I spent a number of days earlier this Spring guiding in North Yorkshire at the RSPB reserve at Bempton Cliffs. It’s a location I used to know very well when my children were small and my in-laws lived in nearby Scarborough as it was a great place to all head out for an afternoons walk, fresh air and an introduction to seabirds for the youngsters. I hadn’t been for a number of years though and so it felt like a new site in many respects and as with visiting any such location I always spend the first few hours at least working out what looks to be a defining characteristic of that precise moment in time and deciding how to work that into my images – it’s part of what makes each visit to anywhere different in terms of what you walk away with in terms of memories, experiences and pictures too.
This time around it was quite quickly clear that the way that the wildflowers have been left to grow vigorously along the cliff edge as well as the fact they were in peak flower mode as well, meant that working them into my images would definitely meet that overall approach.
The wind was pretty strong throughout our time there and although that meant that sea based outings were not possible it did mean some great conditions in terms of birds hanging on the northerlies above the banks of hogweed, campion and grasses to provide a lovely sweep of seasonal vegetation across the bottom of the images.
Most of the time we had a combination of bright overcast conditions, with one very misty morning too, but that’s something I long for when working with white seabirds anyway as it removes the issues of contrast, shadowing and harsh light that the sun inevitably brings. It also helps a great deal when it comes to working with the subtle whites and shades of flowers and working them more prominently into the images of static birds too.
I’ve always enjoyed working as close to the ground with a long lens as it’s possible to do and looking to create a kaleidoscope of defocussed colours across the image as a contrast to a sharp and in focus subject. The trick is tiny movements of camera positioning to place the gannet in this instance in such a way that the out of focus elements all help draw your eye to the bird as well as provide the colour canvas and story of the image as well. I’ve looked to use the flowers and gaps between them in different ways in the following images to achieve just that.
At this time of year there’s still a great deal of courtship, bonding and general interaction as far as the birds are concerned and so when a bit of billing behaviour – the epitome of this – begins then it makes a great subject in its own right and so when this pair began an extended spell of connection I caught a simpler line in terms of colour but at the same time wanted to use the hogweed to frame them in the top half of the image so I maintain a sense of the wildflowers and the season still. There’s subtle differences between these next two images but important ones none the less.
When the sun finally emerged one afternoon and we stayed until late in the evening to make the most of it, the whole feel of the images changed and as much as I love the warm light and tones of the next image the subtleties of blending the flowers and birds together through a similar tonal range was suddenly so much harder: a reminder as to why the overcast conditions were such a positive and something that it is all to easy not appreciate fully.
Although seabirds have always been one of my particular passions of focus (I’ve published books Puffins and the Falklands after all) I also realised that it had been more than a number of years since I’d spent any significant amount of time working with Gannets: a mistake on my part. They offer such a lovely contrast of angles and curves at the same time and along with their remarkably subtle shading and beautiful expressions of behaviour – it only seems fitting to end this short collection of thoughts and images with a pair of portraits as a reminder that I shouldn’t leave it so long until the next time.