Beginners nature photography workshop with Paul Miguel

I have a love-hate relationship with my camera. For the past year I’ve been in ‘hate’ mode, leaving it to gather dust save for sporadic bursts of mediocre photos. Busy days and low mood swings meant I just fell out of the habit, and the longer I left the thing to sit there, the worse I got at taking pictures. There was just one thing for it.

Earlier this year I came across photographer, Paul Miguel, thanks to a tweet from RSPB Fairburn Ings. After checking out his website and loving his shots, I found his Beginners Nature Photography workshop and booked a place sharpish. I was going right back to basics, and I couldn’t wait.

Cafe meeting and briefing

On Sunday 25th September I hopped in the car and made the pilgrimage to St Aidan’s Nature Reserve in Leeds. I met the group at riversMEET Craft Café, and Paul wasted no time in showing us the ropes. From aperture and ISO to shutter speed and Al Servo, he covered everything we’d need to expose our subjects correctly and capture sharp shots. After floundering, panic-stricken, whenever I ventured into ‘Manual’ mode, this was just what I needed to boost my confidence.

Unexpected surprises

Having never been to St Aidan’s before, I had no idea what to expect, but there was wildlife everywhere as soon as we stepped onto the reserve. Ringed plovers skittered across the causeway, great crested grebes dove for fish and pied wagtails bobbed along the water’s edge. Then, before we’d even had chance to set up our cameras, a kestrel appeared. Motionless save for frantically flapping wings, it hovered, eyes fixed on its prey. Other photographers ran to get into position just as the perfect predator dropped to the ground without a sound. A few seconds of wide-eyed anticipation passed before the kestrel propelled itself up again, a vole clasped in its talons. But this wasn’t our only surprise.

As Paul walked us to the spot he’d chosen for the landscape part of the workshop, he told us an osprey had been sighted over St Aidan’s. As always, there was a slim chance we might see it, but in all probability it had already moved on. We continued on our way, chatting about all things wildlife until Paul pointed out a red kite being mobbed by indignant crows. And then, all of a sudden, the osprey. My first osprey.

We scrambled for binoculars as it materialised against the sky like a ghost, soaring above the water with eyes locked onto its prize. Suddenly it stooped and dove. Lapwings erupted from the scrape in a flurry of wheeling paddles and pee-wit whistles. The flock still funneled and tumbled as the osprey emerged, a fish limp and dripping in its talons, swallowing the raptor whole before I had chance to set up for a decent shot. I can’t tell you how long I’d been waiting for that moment.

Photography time

With my adrenaline still racing, we made it to the top end of the reserve for a spot of landscape photography. It’s something I’ve never really tried before, but Paul was fantastic. He was keen for us to experiment with composition and settings using the tips he’d given us at the briefing, letting us snap away before taking a look and offering further advice. I’m still getting used to landscape, but the pictures I took are a huge improvement.

When we were satisfied we headed back towards the main reserve. Our next stop was just along the path, to a pool occupied by two beautiful swans. With the sun out in full force, they were the perfect subjects for four students keen to suss out exposure. It’s so hard to expose white feathers correctly, but I think I’m getting there. I’m pleased with the shots I got out of this session, especially the ‘money shot’ above!

Golden hour

Ah, golden hour, that fabled photography sweet spot. I’d never taken pictures in it before, but it wasn’t long before I fell under its spell.

After we’d all taken some swan pictures we were happy with, Paul guided us past a flock of juvenile goldfinches towards another landscape set-up: a lovely view across fields shared by cows and Canada geese, towards an urban sprawl. With patchy clouds and fading light making it difficult for me to snap something I was happy with, I decided to move a little further down the path, zoom in and focus on the geese and their lumbering field-mates.

The magic really happened on the way back to our cars. As we walked along the causeway, the sinking sun cast a beautiful orange light across the water, spotlighting passing mallards and flighty egrets. I took some of the most gorgeous pictures I’ve ever shot. Sharp and immaculately-lit, they show that our most numerous ducks are anything but boring.

I can’t thank Paul enough for running this workshop. He was patient and approachable, answering our many, many questions without batting an eyelid. My photography has improved tenfold – I’m really thinking about not just composition, but settings; venturing out of ‘Aperture Priority’ more and more often. Next on my list? The Beginner’s Bird Photography workshop.

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