I am amazed, flattered, and incredibly happy to be able to announce that one of my photos has been awarded first prize in the portraits category of this year’s British Wildlife Photography Awards. Since learning about the Competition shortly after taking up photography back at the end of 2009, getting a photo into the exhibition has been very high on my list of aims, and many of the previous winners have been a massive source of inspiration to me. The fact it focuses purely on British Wildlife makes it a very special competition to me – it’s a fantastic platform to show off the incredible diversity of wildlife we have in this country, which is something I’m very passionate about.
The awarded photo (shown above) is of a Common Lizard (Zootoca vivipara), which I took in April of this year at Thursley Common NNR in Surrey. Before this year I’d only ever made one visit to the Common, on a very cold, bleak winter’s day, and had found it to be very quiet. However, I’d been told that, during the warmer months, the Common came alive and that it was sometimes possible to see, amongst other things, hundreds of lizards in a single visit. Tempted by the prospect of capturing something I’d only ever seen once before, I decided to head back to the Common during one of the first properly warm spells of the year to see what I could find. Being early in the year, the days were still short and there was still a slight chill in the breeze, but the lizards were out, albeit in numbers closer to a dozen than 100, and were making the most of every warm, sunny spot they could find. On one occasion I left a sweatshirt lying on the ground in the sun and came back to it to find a lizard happily curled up on one of the sleeves.
On my first visit I mainly used a macro lens to photograph the lizards. I got some images that I was happy with, but there was nothing about them that really grabbed me – they were plain, ordinary images of lizards against soft, out of focus backgrounds. What I had in my mind was very different. The previous summer I’d experimented a bit with taking photos of Stag Beetles with my wide-angle 10-20mm lens, with the aim of capturing some of the habitat along with the subject. While I got a few photos with this set-up that I liked, I found I was very much pushing the limits of the lens by trying to use it with such small subjects. However, the idea of capturing surroundings as well as subject was something I really liked, and was something I was very keen to develop based both on those early attempts, and really interesting photos I’d seen taken by others. I’d been aware of a lens that was ideal for the kind of work I wanted to be doing for a while, but hadn’t quite been able to convince myself that the amount of use it would get would be enough to justify the cost. There was something about these lizards and where they were, that made me want to make the habitat a real feature of the photo, and after a couple of days of deliberation, I finally gave into temptation and placed an order.
The lens arrived early afternoon the following day, and I went straight back out, eager to put it to use. Working with a wide-angle lens meant getting very close, and with lizards being skittish as they are, it took a lot of patience and a number of failed attempts before I started to get any photos. Persistence paid off though, and I started to get some images that were much closer to what I’d originally had in mind. By this stage, it was getting late in the afternoon and the Sun was starting to drop. I’d mainly been working on an area of board-walk – the flat, sun-baked boards seemed particularly attractive to the lizards and had the advantage of making them easy to spot and to photograph. As the boards fell into shadow, I noticed that several of the lizards were starting to climb onto surrounding posts and tree trunks to catch the last of the rays. There are several old, dead trees along the board-walk, remnants of a fire that tore across the heath a few years back. Most of them are now stripped of their bark and stand bare, bleached white by the sun. A few patches of bark remain, and the lizards seemed to favour these spots, presumably because the colour and rough texture offered them a certain amount of camouflage and protection. As I approached this tree I noticed 3 or 4 lizards basking low down of the trunk – just high enough to still be in the sun, but low enough to make a quick retreat into the surrounding vegetation at the first sign of any threat. The setting really appealed to me – there’s something very “Jurassic” about lizards in my mind, and the rough old tree with its bare, gnarled branches stretching out into the sky seemed to compliment that somehow. This lizard instantly stood out from the others – not only was he a good size, but his peeling scales, and the silver stump at the end of his tail made him particularly interesting.
With my target chosen, I lowered myself to the ground so that I was in a position such that I could look upwards towards the lizard slightly, ensuring that the branch and the sky were in the frame, rather than it being dominated by the rough grass. I then focussed the camera manually and, holding the camera with one hand, and a flash with the other, slowly, and as smoothly as I could manage with both hands full, started to stretch myself out towards the lizard. As I started my approach, he (or she) was actually facing up the tree:
After a couple of photos at that angle he turned, presumably to investigate the movement below him, and I thought he was heading off back into the grass. Instead he stopped again, his face close to the lens, allowing me to take the photo you see at the top of this post.
For more information about the equipment I used to take this photo, see the post I made about the Sigma 15mm Fisheye lens and wide-angle macro photography.
The BWPA Exhibition is currently at the Mall Galleries in London. Entry is free, and the exhibition is open until 19th September, after which it will tour around the UK. For more information on the tour, visit the BWPA website. My photo, and all the other awarded photos, will also feature in this year’s British Wildlife Photography Awards Book.
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