2020VISION Assignment: Farmland birds

Wildlife photographer Chris Gomersall uses some tried and tested methods to get the most innovative shots of birds around his Cambridgeshire home.

Shot of yellow wagtail
iWitness Assignment: More than just a farm – re-wilding our food
Location: RSPB’s Hope Farm, Cambridgeshire (and nearby)
Photographer: Chris Gomersall
With more than 70 per cent of the UK land area already devoted to farming and food production, and the demand for food security a pressing matter for our Government and farmers, what space is left for our traditional farmland birds and wildlife?
Two bird species that have not fared well with modern, efficient farming methods are the corn bunting and the yellow wagtail – but they could never be conserved effectively through the creation of a few nature reserves. We need to take additional, far-reaching measures to ensure their long-term survival.
I’d like to play the Indiana Jones action hero here, but, seriously, photographing birds at an arable farm in Cambridgeshire – how dangerous can it be? The worst that happened to me was a few pesky flies found their way into my car, and it got a bit stinky after parking by a dung heap.
All a bit tame really, and in stark contrast to some of my other expeditions to hostile environments in the far-flung corners of the Earth; but that’s not to say it’s an easy task to come away with something innovative, and to make these home-grown subjects look fresh and exciting.
And I know this might sound a bit lazy, but one of the tried-and-tested techniques for bird photographers is to use your car as a mobile hide, steadying your long lens on a bean bag at the window. It’s simply the most effective method.
So this is how I set about trying to photograph corn buntings and yellow wagtails in the country lanes around my home.
OK, the first few full-frame portraits were not too difficult to come by as I know all the good places around here by now. But then you look for something more - something a bit special. In the case of the corn bunting, it had to be singing.
And once I’d got the straight singing shots, I wanted one singing in a sea of oilseed rape. In the most flattering, soft light. Naturally.
With the yellow wagtail, it had to be on a midden heap. Not just a boring profile, but surrounded by clouds of insects. A brightly-coloured male preferably. And back-lit, for good measure.
And so what starts as a simple project ends up taking 20, even 30 evenings – I lost count. I’m still not satisfied, because I want my corn buntings in song flight with their legs dangling, and my yellow wagtails leaping in the air trying to catch dungflies.
But now the spring is over, so these ambitions will have to go on hold and wait until another year. Along with all the other unfinished projects I’ve stored up over the years!
  • Be ambitious - look beyond the straight portrait. Think about habitat, behaviour, lighting and how to incorporate these successfully into your wildlife photographs. It will probably mean going back again and again, until you make that breakthrough.
  • Don’t be afraid to shoot into the light, but always remember to use a lens hood to combat flare. Prime lenses tend to be better than zooms for this purpose, as they have fewer glass elements to cause reflections and the lens hoods can be deeper to shade the front element more effectively.

2020VISION is a multimedia project that highlights the link between people's well being and the restoration of natural systems.

Uniquely, it pairs the talents of 20 of the UK's most skilled outdoor photographers with writers, editors, videographers, sound artists and scientists to make a compelling case for rewilding landscapes - for wildlife and for people.

To see some of the best images taken on 2020VISION assignments so far, click here.

To find out more about 2020VISION, click here.


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