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My year ahead: shooting in Shetland, UK

At 60° North, Shetland, UK, is far out in the North sea, and geographically at least, nearly as close to Norway as to mainland Scotland. Shetlanders like to think of themselves in more Scandinavian territory and much of the landscape and natural history of the Islands seems to agree with them. As a result, the photographer is bound by the natural limitations of light on Islands so far north.

I love being out in the elements, it makes me feel alive, and it was this fresh, northern-fringe coastal living as well as the birds that brought me to make Shetland my home in 2014. I’m very lucky that where I live also plays home for many interesting species and visiting birds, and I have an exciting year ahead of me on Shetland.

(Herring Gull, Natural Boat Reflections, Shetland)

Winter months will be spent working on a new photographic bird book and when time allows, I’ll be out photographing waders on some of Shetland’s stunning, empty beaches or working the local harbour, looking for more bird and pelagic boat reflections. I tend to shoot between 9am-3pm, while my daughter is at school, but will often head out again in the evenings if my partner is able to take over parental duties, too!

Photographing waders is one of my greatest pleasures. Finding a mixed flock of frantically feeding shorebirds on the tideline of a wind-swept, empty beach is like Christmas to me. I enjoy the slow approach, camera already in hand, memory cards, batteries, and car key filling a pocket, zigzagging along the shore, stopping for short spells, getting the waders used to my presence. I’ll find the best location – often with the sun behind me – and kneel or creep along seaweed piles or dunes to a perfect spot ahead of the waders’ line of direction. I lie low, either crouched or on my belly to enable pleasing low angles, and often use any low foreground obstacles or beach matter as out of focus foreground blur to improve composition.

Waders tend to quickly accept my presence and I’ll be treated to very close birds within feet of me, calling, interacting, preening, and feeding – a wonderful multitude of activity to try and capture before high tide when they all take off together to a nearby roost site. I find photographing waders just so mesmerizing and minutes can easily turn into hours! Given time, waders can be perfect subjects for trying different camera techniques too, from Pro Capture through to low shutter speeds, a willing subject moving back and forth along the beach can make for excellent mode and setting practices.

(Sanderling preening on windswept Beach, Shetland)

The bad weather often brings the birds, and so I am often out in it. Photo trips are usually planned the day before after analysing a couple of different forecasts as well as the local tide times. My small photo bag typically contains my prime go-to gear, my OM-D E-M1X with M.Zuiko 300mm F4.0 IS PRO, M.Zuiko 60mm Macro lens, MC-14 and MC-20 converters, spare batteries, memory cards, lens wipes, flask and mobile phone. I live in wellies, and recommend clothing layers, with a decent lightweight windproof and waterproof jacket for this type of photography – which is certainly the way to go on Shetland where we typically experience all weathers in one day!

(Arctic Tern against Blue Pelagic Boat, Lerwick, Shetland)

Being so far north, in winter I’ll be restricted to only a few hours of light a day, so will aim to certainly utilise the available time in the field! In summer, the contrast couldn’t be greater on Shetland where light is plentiful. Early mornings – which are halfway through the night for most – can bring stunning silvery coastal light often heightened with ‘sea haa’ which can neutralise the strengthening light conditions beautifully. In the evening, the golden hours are lengthy and the photographer is spoilt with the sun barely dipping the horizon before gently rising again, seabird colonies are bathed in a warm glow way into the witching hours.

The late spring will see me chasing frogs and bokeh-filled lighting as well as going for any good spring migrants that turn up. Following the weather conditions closely and knowing the species and the habitats they frequent are crucial, as well as making the best of the available light and time with these fleeting visitors.

(Male Common Eider with Harbour Reflections, Shetland)

The summer also brings thousands of breeding seabirds to Shetland – so many Attenborough moments! The hardest part can be choosing what subject matter to focus photographic projects on each year, the choices seem endless. More artistic bird photography can take time, both in the planning and in the execution. Having a plethora of common birds and breeding seabirds to base projects on can really aid more artistic works, rather than more transient spring and autumn migrants which offer more spontaneous, often grab-shot opportunities.

(Atlantic Puffins, Sumburgh, Shetland)

(Atlantic Puffin Evening Portrait, Sumburgh, Shetland)

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