My big break
Laurie Campbell on the photo that launched his career – and changed bird photography forever
Some nature photographers chalk up as many air miles as pilots in their quest to photograph exotic species in far-flung corners of the planet. Not Laurie Campbell. He has made his name by focusing on his native Scotland, much of the time close to his home by the River Tweed. He recalls: “From childhood, grey herons and mute swans on the river Tweed near where I grew up were an obvious subject, and because grey herons were warier they were more challenging, so I became slightly obsessed with photographing them.”
On the morning of New Year’s Day 1975, Laurie was ensconced in a hide with his Nikon F2A loaded with Ektachrome 160. He was shooting with a 500mm mirror lens on a tripod, trying to frame grey herons roosting near a hedge in a farmer’s field. He continues: “The wind changed direction and the herons went onto the other side of a hedge to the one I was expecting, which meant it was awkward to get a clear shot.” Fortunately, Laurie’s hide had wheels, and he carefully moved it to get a clearer view. “I guess it was just happenstance,” he says. “There was a gap in the hedge, just by chance, and I had to make do with photographing through it.”
With its fixed f/8 aperture, the mirror lens had very shallow depth of field, so focusing was critical, and Laurie had to rely on the stability of his tripod to prevent any movement or vibration blurring the result. “I looked at the picture later and it grew on me,” he says. “Afterwards, I went out of my way to photograph images like this, because I realized I hadn’t seen anything similar around.”
A new style of wildlife photography
Up to then, most nature photographs were little more than record shots of static subjects wholly framed and entirely in focus to show every detailed marking. Pictures of herons partially obscured by out-of-focus foliage were rarely published. However, it caught the eye of the editor of Birds, the magazine of the RSPB: “I got a double page spread featuring all my heron pictures. That was my first major sequence that I worked on. It gave me confidence that maybe I’m on the right track here.”
This new photo style evolved further when Laurie switched to a heavier Nikkor ED 600mm telephoto, and the slower Kodachrome 64 film favoured by stock libraries. “Shooting on ISO64 film with manual focus lenses and a relatively small aperture, it was essential to keep the camera still,” he says, “so I was using beanbags, which meant I had to balance the lens on a rock or tussock of grass, so I was lying low.” As well as leading to more foreground foliage being included within the frame, this new approach also enabled Laurie to shoot successfully down to 1/15 sec, or even 1/8 sec. “It opened up possibilities for photographing in poor weather – you suddenly had so many more days in which you could take pictures.” It is a style of nature photography that we take for granted today.
Laurie Campbell has spent his life photographing the flora and fauna of Scotland. He has won 23 awards in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest and is the author of several books, including RSPBGuidetoBirdandNature Photography. Visit www.lauriecampbell.com for more.