Cairngorms National Park Wildlife With Neil McIntyre
Due to the time of year I fully expected the overcast weather, the third shoot was booked in advance for Wednesday, 5th of April. I researched the weather in advance with some weather forecasts showing cloudy and others showing sun with clouds. Fortunately the weather was in my favour. The arrangement was to meet Neil McIntyre at the Cairngorms hotel at 9 O’ Clock in the morning. Neil is a professional award winning wildlife and landscape photographer, so I was looking forward to the shoot as I knew it was the perfect opportunity not only to capture great images but for the learning experience as wildlife and landscape photography is something I would love to do. Neil proved to be a brilliant instructor throughout the day who clearly has vast knowledge and experience of the wildlife around him. This gives a better understanding that photographing wildlife is not as straightforward as taking out a camera, getting out into the wild and hoping for the best, he understands their habitat and nature.
Neil drove myself to each location and the first location was to capture the Red Squirrels. Using just my 5D Mark iii with the Sigma 150-600mm Sport lens we walked down a path through the woodland area and caught eye of a Red Squirrel darting up one of the tall pine trees. As the Red Squirrel darted up the tree Neil cracked open nuts and placed them down in certain parts of the one location of the forest and then instructed me to perch down next to a tree further back. Once the camera was set up I waited in position for about half an hour to three quarters of an hour, unfortunately the Squirrel was refusing to come down.
Neil decided to resort to a second tactic having instructed me to wait in position and he would walk away and come back in 20 minutes so the Red Squirrel would get the idea that he was gone. As he told me to listen carefully for a scattering scraping noise which will indicate where they are. Thankfully after 10 to 15 minutes one of the Red Squirrels scattered down one of the trees however it was very uncertain and began making its way back up the tree whilst making an alert sound. I quickly zoomed in to capture a shot using the faster shutter speed, wide aperture and higher ISO to capture the squirrel whilst it was perched on a branch. This was one of the few shots I captured from that area.
The second location spot he drove myself towards more open on a small hill with trees off the country road, the Red Squirrels were a lot more tame as it was a location Neil spends considerable time at feeding them. Neil placed the nuts in several spots and the Red Squirrels came running across for them which gave me the perfect opportunity to capture some fantastic shots. Neil also gave his advice on the shutter speed with the higher ISO, as well as continuous drive shooting to capture various shots as the Squirrels came running in. I did also attempt the pan technique using slow shutter speed of 1/125 for a while however proved very difficult as even Neil himself explained wildlife like Squirrels are a lot more difficult to track because of how sporadic their movement is, they’re hard to predict. He was also very helpful in giving advice where to stand as he advised to stand slightly down from the peak of the hill so that I would be eye level shooting the Red Squirrels.
Capturing the Red Squirrels whilst they were running was quite difficult given how quick they move and often sporadic, not being able to predict their movement I managed to capture some of my best shots when the Squirrels stopped to pick up and eat the nuts. Neil was also very helpful with some fantastic compositional advice, one of which I managed to capture a Squirrel on a tree stump with the grass below.
I’m delighted with many of the pictures I had captured although can’t help but imagine what it would have been like if shooting during summer period with foliage on the trees that would add vibrance to the backdrops. However when thinking about it what I captured gives a nice seasonal feel of the Red Squirrels during a period of early Spring. Because my Sigma 150-600mm Sport lens has an f/5 – f/6.3 aperture I was forced to use a mid to higher ISO range to compensate for the faster shutter speed, thankfully with the Canon 5D Mark iii even at the higher ISO range the picture quality is still impressive.
The second part of the day Neil had taken me out to a stunning location in the hills to capture the Highland Hare’s, it was an experience crawling slowly to get close to the wild Hare’s and managed to capture some fantastic images of the hares close up and also of the backdrop and surroundings. Again, Neil was able to direct me to parts where he knew where the wild Hares were located, one wild hare of which I was lucky to capture with the sun backlighting him which turned out fantastic. For each of my shots between the Red Squirrels and the Highland Hare’s my main focal point was focusing on their eyes to catch sharpness, although sometimes difficult varying on distance or the direction the Squirrels and Hare’s looked. Another thing I aimed for was to capture a wide variety of different shots and compositions as well as switching focal length between 150 to 600 for variety.
Getting down low was essential for photographing the wild Hare and for most of the time was lying down whilst shooting which gave me support as the Sigma 150-600mm Sport lens is pretty heavy.
The final stage of the day Neil helped me in the same location with a better understanding of landscape photography as I was looking to capture some habitat shots to show in relation to the Highland Hare’s themselves. The biggest thing I learned from that was understanding more to do with the light in the foreground as well as adding interest to the foreground by finding a particular subject that adds to the photograph. As it was cloudy with the sun I had to wait at points for the sun to light the foreground to capture the ideal shot I wanted. Part of the technique I learned was holding the camera up and pointing down to capture the perspective with the main subject in the foreground closest. I also captured some landscapes with leading lines which Neil was kind enough to point out. The shots I captured of the landscapes I was pleased with however feel I could improve upon composition but learned a lot from the experience.
Here is an example contact sheet of some images that didn’t go to plan as I wanted:
The first image was a first attempt at capturing a pan shot of one of the Red Squirrels as it was running to collect one of the nuts, I then corrected the exposure by lowering the ISO and as shown from the second image captured better exposure however again, capturing a Red Squirrel with the pan shot technique proved difficult given how quick they move. In the third image I was rushed to capture and didn’t have the time to switch from the slower to faster shutter speed which caused motion blur. In the fourth image the lens wasn’t quick enough focusing and unfortunately focused on the tree rather than the Squirrel, because it was fast moving it was difficult to capture. The fifth image was perhaps one of my favourite images or would have been, unfortunately the focus was off which was disappointing as I loved the low perspective and light breaking through in this image. The last image was an example shot I captured of the Highland Hare habitat, however as the clouds covered the sun the foreground was a bit dull.
The following images were difficult to pick from as there were so many great images I managed to capture. Here is a contact sheet of some of my best shots:
I was delighted to have captured the expression as a wonderful portrait of one of the red Squirrels face on, this definitely stands out as one of my best shots for shallow depth of field technique. Although some of the other images you can see shallow depth of field I also captured a few other techniques, one of which is the fourth image showing the Highland Hare camouflaged in it’s surroundings with an extended depth of field to show its environment. The second and fifth images I managed to capture both the Red Squirrel and Highland Hare eating and was pleased with the composition. The lighting I was delighted about when shooting the Hare as I was fortunate to have the sun backlighting the subject. The third image of the Red Squirrel perched on a log I loved for portrait and composition. The final image for landscape, my favoured image of the Highland Hare habitat as the sun broke out from behind the clouds it lit the foreground beautifully and managed to capture the sky and cloud detail using the river as a leading line point of view.
Here is an example of post processing work I did for several of the images including one of the best I had chosen:
Using Camera Raw I made slight adjustments depending on the image by making a slight adjustment increase in warm temperature to add warmth to the image and adjusted shadows and highlights accordingly to enhance the image. Finally increasing sharpness.
Once adjustments were made in Camera Raw depending on the photograph I implemented a slight warming filter to give a warm glow to the final image.
Any final touches I made in photoshop depending on the image, I implemented a slight touch of sharpening using the sharpen tool to the eyes.
Again, a big thanks to Neil McIntyre for his fantastic one to one day tour that enabled me to capture some fantastic images and gained valuable learning experience. His website can be found at: http://www.neilmcintyre.com/ where you can find some of his fantastic work and many of his own tours he has to offer.