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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 www.chrisgomersall.com