This is my first long term creative project and it combines an inquisitiveness for art, science and nature. In a unique take on long exposure photography, I'm delving into the patterns of birds in flight by compressing the time dimension of a video onto a single image. It struck me that experienced birders can often identify a species in a single glance, using what’s known as “General Impression, Size and Shape”. On a still frame, the bird is often little more than a tiny speck so recognising patterns in their movement, akin to a human’s gait must play an important part in identifying them.
I set about exploring how to capture their distinctive flight patterns and found that this revealed both beauty and insight into their interaction with the space around them. My background as a scientist and computer programmer allowed me to write my own bespoke algorithm to combine the frames of a video, creating the outputs that you see here.
I am really enjoying the creative process of letting nature do the hard work, and seeing what pops out. I'm posting images here as the project evolves so that you can follow my progress.
After some success with large numbers of seabirds at Bempton Cliffs I wanted to try to try another location with thousands of birds. I studied the mathematics of natural phenomena such as murmurations and avalances during my doctorate and have found studying flock behaviour fascinating. Starlings often flock around artificial structures such as power cables, with thousands of birds appearing to move as one collective mind performing a mesmerising dance before diving into the reed beds to roost.
I visited RSPB Dearne Valley several times over the winter of 2018/19 to collect footage. Often, a peregrine falcon or two are on the hunt for a meal and the resulting aerial acrobatics are dramatic.
As of August 2019, I'm still slowly going through the footage and creating new images. I've learned that a still evening is best if I want to include background scenery - the power lines especially, move a lot in the wind and will be blurred in the resulting image. If it's windy, I can get away with images containing only sky and starlings. And I bought a new camera with a better video resolution for this stage of the project which I'm really pleased with, although my tripod leaves a lot to be desired!
I had no idea how this would turn out, so it was a case of taking lots of footage and seeing what popped out. I've now got some ideas for what would make some stunning images. Whether the starlings will entertain my ideas is another question. We'll have to see this winter.
RSPB Bempton cliffs is a nature reserve on the Yorkshire coast. Around half a million sea birds gather to nest on these cliffs. The sheer number of birds on and in the air around the towering cliffs is mind blowing. The species gathered here include guillemots, puffins, gulls, razorbills, fulmars, kittiwakes and the UK's largest mainland gannet colony. They are drawn by plentiful nesting sights along a 17 mile stretch of cliffs up to 400ft high. This is a true wildlife spectacle and hard to represent in a photograph - making it a great candidate for my technique.
Here's a taster of the process of building up the layers:
This was a great mini-project. I love the chaos in these images. I think they do a good job of showing the viewer how many birds are in the air at any one time - something that as a first hand observer I thought was mindboggling. I learned that the East Yorkshire coast is home to one of the finest wildlife spectacles I've witnessed so far; and that it is very accessible. The RSPB have a great reserve here, and unlike most wildlife watching, you don't need to get up at the crack of dawn. The birds are there all day!
I also learned that you don't need a gigantic lense and all the camo gear to come away with some really interesting images. I definitely felt pretty out-gunned kit-wise trying to balance my relatively lightweight DSLR on the fence posts of the lookout points!
UPDATE! AUGUST 2019: I'm absolutely delighted to receive the silver award in the Creative Imagery category of Bird Photographer of the Year 2019 for one of my images, "Air Traffic Control". I spent a wonderful day at Birdfair, Rutland Water, where I received my award. Many thanks to the organisers of the competition for putting on such a good event and making me feel so welcome. I've now had a chance to look through the accompanying book and the standard of photography is amazing - I can't believe I'm among them! Well done to all the winners and I'm definitely inspired to try more!
I was inspired to try this project having see Xavi Bou's amazing images in National Geographic magazine. He calls his project "Ornitografías" and asks the question "If birds left tracks in the sky, what would they look like?"
I found the images fascinating. I thought, not only can I do this, but I think I could take the technique further.
I've spent the last decade working on imaging techniques in medical research so the technical problem of creating the images wasn't a barrier. I'd studied the theory behind flock behaviour and fluid dynamics during my years in academia and wondered if I could visually represent some of the science behind the patterns created by flocks of birds.
The first step was to write the algorithm to create the images, and then find some local birdlife to test it on.
The initial investigations went well. I particularly like the spiral shapes formed by the birds circling overhead; especially as I hadn't brought a tripod that day so these were taken by balancing my camera on my bag. The algorithm works, although I need to speed it up if I'm to take this further. I learned that I need a better way to keep my camera from shaking - my tripod is next to useless if there's any wind.
I also learned that it's best to check with staff as to when the RSPB reserve is closing if you intend to stay until dusk to watch the starlings!