Monday, 9 November 2015

Photographing the Wildlife of Borneo

The Natural History of Sabah,  Borneo

When I was around 9 or 10 I was given an encyclopaedia of nature for Christmas. It contained a photograph of a Malaysian man, wearing a traditional hat, sitting next to an enormous orange plant – the largest flower in the world. Ever since, I have wanted to visit Borneo where the photo was taken, and finally got the chance a few weeks ago.

 We started our trip at Mount Kinabalu, where only a few weeks before our visit a  major earthquake  occurred. The locals still maintain this was caused by stupid, childish  foreign students who danced naked on the summit after climbing the mountain (even after the guides had asked them not to!) – it is very sacred to the Bornean people.

One of our  main aims was to see carnivorous pitcher plants in the wild, on the slope up the mountain. Unfortunately the path up was shut due to the earthquake, so we were taken to an alternative site near Kinabalu golf club, apparently the highest in the world. After a very strenuous climb (involving machetes)  through dense jungle (when several members of the party turned back) we arrived at the spot, and were shown Nepenthes rajah, the largest of the pitcher plants. It was extraordinary to see them growing in the wild, and a real privilege. Just as we finished photographing them it started to rain, and when it rains in Borneo, it rains!! Our journey down became hazardous with mud which turned into a highly slippery surface – I fell a couple of times and got caked in thick, orange mud.

This pitcher plant (Nepenthes rajah) was well worth the strenuous climb. Half filled with fluid they are quite heavy to hold.
Another key species for me was to see Rafflesia, the flower from the picture in the encyclopaedia. This is a very hit and miss affair, and you are by no means guaranteed to see one, but we were lucky to be shown a pristine specimen, three days old. It wasn’t the largest (they grow on Sumatra) but still a very impressive sight. Apparently only 10% of the flower buds actually flower, taking around 18 moths to do so!

Rafflesia keithii. A pristine flower, three days old, approximately 50cm across.

 After that the trip involved  travelling further and further into  the rainforest, staying at a succession of lodges, finishing with 6 days at the superb Danum Valley. We did several boat trips on the Kinabatangan river, where we got great views of the wonderful Proboscis Monkeys, as well as brilliant views of the Bornean Pygmy Elephant, both by day and by night.
Bornean Pygmy Elephant
Proboscis Monkey

We saw plenty of wild Orangs (much better than the rather disappointing Sepilok Centre) as well as other monkeys including Silvered Leaf and Red Leaf Monkeys.
 Female Orang-utan with youngster
Red Leaf Monkey

The rainforest was drier than expected (it is an El Nino year) but we still saw a great array of frogs, snakes lizards and insects, my own favourite being the huge Three Horned Rhinoceros Beetle.
Three Horned Rhinoceros Beetle


Throughout the trip we used a variety of photographic techniques, including long lens work from boats, long exposures of fireflies at night, ultraviolet images of scorpions, time lapse cloud scenes and high speed photography of seeds spiralling down from trees.
Fireflies at night. A 30 second exposure from the bank of the river, from a wooden platform provided by the guides from the lodge.
Large scorpion fluorescing in ultraviolet light at night in the Danum Valley
A tiny bat, roosting in a rolled up banana leaf. It became an obsession to check every leaf for bats!
Dipterocarp seeds spiralling down from tree


Seed of Alsomitra, one of the largest winged seeds in the wold, spiralling down from the canopy

A Dead Leaf Mantis - showing extraordinary camouflage

A Bornean Horned Frog

Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher

Lantern Bug

Mossy Tree  Frog
 Long Crested Forest Dragon
Short Crested Forest Dragon
Wagler's Pit Viper - a beautiful snake, which we saw on several occasions

Gomantong Cave, a major source of nest of Cave Swiftlets used in Birds Nest Soup. A hopefully subtle HDR image, composed of three separate images.

 Sunrise in the Danum Valley.

My trip was organised by Wildlife Worldwide, and led by the brilliant Nick Garbutt, whose knowledge of the natural history of Borneo is second to none, and whose animal wrangling skills led to some great images (though don’t mention Atlas Moths !). For more details other trips organised by Wildlife Worldwide and Nick, see:

All in all a brilliant trip, and I can’t wait to return!

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Tropical Butterflies in mid Winter!

It’s that time of year when hundreds of people flock to the glasshouse at the RHS garden at Wisley, Surrey,  to see the tropical butterflies on display there. Many photographic “purists” may balk at the idea of photographing captive, bred specimens, but I think this is a wonderful opportunity both to see some spectacular insects close-up, and to try out new kit and techniques. I’m off to the jungles of Borneo later this year, and hope to see some of the butterflies there, but doubt that I will get as good an opportunity to photograph them in such detail.
Wherever possible I always use a tripod or monopod, though this will not be possible when members of the public are present in most places. If in doubt. ask one of the attendants.
This Tree Nymph (Idea leuconoe) is perched on a cultivated variety of  Anthurium, but I think still makes an interesting image.

Of course, the images you obtain will not be natural, and it is highly possible that you will get south American butterflies perched on Asian plants for example, but it is really the only way of photographing these species without travelling to exotic locations.  I also use it as an opportunity to try out new camera angles and composition. It can be very boring seeing a series of butterfly shots where the wings are all parallel to the camera, and square in the frame. Try tilting the camera, or photographing the butterfly head on. Again, this would not be easy in the wild.
This Mexican Bluewing (Myscelia ethusa)  stayed  still for long enough for me to try out a few compositions before it flew off. The foliage is neutral enough to be plausible.


Photographing in controlled conditions can give unique opportunities to photograph butterfly behaviour. Mating, laying eggs and emergence from pupae are worth looking for as the subjects will generally stay in the same place for a good length of time.  Many butterfly houses have emergence areas where pupae are hung on sticks, where you can watch and photograph butterflies emerging from their pupae.
When laying eggs, insects will often stay in the same place. This Malay Lacewing  (Cethosia hypsea)  took more than an hour to lay this batch of eggs. I used a small piece of silvered card to throw some light underneath it.

There will also be good opportunities for shooting close-ups of eyes and other details.

 Butterfly houses are a great place to try out macro techniques. This a species of Charaxes.


The question I am asked most is how to prevent condensation forming, when taking a cold camera into a hot glasshouse. The trick is to warm the camera first. I used to put a hot water bottle in my camera bag, but now pack two or three re-usable handwarmers around the camera to keep it warm whilst I travel to the garden.
The larva of the Owl butterfly (Caligo memnon) feeds on banana trees and grow to a large size.


A well designed butterfly house will have a number of paths through vegetation, so the subjects should never be too far away, but even so, a relatively long focal length macro lens will be useful. I frequently use my 105mm macro lens with 1.4 or 1.7X tele-converters, or a 70 – 200mm lens, sometimes with a small extension tube. A 200mm length macro lens would be good.



I always prefer to use natural light whenever possible. The light in glasshouses is often soft and diffuse, particularly if the glasshouse roof is whitewashed, or has blinds to diffuse the light. On sunny days though, the light will be harsh and contrasty. Small reflectors or diffusers can be useful; though do require a very co-operative subject! All of the images shown here was shot with natural light.
Generally I try to avoid bright areas in the background, but this image shows that it is always   worth trying new angles and ideas. The backlighting on this Malachite butterfly (Siproeta stelenes) is particularly effective.

If you haven’t done so already, do make a trip to Wisley in the next few weeks. The butterflies are there until the 8th March. I doubt that you will be disappointed!

Monday, 12 January 2015

Manipulation or Illustration?

Although I have been a Photoshop user since version 1.5, and have taught it to hundreds of students and clients over the years, I have never really wanted to use any of the “creative” features to modify my images. My main aim with my own photography is to “get the image in the camera” if I possibly can. I use Photoshop primarily to enhance my pages before publication, and for cataloguing my images. Without wishing to re-open the debate about digital manipulation of natural history photographs, I would be really interested to hear from readers what they think of the examples shown.

Over the last couple of years I have attempted to photograph several naturally occurring events which I have found practically  impossible, and where I have used Photoshop to help “create” the image that I visualised. Whenever the images are submitted for publication, I always make it very clear to the client that the images are digital composites

Take the idea of a Sycamore seed spiralling down from a tree. I wanted to show the spiralling pattern, as well as catching the seed in mid-flight. After a few experiments I realised this was an impossible task to do in one exposure. I therefore shot three images in the studio, one of the leaves, one of the spiral (an exposure of ½ second) and a single seed in mid flight (isolated from a stroboscopic sequence shot with my Nikon SB900 flash on its “repeating flash” mode). The three images were then combined in Photoshop using the layers facility.

The second example is a much simpler technique, but does help to visualise an event I was only able to perceive when viewing several images in quick succession.

I was in my garden early one morning, and found this pair of slugs mating. Slugs are hermaphrodite, having both female and male reproductive organs.  Once they have located a mate, they encircle each other and sperm is exchanged through their protruded genitalia. I rushed to get my camera, and photographed them over a period of 10 minutes or so before they separated and went their own ways. When I reviewed the images rapidly  in Adobe Bridge, I found that, over a period of time the slugs moved around in  a circle. To help visualise this I selected the slugs with the Quick Selection tool in Photoshop. I then applied a radial blur filter (it took a few attempts to get the right amount).

If I find another mating pair in the future I will try a long exposure.

The third example is different again. I have long wanted to photograph the seed pod of Himalayan Balsam at the point of it bursting. I brought some into my studio, and tried all manner of ways to induce the bursting, but the only reliable way was to squeeze them with a pair of tweezers. I shot two images, one of the seed pods, and another of the seed pod exploding as I squeezed it with the tweezers. I isolated the bursting pod (with the tweezers) and copied and pasted it into the first image, then had to methodically retouch out the tweezers. This took a couple of hours!

What do you think – does the end justify the means??

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Flowerless Plants

Flowerless Plants

Despite my very best intentions, it is over a year since I last posted a blog entry. My only excuse is that I have been out taking pictures, and generally keeping very busy!

Over the last few years I have become increasingly interested in one of natural history’s  least popular areas – flowerless plants - the fungi, mosses, ferns, liverworts and lichens. For most photographers and naturalists I suspect it is the fungi which command most attention (thought they are not actually plants!) but the others also have their own charms, and are, in some cases, very photogenic, and make fascinating subjects.
One particular flowerless plant I have been seeking for many years, and finally found on a tree in Snowdonia this year is a Filmy Fern. I remember going to the filmy fern glasshouse at Kew years ago, and thinking how exotic these plants were, and it came as a surprise to find out later that two species can be found in the UK. The one shown is the Wilson’s Filmy Fern, growing amongst moss on a tree. It was a sheer fluke that I saw it.


Wilson's Filmy Fern: Hymenophyllum wilsonii. Lit with small LED light to fill in shadows

I do have to say that not everyone was as impressed when I showed them the image that evening, but it certainly made my day!

At the other end of the fern “spectrum” is the Royal Fern, a wetland species found in bogs and swamps. I have often photographed it on Dartmoor. This particular specimen was growing next to a small waterfall in a botanic garden.

Another group of  "primitive" plants are the clubmosses, found in upland grassy areas, and well worth searching out.

Stagshorn Clubmoss: Lycopodium clavatum. Cwm Idwal, Snowdonia,

 Lichens are well known as indictors of air quality – the best and most prolific lichens are found only in the cleanest air. One of the most impressive species, that I had long wanted to see and photograph is the spectacular Lungwort, a sadly declining species. This one, with its red reproductive apothecia was on an ancient oak tree the west coast of Scotland.


Lungwort: Lobaria pulmonaria.

Lichens come in all shapes and colours –   I found this beautifully coloured species whilst exploring the Beinn Eighe National Reserve in Torridon on the west coast of Scotland.

An as yet unidentified species, Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve, Scotland. Any suggestions as to identity gratefully received!

Probably the best display of lichens that I have ever seen I found quite by accident. I had driven past a small churchyard in Capel Curig, Snowdonia many times, and often thought it might be worth stopping one day. In June this year I was forced off the exposed hillside where I was trying to photograph flowers by torrential rain and high wind, and took the opportunity of stopping at the church. I was greeted by a staggeringly beautiful and profuse display of lichens on the gravestones. I am not a lichenologist, and struggle with identifying the various species, but I was subsequently given a list compiled some years, and though none of them is rare, it is the sheer scale and intensity which impresses!

 The churchyard at Capel Curig, Snowdonia.
These two images show the Map Lichen: Rhizocarpon geographicum, growing in profusion on the old tombstones. Different materials, e.g. slate, granite, will have their own distinctive lichen flora
Hopefully these last three shots provide enough evidence for custodians of churchyards to use moderation when cleaning gravestones!

Friday, 1 November 2013

As any nature watcher knows, fungi are very fickle subjects. One year there can be huge numbers of one species or another, the following year none at all. 2102 was one of the worst seasons on record for fungi, with reports of fungus forays being cancelled due to lack of specimens. In contrast, 2013 must surely go down as one of the best, with warm temperatures extending right into November, and  generally damp conditions – perfect for most fungi! There seemed to  be fruiting bodies everywhere. In some of my favourite locations I had to be careful where I stepped for fear of treading on them! I found perfect photogenic specimens of many species, and several species that  were new to me.  Although I am not a collector of “ticks” I do try to improve my identification skills each year,  not always easy, and I am always grateful to friends for help. Reading the identification books sometimes leads to some fascinating if worrying facts – for example, an Ink Cap (Coprinus atarmentarius) is listed as edible, but “causing alarming symptoms when consumed with alcohol!”  Another  species is listed as edible, but may turn one’s urine red (but probably not to worry!!).

I’ve really been enjoying photographing small details this autumn. Perhaps the most extraordinary I found is the underside of the Earpick Fungus (Auriscalpium vulgare), which is small, brown, and grows amongst brown leaves on buried pine cones. The underside is covered in a mass of spore bearing spines rather than gills. I’m sure I must have seen it before, but finding them in profusion this year has been quite a revelation. The specimen shown here was approximately 20mm across, requiring the full extension on my 60mm macro lens.

The Orange Peel fungus (Aleuria aurantia) is by no means rare, but I found hundreds of large specimens along the side of a newly surfaced road on a brief (very wet!) trip to Snowdonia a couple of weeks ago.  They really are stunning, and well worth searching for!

At the other end of the “attraction” stakes are two tiny parasitic  “Piggyback” toadstools,  the Silky piggyback (lower) Asterophora parasitica, and the Powdery Piggyback  A. lycoperdoides (upper) which grow only on the rotting fruitbodies of another toadstool: Russula sp. These were growing in the woods at the end of my garden. I needed to use a long exposure in dim light, and additional light from a small LED torch to get this image.

Although I only have a provisional identification for this toadstool, The Blue Roundhead: (Stropharia caerulea) I couldn’t resist showing this one. I found it at Winkworth Arboretum in Surrey  last week, and had never seen such a vivid blue toadstool before!

The Turkeytail (Coriolus versicolor) is one of our commonest fungi, a bracket growing on fallen logs, often in great profusion. This beautiful clump was on an old pine log in Snowdonia.

Although there is a specific Fairy Ring toadstool, many species grow in rings, as the mycelia spread out in all directions from a central point, like the spokes of a bicycle wheel. I found this ring of  Spotted Toughshank (Collybia maculata) growing amongst Pines in a local wood in Surrey. I used a wide angle lens to include the habitat in this shot on a very dull, rainy day.

A very rare fungus that I have only seen once before is the Coral Tooth  (Hericium coralloides). I was given directions to this specimen growing in Richmond Park. Although past its best it was still an impressive and beautiful sight!  Apparently, in previous years, it has been picked by collectors.

At the time of writing this, on the 1st November we still haven't had a frost, meaning that the fungi should persist for some time yet, and I will keep looking for different subjects!
 My two “bibles” for identification are Roger Phillips’ “Mushrooms”, and the “Collins Guide to British Mushrooms and Toadstools” by Paul Sterry, and my friend Barry Hughes. A fascinating personal account of Fungi is “Mushrooms” by Peter Marren, full of wonderful anecdotes and facts.


I found a lovely Parrot Waxcap on the lawn this morning, and was about to photograph it when our new puppy trod on it!



Monday, 9 September 2013


Starting Out Again!
Leaving my full time post as a lecturer in July after 25 years was a mixture of regret, at leaving brilliant colleagues and questioning students, together with excitement and anticipation at being able to devote far more time to my passion for natural history photography.  I will hopefully be running more workshops next year, and continuing to write books and magazine articles, and these will be listed on my main web site. We have just built new small studio at the bottom of the garden, where I will be able to work on various macro subjects and other techniques such as time lapse and ultraviolet imaging.   
It feels like a good time to start writing a blog about my new venture, covering both various natural history topics that I come across, as well as photographic issues that I hope will be interesting for readers. Do please send me any feedback!

When time is limited, i.e. when you have a full time job, there is the temptation as a photographer, to visit nature “hotspots” where you are virtually guaranteed of getting lots of hopefully saleable images. I have been very fortunate over the years to visit such diverse places as the Everglades in Florida, Shetland and Japan.  However, not only will the budget not stretch to visiting all of the places I would like to, I really do want to take this new opportunity of getting to know my own local “patch” in Surrey better, to visit at different times of year to really understand how it works, and hopefully this blog will show how much wildlife is present close to home.

A couple of weeks ago, for example, I spent three afternoons photographing just one clump of Broad Leaved Helleborine orchids (Epipactis helleborine), trying to capture the range of insects which visited the flowers, and pollinate them. Wasps were frequent visitors, and it turns out that the nectar that the wasps feed on contains a mild narcotic, making the wasp slightly drunk an lethargic, thus staying on the flower stem longer! Also, the leaves of the orchid apparently give off a chemical signal, attracting predatory insects who are duped into thinking the leaves are being eaten by herbivorous insects!

 I also photographed this pair of mating soldier beetles. It would appear that one of the beetles was feeding on nectar whilst mating, and got one of the orchid pollinia stuck onto its back.
I will be visiting this site, consisting of Beech wood and chalk grassland frequently over the next few months, particularly as it is very good for fungi, and will no doubt post more images from there.
Both images shot with Nikon D800E, 105mm macro lens with 1.4X converter, and Nikon SB-R200 macro flash units.