Olympus Pen-F – first impressions

ST0RM-iPhone6s-1
On my first outing with the PEN-F (shot on my iPhone)
The whole point of going to a mirrorless camera, for most people, is to reduce the weight and bulk of their camera, and lenses. Having moved from Nikon to Fujifilm I thought I had done just that, but was it enough? I thought so, until I bought a f2.8 pro’ grade lens for the Fuji, and then I wondered why I had bothered. Yesterday I met the Olympus PEN-F – smaller, lighter, and with relatively inexpensive lenses. Would I be convinced enough to change my whole system again? Let’s see…

Let me give you some facts to consider, based, solely, on my own photographic experience; firstly, when I started in digital photography back in…ahem…1995, we had a Kodak DCS camera in the studio at work. It boasted all of 1.5MP and had a 2.6x crop sensor. This is compared to the standard, 35mm film camera, by which are still comparing our camera and talking about relative sizes to this day. If you want to skip this bit, and I admit its longer than I planned, then scroll on down until you get to the subheading – MY FIRST OUTING below

I used that camera both in the studio and on location, and we were only the 9th fully digital commercial studio in the UK. The reason we were the 9th was simple; a decent digital camera would cost about the same money as a two-bedroom terraced house! I am not joking – £34,000 for the 6MP version, which would quite literally at that time, have bought you my house.

Why am I telling you this? Because we printed our brochures with photos ranging in size from a just couple of inches across right up to A3 equivalent double page spreads, and we did so with images from this camera. Yes, 1.5MP source image was printed to an A3 double page spread, on a commercial press. This is important because whilst I admit the images were nowhere near as good as scanned 35mm transparency film, and I was more used to 5″x6″ positive film, we were doing it in 1995.

So for me, the great megapixel race has never been of interest. I also think it was over around the 16MP mark to be honest, but there you go.

This is relevant because I now have more megapixels in my phone and I (almost) never print those images. I also have a tiny sensor driven Nikon P900, as you’ll see from other posts, and I am more than happy to print the images from that at A4. I also sell them via a stock agency. Yes, little bitty sensor generated files are accepted, if they are good enough, by quite a lot of places contrary to what the full frame fans will try to have you believe. It is also relevant because I used to be a full frame fan – I had a Nikon D700 full frame 35mm equivalent digital camera, and to be honest, the images from the second body 1.5x crop sensor Nikon D200 frequently outsold it. Sure, the D200 wasn’t a quick, wasn’t as good in the dark, but if you worked within the known constraints the images were fine and frequently got printed to canvasses over 4ft wide. I think the CCD was far superior for image quality than the ‘MOS sensors but like Betamax and VHS it was commonality not quality that won the war.

What has this to do with the Olympus Pen-F? Well in order to get smaller bodies, and smaller (and cheaper) lenses, as well as smaller and lighter cameras, the sensor really has to be smaller. I am odd in the photographic world because I have gone from 5×4″ film, to 6×6 film, to full frame digital, to APS-C , and then to Micro 4/3rds. Most people go in the opposite direction, but maybe without the film.

The Nikon D700 was a 12.1MP camera and the body weighed in at 995g. I used it with a 24-70/2.8 and a 70-200/2.8 lens, which weighed 900g and 1,430g respectively. That means, aside from accessories, I was carrying 3,325g or 3.32kg of just bodies and glass. This is why I have two trapped nerves, one in my neck and one between my shoulders. As well as carrying this, I was often shooting with a second body (the D200, 10MP by the way).

ST0RM-iPhone6s-3
My XT-2 combo
Due to my original neck issue, I then played around with a Fujifilm X-Pro1, but went back to Nikon because it wasn’t doing what I wanted, and got an APS-C sensored D7200. At the time the focussing was too vague and often s..l..o..w.. and the lens choices were far too limited. After doing myself no good carrying the weight again, I then went back to Fuji for the XT-1. By this point there were many more lenses, although still only offered by Fujifilm and Samyang. Exceptional though all those lenses are, you are still very limited compared to Nikon/Canon. Eventually after a number of false starts with some primes, that I nearly dropped in the soup a few times, I ended up with the Fuji XT-2 and the Fuji XF16-55/f2.8 lens. I do not like to miss shots changing lenses, or try to find places to put things down in the, generally, muddy environments I often work.

My quest to reduce weight had now only been partially successful – I now had a body which weighed 507g and a lens which weighed 655g. Yes, that is correct, the lens weighed more than body and two totalled 1,162g or 1.162kg. It was also not that much smaller than my mirrored DSLR body and favourite lens combinations had been. Most of this was down to that lens. Gorgeous thing that it is, and image quality to die for, it is big and heavy. I also wanted more lenses but simply could’t afford them. I analysed my shots and found I shoot a lot of image as wide as I can with the 16mm end. I would like wider, and I would like longer. I don’t actually shoot much in the middle funnily enough.

Now, don’t get me wrong here. I am not going to dissuade anyone from buying into the Fujifilm system. It is a professional workhorse system with very professional quality images. I have, quite honestly, never seen images bettered by any other camera I have used. I have sold countless images from the XT-2 and the XT-1 before it, but these were images that were shot when I could be arsed to carry it, and there is the nub of the problem. Most of the time I just couldn’t be arsed. I didn’t want it around my neck, because frankly it hurts, and if it went into my bag then it very often stayed there. Putting all the stuff down to get out the camera would often mean I had missed the shot anyway, and after 10miles I rarely had the energy left to try. I love walking, but I do not like walking when everything hurts and you fear putting down your bag because you know you don’t want to pick it up again.

st0rm-0099.jpg
Lunch break on the Isle of Skye 12mile day hike
Here is my kit in a rare moment on the Isle of Skye. I haven’t stopped to take photos, I’ve stopped for lunch. I did take some photos, as you’ll see from my previous blog entry, but I feel I have become someone who is shooting out of necessity, for documentary, and not because it is actually ‘fun’ anymore. I miss the fun. I want to feel inspired and to try things again.

That Gitzo tripod is super wonderful too – and it weighs in at just under 3kg. It was overkill for the camera really, but I like stability in high wind, especially when on cliff/mountain tops. That rucksack, required for all the kit, accessories, waterproofs, lunch etc, also weighs 3kg (empty).

I worked it out that on an average days hillwalking and shooting, I would be carrying at least 18kg, and I just stopped wanting to do it. I wasn’t enjoying being out and worse still I wasn’t enjoying my photography or feeling creatively inspired and that is the crux of the matter.

When I first moved from the Nikon gear to mirrorless I went with the Fujifilm system based on image quality alone. At the end of the day a camera is a tool for taking great images, and to me, hopefully selling them.

At the time of my change over from the Nikon, I did look at the Olympus OM-D system. I had loved Olympus’ film cameras from the OM range. I had several and I really coveted the OM4Ti, although I could never afford one. Sadly by the time I could Olympus appeared to be on their uppers, they had stopped making the OM series, and so I moved to Nikon.

When I moved from Nikon to Fujifilm, as I said, I did look at the OM-D range but I just wasn’t convinced. I didn’t like the feel of the OM-D cameras in the hand, they were actually just a bit too small. In spite of what a lot of people claim, I wasn’t convinced by the build of the original OM-D cameras, they felt, well…cheap.

Funnily enough, the PEN-F, despite being a rangefinder style actually feels more substantial than the OM-D bodies I have looked at, even though it (probably) isn’t. It is also gorgeous to look at, OM4Ti gorgeous, and its really REALLY well made. I actually have more confidence in the build of the PEN-F than I did the XT-2. I guess its those machined dials. I know I said they are tools, but ask a mechanic if he wants a spanner from Snap-on or B&Q. If you enjoy using your camera, you will use it more. Like anything I guess.

ST0RM-iPhone6s-2
My Olympus PEN-F with 9-18mm lens (shot with my iPhone 6s)
So, let us also look again at that weight again – the PEN-F body is 427g, saving me just 80g on the Fuji XT-2. Not worth it really, given I would lose a fairly big lump of money from my investment changing systems. But, here is the real difference. You see that lens? Well that baby weighs just 155g. The Olympus 4/3rd is a 2x crop sensor, so a 9-18mm is an 18-36mm equivalent. The Fuji X series has a 1.5x crop factor so the 10-24mm, Fuji’s nearest equivalent, is a 15-36mm. The Fuji weighs 410g. So now I have saved 80g on the body and 255g on the lens, a total of 335g. But it gets better still when you look at the other lenses I might need – because I don’t really need a f2.8 with the excellent image stabilisation offered by the PEN-F body, I went for the kit option with the 14-45 lens to replace my Fuji 16-55 coverage. This means I am now comparing 93g to 655g, saving, well, you do the math and you can see where this is leading.

Because I’ve also reduced the lens sizes and weights, I also don’t need a heavy weight tripod, so bye bye Gitzo to be replaced by a MeFoto (bargain used) and my tripod, and head, has now gone from just shy of 3kg to 1.6kg. My filters are smaller too. In fact, everything, aside from the bag is smaller and lighter. Now before everyone says I’m comparing a Ford Focus ST to a bog standard 1.2 version, yes, I get your point, but they both get me from A to B. This is only my comparison and my decision, based on what I have owned and what I own now, for my type of photography, need. I do not expect everyone to agree, but you read this far so want to see what I did, why, and importantly if it works, for me. It may not well work for you because I don’t know you or what you need for your photography.

Anyway, that is the reasoning behind going to the PEN-F and it took a lot longer to get here than I planned, but what follows is my very first outing and my first impressions. I should say that I tried a demo PEN-F first, thanks to Ffordes Photographic Ltd of Beauly, where I have shopped since before they were even in Scotland!

Anyway, enjoy the photos.

MY FIRST OUTING

I confess that the PEN-F is, as the advertising says, a beast. So also is the full manual, the menu system, and all the options. For the first time, ever, I actually had to read all of it, before I could attempt to take a variety of images and understand what it (and I) was doing. I was still reading it at 3am this morning!

So, I traded in my Fujifilm kit based on the demo one, yesterday and I took the PEN-F for a walk this morning. I went local, to the coastal/dune/woodland path parking in Lossiemouth. To be realistic for the future explorations and longer walks, I went with all my landscape kit, plus the Nikon P900 for any chance wildlife encounters, and also took my new used MeFoto tripod. These are the shots from this morning and my comments on them:

I started out with the camera in Aperture Priority because that is what I use most, and I left it there the whole walk. Normally I would use this and Manual for almost all shoots. I also started with the infamous front mode knob set to the I setting and left the menu settings for the colours for this in default. This was the first shot of the morning –

ST0RM-PEN-F-1
Unedited out of camera Jpeg with the 14-45mm EZ pancake lens, Aperture Priority, normal shot mode, ISO200, lens at 14mm (28mm equivalent) 
I stumbled across this wonderful use for something long since dumped. The colours in the sky and the heather are rendered accurately and the tones were good enough on the in-camera jpeg I didn’t require the RAW image. I shot both Raw and Fine Jpegs throughout, as I wanted to experiment with the modes, filters, and effects, but I also wanted the ‘negatives’ too if you get what I mean (film pun).

ST0RM-PEN-F-2

I decided to get a little closer to the subject, physically, and this in-camera jpeg initially came out a little too light so I have increased the contrast, reduced the highlights very slightly, and increased the vibrance very slightly in Lightroom (to the jpeg). All alterations were under 10%. I am pleased with the result, remembering this is the kit lens that adds just £99 to the cost of buying the body only. The detail is superb, and all the tones are there. I could have improved the in-camera processing when taking the image by using the plentiful adjustments that are available, but it was very difficult to see the screen in the bright sun. People often ask why I sometimes take an umbrella when it’s sunny – it’s because it helps you see the screen, although you do look an idiot using it. (Try it, somewhere quiet…)

ST0RM-PEN-F-4

I took a few shots wandering around, and in both portrait and landscape orientation, and at a variety of lens lengths, all on the kit lens, before I had a look at concentrating on the heather.

ST0RM-PEN-F-3

I had read on several reviews and forums that you loose some of the depth of field with the Micro 4/3rd systems and so f8 becomes more like f11 or something along those lines. With that in mind, and knowing the reported sweet spot of the lens, I tended to stick around f5.6 as with this shot of the heather, and sadly it didn’t end up with the depth I thought I would. That isn’t actually a bad thing as it means I know I can stop down further now to get it. I also think this heather is a little too pink rather than purple and would adjust this from the raw file if the shot was worth keeping. I put this up unaltered to show you the straight from camera shot.

ST0RM-PEN-F-5

Having used the normal shot settings I decided to play with some of the Art filters that come from using the now famous knob on the front the camera. This is Pin Hole III and I liked the colours of that one for the situation, and with the colours around me, although it does move the heather to the pinker tones again.

Because the filters only work on jpeg image files, obviously, where these settings are used here, these are all out of camera jpegs without any Lightroom alteration unless specified.  I had set the Mono one set-up to give me the maximum grain, and at the time of shooting, I adjusted the ‘colours’ to produce was would happen with a ‘red filter’. Although I liked the contrast in the sky, which would have required at least a polariser on this bright sunny day to achieve without that in-camera adjustment, I do find the grain a bit too much. I have now set my mono up with +1 contrast, +1 sharpness, and the lowest added grain setting instead. I look forward to seeing the difference.

I really like option to display the real time exposure, without screen correction, in the Olympus system. This was actually a huge selling point for me because although I don’t do a lot of long exposures now, because they are a bit too common and almost a cliche, I imagine it will save a lot of effort. I like the idea of being able to see what you get with the Live Time mode, and stop a Bulb exposure when you like what you see. Trying to work out exactly how long to time a long exposure, and then to physically time it, in the field, is hard work. Often it is frankly a bit “hit and miss”, and so to cover all bases you shoot several images with slightly different durations. You can’t see what you’ve really got then until you get home. Knowing what you’re getting during the process is a revolution that I can see many manufacturers following, and also something that would only be available on screen or with an EVF. You simply couldn’t do it with the viewfinder on a DSLR because you aren’t looking at what the sensor is actually doing.

I imagine it is the same set-up, within the camera’s programming, that also enables you to see the difference that filters would make at the time of shooting on the screen also. I look forward to seeing how it works, especially with ND grads and polarisers. You do have to play in the menu though, as the default setting appears to have the screen and EVF compensate to produce the image for ‘best viewing’. I turned this off, and now it is set to show me what I am actually getting, which to my mind should really be the default setting on a camera that is squarely aimed at the enthusiast/professional photographer.

At this point in the walk I moved to the 9-18mm wide angle lens for the remainder of the walk.

ST0RM-PEN-F-7

I like monochrome work, I specialised in it as a wedding photographer, so I will be experimenting with these settings quite a lot. I really like that you can personalise all the settings, save a number of options, and manipulate the art/colour filters for each individual shot if required.  Love that Olympus, really love that a lot. It goes with my way of working and getting it right ‘in-camera’. I want to spend my time taking photos, not working on my Mac. So, I guess it was worth reading the manual…

I was warned online that there really is an awful lot to learn about the operation of the Olympus cameras because they put so much in, option wise. I don’t want them to change it, but I imagine it scares the hell out of novices who probably don’t get to see or use half of what the cameras are capable of. For someone with 30 years as a photographer, many of those as a professional, and 20 years digitally, I did not expect to have to read the manual hardly at all. I would say, that aside from looking a few things up, I didn’t read the manual for the Fujifilm cameras and certainly not for my Nikons. If I hadn’t have customised the PEN-F I feel I would have been frustrated with it, and disappointed with the operation and the results. It was worth the effort, but you have to be aware you need to make that effort. Of course, you have four saveable Custom options which could reduce work in the future, and some settings will now stay as they are.

One thing that does concern me though: I did my custom settings to the main menus, then I did the Firmware upgrades for the lens and body as directed, and in spite of telling it to save and then restore my settings, it didn’t, so I had to troll through all the menus and do it again. It may be that normal menu settings don’t save unless specified as the Custom options on the dial, but I hope not. I don’t want to sacrifice C1 (Aperture Priority with my settings) and C2 (Manual with my settings) for my normal operations.

I also don’t like the way Olympus installs its upgrades by connecting directly to the camera. On more than two occasions with firmware upgrades on the Fujifilm X series, the download corrupted at some point. As the file is then being saved onto a card, which is then installed into the camera, it didn’t compromise the camera by failing part way through. If the file was corrupt, the camera simply didn’t accept it, and the update procedure was cancelled without loss. I have a nasty fear that if the download is direct to the camera via the app, and it corrupts, I may be stuck with a camera that effectively has no functioning operating system installed! This may be unjustified, and it may be recoverable in the event, but it is scary. Anyway, back to the images…

Neither of the two lenses I purchased, the 9-18mm or the 14-45mm are macro lenses. But this is what you can with the 9-18mm, which happened t be on the camera at the time:

ST0RM-PEN-F-8
Who needs a macro lens? 18mm on the 9-18mm @ f7.1/1/125sec
Again, I was expecting slightly more depth of field, based on what I had read, and so I apologise for the out of focus forward mushrooms in the shot. I will know in future I need to set a smaller aperture value for these types of images. This was shot with Color mode II on the front knob and has been cropped very slightly in Lightroom. The uncropped version is below:

ST0RM-PEN-F-8uncropped

Please remember all these images are resized to a maximum of 2000pixels on the longest edge and are therefore NOT displaying at full size. So, if you’re impressed, imagine what the full size ones look like! I don’t often pixel peep but I couldn’t resist with a new camera and I was impressed.

If anyone wants the full size images please let me know and I will add them as linked attachments. I don’t do this routinely as it can make the site slow to load, and it’s time consuming for me.

ST0RM-PEN-F-9

I was really enjoying getting up close and personal again with such a wide angle lens. Something I had enjoyed with the Tokina lens I had on my Nikon. This image is cropped to emphasise the flowers nearest the camera and the vignette (lost when cropped from the original art filter – Pinhole III again) was then added back in Lightroom.

The PEN-F is so much fun to use that I found myself doing more experimental shots than I would previously have taken. I got into the mud for this one and the thing sticking up is really only around 10″ tall. I like the gunky face which I only actually spotted on the monitor back home. This could have suited the Diorama setting more than the Pinhole and I wish I had done a shot in both modes. I was however very pleased with the reflections.

ST0RM-PEN-F-10

My biggest immediate impression of the PEN-F is – what a lot of fun photography is, again. As I said in the first section, if you were with me, the Fuji X series provide an excellent workhorse for capturing a vision you have already, but the PEN-F whilst being also a fully capable workhorse, inspires you to re-visialise things and try experimenting more. It is a workhorse capable professional camera, with added fun.

These are, bar far, not the greatest photos I have ever taken, but in total I was out for just over 2hours and I shot 38 images. This is pretty much what would have been a roll of film, and a traditional quick test for a new camera. I enjoyed the short trip and I would have been out longer if it hadn’t not only rained, but also lost the nice clouds decent light. I can work with and in this, but I didn’t want to. It was nearly lunchtime and the forecast wasn’t showing it improving. I feel that I still need to finish reading the manual to fully get to all the features and options of the PEN-F, so I was happy to come back in.

My bag was more of a pleasure to carry, and you can see my basic set up for this trip was somewhat lost in that expanse of Lowepro loveliness. On that note, I wish Lowepro would pay more attention to their hiking pedigree and put a bit more effort into their more economical ranges. Sadly the quest for the perfect camera bag has never been fulfilled, by any photographer, as a far as I am aware.

Just to finish; if you are doubting the capabilities of a smaller sensor camera then I would ask you to question what the marketing bods have told you to get you to buy newer, pricier, and more gear. How much do you really need? I mean, look at these!

ST0RM-P900-5ST0RM-P900-4ST0RM-P900-3ST0RM-P900-2ST0RM-P900-1

Think that’s, even mildly, impressive? Well that isn’t from the PEN-F, it isn’t even a 4/3rds sensor, or a camera anything like as featured or sophisticated as the PEN-F. Remember I said I took the Nikon P900 along with me? Well these are from that tiny weeny sensor! Imagine what I am going to do with the PEN-F…

I know I am.

Clash in the Braes – Joe Strummers Rebel’s Wood

Joe Strummer, lead singer of the Clash, once said ‘I am a terrible Scotsman’. But the terrible Scotsman created a legacy on a remote corner of the Isle of Skye which continues to this day.

This is Joe Strummer’s wood, or Rebel’s Wood.

ST0RM-0094

In one of the quieter parts of the Isle of Skye, and there are still a few bits the majority of tourists pass by, there is an area of woodland that is slowly re-generating and becoming a home to otters, White Tailed Sea Eagles, Red Deer, and foxes.

Hidden, away from the shores of Loch Bracadale under the majesty of McLeod’s Tables, near Orbost, lies a slowly developing forest of Birch, Alder, Rowan, Willow, and Oak. Trees that should cover, and once did cover, much of not only Skye or of Scotland, but much of the uplands of the UK.

ST0RM-0100

Paths, some made by deer, some by people, and all following ancient ways, cross this landscape, passing copses of trees planted in Joe’s memory, and tended by enthusiastic locals and dedicated members of the Joe Strummer Foundation. The crags above are home now to birds ranging from the smallest passerine to the Scotlands largest Eagle.

ST0RM-0088

To reach this woodland you pass through the sadly much more common commercial woodland landscape of a conifer plantation, but by gaining height you will receive a reward of some of the most stunning views in all of Skye. The whole of the Cuillin spreads across in front of you, across the loch, and clouds thunder endlessly on the western skies.

ST0RM-0090

ST0RM-0109

Boggy in places, the walk takes you through a man-made landscape which appears timeless but is anything but. People crofted here until the clearances, and somewhat oddly, it is now perhaps one of the best locations on the whole island for a 4G mobile signal! Something quite alien to the inhabitants of this settlement, who would have travelled mainly by foot, for days to get out messages or receive news.

ST0RM-0097

People still come here, some shelter overnight on longer hikes with the ruins of croft cottages and farmsteads, and you can almost hear the sounds of our ancestors on the wind.

ST0RM-0095

I rested a while inside the walls of one croft whilst having lunch, and I thanked my hosts for their hospitality as I left. The feeling of people having lived here lingers strongly, be that a collective memory, a cultural knowledge and acceptance, ghosts and souls that linger, or just my vivid imagination, I never imagined not thanking them for visiting on their homes and being given shelter.

It is only a few years since the tree planting began, and it will take time for the effects to reach deep into the landscape, much more time than it takes man to destroy it, but we do know that changes do not have to be forever.

Although Joe is no longer with us, his legacy lives on here and will continue to do so, entwining with the souls of those who came before and touching the souls of those who come after. Perhaps his question of ‘should I stay or should I go’ has finally been answered.

 

All images photographed with the Fujfilm XT-2, Fuji XF16-55/2.8 R LM WR, carried in a Lowepro Whistler BP350AW rucksack and stabilised where required using a Gitzo 3 series Mountaineer tripod with Manfrotto Magnesium head. I stayed on Skye in a camping pod at Whitewave near Uig. 

 

A birding walk: Cummingston – Burghead – Hopeman (with a Nikon P900)

BurgheadHopemanMap

The forecast was for sunny spells, not sunny spells and showers. Arriving at Cummingston (marked Car Park on the map above) it was properly raining, but ten minutes sat in the car watching it bouncing off the bonnet and it had stopped. Twenty minutes into the walk towards Burghead and the sun was trying to come out.

This was to be a funny walk in some ways, because instead of going out and back, we were going from the middle to one end, then back to the middle, then off to the other end. The reason for this? Well, this was where I knew the car parking, toilets, and access to the old disused railway line actually was. So, that was where we started. The accidental benefit if this is that we also knew there was a toilet there which would provide another opportunity thus mid-way, and the walk could also then be cut short if the weather deteriorated. Thankfully, it didn’t.

I had been to this spot before, for a quick recce of the route, but the weather wasn’t conducive to the shots I wanted at the time, so I planned to return and combine a bird walk, with a dog walk, with a photo walk. I would be experimenting with the Nikon P900 as a documentary camera at the same time. As much as I would like a proper long lens for my Fuji XT-2, I simply don’t want to pay £1,500 for a lens that I also don’t really want to have to carry. I think I am getting to point where I have realised that I take far more photos, and far better photos, if I am not bogged down with loads of stuff. The Nikon P900 takes you from the 35mm equivalent of 24mm to whopping 2000mm, in one camera. It also features GPS to record your shots (hence the map up above, and also enables you to capture birds and wildlife, as well as landscapes and scenes, all in one camera. Or so it promises on the advertising…

I had bought it for birding, but I wanted to see if it could do more than that and if I would still be happy with the result.

As this was also a bird walk, I had taken my binoculars with me and within moments of getting onto the main path, with a view of the shore, I had spotted the first ID confusion bird of the day.

ST0RM-0209

A long way out it would have been impossible to get a clear photograph of it without the P900, and so I was happy with this somewhat uninteresting shot as a means of later identifying the eclipse male eider duck. I couldn’t see as much detail with my excellent Minox 8x binoculars as I could later see, at home, on my screen with the images from the camera. The bird would have remained unidentified without this shot, and so already I had found a reason to be pleased I took the P900.

ST0RM-0216

I had started to envision using this camera for documentary photography for my Detritus project, so I wanted to see how well it would cope at the wider end. I was very happy with the camera for bird photography, but would it, with its tiny sensor, still give me the details I require for a more ambitious project? I have had images from it accepted to stock agencies, but there is little room for additional cropping, which means you have to really concentrate on getting the composition right in-camera, because you can’t really change it and still maintain a large enough file, with sufficient data, later on.

The Fuji XT-2 gives me files in the 15MP+ range to the 6MP+ range of the P900, as a rough guideline. Agencies need a minimum of 5MP, so there isn’t a lot to play with from the Nikon. This means making firm decisions at the time of shooting, like we did with film to an extent, and I actually like having to work like this. It makes you really take care and consideration when shooting if the room for error is so very small.

ST0RM-0218

My Detritus project, so far shot exclusively on the Fuji XT-2, is about the impact of man’s waste on the natural environment of Scotland and the detrimental effect it has on the scenery and as a threat to the tourism industry. I will be travelling around some of the most scenic and best loved locations and showing them, warts and all, rather than polishing them up to the ideal images we know and love of Scotland. This project will require a lot of travel and a lot of walking to remote locations, and thus if I can find a way to reduce what I need to carry to a bare minimum whilst ensuring that I won’t then regret it or be limited on arrival at a location by this, there will be a lot of incentives and benefits to carrying just the Nikon.

ST0RM-0221

Another part of this walk today was to capture some images of the birds found around the Moray Coast, and for that the Nikon P900 would be perfect. It enables you to get very close shots of the birds without disturbing them, and impacting on their behaviour. I am very interested in birds responses to their environment rather than just portraits, and being able to observe without impacting on that is very important for accurate documentary photography. Birds are easily disturbed and this effects their behaviour, so being able to photograph them without this is very important to the birds but also to me.

ST0RM-0248

The coastline around Moray is spectacular in many places, allowing you to enjoy the geology, geography, and still often feel like you are alone, even on a busy summer weekend. The weather was still clearing and the view across the whole of the Firth to the far north coast breathtaking. But it wasn’t long before we came across some more detritus of us humans and our working of the north sea.

I was very pleased to be able to document this at the same time as being able to get the wildlife shots, whilst still carrying only one light weight camera. In practice and operating it was living up to my hopes, although I do hate that the buttons and dials move far too easily, especially compared to the Fuji, which are stiffer and lockable. This is only a problem if you don’t double check before you fire off the shutter – and sometimes, when birds and wildlife are involved you don’t have time to check and so it can be annoying.

ST0RM-0260

We had set off from the car park in the direction of Burghead and just as we got to St. Aethan’s (or Aidan’s) Well, I was delighted to spot two Stonechat. This one was obliging for a couple of shots only.

ST0RM-0266

It is claimed that the water from the well has healing powers, but whatever it has or hasn’t got going for it, Patches wasn’t touching it.

ST0RM-0269

Having declined a drink from the bowl provided at the well, he was more than happy to have some good old tap water from the Sigg bottle along with me instead.

ST0RM-0278

As we approached Burghead I was very happy to find this Linnet on the rocks. It would appear they have developed a way of opening the small limpets that cling to the rocks, or otherwise they are getting something in the rocks that makes it worth the effort.

ST0RM-0279

I like to photograph bird behaviour, even if I don’t fully understand at the time what the bird might be doing. Although I much prefer to shoot stills than moving images, I do like my subjects to have motion and to be engaged in doing something.

ST0RM-0282

As we came into Burghead the rocks change and the famous carbuncle homes into view…

ST0RM-0284

It provides a lot of work, of course, but it isn’t half ugly to look at. Coming at it from any angle you can’t fail to spot it, but from this angle it dominated the whole of the village. Reaching the edge of the village it was time to turn around and walk back past Cummingston and head for Hopeman.

ST0RM-0293

I was pleased again to see another three Linnets as these were first I had seen this year and in my first in this area.

ST0RM-0298

I was delighted to be able to photograph the small gatherings of wading birds on the shore from the path, again without disturbing them, and delighted to find Redshanks, Turnstones, and even a Knot amongst the larger Oystercatchers.

ST0RM-0304

ST0RM-0306

Having successfully documented the detritus, and the wider scene, it felt natural to also be able to capture images of the wildlife and the birds in particular. The sun was shining through the clouds now and picking out the plumage of the birds made for some lovely images, especially with the surf breaking in the background thus confirming the location whilst enabling a relative close-up of the birds.

ST0RM-0309

We went down into Hopeman and found our way through the houses to the harbour, where a small but interesting gallery has the added advantage of serving tea, coffee, ice creams, biscuits, and cans of cold pop. Hopeman also has easily accessible and very nice toilets, at the harbour, which enabled us to refuel and refresh before heading back to Cummingston again, and the picking up the car.

ST0RM-0311

The path follows the old railway and so it’s easy and accessible for all abilities, although some sections are small short gravelled rather than tarmac, and getting up and down to the car parks can be a bit interesting at some points. The route is part of the Moray Coastal Trail which runs all the way to Inverness, and is a designated cycle route as well as a path for walking and recreation. There are facilities at various points along its length and it also goes past or through some campsite for those wishing to tackle its full length. More details can be found here.

ST0RM-0313The side of the path host a number of interesting plants and an abundance of insects. The bees were making light work of these flowers, which is good to see given how much trouble bees are in, nationally and globally.

ST0RM-0314

As we reached Cummingston of the third and final time, I took a route off from the main path to examine the caves and sea stacks, which attract climbers as much as they do the wildlife.

ST0RM-0324

Again, it wasn’t hard to find more detritus from man’s long love affair with the sea. I do not wish to think about the trouble that this rope could cause to our wildlife, and tails of entangled whales, seals, and even dolphins are sadly becoming more and more common around the globe.

The walk was extremely pleasant an undertaking, and whilst it is not long in distance there is plenty to see all the way along the route. With birdwatching, dog walking, photography, and just general exercise and interest all combined, and the tea stop of course, we were out for much of the day. I would certainly take the route again, and with Patches snoring gently in my office, I am also now delighted with the results form the Nikon and look forward to using it again for more than just birding.

 

Loch Spynie & Lossiemouth East Beach

Visited 27/07/17 & 02/08/17 – Published 30/07/17 (updated 02/08/17)

ST0RM-0172

Loch Spynie is only twenty minutes from home but I seem to neglect it for more far flung neighbours, and it’s obviously not without it’s problems being so easily accessible (once you know where to find it).

The car park is on the farm itself, and then a track leads you through the open woodland to the small loch where there is a well maintained hide.

ST0RM-0173

ST0RM-0174

Access to the site, parking, and hide are reliant on the goodwill of the neighbouring farmer and so it would pay the users to have a little more respect and responsibility.

At the moment the issues appear to be litter and dog poo, which seem to blight every inch of the Moray Coast region and much of Scotland.

ST0RM-0183.jpg

It is shame that some irresponsible people seemed to be determined, probably purely through their thoughtlessness, to spoil things for everyone else. Sadly, it is not however uncommon.

Next to the hide is a wide array of well stocked feeders which attract tits, chaffinches, and even woodpeckers.

ST0RM-0184

ST0RM-0188

But it’s not all about the birds – sometimes even the larger wildlife appears to get in on the act:

ST0RM-0130

ST0RM-0090

But the rewards are there with some amazing close views of the birdlife, the squirrels, and, allegedly, the otters…

ST0RM-0086
Less than 3ft from the hide!

ST0RM-0098

ST0RM-0121

ST0RM-0138

It was also good to see some juvenile herons, as well as signets for the resident pair of Mute swans, young terns in the protected ternary, and many baby ducks.

ST0RM-0049

The Common terns are the stars of the show and most vocal, and there is obviously plenty of small fish about for them as they are successfully hunting very close to the nesting site.

ST0RM-0048

Sadly I wasn’t able to get any shots of them with fish. Terns are very fast moving and often quite unpredictable.

The site certainly seems to have a good population of breeding birds, including this Little Grebe out feeding on my second visit.

ST0RM-0182

The ducks were also in eclipse, with plenty of young tufted ducks also present, another good sign for the future populations in the area.

ST0RM-0144Both the males and females were looking in fine condition though.

Loch Spynie can easily be combined with a trip to nearby Lossiemouth where there is often something to see from the East Beach parking areas, although this is effected by the tide.

ST0RM-0031

Today was really a ‘gull’ day. This curious Black-headed gull appeared to be scrutinising me as much as I was him (or her). Sometimes, Lossie’ turns up the odd surprise guest gull so it is always worth a good scan about.

ST0RM-0028
Black-headed Gull
ST0RM-0022
Juvenile ? Dunlin
ST0RM-0024
Curlew

And this fabulous Curlew in the warm sunlight fishing in the shallows, in sands of the receding tide, was a real delight.

ST0RM-0016

The easily spotted Redshank (as opposed to Spotted Redshank) was also a nice find, and several of them were wandering about very close by.

The lists for the 27th July morning was quite small but satisfying:

Spynie:

Mute Swan
Mallard
Tufted Duck
Cormorant
Grey Heron
Little Grebe
Goshawk (loved that one, sadly no photo)
Common Tern
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Jay (looking rather worse for wear)
Blue Tit (including juveniles)
Great Tit
Coal Tit
Sedge Warbler (which alluded my camera inspire of repeated attempts)
Chaffinch
Reed Bunting

Lossiemouth East Beach:

Grey Heron
Oystercatchers
Sanderling
Dunlin
Curlew
Redshank
Black-headed Gull
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Carrion Crow

Not the greatest of lists, but a pleasant morning’s couple of hours when I really should have been doing something more financially profitable, but sometimes it’s just nice to relax.

List for the 2nd August quick visit:

Mute Swan
Mallard
Greylag Geese
Tufted Duck
Cormorant
Grey Heron
Little Grebe
Buzzard
Moorhen
Common Tern
Woodpigeon
Collared Dove
Blue Tit
Great Tit
Coal Tit
Chaffinch

Although I did swing past the Lossiemouth East Beach to use the facilities, I didn’t do more than cast a quick glance about. The usual gulls were present, alongside the Grey Heron and Oystercatchers, but otherwise it was fairly quiet.

There has been a reported sighting at Spynie of a Kingfisher, so I will need to pop over a few more times in the coming days to see if he/she reappears. They are much rarer here in NE Scotland than in my native Suffolk.

Electric cars are not the answer (and why you are better off with a horse)

As a keen environmentalist you would assume I would be favour of the government’s direction on electric cars, but they simply aren’t the answer. A horse would be a better option.

Let me explain:

Let’s take the Nissan Leaf, for example, and mainly because it the most accessible and, probably, one of the most popular electric cars out there at the moment. It can go 84miles on a full charge. Figures vary on how long it takes to fully charge it, from between four hours to 12 hours depending on the charger type, and the model of leaf. So, for sake of this article, and because I think technology will improve lets say six hours is a (un)reasonable amount of time. What you do at the charging station on the side of the motorway for six hours, especially when it has a two hour parking limit is of course an additional problem, but let’s first look at the practicalities of some of my own personal journeys.

A trip to my mothers is usually around 11 hours of driving time, with some stops for teas and pees, in a petrol car. During this time I will cover, according to Google maps, 550.5miles.

So, based on the distance of 550.5 miles this would require me to recharge my electric car 6.55 times. In practical terms let’s say seven times, because I need to allow for minor detours and any possible hold ups. That equates to my spending 42 hours charging it up on the trip, plus the 11 hours of actual driving. Let’s now say that I only stop to eat, and sleep, during the charging periods, which would be sensible, it would take me 2.21 days to drive to my mothers, and 2.21 days to drive back. So, instead of a week long visit of seven days, with two days travelling, five days with mum, I now have just three days with my mother, and that assumes I slept in my car when it was charging and didn’t mind spending 4.5 days travelling for three days visiting. To be honest, faced with this option, most people are going to fly instead. Where does that benefit the environment?

Now obviously I don’t do this trip every week, although some people do similar trips that often, but let’s take say…a trip to the nearest main hospital, in my case that means Aberdeen.  This is a trip of 66miles each way, and quite a lot of people do similar daily commutes, so that’s a relative common journey.

In theory, having charged my car to capacity at home, I can get to the hospital, where I will now need to again charge my car for six hours before I can then drive home again. It means I have to occupy a charging point in the already overcrowded hospital car park for six hours, as does almost every other attendee, member of staff, and the visitors. The overstretched NHS are going to need to expand the car park by around 400% capacity, based on the average attendee being there, usually, for not more than two hours. Not to mention digging it all up to install all those charging points in the first place. Is this realistic for the patient? Is is realistic for the hospital? No.

The policy makers are, generally speaking, living mainly in cities where the average journey is under 4 miles. Can you tell?

I haven’t even mentioned that while those hundreds of people are waiting for their cars to charge they need to be housed, fed, and watered. Visiting periods at the hospital on some wards are only two hours long so what do they do for the other four?

In purely time of practically and time for journeys the electric car model is simply not, at the moment, an option for people who do not live in cities. To be honest, if you live in a city where the average journey is under four miles you could walk or cycle and not have a car anyway, so the electric car is now redundant. It is impractical for anyone who doesn’t live in a city, and not really required by this who do.

Now let’s look at those batteries which are going to charge my (impossible) journeys – they use Lithium. Lithium is a globally limited resource, which means if everybody needs it the price is going to rise dramatically as the resource dwindles, and the process is more detrimental to the environment than the extraction of fuel for petrol cars. Here is an interesting article looking at these issues. The price of an electric car is not going to come down, it’s going to go up. Unless we can find a way of storing the power that doesn’t involve a limited and increasingly expensive resource, and that charges much, much quicker.

And, you have to also consider how the electricity that is used to power the car is generated also. Coal fired power station? No. Nuclear power? No thanks. Wind/wave turbines – at the cost of ruining our countryside and our seas, because we would need a hell of a lot more of them and we would need the means of transporting and storing that power also? No, preferably not. The Scottish economy runs on oil, whisky, and tourism. Take away the oil, because we are all using electric cars, and that leaves whisky and tourism. Take away the tourism because nobody wants to look at or listen to hundreds of thousands of wind turbines, and that leaves just whisky…

So, we can say that the electric car doesn’t work for many journeys undertaken regularly today even in a small country like the UK. Imagine transporting goods and people across the vast plains of the United States in electric vehicles?

According to Autotrader, the best range is provided by the American Tesla Model S with between 218 and 315 miles. Even allowing for the starting price of £57,400 in the UK not putting people off, how practical is it? Take that trip to mums again – 550.5miles, at least two charges, one at home and one on the road. My journey to mums is now at minimum with the fastest charge time of three hours, going to be 14hours long. But, if the slowest charge time is taking into account it becomes 28hours, or double.

In the US, route 66 is 2,448 miles across the country. So that means charging your Tesla at least eight times, but it’s actually more practical than it sounds in the UK because to drive  2,448 miles at 50mph (US speed limit) would take you 49 hours anyway so you can easily do your charges overnight. There you go, it is more practical to own an electric car in the home of the 5l V8 (21mpg) Mustang than it is in the home the 1.1 (64mpg) Ford Fiesta…

The net result of imposing electric cars on the UK, and probably many other countries, is that more people are going to fly. Given that one single take off in a Boeing 747 amounts to an output of things terrible for the environment greater than I would ever produce from my low emission petrol car in 40 years of driving, how is this going help air quality or global warming. You also have to consider that we have to move goods around the world, by boat or plane, and these have a far greater impact in a single journey than a city of diesel car drivers will have in a year.

All in all, and I’m sorry Elon Musk, but it isn’t the answer. We need an answer, but electric cars are probably not it, at least not outside the USA.

So what is?

You’ll remember that I said at the start of this article that a horse would be a better option? Yes, that was tongue in cheek and I don’t really see us going back to using horses, with or without carriages, but let me explain why horses are actually a better option.

Take that journey to my mothers – 550.5miles, 53hours with a relatively affordable electric car, including charging periods. At the end of the stagecoach era the coach teams were going at around 12mph. That means that a trip to my mothers would take, in theory, just under 46hours by stagecoach. So, a horse and carriage can beat an electric car journey by 7 hours. Horses do not require any fuel in the generated sense – no power station to make the electricity, and no lithium mines of course. The emissions are lower still, the environmental impact of the vehicles construction, and maintenance considerably less, the impact on the earth surface of roads is reduced because the horses won’t be good running on our tarmac, and the journey is actually quicker. My friends, we would be better returning to the age of the stagecoach than the electric car!

You’d need a lot of horses mind, given how many people are travelling. The population in 1851, which is really towards the end of the major stage coach era was 16.8million. In 2001 it was 49.1million, according to the Office for National Statistics and the UK census records (see here). We know it’s going to be around, probably over, 60million by now.

So what are our other options, if the government persists with the plan for all electric cars by 2040? Well, we could have government electric car stagecoaches. Instead of waiting for the charging of your car, nobody actually owns a car anymore, and we just borrow one and drive from staged charging point to staged charging point, swapping our flat car for a charged car. This means we could then reduce the drive time to be little more than it is now, but a lot of thought would have to go into how it works and it would also mean decanting your luggage and passengers roughly every hour to hour and a half throughout the 11hour drive. It is doable, but would you do it? Or would you just fly, and hire your own electric car at the destination?

So what about that flight option? Well, for me to fly I have to drive to Inverness or Aberdeen airport (1hr/1.5hrs). Then I have a 90minute check in, a two hour flight, around 30minutes to get out the airport with my luggage and get to my hire car, and then from Luton to my mothers (as an example) is around 1.5hr-2hr drive. The whole thing would take me around 7 hours. That is 4 hours less than it takes me to drive it now, on average, but I don’t do it because its messy and inconvenient, environmentally unfriendly, and car hire is expensive (the flights are not).

A visit to my mums – 7 hours fly-car option, 11 hours petrol car option, 46hours by horse, or 53hours by electric car.

Maybe we should go back to looking at hydrogen……

Detritus

Undoubtedly you will have seen photos in the news recently about the issue of plastics on the beaches around the world. It is an odd thing, but for years I have tried to get photos without the plastic in them, then kicked myself for not telling the story as it really is. The aesthetics ruling over the reality.

So, today, when I went out to take some lovely shots of Hopeman on the Moray Firth I decided to be a little more honest about it.

It wasn’t hard to find plastic, rope, dead animals, bags of dog poo (why bag it then leave 20ft from the bin, and yes I picked it up and put it in the bin for you…). Anyway, I digress.

Some of the plastic items were really huge and heaven only knows what the big yellow thing once was.

ST0RM_header-0283-2

Some of it was a load of old rope.

ST0RM-0284

Some of it decidedly reminding me that this is Scotland…

But nature was trying her hardest to fight her way through it all:

ST0RM-0287

And there was life clinging to the small and risky places:

ST0RM-0278

Some of the small bays where I expected to find things washed up were surprisingly clean:

ST0RM-0273

The sky was the most interesting it had been in several days, and the colours and the light were changing constantly. The breeze off the sea was keeping the temperature down a little but it was still t-shirt and shorts weather, for Scotland anyway.

ST0RM-0274

 

Photographing a quarry rehabilitation in Suffolk

ST0RM-0253
View from the Double Decker hide – Fujifilm XT-2, XF15-66mmF2.8R LM WR@35mm, 1/220sec@f11, ISO200 (Aperture Priority)

Between 1968 and 2000, over 3.5million tonnes of sand and gravel were extracted from a site just 5 miles from Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, an act which could have been devastating to the landscape and wildlife. But, since the mid-1980s the commercial site management worked with the local Wildlife Trust in a unique partnership which was ahead of its time, not to restore the habitat, but to actually rehabilitate and enhance it.

When the last pit closed in 2000, part of the rehabilitated site was already so significant that it had already become a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest). The whole site was donated to the Suffolk Wildlife Trust by CEMEX in the same year, and they have continued to expand and develop the site, with the aid of a grant from the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund and legacy gifts, creating a marvellous network of hides and paths within what is now the 128-hectare Lackford Lakes reserve.

ST0RM-1265
Male Banded Demoiselle; one of only two species of colourful damselfly species in the UK they are seen from May-Aug  (Calopteryx splendens) – Canon SX700HS, 135mm, 1/250sec@f6.9, ISO250 (auto ISO, Tv priority)

As part of the SSSI designation, 105.85ha were seen as ‘favourable’ with eight individual units, including the sailing lake. The notable features being the aggregations of non-breeding birds, assemblages of breeding birds, the outstanding dragonfly assemblage for which it is rightly famous, and for the supported variety of birds, which encourage the photographers and birders from far and wide. In fact, there are now many more photographers than birders at Lackford, as evidenced in the hides to the sounds of machine-gunning shutter fire (a small distraction).

ST0RM-0252
View from Bernard’s Hide – Fujifilm XT-2, XF16-55mmF2.8R LM WR@55mm, 1/160sec@f11, ISO200 (AP)

Whilst specialist telephoto lenses are de rigour in the hides, it is actually possible to get some great shots with the minimum of equipment, so the keen amateur naturalists should not be discouraged. All the shots in this blog entry were taken either with the Fujifilm XT-2 and 16-55/2.8 lens, the Canon PowerShot SX700HS compact, or even my iPhone! I have included the settings in the captions for your reference.

Obviously, as you can see from the photos, I was blessed with extraordinary bright light which added use of fast shutter speeds to capture insets and birds whilst maintaining a lower ISO and without compromising on the depth of field. The downside of this was the high levels of contrast and the danger of bleaching out the lightest areas on occasion, and even shooting with the compact set to -1/2 stop wasn’t enough to save some of the images, sadly.

ST0RM-0254
Another view from the Double Decker hide – Fujifilm XT-2, XF15-66mmF2.8R LM WR@35mm, 1/240sec@f11, ISO200 (Aperture Priority)

Although I had gone with the view to a relaxing birding morning out, I was able to get some good scene setting shots with the Fujifilm combination, but also, due to the excellent placing of the hides close to the wildlife, some good close-up shots of the birds behaviour also. Being able to extend my birding visit to include some photography also meant I ended up being one of the first cars on-site and one of the few still remaining when the visitor centre closed at the end of the day.

ST0RM-0264
Geese feeding by Steggall’s hide – Fujifilm XT-2, XF15-66mmF2.8R LM WR@55mm, 1/550sec@f5.6, ISO200 (Aperture Priority) – image cropped from 6000×4000 to 5281×2721

Even with the short lens on the Fuji, I was even able to get some decent close shots of the geese which were feeding just outside of Steggall’s Hide, which also provides a shelter for the sheep which graze this area.

ST0RM-0260
Steggall’s hide – Fujifilm XT-2, XF15-66mmF2.8R LM WR@30mm, 1/320sec@f5.6, ISO200 (Aperture Priority)

I was also able to get some close-ups of plants and general location shots:

ST0RM-0256
Fuji @ 34mm – 1/200sec@f5.6/ISO200
ST0RM-0269
Ash Carr (Fuji @ 16mm – 1/80@f11/ISO200)

 

The reserve is certainly one of the best ones I have experienced for close-up views, and has reasonable visitor facilities which would only be improved by adding some lunch options to the small cafe menu (cake and drinks is nice but not enough for the all-day birder).

I did try some photography of birds and insects with the Canon, and whilst the results were very good when the images were in focus, it was very difficult to get reliable shots of anything that didn’t remain quite stationery. This was mainly due to the appalling slow focusing abilities, and the macro setting was completely ineffective.

I would certainly recommend using an DSLR over a compact, but I would not be discouraged from attempting photography with a good compact or bridge camera, just be prepared for a good few out of focus shots or shots focussed on the background rather than the subject. With digital this isn’t a problem as you can fill a memory card at no cost other than your editing time, but with film this could be a more costly issue.

My longest lens with the Fuji for this trip was just 55mm (82mm in 35mm equivalent), which was certainly long enough to get some good shots, but they would include a reasonable about of background. Of course, contextual shots are actually very interesting, often more so than just frame filling portraits. I think you’d easily get away with a medium telephoto from many of the hides, unlike many RSPB reserves which demand 400-600mm+ for anything decent.

LackfordLakesMap

The layout of the reserve is also fairly accessible, with ramped access wherever possible, and fairly even surfaced paths, although some could be heavy going for those pushing wheelchairs and I could easily see this becoming even more difficult in wetter conditions. Suffolk of course is a very dry county with a chalk based soil so it maintains good stability longer than most.

The sailing lake shares the access road, which is bumpy and potholed, but the sailing does not seem to disturb the birds half as much as the driving of the sailing lakes users might scare visitors. The Slough is generally very quiet with most photographers in the Double Decker trying to get shots of the elusive Kingfishers for which Lackford has become, rightly, famous. Personally, on my previous annual visits, I have only ever seen a Kingfisher from the remoter Steggall’s hide (twice) but I was informed a pair were nesting right outside the visitor centre. This had evidently afforded some reliable views with the benefit of a cup of tea!

You’ll struggle to get a mobile signal throughout, although it is intermittently available as attested by the sudden maddening beeping as it catches up with your emails and messages at various spots. If required, if you really can’t leave it alone, Bess’s Hide is the best place to be (or it is if you’re on EE anyway).

No dogs are allowed on-site.

The terrain is a mixture of wooded areas, reed beds, lakes, and meadows, bordered by a neatly scalped golf course, a road, and the river Lark. In late summer it is still possible to get good numbers of birds, so it is a good place for the birder as well as the photographer, however it is the damselflies and dragonflies which astound in summer. There are also some larger mammals, aside from the semi-resident sheep, in the form of grey squirrels and, spotted from Steggall’s, even a fox.

If you are sitting in Steggall’s minding your own business before being interrupted by monstrous knocking noises do not be alarmed. The semi-resident sheep use it as a shelter and are under the floor! They are a horned variety, with a bit of an attitude, and they like to let you know it.

My list for the first hour was impressive, and over the course of the day ended with 32 species seen with good views. Many more were heard or glimpsed.

img_0893.jpg
Snap of my list after one-hour (iPhone 6s)

Canada Geese
Egyptian Geese
Mute Swan (with four signets)
Mallard (male in eclipse)
Grey Heron
Coot
Lapwing
Greylag Geese
Tufted Duck
Cormorants
Black Headed Gull
Collared Dove
Common Gull
Moorhen
Pochard
Crow
Buzzard
Common Tern
Gadwall (also in eclipse)
Blackbird
Great Tit
Blue Tit
Coal Tit
Marsh Tit
Green woodpecker
Great Crested Grebe (with chicks)
Blackcaps (breeding pair, with food)
Little Grebe
Magpie (in the car park)
Goldfinch
Tree Sparrow
Common Whitethroat (female)

I would imagine a more experienced birder would come away with far more, as would locals who could learn the likely locations and calls of their own patch more than the visitor would.

I was delighted to see that there was less ‘cock-waggling’ (one-up-man-ship over photographic/birding kit) as we say in my home parts, especially than at many reserves (Aberdeenshire I am looking at you…), and also that birders and photographers were happy to talk and aid species identification with each other. It was also very good to see that you could hire binoculars and this, coupled with the friendliness of natives, meant that new visitors could share the experience without the usual feelings of being intimated by all the ‘gear’.

Lackford Lakes is a reserve close to my heart, because I grew up just a few miles up the road, and when it was an active quarry. It was on my cycle route on a Sunday with my Dad quite frequently, and I wonder what he would make of it now (sadly, he had several years of ill health before he passed away in 2006, which meant he missed a lot of the really impressive redevelopment and expansion that has occurred).

As a year round reserve it is bringing people from the neighbouring conurbation’s back in touch with nature and providing a sanctuary that is visited by people on their way home from work, as well as providing a home for nature of course just outside of a very large market town. Power to thy elbow Suffolk Wildlife Trust, power indeed.