Saturday, 1 October 2011

Sycamore Hill

Last Saturday I was one of the lucky few (let's just say 'elite') to get a place on the very first 'Bird Photography' course run by the wonderful Eric Dempsey and John Fox at Sycamore Hill, Wicklow.

Feels like we've been on at Eric to run a Bird Photography course forever - something where we could learn about the technical side of photography together with 'in the field' photography skills, so when Eric finally said the course was happening, hats were thrown in the air and places were booked.

A photography course led by two of Ireland's most respected birders/photographers might leave some nervy, but Eric and John's easy going natures meant it was easy to relax and mess around as if you were with friends.
In this relaxed mood, and encouraged by the sentence 'There's no such thing as a stupid question', f-stops, ISO settings, shutter speeds, meter readings and exposures - all the boring stuff - became interesting and shed their technical mystery. For the first time in years, and I'm talking about 3 years here, it all finally made sense and that's 'Really saying something' (thankyou Bananarama, wise words).

There's no doubt that what helped most, was the session after lunch (the Most Amazing lunch!) - when John and Eric went round all of us individually, watched as we took our photos, then checked all our settings and showed us where we were going right/wrong. That was a great help. 'Hey Siobhan, your exposures are spot on'. Get in.
It also helped that they kept the numbers on the course to 12 of us.
That Nikon training course I got free with the camera had about 90 people stuffed into a room for 3 hours. Got a question about f.stops? Tough luck.

So, what did I get out of the course?
Well - in a nutshell - everything I had wanted to learn.
Should you wish to know, I can now tell you the difference between spot metering and centre weighted metering, all about changing and checking exposures, I can even tell you what that histogram thing is for on your camera and why it's important to keep checking it.
I can tell you why F4 gives you a shallow depth of field as opposed to F32 giving a huge depth of field. Oh I could go on and on. Make sure you stand next to me on a night out, I'll be great fun.

The move from the easy 'Auto everything' to Ap priority isn't for everyone and is obviously quite daunting which would explain why I haven't had the nerve to do it for the last 3 years.
I've a small brain, it's not able for much and I am a little scared someone's going to find me melted somewhere, camera on floor, muttering 'peregrine... couldn't get settings right... missed it... peregrine....'
but the more I get out and practice, the better I'll get, so everyone says. We'll see.

Anyway, for starters, here are some of my very first shots from the afternoon session, where I chose my own ISO settings, f.stops, exposures and shutter speeds.
I even looked at my histo (yeah, histo) after most shots.

Aswell as camera settings, we also learned some field tricks for getting good photos. This is Eric showing how a car can make one of the best hides. With scrim netting and a bean bag to steady your camera, the birds forget about you and move closer (well, so long and you're quiet and still).
Out in the field, the same scrim netting can be thrown over yourself so the birds relax and you get great shots.
John gets great shots at the bird's eye level by using an adaptor he has fitted to his camera for when he doesn't want to be fully lying down taking photos.
Sarah and Russell can't believe the migrant which just landed in the garden
Checking shots and histograms, Jim is also in shock at seeing the yank migrant.
'John, is that the migrant I think it is?'
'Yes Eric, I'm just going forward with the frying pan now, sliding in closer to get a better shot, think I'll be getting another Front cover of Wings with this one'.
'Cool, got the sun and wind behind me, got the catchlight in the bird's eye, this is deffo another shot for my next posh photography coffee table book.' (coming out just in time for Christmas people....)
Passing migrant - Ap Priority, ISO 320, f/6.3, 1/640 sec - Sycamore Hill, Wicklow. Could have done with stepping up the exposure Or stepping around to get the sun behind me.
Brendan's spotted something.
Shot's in the bag
'Yep, the red belly and yellow chin are the giveaway'.
It's a bit early for the Redbellied Yellowchin isn't it?
You never know what's going to turn up at Sycamore Hill. Probably flown down from the mountains and heading on to Kilcoole and then on to South Africa.

By the time 6pm came around, I was zonked.
Usually with Kilcoole/ Newcastle 5 mins away I'd pop over for a walk and a look, but I was so tired, I just drove home.

I want to give a big mention here, the Biggest mention - Hazel and Geraldine.
You know when you meet sound people and they make the world feel a bit better? The whole day's mood was given an extra a lift by how well we were all looked after by these two. The lunch Hazel, Geraldine and Sarah made was so amazing, the teas, coffees, home made biscuits and cakes! It's a good job we didn't have to move too far for the afternoon session, because a lot of us (well, the greedy ones (me) who took too much of everything), we couldn't walk!
I do love my food.
Anyway a huge thankyou - it was all very much appreciated.

Next day - Sunday 25th Sept 2011
7.45am the next morning and I'm in the car driving back down to Wicklow.
Near empty M50/N11, sun shining, blue skies, autumnal leaves, day of birding ahead = heaven.

From Wicklow we drove down to Tacumshin, Co.Wexford (carpooling - thanks for the lift Tom!). This was to be our 'full on field skills' day. But you can guess what happened - it started raining.
Not just any rain.
Torrential rain.
So we actually had to finish up at Tacumshin pretty quickly and eventually move onto Lady's Lake when the weather was slightly better.

Here's some photos from the day - again all on Ap Priority and my own settings etc.
Eric and John both said the light was crap for photography and they probably wouldn't bother if they were on their own, but we still had a go - here's some from the dry spells:

Get down low when taking photos - this makes you less threatening to the birds.

If you can, get in the grass, next to trees, next to rocks - anything to disguise your silhouette
Birders getting their sights on the 12 Buff Breasted Sandpipers which were kicking around. (Niall Keogh and Papa Keogh turned up later and recorded 24 BBSandpipers!)

Right, I'm not great on my waders, but lets see if I can get my id's right on these.

Apparently - if you know the i.d of a Dunlin, you're sorted for telling others waders apart..






Dunlin in flight

Whitearsed Dunlin

White WagDunlin

Scraggedy Dunlin. This is my Arty Shot. I like how the yellow flash is same colour as the dandelion flowers and the white feathers are like the flecks of dandelion seeds.

It's clear how the different lights really do make such a difference.
The sun came out for a millisecond for the Wheatear - and you can tell.
All the other photos of the Dunlins were in light most photographers wouldn't bother with, but that would leave my blog imageless given the weather in Ireland - so I'll have to push on with bad light shots.

After a while we called it a day and drove back to Wicklow where we had a final coffee (and cake!) and roundup of the weekend.

I got a lot out of the weekend.
I think anyone who wants to learn how to step away from Auto would benefit from this course - and the bird photography field skills were a huge added bonus, which you'd never get from a 'normal' photography course.

Eric is going to be running more courses over the next few months, they'll no doubt fill up quick enough and given the quality of this first weekend course, Sycamore Hill is going to earn the respected reputation it completely deserves.
Like I said earlier, there were only 12 people on this course, but plenty more people were interested, so instead of jamming more people onto the course, Eric and John have run the course again this weekend.
Here's the link for all Sycamore Hill workshops

So thankyou again and good luck to the Sycamore Hill crew - not that you need it - you've got it all going on anyway.

Eric Dempsey - If I knew anything about photoshop, I'd make a sparkling glint in his eye - but I think there's one there anyway! Aaaaaah.