Photographing nature: Flock designs

Wildlife photographer Chris Gomersall tells Alex Hannaford about his avian fascination – and offers tips for budding twitchers

A A A

At first glance it looks like an abstract painting – thousands of flecks of white made by delicate brush strokes on a grey canvas. But look closer, and what you're actually seeing is a photograph of many thousands of birds.

The image of a flock of knots – wading birds belonging to the sandpiper family – won Bedfordshire-based photographer Chris Gomersall the European Wildlife Photographer of the Year title at a competition run by the Society of German Nature Photographers last year.

Gomersall took the picture, Fluidity, at an RSPB reserve in Snettisham, North Norfolk, and it was chosen from nearly 9,000 photographs by 573 photographers from 26 European countries.

"It was a mass of swirling birds, taken on a slow shutter speed," Gomersall says. "You need to stare at it for a while. Knots have to go somewhere safe at high tide and this often drives them inland. But they often get disturbed by birds of prey, fly off and come back again. It's something I've been trying to capture well for 20 years. The season, state of the tide, and time of day all have to be right. I also wanted to take it on an overcast day. All of these criteria build up to the perfect shot."

Gomersall didn't study photography in college. In fact, he says, "Most people I know who do wildlife photography full-time didn't study it at college. I studied zoology."

Growing up on the east coast of England, Gomersall's first love was birdwatching. One of his earliest memories was seeing a waxwing with its prominent crest in the family's front garden when he was eight.

Around the same time, a Swedish family friend showed the young Gomersall his photos from a trip to Lapland, and Gomersall was hooked. "It was all very exotic for me, and a huge influence. I bought a Russian-made Zenit B with a standard lens. It cost me £15 from a second-hand shop in Grimsby."

At school, his chemistry teacher ran a camera club and made his own developing and fixing fluid. "We developed black and white films and enlarged prints. It probably helped me more than I imagined, although I didn't know it at the time."

Gomersall later went to work on an RSPB nature reserve. He says the idea of making a career as a nature photographer was remote. Yet his hobby soon became his occupation.

"Birds were the most obvious thing to photograph," he says, "and in many ways the most beautiful and accessible. It was also an excuse to enjoy a good walk in the fresh air."

In other examples of his work, a barn owl in north Norfolk hovers over a field of wheat; an adult crane preens (below); a great bustard shows off its plumage in Spain; and brent geese hunt for fish above the Thames estuary.

Gomersall names two key inspirations – the American photographer Jim Brandenburg and the award-winning Scottish natural history and landscape photographer Laurie Campbell ("he's quite a good friend and a modest bloke, but he's very inspirational"). Gomersall's own favourite pictures are of common birds made beautiful through lighting, background, and composition. "I'm lucky enough to have photographed penguins and albatrosses, but you always do better in places you know.

"I like to work in Britain and I think I'm most effective in Britain. I head out to the Western Isles of Scotland for a couple of weeks a year. The beauty is in never knowing what's going to pop up – it could be a minke whale, an orca or a basking shark. And there are all sorts of sea birds you don't normally get close to."

Gomersall says the digital revolution has huge advantages, but that it benefits amateurs more than professionals. "It has levelled the playing field and given more people access to markets that were perhaps impenetrable in the past," he says. "And it has helped professionals in the delivery of their products."

Gomersall currently uses a Nikon D2XS with a 200-400mm zoom lens. "I use digital," he says. "I think digital cameras work better in low light and there is better resolution and speed now than before.

"With digital cameras, you can learn the photography bit much quicker. But understanding wildlife takes a lifetime."

And there's the rub. Gomersall is proof that a knowledge of your subject goes a long way. "I think you take much better photographs if you're passionate about your subject," he says.

Gomersall says photography is limited as a medium compared to, say, painting. "You don't start with a blank canvas in photography," he says. "In fact it's the opposite – the trick is in extracting the bits that are interesting, using the same tools everybody else has."

To see more of Chris Gomersall's work, visit www.chrisgomersall.com

Suggested Topics
Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
News
Shami Chakrabarti
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Sport
football
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker