"A polarising filter," replied Adrian, who was not just our guide, but our course leader and nature expert for the week. ("For most of the year, he's a professional wildlife photographer.) "Ah!' piped up a fellow student. "I've got one of those somewhere ... but I never knew how to use it."
That's the problem for anyone aspiring to progress beyond a point-and- shoot automatic. You know there's a lot more you can do and that getting the right equipment can help you do it. But how and when do you use it?
The Natural History Photography course at Slapton Ley Field Studies Centre is a week-long activity holiday. Taking pictures of South Devon's flora, fauna and countryside seemed a pleasant way of working on my camera skills.
Most of the group was still gazing into the waters of Slapton Ley when someone spotted a large blue dragonfly amongst the bankside foliage. Attention and, more importantly, Adrian's expert instruction, then turned from "how to use a polarising filter" to "how to photograph small things in close-up".
Not only had I no idea how to use the built-in close-up on my camera - I didn't even know I'd got one until Adrian showed me. But before my sheepish "Oh!" was even half formed, the man next to me pointed to his lens casing and exclaimed delightedly, "So that's what MACRO means!" Any lingering worries about being out of my depth amongst loads of expert (male) snappers disappeared.
The dragonfly posed on unconcernedly, resplendent in the bright blueness of an adulthood that would last only a few weeks. Whether through vanity or indifference, it proved an obliging model, holding its position whilst 12 camera-wielding learners snapped away.
Adrian warned that we shouldn't expect many creatures to be so co-operative. And he was right. The next day we visited a marshy area of Dartmoor, near New Bridge, popular with butterflies. I found a large red and black one sitting still on a small bush. I never ascertained its species, because by the time my fully manual camera was ready to click, the little bug was fluttering off.
Patience, I discovered, is an indispensable virtue for wildlife photography. Patience - and a tripod. A tripod, according to Adrian, will improve your photography 100 per cent.
Over the next few days, I did a lot of "waiting for the right moment". A Funnelweb spider which I planned to photograph emerging from its deep and narrow lair, staged a long sit-in, despite having popped up several times whilst I'd been setting up. Restless Soldier beetles revealed the source of their nomenclature by constantly marching around. Even flora proved camera-shy. Okay, so plants can't run off but the slightest of breezes at the critical moment ensured that the rare health lobelia I'd spent ages getting into focus, became a faint pink blur.
Patience had its greatest reward on the two evening visits we paid to a badger sett. As it grew dark we stood as still as we could manage, listening out for any rustling which might herald the badger's arrival. When at last they appeared, the stiffness that was setting in disappeared with the excitement of seeing two adults and two babies emerge.
At this point, restraint as well as patience was needed. Adrian had installed two large flashlights, primed to trigger when a camera flash went off. In order to prevent constant illumination, we had to take photos one at a time, in strict rotation. Of course when Baby brock was at my feet, I was itching to press the shutter. But it wasn't my turn. And when at last it was - he'd moved away.
We took completed films into Kingsbridge for processing and discussed the results. On non-badger evenings, Adrian gave talks on techniques and equipment.
Did I fulfil my objectives? Yes, I can modestly say that my photography has improved. The course and the people on it were good fun and the cream tea, which everyone indulged in at a small hotel overlooking Start Bay, was delicious.
wildlife fact file
Natural History Photography course takes place this year for 14th to 21st August at the Slapton Ley Field Centre, Slapton, Kingsbridge, Devon. TQ7 2QP. Tel: 01548 580466
pounds 260 including full board and accommodation. Non-residents, pounds 195. Supplement for single room, pounds 30.
Accommodation and food
Most rooms are not en suite. Food is good and plentiful with a choice of vegetarian or non-vegetarian dinner. Vistors can make their own picnic lunch from the supplied ingredients.
Containing details of FSC courses at all 12 of its centres in England and Wales available from Field Studies Council, Preston Montford, Shrewsbury. SY4 1HW. Tel: 01743 850674.
Non-photographer partners can attend one of four other courses running at the same time: Creative Writing; Landscape Painting and Drawing; Summer Flowers of South Devon; Dramatic Interpretation in Words and Music.