The N-Photo Interview
It’s a small – but fascinating – world for macro maestro Paul Harcourt Davies
Born and raised in the mining villages of south Wales, Paul Harcourt Davies headed west to the dreaming spires of Oxford
to read physics. But it was his childhood fascination with the natural world that determined the rest of his life journey. Now residing in Italy, the ‘macro maestro’ reveals his close-focusing techniques, and how he is using digital technology to share his expertise… Which of your interests came first: photography or nature? Definitely nature. My earliest clear memories involve the natural world. As a three-year-old I recall standing by a brook with my father watching a golden ring dragonfly hawking back and forth. In 1955, just before my grandmother came down her path to tell me my baby brother Philip had died, I was lost in another world watching an orange-tip butterfly laying eggs on ladies smock. I saw my first peacock butterfly with red admirals on Michaelmas daisies in the autumn of my sixth year: I had never seen anything more lovely. You grew up in the mining valleys of south Wales. Wasn’t it a difficult environment in which to develop an interest in the natural world? Far from it. We moved when I was four to one of those many post-war council estates that were thrown up rapidly. We had a garden for the first time. It was just outside the valley proper, and within minutes I could grab a hunk of cheese and piece of bread, and be out – down lanes, through fields to streams with newts and frogs. Has it always been the invertebrates and frogs that have most fascinated you? I still tend to be fascinated by everything that grows, flies and crawls, but it was the smaller things that grabbed me first. I longed for a microscope as a child and Father Christmas brought me a small one, with which I revealed the mites on cheese in the food safe! We had no fridge then. My mother screamed and scrubbed for a
day. With insects I felt I was peering into a secret world and perhaps that suited a child who was, by inclination and circumstance, a bit of a loner. It was finding a bee orchid on the Kenfig dunes in Glamorgan (now a national nature reserve) that fired a love of orchids and plants in general, as well as a desire for exploring plant-insect links.
When you went to Oxford what sort of career did you think it would lead to?
I envisaged doing research and getting a lectureship, maybe being a professor. In retrospect, the choice of physics was a bit of an aberrant event – my school sent one person in a blue moon to Oxford. I was identified early on as the next candidate by my physics teacher, a man of strong personality, whose nickname was ‘Killer’. I suppose I was flattered and followed the lead – I happened to have flair for mathematics and that made the physics easy. Unfortunately, I was not prepared for just how traditional and boring the Oxford physics course was, nor for the freedom that I was granted. I ended up going to far more biology lectures than physics.
What cameras and lenses were you using?
At school an inspirational teacher, David Morgan, ran a photography club. I had a box camera, so he let me use his Pentax and I got to grips with the smelly side of the photo process in the darkroom, and the magic of seeing an image appear under the safelights. I got my first decent camera after I graduated – a Zenit B, followed by a Praktica LLC, which failed continuously. Then, with money gained through tutoring the academically-challenged progeny of the wealthy, I bought a Canon F1 with 50mm f/3.5 macro. I still have them!
What is your desert island lens?
Currently, my Nikon AF 105mm f/2.8mm macro. It is a superb piece of engineering and bitingly sharp, but I would have liked a tripod-mounting collar. I have been doing a lot more video work with this, using it in horizontal format. I also have a CamRanger that allows me to do touch-focus in Live View mode with a Nikon D7100 attached. Much of my output is generated with two lenses – a macro and an ultra-wide-angle.
Which was your first Nikon camera?
My association with Nikon began with a used Nikon F2 with a photomic head, then an F3, superbly engineered and lovely to use, followed by a Nikon F4 plus F-801 as a second body. With the advent of digital I was converted from film very quickly by a D100, the D200 and D300, which I still use, and I now have a couple of D7100 bodies.
Which is your favourite Nikon?
I occasionally lust after a D810, but I am delighted with the D7100 – Nikon’s bestkept secret and my current favourite.
Which are your favourite locations?
I love Mediterranean hillsides in spring, for then they are full of flowers in a kind of
explosion before the summer heat. It is a full assault on the senses, with the air filled with the odours of herbs too. And then there are mountains – I have a real need to get to alpine places, up with the gods, where the screes are dotted with alpine flowers, the views are staggering and there is frenetic insect activity as life cycles must be completed in a narrow window between spring and autumn, before the snows come. What’s special about living and working in Italy as a nature photographer? On a daily basis, I acknowledge my good fortune, though, as Sam Goldwyn said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” I live in a place I love, being where the birdsong can be deafening. I am with the person with whom I want to share my life. That’s for starters. We have reconstructed an old farmhouse set in two acres of wild ‘garden’ where insecticides have never been used. It is my outdoor laboratory full of surprises and opportunities. I can experiment with calm, and hone techniques to use elsewhere. Close to home we have ancient woodlands, ponds, rivers, flower-filled pastures. Last but not least there are the people – we have lovely friends locally and, scattered throughout Italy, fellow photographers and nature apassionati who are true kindred spirits and great friends. How important is a tripod to your work? I have two Benbo tripods, both old and very solid and heavy. I have both in the car but when walking, often essential in my work, I take the baby Benbo. When using any telephoto lenses and natural light I use a tripod because, under critical scrutiny on screen at 100-200 per cent in Lightroom, I see the differences when I try to cut corners. I seldom use a tripod with my macro work, preferring to hold a camera
I have a real need to get to alpine places, where the screes are dotted with alpine flowers and the views are staggering
Paul Harcourt Davies Nature photographer
plus macro lens and the redoubtable Nikon R1C1 macro flash set-up, which has served me very well for a long time. I can steady this on the ground, on top of my camera bag (as a kind of giant beanbag), on a smaller beanbag, or by using a Novoflex minipod. Even the Benbo cannot get as low as I like for my wide-angle work with flowers. My macro shots mix flash and ambient light – the flash tends to freeze action and thus minimise shake, though one must use a high enough ISO and shutter speed to avoid ghosting.
What percentage of shots do you delete?
It depends on the subject. When I’m dealing with plants in the landscape then the hit rate is high. I look around, and choose the plant not just for its form but with a view to setting it against the background. I work very quickly so that if I am with people I do not impinge on them, or when with a group I accord my time to them.
With experimental work, such as insects in flight, there is an element of luck and you get half wings and so on. I am pleased then with the occasional good shot and discard most of them. One remnant from my film days is that I make several identical exposures when there is no need, but I spent so long making copies in-camera that it is hard to escape that programming.
How do you stay on top of workflow?
Like most nature photographers I want to be out taking photographs and find I have to spend too much time in front of the computer. In theory everything is downloaded at home into Lightroom, stored on one hard drive and backed up on another. All images are batch-named with location details and so on, and basic name detail assigned. Keywording is minimal but effective. I do not go overboard on this as many seem to do. I just need to find images. One agency I use wants keywords and another does not. Lightroom is my saviour, and I hardly use Photoshop at all now, unless I am producing exhibition prints.
What are the most important features of the cameras that you use?
For me definition and resolution – everything to do with detail rendition –
Prayin g mantis Nikon D300, Sigma 15mm f/2.8 EX DG fisheye, 1/125 sec, f/18, ISO200
Large horsefly (To p) Nikon D300, Sigma 150mm f/2.8 macro, 1/60 sec, f/18, ISO400
Puss moth larva (Abo ve)
Nikon D100, Sigma AP O Macro 180mm EX DG OS HSM, 2x teleconverter, 1/180 sec, f/22, ISO200
Common swallowtail Nikon D300, Sigma 150mm f/2.8 macro 1/125 sec, f/20, ISO200
Crab spid er (top) Nikon D300, Nikon 28mm f/2.8, 1/160 sec, f/22, ISO400
sprin g crocus (left)
Nikon D300, Sigma 15mm f/2.8 fisheye, 1/250 sec, f/20, ISO200
Crown anemon e (abo ve)
Nikon D300, Sigma 15mm f/2.8 fisheye, 1/125 sec, f/16, ISO200