gannet whilst decidedly awkward on land is nonetheless remarkably adept in flight. Capturing that motion in a split second inevitably presents a challenge, but if you’re lucky enough and the wind conditions are favourable; you'll be richly rewarded with a series of images which illustrate the distinct yet often overlooked choreography of this shoreline “Nureyev” of the skies.
During the summer months RSPB Bempton can be busy, but as is the case with so many photographers it's the prevailing light that drives my work. At this time of year sunrise is around 4.30, so not a soul is around and undoubtedly it’s my favourite time of the day. Take a deep breath and you're imbued with a wonderful fresh earthy smell as the first rays of sun wash through the grassy banks and the morning dew slowly evaporates.
It really pays to do your research and spend time familiarising yourself with the local habitat at Bembton. I find it’s a chance to connect and just observe the behaviour of your subject as it interacts with the surrounding environment.
Wildlife is anything but predictable but most of my favourite images are the result of many hours spent just simply spent watching and listening.
You soon begin to understand the importance of anticipating behaviours which is an invitation to try and view the world through the prism of your subject. It’s a mantra you may have a heard a thousand times, but having a good idea of what your subject is likely to do in respect of poise, call, shake or vibration can make all the difference when capturing that moment and the planets align.
The Gannet is no exception and has its own complex syntax of unique behaviours. This is particularly apparent during the breeding season when they ‘face off’ and mirror each other as long necks bob and sway, bills pointing skyward to the heavens. It’s an iconic image because it has a strong narrative and the most memorable photographs in my book always tell a great story.
Creating that elusive connection
It’s that challenging combination of technical expertise, field craft, patience and understanding of your subject that need to come together within frame and shout out loud….”look at me; I’m something very special”. You know when you see it, but you’re always learning along this winding, (and often frustrating), journey. Nonetheless striving to do things better, experimenting with technique and just being out in the wilds is the enduring appeal which underlies my passion for wildlife photography.
What's in the bag
I’m often asked about the photographic kit I use and typically it will depend on the type of images I hope to realise together with habitat, subject matter and the prevailing weather conditions. The one guarantee about RSPB Bempton is that you'll experience up close and personal the most exhilarating array of sea birds as they interact along the shoreline.
For this reason I usually carry two lenses which are firm favourites; the Nikon 200mm F2G and 600mm F4E fl primes paired with my Nikon D5. Both have their quirks and foibles, not least of which is their excessive weight; but over the years they have delivered outstanding results in the most punishing weather and together they provide the optical range which covers most situations that suit my style of photography.
The 600mm F4E is predominantly my “go to” lens for longer range flight or portrait shots. I shoot RAW and in manual, but will float the ISO within a usable range between 64 to no more than 3000 dependant on the prevailing light conditions. Typically I will meter for the whole frame, albeit it pays to be very adept with the use of exposure compensation, especially when managing the harsh fluctuating light during the middle of the day.
This is particularly noticeable photographing the Gannet in flight in full sun as it reflects off that white slender body and can very easily result in ‘blown’ highlights. Conversely when shooting in clear bright skies without sufficient compensation you might end up with a very nice silhouette shot; but more likely than not you’ll be left kicking yourself and hitting the delete button.
My 200mm F2G is as sharp as a tack but let’s be honest it’s a brick and can be a very unforgiving lens shot wide open.
That said when you do get it right the results can be sublime and with the shorter focal length I find it particularly useful for capturing that wider perspective providing environmental context. Ultimately, experimentation is the key here and there are no hard and fast rules regarding lens choice, especially at Bempton. I’ve seen some stunning images taken at the reserve using an ultra-wide angle lens which certainly offers a very different and unique perspective. So it pays to be creative and just learn from your mistakes because inevitably as most of us know they do happen and sometimes with frustrating regularity.
Ask a wildlife photographer about focus modes and arrays and you can bet your Aunt Maud’s house on it you’ll receive a whole host of different answers. To a large extent it depends on the type of camera body you’re using and what works for you. I always use ‘back button’ focus which can be assigned through your camera’s custom settings menu. Set the mode to continuous focus, (AFC for Nikon users) and I find you have much better control over your composition as you can focus on your subject and then easily recompose the image within frame.
My personal preference for arrays on my Nikon is single point focus for portrait and either a nine or twenty five point for fast action in flight shots.
Again I select both options through the customs settings menu so I can easily toggle between the two using the assigned buttons on the front of the camera body. This is particularly useful when photographing a Gannet for instance collecting nesting material on the ground at which point it suddenly takes to flight and you can alternate between the two arrays in a split second. Using this technique has certainly increased my ‘hit rate’ in the acquisition of sharp well focussed images, but practice makes perfect as it can be a very imprecise art.
My favourite images
One of my favourite images I recently took at RSPB Bempton sums up my enduring fascination with the Northern Gannet. Taken at first light it is a tightly cropped portrait of a Gannet gathering nesting material on the cliff face. I chose a 1:1 aspect ratio which is slightly offset so the viewer is immediately drawn to the intensity of the Gannet’s gaze. The soft muted colours which dominate the composition contrast sharply with the thin shock of zinc blue framing the concave structure of the Gannet’s eye. They say the eyes are the windows of the soul and it’s that momentary ‘click’ of recognition or self-awareness of my subject in this image which I find so very appealing.
So should you find yourself at RSPB Bempton one windswept summers’ morn at 4.30 am; and you see a solitary figure sitting patiently at the cliff edge looking out to sea…well… the chances are it’s probably me. Come say hello, let’s break some bread and together as the sun gently rises we’ll watch the ballet unfold as Gannets pirouette through iridescent skies.