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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Nadine Gordimer died peacefully at home yesterday
people
Arts and Entertainment
Neil Young performs on stage at Hyde Park
musicAnd his Hyde Park set has rhyme and reason, writes Nick Hasted
News
Women have been desperate to possess dimples like Cheryl Cole's
people Cole has secretly married French boyfriend Jean-Bernard Fernandez-Versini after just three months.
Arts and Entertainment
AKB48 perform during one of their daily concerts at Tokyo’s Akihabara theatre
musicJapan's AKB48 are one of the world’s most-successful pop acts
News
Ian Thorpe has thanked his supporters after the athlete said in an interview that he is gay
people
News
The headstone of jazz great Miles Davis at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York
news
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll has brought out his female alter-ego Agnes Brown for Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie
filmComedy holds its place at top of the UK box office
News
newsBear sweltering in zoo that reaches temperatures of 40 degrees
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Kathy Willis will showcase plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
radioPlants: From Roots to Riches has been two years in the making
Extras
indybestThe tastiest creations for children’s parties this summer
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
Arts and Entertainment
Paolo Nutini performs at T in the Park
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Programme Planner

£30000 - £45000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based i...

Infrastructure Test Lead

£55000 - £60000 per annum + bonus + bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Our c...

Messaging Support Consultant

£40000 - £45000 per annum + bonus + bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Messa...

Supply Chain Manager

Not Specified: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's most progressive and innova...

Day In a Page

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

Meet Japan's AKB48

Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
In pictures: Breathtaking results of this weekend's 'supermoon'

Weekend's 'supermoon' in pictures

The moon appeared bigger and brighter at the weekend
Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor