Photographing nature: Flock designs

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


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

Suggested Topics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45,000

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Test Development Engineer

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you inspired to bring new a...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Motor Engineer

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Administrator

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company are a world leadin...

Day In a Page

On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral