I Am a Cameraman is the title of a twentieth century poem by Douglas Dunn. It’s one of my favourite poems in one of my favourite anthologies, Emergency Kit – Poems for Strange Times. And stranger times than usual are what we’ve all been living through of late. The poem isn’t straightforwardly about photography or film-making (I’m not certain that it’s really about either) but the first two lines of the the final stanza can easily be read very literally by anyone who has ever attempted – and failed more often than not – to photograph wildlife in its natural setting:
Life flickers on the frame like beautiful hummingbirds.
That is the film that always comes out blank.Douglas Dunn
For every half decent capture there are many more misses. My own technical ability has always fallen hopelessly short of my unrealistically ambitious creative intent. External limiting factors include the eye-wateringly prohibitive cost of specialist photographic equipment and a frustrating lack of available time to just sit, quiet and still, waiting for that perfect shot. Because… well… life.
I haven’t used an SLR camera since the days of 35mm film, pre-motherhood, when I had the luxury of time to spare and a dedicated ‘hobby’ space where I could indulge my passing interests, a longer-than-most-time favourite being flower arranging and photographing not only the final floral creations but the perfect individual blooms that inspired their make up.
Photographing cut flowers is relatively easy, especially indoors where breezes, which might otherwise blur a long exposure, can be shut out, lighting can be controlled and, as a general rule, roses and callas don’t tend to run or fly away from you when you point a lens in their direction. Photographing animals outdoors is an altogether different kettle of fish, nigh on impossible with a spinning top child and a mad-as-a-box-of-frogs cockapoo in tow. And all the paraphernalia that goes along with both of them. There is no hand or shoulder space left for photographic equipment and, even if there was, any and all wildlife see and hear you from a very long distance away and give you a correspondingly very wide berth.
Now that Boy and Dog are older, if not much quieter, I’ve spent a couple of years, with inconsistent results, taking pictures with a telephoto bridge camera, though I often and all too easily revert to using my old TG-4 ‘Tough’ compact which, for several years, has satisfied the overriding practical priorities of fitting in my pocket and being shockproof. But neither model was designed with fast-flying birds in mind and any aerial avian shots I’ve managed to snatch have been largely down to luck.
All birds appear to be acutely aware of being observed, even from long distances. Whenever I point my 10x42mm binoculars toward any species of garden bird on the back fence, through the kitchen window, each and every bird – even if only for a brief (but deliberate) moment – stares directly back at me down the lenses, eye to eye, watching the watcher. I even entertained the idea of installing a garden hide but, in truth, the birds are much more attuned to my movements than I am to theirs and a shed with a slit really wouldn’t fool any of them.
Earlier this year Bloke treated me to a trail camera to experiment with. It immediately proved to be nothing short of revelatory and has completely changed the game. The very first video footage it captured (excluding the dizzying camera jolts and unnerving close-ups of me struggling to set the thing up in the first place) was of the domestic rather than wild variety: our dog on his usual nightly patrol of the garden before bed time. And something – or someone – caught his attention.
I first positioned the camera to capture movement around the hog hibernation box. I was inspired to place a dedicated hog box in the garden last Summer after a lucky and unexpected early morning sighting of a hedgehog constructing a day nest between the stems of a climbing hydrangea. I was fairly sure someone had over-Wintered in there and that the occupant was still returning daily well into the Spring. But I couldn’t be absolutely sure that it was a hedgehog because I didn’t want to risk disturbing whoever was sleeping in there by lifting the lid to take a look. Even so, I was more than a little bit curious to find out exactly who – hedgehog or not – dines on the kibble suppers that I put out each evening. (The bowls are empty every morning.)
The difficulty with finding and photographing hedgehogs on the move is of an entirely different sort to that of photographing wary birds. Quite simply it is because they are nocturnal. And I’m not. The trail cam, however, is designed to be left out in the field, all image capture being triggered by (somewhat inconsistently sensitive) motion detectors. With respect to capturing still images – photographs – the results have been, at best, woeful. Despite the camera’s 0.1 second trigger speed and fast motion infra red flash, I’ve procured nothing more than blurry pictures of the tail feathers of garden ground feeders hopping out of frame. In terms of video capture the camera is still a little bit hit and miss with respect to movement recognition, affective variables seemingly being weather conditions, battery life and the speed and frame position of the movements of the animals (and blown leaves) themselves. But when it hits, it hits.
The question of whether or not a hedgehog was residing in the hog box was answered by the trail cam’s first late night captures back in early May.
The two videos above, of our hedgehog getting up and going out (just before 9pm), are separated by a single second in real time. In the dark, in infra red mode, the camera will record for a maximum of only 20 seconds in a single burst, requiring a 1 second recharge break between those bursts. The videographic result is a growing collection of little 20 second or less vignettes of our garden residents’ and visitors’ secret lives after dark. Our hog returned home eight hours later, with the morning chorus, just before 5am, having ignored the closest-to-home bowl of kibble with each pass.
The original working title for this post was Supper Club at the Hog Box and I had intended to share videos of the full menagerie of creatures that feast on the nightly hog kibble, including pairs of mice, several local cats (the white and brown-patched female being a particularly proficient mouser), magpies, pigeons, blackbirds, robins, the crow with the injured leg and several other hedgehogs – the female with only one eye, the male with the hairy face and at least one other spiky-backed individual whose sex remains undetermined. Speeding up some of the night time footage further reveals all manner of mini-beasts on the move: slugs and snails with impressive vertical slithering capabilities and many leggier species of all descriptions creeping and crawling in all directions. A frog seeking wet shade, late on a hot Summer’s day, found cool relief in the hedgehogs’ water bowl. Relief for how long I don’t know – given the range of a typical hedgehog’s diet.
In collating videos for this post I encountered a difficult technical problem. The video file sizes, straight out of the trail cam, are HUGE: 50MB or more per 20 seconds of monochrome footage. Full colour videos captured in daylight, which run to a minute or more, are even larger. I’ve managed to compress a handful of night videos down to an average of 1MB each for web viewing, without compromising the quality too far, I think. I hope. But video editing is a whole new complicated world to me and it’s going to require a lot more time and experimentation to get right. I have discovered that individual frames can be extricated from the footage – giving me the kind of ‘photographs’ I sought to achieve in the first place. I’m not sure any of this really counts as photography though. Or even videography for that matter. Stalking maybe. Actual photographic skill, if any can be legitimately claimed at all, is limited to anticipating where the action might take place (wherever there is food and water), positioning the camera to the scene and then choosing the stills to pull from the footage. Whatever this is or isn’t, it is most certainly enlightening – a close-up privileged peek into the private lives of the creatures who have made our home their home.
I’m going to save the goings-on of the supper club for another day and play out instead with a few videos of when dog met hog. Our dog and the little female hedgehog are so used to each other now that he barely bothers to stop for a sniff anymore and she only half bothers to curl up into her protective ball.
The main reason for choosing to share videos of my dog over those of birds, mice or any other garden creature is because he’s currently kennelled in a veterinary hospital, fifty miles away from home, recovering from emergency spinal surgery. He’s eight years old and since he arrived to live with us as a puppy he’s never spent a single night away from us. We’re not allowed inside the hospital building because of Covid so we’re restricted to seeing him in the photos and videos that the nurses send us. The squirrels have gone rogue in his absence and sparrowhawks have been taking down blackbirds. We need him home to reset the balance, even if it’s just quietly from a comfy spot on a picnic blanket. I need him home because I miss him.