Flight of the Swans – X Series on expedition – Part 1

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X-Photographer strip BLACK

By Ben Cherry – Environmental photojournalist & Fujifilm X-Photographer.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of the volunteer media team covering a project called Flight of the Swans. This is an ambitious conservation expedition, where Sacha Dench will paramotor from Arctic Russia back to the UK over 10 weeks following the flyway of Bewick’s swans.

This charismatic species was what encouraged Sir Peter Scott to set up Slimbridge and eventually the Wildfowl Wetlands Trust (WWT). Now though, the species is under threat having gone through a dramatic decline over the past twenty years. Between 1995 – 2010 the Europe population fell from 29,000 to just 18,000. The purpose of this expedition is to raise awareness of their plight, to confirm the key reasons for it, and hopefully create solutions.

This is the first of three blogs covering the project. Here we will focus on the lead up to the take off and the ground team reuniting with Sacha. Then there will be a blog during the expedition and one just as we all return to the UK.


How I got involved

Ambitious and ‘out there’ projects like this don’t come around very often so when I saw the advertisement online I jumped at the chance to get involved. I was lucky enough to be shortlisted alongside an amazing group of people and the next step was a selection weekend in Wales, where we were put through a series of exercises to see how well we can adapt and collaborate. This was a fantastic weekend, supervised by seasoned explorers and everyone came together, despite the competition and lack of sleep!

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Image courtesy of WWT/Jessica Mitchell

Once I was informed that WWT would like me to be a part of the media team, I became as available as possible to help where I could, leading up to the off. We have been put through a series of training exercises from remote first aid, to satellite phone tutorials, as well as covering some of Sacha’s specialist training, like having to jump into a simulation pool at RNLI College, Poole to see how well her flotation devices for the paramotor work! It does help that she used to be a professional free diver…

You can find out more about the selection process here – choosing our dream team  To read my personal reasons for joining the project you can see that here – Meet Ben Cherry, one of our media volunteers.

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Long road ahead! Autumn is about a month ahead of the UK in Russia, which is why the Bewick’s have started migrating. X100T

What kit I’m taking

I have two bag set ups for two different purposes:

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Shoulder bag/go bag

This is basically the first thing I grab when we arrive at a general location. It contains an X100T, X-Pro2, XF16mm F1.4, XF35mm F1.4, 56mm F1.2 and an SP-1 printer. The set up encourages me to be creative as well as being small and not intimidating when first encountering a new community.

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Backpack – Wildlife/assignment bag

When I know we are going out to find the swans or capture other aspects of nature, then this is the bag I grab. Inside is an X-T2, X-T1, XF10-24mm F4, XF16-55mm F2.8, XF50-140mm F2.8, XF100-400mm F4.5-5.6. As well as miscellaneous items like filters, cleaning kit and a flash set up.

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Having the two distinct bags means that I can keep my kit focused for particular types of photography, as well as not constantly overloading myself with gear. This particular project has so many interesting factors, from tracking the swans which are very timid in Russia and much of Europe, to engaging local schools, conservation and hunting groups. My kit has to be able to maximise each and every opportunity.

The rangefinder cameras are brilliant as they are particularly inconspicuous. I keep them together as I use my right eye with the rangefinder cameras, while I use my left eye with the SLR style cameras. The X-T range cameras are generally more flexible, particularly the X-T2. So from my perspective it makes sense to keep the most versatile lenses (zooms) and cameras together. Generally the X-T2 has the XF100-400mm attached inside the bag so it is ready in case we come across any wildlife suddenly or Sacha has to take off/land quickly. The advanced autofocus and 4K footage makes the X-T2 ideal for this kind of project.


How has it gone so far?

At the time of writing this (23rd September, now I will hopefully be running around the amazing tundra!) we the ground team have just arrived in Arkhangelsk, Russia. Referencing the map below, that is where the blue line from the UK has stopped, as well as the green line coming down from the tundra, that is Daisy Clarke, one of our satellite tagged Bewick’s! Sacha is the highest, turquoise line. To get the latest on our location be sure to regularly check our live satellite map – https://www.flightoftheswans.org/live-map/

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Sacha has made amazing progress so the ground team have had to work double time to make sure we join up and keep on schedule. We left on the 14th September, and have managed to cover over 2,500 miles during that time, along with a 32 hour stay at the Russian border.. We will hopefully reunite with Sacha tomorrow!

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Part of the ground team moving north in Russia

From there we will then steadily start heading back to the UK all together. Along the way we will be conducting lots of press, conservation and community events. Please be sure to follow our social media channels as we will be trying to make our presence known along route and could be passing nearby! I am in charge of the social media channels from the field team, so I will be sharing images straight to my phone via the FUJIFILM Camera Remote app and sharing them across our social media channels (see below).

Once we are back in the UK we will be visiting some of the fantastic WWT nature reserves as well as holding other exciting UK events. We will be running various live broadcasts too so be sure to stay up to date! You can find all the latest information via our social media channels:

Facebook – Flight of the Swans

Instagram – @wwt_swanflight

Twitter -@wwtswanflight

Next month I’ll be giving an update on the project, as well as offering a photo travel guide for the locations we have passed through. Our focus so far has been making as much time as possible, once we are all on the return leg then our media team can really get to work so I promise there will be plenty of photos to share in the next instalment.

Be sure to stay up to date! From Russia with love. 🙂

Ben Cherry

Twitter – @Benji_Cherry

Instagram – @Benji_Cherry

Facebook – Ben Cherry Photography

Fujifilm X-Photographer Page


 

Get creative with a window lightbox

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Written by Roger Payne

After my bathtub antics last time round – you can read that here if you missed it – I’d got the taste for creating studio quality results on the cheap. I spotted my chance when my wife bought some colourful tulips into the house and within seconds of them being put in a vase, I snaffled them to get shooting.

Aside from the flowers themselves, I used two sheets of white A3 paper, which I taped to a north-facing window. I used two sheets as a single sheet tends to show the pulp in the paper when lit from behind and then put a couple of paper clips on the bottom just to hold the sheets together and add a little weight. A couple of bulldog clips would be just as effective. With my X-E2S mounted to a tripod with the XF60mm macro lens attached, I started my shoot by selecting a custom white-balance setting; effectively to tell the camera the white point in my set-up to guarantee accurate colour reproduction. This was done by choosing White Balance in the menu, then one of the custom options before following the simple on-screen instructions. With that done, the flowers were placed in front of the paper and I got this.

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It’s hardly inspiring, is it? Composition aside, the biggest problem is the fact that the white paper has gone grey. This is because metering systems are calibrated to 18% grey. This is not a problem when shooting most standard scenes, but when you have white (or black) subjects they need a helping hand. I tried two options. First, I switched to spot metering and took a reading from the shadow area of the central yellow bloom. The result was better, but was starting to bleach the highlights, so I dialed in +1.3 stops of exposure compensation instead. Better.

The fact remained that the collection of tulips weren’t really working together, so I started trying individual flowers, placed in a toothbrush holder and held in place with a piece of scrunched up paper – no expense spared! I moved the focusing point to the flower head and tried a range of framing options.

If you’ve ever used the XF60mm Macro, you’ll know that it’s optically superb, and as the lens focused I found myself liking the abstract-like shapes in the out-of-focus bloom areas. So I switched to manual focusing, deliberately defocused and then took a range of images varying the aperture from F2.4 to F11, which altered the amount that was sharp. This one at F3.6 suited me best.

I swapped to another flower and did the same, shooting some in sharp focus and some defocused. This was repeated on the third bloom with which I also tried a few Film Simulation modes, including basic Black & White and Classic Chrome.

Shooting done, when I came to edit the images, I really liked the defocused shots and thought they could create a piece of abstract art if I created a triptych, which was easy enough to do in Photoshop. I simply created a black background, then dropped the images on in turn before shuffling them around until I got the position right.

Final-image

What do you think? I rather like the look. My wife, however, was a little less impressed. Turns out tulips don’t like being man-handled a great deal and the ones I’d photographed individually soon wilted.

Back to the shops for me!

The right gear for the job – Wildlife

I thought this could be a helpful blog series for individuals looking to invest in equipment with particular interests in mind. This blog series will hopefully cover gear and techniques to help those getting into photography, who want to develop their skill set and knowledge. Because one of my main subject matters is wildlife I thought I’d start off with this genre.

Wildlife photography is a genre that can massively benefit from having suitable equipment, in my eyes more so than many other photography genres (but I’m biased!). To that end it’s good to be prepared with the most suitable gear for the task.

Best Camera – X-T1

The X-T1 has a number of features that make it the most suitable camera for wildlife:

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Knowing that my X-T1 and 18-135mm lens set up was weather sealed meant that I could stop worrying about splashes and focus on capturing the dolphins.

First of all it is a weather sealed camera, so when used with a weather sealed lens you have a completely sealed system which is important when outdoors if you’re having to counter water in wet conditions or dust in dry conditions.

Then there is the fast auto focus, which the X-T1 is definitely the best at in the X-Series at this moment in time. The auto focus is very quick in single focus mode with basically every lens available and the continuous focusing mode is also very reliable and quick once focus has locked.

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Fast continuous focus and 8 frames per second meant that I could get the composition just right as these terns flew at me on the Farne Islands.

Being able to shoot at 8 frames per second and take advantage of the latest UHS-II SD cards for fast writing speeds means that this camera can cope with quickly evolving situations where you need fast bursts to capture the action and to be quickly ready to repeat the process.

As well as the camera being great, the accessories can be really helpful, namely the battery grip. Often with wildlife photography you are out and about for many hours and the last thing you want to happen is to be stuck changing batteries just as something exciting is happening (this has happened to me far too many times!). The battery grip holds an extra battery so doubles the time before you need to change your batteries.

Finally, the big thing about to come to the X-T1 (black version) is the electronic shutter. Being able to shoot at up to 1/32000 second is great but is generally not necessary for the lenses used with wildlife photography; but what will be very beneficial is the silent shutter. If you’re close to wildlife or in ear shot then even the slightest sound can set off a timid animal. The X-T1 shutter is by no means loud but certain animals have such finely tuned hearing that the mechanical shutter sound can be enough to scare off your subject.

Back up camera – X-E2

Having two cameras is a good idea for wildlife photography. It is often helpful to have two different lenses on the cameras so you can quickly capture images at different focal lengths, going from the close up headshot to the animal in environment shot. If an X-T1 is out of the question, let alone two of them, then the X-E2 is a brilliant compromise. It offers a more affordable option and though it may not have weather sealing and all the bells and whistles I mentioned above it is still a very capable camera. With 7 frames per second and a hybrid AF system that includes contrast and phase detection, this camera is able to capture fast paced action almost as well as the X-T1.

Lenses

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The 55-200mm in action.

The 55-200mm is currently the longest lens available for the X-Series until the 140-400mm comes out very soon. Covering a good range with a very useable widest aperture (F3.5-4.8), this lens is a super lightweight option for wildlife photography. The auto focus is fast and accurate plus the lens has OIS (optical image stabilisation) which is great to help you capture sharp shots if you’re handholding.

Moving into the weather sealed lenses, the 18-135mm lens is a brilliant all-in-one wildlife/nature lens to carry around if you’re wanting a one-lens solution. When used on the X-T1 this is a sealed system that has snappy auto focus and OIS to help make sure your shot comes out sharp. If you’re looking to have a more specialist lens(es) then the new 50-140mm is a good place to start, though not as long as the 55-200mm lens it offers a widest constant aperture of F2.8. This is brilliant for photography in darker conditions, such as golden hour at sunrise and sunset. This has been combined with OIS and the world’s first triple linear motor auto focus system to ensure you focus in on your subject quickly and get sharp results. This lens has internal focusing and zoom, helping ensure that no moisture or dust can get into this weather sealed lens.

Wildlife doesn’t always require the longest focal length possible. Often framing your subject within the environment can have a much more powerful effect than the classic headshot close up. The soon to be released 16-55mm lens will be the perfect partner for the 50-140mm lens, providing another weather sealed option with a fast widest aperture of F2.8.

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Highland cattle of the Isle of Skye at 18mm. Not the best ‘wild’life photograph but it helps emphasise the point of framing an animal in its environment.

If you’re interested in macro photography then you have two options, the Fujifilm XF60mm F2.4 or the Zeiss 50mm F2.8. I have used the Fujifilm version and love it, though if you want 1:1 scale then the Zeiss is the way to go. These lenses are also great general purpose lenses, the orang utan photo at the top was taken with the XF60mm.

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Ants crawl over a vivid red plant in the heart of the rainforest in Borneo.
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An emerald green beetle’s shell glistens from my off camera flash. The XF60mm is a great lens to cover a wide variety of shots.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I hope this has proved helpful to those of you that are looking to invest in the Fujifilm X-Series for wildlife photography. If you have any questions then please leave a comment below or contact me via:

Twitter – @benji_cherry

Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/BenCherryPhotography