One of the advantages my digital camera has in these situations is that I don't need to get as close as the film camera with the same lens. When matched to a relatively affordable lens such as my 100-400, the 1.6 multiplication factor turns it into a whopping 160 to 640 mm. The cost of such an optic for a full frame or film camera is simply out of the question on my budget.
On an old tree stump sprinkled with ice and snow, a kindly member of the Royal Parks ground staff has put down some irresistible black seed and it is alive with small birds flitting this way and that. Another advantage of the cold weather is that hunger drives away the normal caution the small birds have.
I set up several yards away behind my Holly bush and in quick succession I count several Chaffinch and some Blue Tit, Great Tit, Coal Tit, Robin, Goldfinch, Green Finch, Dunnock (Hedge Accentor), Wren, Nuthatch and some Tree Sparrows, all busily tucking into the rich pickings. “How right Jerome K Jerome was!”, I think as I settle down for a happy morning's outdoor photography. I can't think of anywhere I'd rather be right now either!
There are no people about at all as I pilot my battered old mountain bike down to the banks of the Thames opposite Hampton Court. The bike slithers beneath me as the wheels crunch through the hoarfrost. I'll need to take it easy with this gear on my back. I coast through the mist down a slippery ice-encrusted bank to a small pebble beach. The high tide of freezing water gently laps amongst a tangle of reeds, discarded feathers, driftwood and some detritus left behind by fisherman the previous evening. Despite the rubbish, it's hard to believe I'm only 13 miles from central London.
The sun is just coming up along the river over Kingston to the east causing thick tendrils to rise off the black, chilled and very still Thames. It's going to be a great morning. A heron call echoes across the water.
Gradually revealing itself through the parting mist on the opposite bank is Christopher Wren's magnificent William and Mary facade. At such a lonely hour, it's hard to ignore the great weight of history that surrounds me in this place. The ghosts of Kings and Queens from earlier times too are all around in what was once a great royal hunting park, close to where the great Kings of Wessex were all crowned on the King's Stone.
The heron calls again, this time to my left somewhere in the reeds and mist. I gently drop the bike and ease the old rucksack off my back as quietly as I can. With near enough two thousand acres to cover in Home Park and adjoining Bushy Park combined, the bike is the perfect way to get from one location to another quickly and quietly, but you need to travel light.
Trying to power up the camera produces a muttered expletive. Why do camera 'on' switches have to be such a fiddle to move with gloves on. Make a mental note to get pair of 'Fagin-like' gloves where fingertips can be revealed when needed! Gently ease into a crouch behind the reeds, thankful for Gore-Tex over-trousers. But I'm not ready yet, still a few basic checks to run through. First, get comfortable and shorten the monopod, release the zoom lock, ease the lens barrel to its 400mm setting. Lovely, the bird fills the frame to the left, head in the sweet spot of the rule of thirds with 'looking' room to the right. Set the metering to ‘Partial' and AE lock the meter reading from the near 17% grey feathers on the heron's breast. Recompose, and shoot - the camera sounds incredibly noisy in the stillness.
A Parakeet In The Park
Time for a portrait shot. Loosen the lens tripod collar, (curse gloves again), rotate camera and lens in collar. Position and lock the ball head with a squeeze of the trigger grip with left hand and ... clatter, clatter from the 20D. The Heron turns almost lazily, unfurls his great pterodactyl-like wings, extends his pneumatic legs and he's off.
Back on the bike I cross the river by Hampton Court Bridge, the Heron is just visible through the mist, preening on the other bank. I can't help grinning. I go around the palace, across the Kingston road and into the adjoining Bushy Park while the light is still nice and low. This is the second largest of the eight Royal Parks and includes the impressive Grand Chestnut Avenue designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Strangely enough, Bushy Park also means 'having a lark' in cockney rhyming slang, though why this should be, no one really knows!
A couple of minutes later and I'm through the imposing wrought iron gates and into the wide and majestic avenue of horse chestnut trees that run through the park in a perfectly straight line. In the distance the avenue opens up to reveal a large oval enclosing a 400-foot pond also designed by Christopher Wren. Right in the middle, I can see the Diana statue by Francesco Fanelli, fountain spouts frozen into silence by the winter conditions.
The trees in the main park are chattering with Jackdaw, Black-billed Magpie, Carrion Crow and Blackbirds, while Green Woodpeckers and Ring-necked Parakeets streak past, iridescent flashes of green amongst the branches.
I head over to a secluded area where I know from previous recce's there will almost certainly be some good subjects. I recently photographed a Grey Heron here that caught a fish and devoured it right in front of my lens. I've also photographed a Tawny owl, hidden in an old oak trunk, and Jays and Greater Spotted Woodpecker.
Today I am after some of the smaller woodland and garden birds and in a secluded clearing I come across a spot near some holly bushes that will provide useful cover.
"I've often thought I should like to live at Hampton Court. It looks so peaceful and so quiet and it is such a dear old place to ramble round in the early morning before many people are about."
Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat, 1889
An extended version of the article that appeared in the February 2010 issue of Outdoor Photography.