“Adopt the pace of nature, her secret is patience”

Our guest blogger this week is David Tipling – a well-known professional wildlife photographer who for the last 20 years has travelled extensively, photographing some of the world’s most iconic wildlife. In this week’s blog, David reflects on the early days of wildlife photography and some of its pioneers.

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I was recently asked to take part in a programme for Radio 4 on Emma Turner. If you live in the Norfolk Broads and have a keen interest in wildlife you may have heard of Turner, but largely she has been forgotten. Yet a hundred years ago she shot to fame within the wildlife photography and conservation world, for it was Emma who discovered the first Bitterns breeding back in Britain since their extinction in 1868 and she took images of the young that even a hundred years on are still striking. For these photos she was awarded the Royal Photographic Society’s Gold Medal, a once prestigious award. Blowing the dust off Turner’s best-known book Broadland Birds I got thinking about those early photographers.

Bittern stalking through the marsh in autumn.

Emma Turner was very much a pioneer; she started taking pictures with a plate camera in 1900 just five years after R.B. Lodge took the first ever image of a bird, of a Lapwing on a nest. The limitations of her equipment meant she needed to be within just a few feet of her subject. Turner would get one of her helpers to cover her in reeds or any other natural material to hand and would lie prone for hours in pursuit of often just one image, because once her plate was exposed she had to reload the camera with another. At the same time the Kearton brothers were also experimenting with concealment; they tried disguising themselves in a pantomime horse, made a false tree in which to hide and employed countless other ways of getting close to birds, but neither they nor Emma had yet to start using a simple canvas tent that later became known as a hide.

Early wildlife photographers had to improvise their hides from whatever materials were to hand.

In spite of these rudimentary beginnings remarkably by the start of the First World War nearly every species of British breeding bird had been photographed. Cherry and Richard Kearton blazed a trail and became very well known, indeed Cherry Kearton’s films were screened in cinemas around the world. And by the 1920s there was an ever-growing army of photographers, many still choosing to use the plate camera as it gave such excellent image quality. Plate cameras were still restrictive, however, both in reach (as you had to be so close to your subject) and because you could only expose one image before having to remove and reload the next plate – a far cry from the 10 frames a second photographers can capture now.

It was during the 1920s that camera manufacturers started producing single lens reflex cameras for smaller formats. This was a huge leap forward for wildlife photographers and a decade later another major breakthrough came with the invention of Kodak colour film.

Today's wildlife photographers can use lenses to create the illusion of proximity with their subjects. The long lens used to photograph this resting fox helped isolate the fox's head and provide focus on its one open eye.

Since then our equipment has evolved to allow us to be able to capture the most amazing images from the natural world. But there is still one requirement of wildlife photographers that was as relevant to taking a great picture in 1911 as it still is in 2011, and that is perseverance. Kearton, Turner and the many great photographers that followed them have, of course, all experienced moments of luck when something special happens at exactly the right moment, but the harder you try the luckier you get.

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David is the author of several books and his wildlife photographs have been published widely throughout the world. The fully revised second edition of his RSPB Guide to Digital Wildlife Photography was published earlier this year and is available to buy on our website now. It’s the ultimate reference book for all aspiring and established natural history photographers.

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