Wildlife Photography



Mark Hamblin explains some of his favorite tips and techniques for photographing one of the Winter landscapes most elusive treasures - The Winter Ptarmigan.

By its very nature wildlife photography in any mountain environment is a challenge. Equally it is deeply rewarding for nowhere else is there such a feeling of wildness and the real appreciation of nature's tenuous existence. Even within the UK our 'high' tops can be desolate, windswept arctic 'deserts' with very few signs of life. Yet in such seemingly inhospitable habitats there are a few highly specialised species of both plants and animals that are highly adapted for their niche environment.

Perhaps my favourite mountain dwelling bird is the ptarmigan, a member of the grouse family that exists at altitudes above 2000 feet (609m). It is a fascinating bird and one that offers photographers the opportunity for a range of images as it moults during the course of the year from virtually pure white in winter to a mottled cryptic plumage of greys and brown in summer.

Scotland's Cairngorm range holds the highest ptarmigan populations in the UK but simply getting yourself and your kit into the bird's habitat presents the first challenge. The easiest access points are from the ski centres. A walk up into any of the corries or high plateaux should unveil sightings at most times of the year but the period from late April to the of end June should be avoided as this is the critical nesting period.

Once located it can be possible to approach ptarmigan at a distance of 10 -15m but this can take some time and depends upon an individual bird as well as the time of year. A favoured approach is to sit quietly at a comfortable distance and begin by observing the bird and its behaviour. If it is feeding then it may well gradually work its way within photographic range. Equally, if it is appears relaxed then a slow and deliberate approach, a few metres at a time often yields success. If the bird begins to move away then let it settle before continuing an approach. Don't push the bird and if it continues to move away then back off altogether.

Despite the weight I always work with a 500mm f4 lens often with 1.4X or 2X convertors. This allows me to work from a good distance and lessens any disturbance. I use a carbon fibre tripod for support mainly because of its flexibility in terms of shooting positions but a bean bag resting on a rock works well. Light is often clear and crisp at these altitudes and surprisingly good even in overcast conditions. In fact, very bright sunlight can create exposure and contrast difficulties so I prefer to shoot early or late in the day or under light cloud cover.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this form of photography is to be prepared for the conditions. Good clothing and boots are essential. Hat and gloves may be needed in any month. As a precaution, let someone know your intended route and carry a mobile phone in case of difficulties. 

Mark regularly features and contributes to some of the most popular photographic and wildlife magazines out there, including BBC Wildlife and Outdoor photography to name some names. His passion for nature and photography began at an early age and included success in a Young Ornithologists Club photographic competition. After various other interim career ventures, including catering, he took the plunge and has now been a professional wildlife photographer for over 10 years.