For the budding wildlife photographer the garden is the best studio available, and it doesn’t matter how big your garden grows because our wildlife is all relatively small - no elephants, rhinos or herds of wildebeest - and foxes, squirrels, frogs and insects can fit into the most conservative spaces, if not into a conservatory itself!
There are many benefits of working at home but privacy is probably top of the list. You see, if you decide to build a set or wish to leave your tripod out for an hour, it won’t be interfered with, unlike anything you try to do in our overpopulated countryside. Where every roaming nosey parker is apt to tamper with your plans. Within the bounds of flexible reason, you can do almost anything you like in your little bit of space. I once had it in mind to carve an actual size facsimile of Nelson’s head and shoulders in polystyrene so I could get a photograph of a pigeon on his nose without needing to scale the column in Trafalgar Square. Luckily for my neighbours I forgot about it before the monstrosity rose to shade out their beloved Lupins, but I’m sure you get my gist!
So you’ve designed a masterpiece and constructed your set, now because you are at home you can keep trying until you get it right or until the sun shines or until the subject poses perfectly. Then you can wait with everything still intact whilst your films are processed, and if you’ve failed to achieve exactly what you wanted - try again, and again if need be! Time and privacy are great luxuries but there is also one unfortunate and powerful enemy of this cosy home practise, the dreaded handicap – familiarity. There is no doubt at all that at worst it breeds contempt, and at ‘best’ laziness.
There is nothing so invigorating as the exotic, and if you take photographs and have travelled with your camera you’ll know exactly what I mean. New things kickstart the creative juices and fuel your enthusiasm, best of all they simply open your eyes wider and I’m sorry to say that foreign photographs are almost invariably peoples’ better pictures. So here’s the challenge; take the subject on your bird table, buddleia or back windowsill, and look again. Look like you first did as a child, or when your wonder was first stirred by a starling or a squirrel. Generate a new photographic excitement about those most accessible, convenient and easy subjects which you have previously overlooked, and then come up with something new, something that no one else has seen or photographed before.
That’s tricky of course, but not impossible. Firstly lay your hands on all the photographs of your chosen subject that you can and study them, save time by seeing which poses or angles work best or make it look most attractive. If you judge that others have made mistakes this should prevent you from doing the same and save you time, effort and money. Look to see what no one else has seen or done, ask yourself what can you say about the subject they haven’t, or if they haven’t quite got it right - plagiarise, pervert and repeat to perfect.
Years ago when it hadn’t apparently been done I took a photograph of a fox through the bottom of a dustbin. For sometime afterwards acquaintances would remark that they had seen it in magazines or books to which it had never been sent. When I looked I found that other photographers had replicated my shot and some of their pictures were better. Good luck to them – it’s the picture that counts!
Okay, you’ve researched the competition, you’ve readied the camera, its time to take control because only by controlling as many of the variable parts of reality will you be able to make a great picture. You’ve got to get to grips with the light, the colour, the texture, the composition and the position of the camera and its lens and of course, you’re subject. As an example let’s consider a robin on the bird table. You feed regularly and Robbie, who is nearly everyone’s favourite is always hopping around so he is probably one of the best subjects to start with.
Firstly, in front of the camera the bird table is not a bird table, it has become a photographic platform. I don’t care whether Conran or Chippendale created your feeding station, neither I, nor most people, would wish to see it in the picture - we all like birds to look as if they are in the wild. And to fool us is easy, just nip down to the woods and pick up a nicely sculptured piece of moss and lichen covered branch, preferably windblown, not chainsawed from some local giant, and G-clamp it to the table top. Only momentary confusion will grip Robbie before he pitches on a far more picturesque perch. You don’t have to go ‘au natural’ either, rusty pipes, car bonnets, broken glass and a huge pile of empty but brilliantly coloured paint tins have all been at times attached to my bird tables to provide a more interesting backdrop than my neighbour’s out of focus garage door. And remember if the lights not right you can always reposition everything into the shade or into the sunshine, and a new or novel background can be pinned to your fence, propped up against the pagoda or painted on the wall. After all it’s your garden!