I'm losing track of how many times I have been out in nature taking pictures when passers-by have stopped, looked in the direction that my camera was pointing, and asked, "What are you looking at?" In most cases, it turns out that what they are actually asking is, "What rare bird have you spotted?"
To most people, a middle-aged man carrying a "real" camera (as in, not a cell phone) in nature means that he is a bird photographer. The concept of just taking a picture of the landscape, or a tree, or a creek is apparently very foreign to the average person. At least, they seem quite surprised when I explain it to them, and they quickly move on. Not interested.
And it's not that I don't see the point of bird photography. I would love to be a great bird photographer, but 1) I can't tell a seagull from an eagle, 2) I don't have the patience required, and 3) I can't afford the lenses bird photography calls for. The last point should be a dead giveaway to those who think I'm a bird photographer. How could I possibly be a bird photographer when the lens attached to my camera is a 300 mm at best? Don't people know that you need at least a 400 mm lens for that?
Now, all this doesn't mean that I haven't been known to push the release button if a bird happens to enter my focus area and that I haven't taken some fairly awesome photos featuring birds. I believe I have. And there is one bird that is an exception to everything I have just said about me and bird photography: swans. While you cannot call me a bird photographer, I would definitely categorize myself as a swan photographer. I love swans. They are some of the most beautiful and most photogenic animals on the planet. Especially the kind that you find in my neck of the woods: the mute swan. It also happens to be the national bird of Denmark, and I for one am thrilled about that.
To an actual bird photographer, swans are probably what a Toyota Corolla is to a car enthusiast. Plain, common, and boring. Not to me. They may be common, but they are anything but plain and boring. In fact, they are majestic and inspiring. The challenge in swan photography lies in catching them in the right surroundings and having them pose, or interact with each other, in an interesting way. That requires a certain amount of patience and time spent observing them.
My interest in swans, I think, comes from my wife, the American, who wasn't used to the kind of swans we have in Denmark and made me open my eyes to their beauty. I mean, I grew up here and was used to swans and, like with so many other things before photography changed how I look at just about everything, I never really gave them much thought.
Another boost to my swan fascination came with the image below. It was taken not too long after I got my first "real" camera (my Sony A33) and is probably still among the three best photos I have ever taken (which, in a way, is a little sad considering all the practice I have gotten since). Look at that composition! How the swan on the left provides perfect balance to the castle on the right, and how the swan in the center of the image looks straight into the camera. Sure, I have enhanced it and turned the "magical fairy tale" knob to 10, but I like it. And it really made me consciously seek out swans to include in my images ever since.
The next image is also several years old and is my first picture of a swan with its wings spread out. It looks like an angel. Now, if you live next to swans and see swans every day, seeing them with their wings spread out like that may not be such a rare occurrence. But while I see swans quite often - probably once or twice a week - the times I have seen them in the last five years, with their wings spread out like that, can be counted on one hand. And catching them like that from the right angle and distance is even rarer. So it's something I'm always hoping will happen when I head to a place with swans, and it almost never does.
One of the things that make swans so special is their monogamy. They stick to the same partner for life and raise a new brood of cygnets every year. On a few occasions, my wife and I have followed a swan couple through a season and seen how they have built their nest, laid on their eggs, and taken their tiny new cygnets for a swim. And we have seen the cygnets grow and finally replace their gray ugly duckling plumage with beautiful white feathers. This can also be a heartbreaking experience as sometimes the swan couple will start out with six cygnets and then lose them one by one to predatory fish or birds until only a couple remain. In the below picture, a family of swans (and a friendly duck) is chilling in a local creek under the moonlight. All right, I admit, the full moon has been added, but the moon really was out that night, although not quite in such a favorable position.
Swans do other things than just be beautiful and majestic. They can be some nasty birds and apparently very territorial. One afternoon I was walking along a lake when the below scene played out. One particularly angry swan was busy keeping his part of the lake free from other swans. It's extremely dramatic when big birds like that get in each other's throats, and you really don't want to make a swan cross. This was shot with a cell phone and turned out very well for me, but at the expense of the poor couple that had ventured into the angry swan's territory. Or maybe they were the bad guys who had ventured into the angry swan's territory and got what they deserved. Who knows?
The next image is from the same lake and may even be one of the same swans, but a more common situation. There is nothing as serene and beautiful as a swan quietly drifting in and out between tufts of grass and waterweed during a sunset. They are like strange extra-terrestrial beings gracing our world with their other-worldly presence.
Standing close to a swan, you wouldn't think that their size would allow them to be particularly good flyers. But as the perfect beings that they are, flying is of course not a problem. In fact, standing underneath a flock of swans as they pass over you is a magnificent experience. You hear them before you see them. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. The sound of their big wings is just one of their many majestic characteristics that leave you in awe and make you look up. If you are really lucky, as I was while taking the below picture, you are carrying your camera, the camera has a suitable lens mounted, and the shutter is set to a sufficiently fast speed. That rarely happens to me since my camera is usually in landscape photography mode, but in this case, everything aligned and I got one of my few sharp pictures of flying swans.
Last but not least: the swan heart image. I had been chasing this photo for almost as long as I have been chasing swans. Inspired by the town arms of the city that I work in, I wanted so badly to photograph two swans forming a heart with their long, beautiful necks. I had been close many times where I would see a swan couple drifting toward each other, only to break off at the last second or stick their necks into the water for food just at the crucial moment (I can't count how many pictures I have of swans with their heads in the water).
And then, finally this year, on Valentine's Day no less, this happened. It was a magical moment. The swan on the left had just landed on the water after having been out flying for a while. My prejudice about gender roles tells me that it was the male. The other swan - the female - saw him land, and they immediately headed towards each other and met in this, not quite perfect, heart shape in the middle of the lake. They spent the next few seconds almost wrapping their necks around each other in a loving embrace. I was absolutely thrilled.
I have tons more swan pictures in my collection, but these are some of the highlights. Swans are a subject I never get tired of, and I find it almost impossible to walk past a swan without taking its picture. Other birds may be rarer or more interesting in many ways, but none are as beautiful and photogenic in all their various poses and moods.
Considering how few people actually see my photography - most of my images are only ever seen by me - I take it very seriously. I am finding my niche more and more in Danish landscape, and forest areas in particular. I love the forest. I grew up a few hundred meters from a forest and moved to my current home partly due to its vicinity to forest land.
But forest can be a challenging subject. Not for lack of compositions. But in order to take good forest pictures, you need to literally get off the beaten path and find the spots that no one ever sees. That is not always easy.
The other night I went back to the Strødam nature enclosure. I have written about it in the past, before I really knew what it was. I just knew there was a fence around it and signs telling you to stay out. Since then I have learned that it's an area owned by the government used for nature research. They are basically letting an area of forest, lakes, and meadows take care of itself without much human disturbance. There are tons of birds and deer, and a herd of more or less free-roaming cows. In other words, a paradise for nature and landscape photographers. Except, photographers are not allowed to go there.
Well, back in February part of the fence around the area was suddenly gone. I had a feeling they were just replacing it, because it was old and worn out, and it turned out I was right. But for a few weeks in February I could at least pretend I didn't know that I wasn't supposed to go in, so I did. I have in fact shown you a few pictures from those excursions without mentioning where they were taken or the circumstances. But anyway, as much as I love those gray, dreary images of the winter forest, I felt I had to return to see what it looked like in the spring.
So, I shouldered my camera bag, saddled my bicycle, and rode out to the area a couple of hours before sunset. I knew there was an entrance that did not have a gate. A discreet sign tells you to please stay out, but that's all, and on this evening I happened to look the other way as I passed it. Or at least, that was going to be my story if anyone asked.
A few bigger paths traverse the area, so I was able to ride my bicycle as I started my penetration into the forbidden land. I had not gone far before I heard a loud rustling sound from the brush. I couldn't see what caused the sound, but moments later two deer appeared in a meadow next to the path. One of them quickly dispersed into the woods, but the other one stood there and watched me long enough for me to raise my camera and grab a picture. Unfortunately, I had the 16-35 mm lens on, so I couldn't really zoom in on it much, but I still like the result.
For the next hour or so I crisscrossed the area, setting up my tripod wherever a sunbeam flooded the forest floor, a branch reached out, a broken tree had been left to rot, or whatever else constituted a composition in my all too receptive brain. That is my strength and my weakness as a photographer. I see compositions everywhere, and that leads to too many pictures and sometimes rushed execution, because I have to go to the next spot and the next spot and the next. Still, I got away with this string of photos that have passed my own quality control. Along the way I had suddenly heard a dog bark not very far away. The barking came closer, and in an instant I went from being an amateur photographer enjoying nature to Harrison Ford in The Fugitive. I was sure some nature police squad had spotted me and was trying to hunt me down for trespassing. I hid behind a tree and cursed myself for having left my bicycle out in the open.
In the end, the dog moved further away, and it had probably just been out for an evening walk with its human. Still, I sighed a breath of relief and went on my way.
By now it was starting to grow dark, but just as I was considering packing up and heading back home, I saw movement through the trees ahead of me. I walked closer and approached the edge of the forest, and that's when I realized what was going on. It was the resident cow herd that was frolicking in the cool evening air. In other words, picture opportunity!
I snuck closer to the herd, which of course, they immediately spotted, un-stealthy as I am. So instead of posing for me, the cows took off, not walking lazily away, but at a gallop, and positioned themselves on a nearby ridge. They were staring at me, and I was staring back, and lo and behold, the leader cow started to move back down the hill towards me. At this point it should be mentioned that there was a fence between me and the herd. Still, I started to get a little apprehensive, because it didn't look like a very solid fence. Soon the entire herd was moving back towards me, and the leader cow did not look particularly friendly. Now, I have not heard of killer cows in Denmark, but the whole situation was starting to seem a little dicey.
Still, I kept snapping away and kept my head cool enough to increase the ISO and keep the the exposure at a decent 1/50 seconds, and here's the result of my efforts: possibly the best cow picture in my collection.Now, my wife always tells me to be careful whenever I head out on a photo mission, and I always say I will be, so I figured now was the time to live up to my word and begin my retreat in good order. So I shouldered my tripod and left the cows behind. Being cows, they probably never intended to attack me, but were merely curious and hoping for a bite to eat other than their usual grass. That wasn't going to happen as it was now time to pack up my gear and head home...
Pack up my gear.... Where was my camera bag? Where was my camera bag?
WHERE WAS MY CAMERA BAG?????
As soon as the realization hit me that I did not have my camera bag with me, a panic started to spread through my body. Where did I last see it? I had no idea. Hopefully, I had just left it with my bicycle back on the path. I stumbled back through the underbrush, getting several nettle stings along the way. And no, there was no sign of my bag anywhere near my bicycle.
There was no way around it. I had to backtrack to all the locations I had been at, which by this time amounted to half a dozen, several of which I wasn't even sure if I could find again, having walked through semi-dense forest to get to them.
As I pedaled back to the previous spot, and the one before that, thoughts of losing a bag containing maybe $2000 worth of camera equipment was very present in my mind... or having to come back early the next morning to continue the search... or worse, having to contact the nature enclosure administration and confess my sin of having entered the area without permission, but "pretty please, would you return my camera bag if you find it, thank you..."
That's when I suddenly remembered when I had last seen it. At one of my last stops, I had changed lenses. That's where I must have left the bag on the ground. And sure enough, I managed to make it back to the spot and found the bag exactly where I left it.
My legs burning from nettle stings and bloody scratches up and down my calves from scrambling through the brush, but relieved as hell, I was finally ready to head for the exit.
But my trouble had only just started. I wanted to leave the area through the southern edge. I had done that without problem during an earlier visit, because I had found a spot where two fences didn't quite overlap and thereby left a hole big enough for a person to walk through. After finding the spot, which in itself was a challenge since no paths led to it, I realized that the missing overlap was no more.
I had to climb over the fence - with my bicycle.
The bicycle was the easy part. The fence was no taller than I was able to lift the it across. Getting my own 94 kilos to the other side was harder. There was nothing to really step on to get a good take-off, plus the fence was actually a little bit electric. I had visions of myself missing my leap and getting stuck straddling the fence and having my finer parts fried.
But it had to be done. I put my foot on the bottom string of the fence and leaped. The string broke and for a fraction of a second my worst fear was coming true. But through sheer adrenalin and will power I exerted my last strength and landed safely on the other side.
Almost overcome with exhaustion, I pulled my bicycle through the last shrubbery, tearing my shirt and adding a few more scratches to my legs. But I was out... I was finally out. I had been hunted by dogs, attacked by killer cows, had my legs shredded by thorns and nettles, almost lost most of my camera equipment, and been forced to cross an electric fence, but I was alive. And I had a memory card full of what I hoped was a bunch of outstanding images.
Back in July I wrote about the time of year when the beautiful, bright leaves of the beech trees light up the forest and make your shutter finger itch. If there is a time of the year that is as important for photographers here in Denmark as those weeks in May, it would be October and November when those same trees explode in orange and yellow colors.
Fortunately, I recently had the opportunity to visit the ultimate location in the area for fall photography, the stunning nature resort Dyrehaven just 30 minutes from downtown Copenhagen. Dyrehaven is a combination of forest and open plain. It is not a huge area. You can walk through it in an hour or so (unless you stop every two minutes to take pictures, in which case it takes three), but due to some kind of government or city decree, no one is allowed to build houses that stick up above the tree line when you stand on the big hill in the center. In other words, it feels like an isolated natural reserve, and it's easy to forget how close you are to the city.
The only problem on this day was the light. The sky was gray and dreary, but the clouds were still well-defined and therefore things could have been much worse. I certainly preferred this to a clear blue sky.
First we have the entrance gate to the area. It is in itself a beautiful structure, and with the fall leaves framing it, it just lends itself to photography. The next image is the only one in the bunch taken with my cell phone. I always snap a few images with my cell phone when I'm on a photo shoot. just to have some for my Instagram and just because cell phone images have a different flavor that sometimes make a nice addition to my collection, as was the case with this one. None of my shots taken with my real camera captured the way the leaves formed a low ceiling over the leaf-covered forest floor quite as well.Moving on, the forest was replaced by more open landscape interspersed with awesome old orange-leafed trees that begged to be photographed. I especially liked this old oak tree - or whatever it is. And no, this would not have worked with a clear blue sky as the background. Old, crooked trees require gloomy, gray clouds.As I continued up the hill in the center of Dyrehaven, I came across the pond shown below with a swan couple floating around. At this point the sun was setting and the sky had started to break up a little bit, showing some blue and purple colors. I spent quite some time there, shooting the pond from all kinds of angles. And waiting for the swans to not be grooming their feathers and not sticking their heads into the water looking for food. They do that a lot, and it's not how you want to see swans in photos. You want them with those beautiful, curved necks held high or, as in this case, with their wings spread in an angel pose.At the very top of the hill, there is a tiny castle called the Hermitage Hunting Lodge or, in Danish, Eremitageslottet. Dyrehaven is also referred to as the Hermitage and used to be a royal hunting ground. Every year a horse race with riders in traditional red hunting coats takes place. They don't hunt anything other than a victory in the race, although more modern hunting (thankfully without horses or dog packs) does happen in order to control the number of game.That brings me to one of the absolute coolest features of Dyrehaven: deer. The place is full of them, in all shapes and sizes. You cannot avoid seeing them if you tried. I had taken a few pictures of a herd of deer earlier in the day, but it wasn't until I was headed for the park exit that I got close enough for something like the image shown below. Unfortunately, it was getting dark at this point, forcing me to use an extremely high ISO of 6000+ in order to get any sharpness at all. Still, several images, including this one, turned out quite well, which speaks for my Sony camera's noise-reduction capabilities... as well as Lightroom's.Darkness had now fallen and it was time to head out. I'd enjoyed several hours of the most exquisite nature and landscape you will find that close to a big city. Given that it was a week day and late in the year, I felt like it had been just me and the deer there. I relished in the peace and quiet and closeness to nature, which really is what it's all about.
On the way back to the train station, 30 drunken teenagers boarded the bus and tore me out of my zen. Although I was never a drunken teenager myself, I can't say at that age I had a whole lot more appreciation for the original, natural world than these partying youngsters seemed to have. I don't know exactly when it changed for me, but I'm glad it did and that I have photography to help me suck it in and bring it home for further absorption.
Since my last post about my more or less failed attempt at New Year's Eve fireworks shooting, I've been wanting to put something a bit more flattering at the top of this blog. And what better excuse can you ask for than to show a few of my faves from my trip across the pond back in September? My three weeks in Idaho and Alberta (Canada) was a great opportunity for me to practice my photo skills on some of the world's most spectacular landscapes, sometimes with the inclusion of marvelous wildlife, majestic trains, and magical waterfalls.
These pictures, I hope, speak for themselves. Some of them I consider among my best work... as in, ever. Anything else would in fact have been a disappointment as even a chimpanzee with a disposable Kodak camera would have gotten several nice shots out of those locations.
Want more? Don't miss my slideshow video made from some of these and other 2016 vacation pictures.
Whether you live near the Grand Canyon, in a pulsating city, or on the outskirts of a medium sized Danish castle town, if you go for a walk, there are only so many new and interesting things to look at. At some point everything around you just takes on a familiarity that makes you not even see the most attractive features. The gorgeous Frederiksborg Castle in the middle of my town that makes tourists drop their jaw... I often drive by it and don't even look in its direction.
So last Sunday when I grabbed my camera and went for a much needed walk in the neighborhood, I had more hopes for the spring air than I did for the pictures I would bring home.
But it turns out that if you are really tuned in on your surroundings, it doesn't matter that you have taken the same walk a dozen times. Suddenly you notice things that you never noticed before, or that you didn't see the photo potential in. Or maybe the light somehow makes things look different. Or the horses on that pasture suddenly want to come over and pose for you like they never did the other 10 times you walked by.
Even a church and a graveyard that I have often passed by without even slowing down, on that Sunday made me stop and see several objects and angles that I just had to go shoot, and with a pretty good result.
By the end of the walk, I felt so inspired that I even posed for a selfie in that beautiful old alley that I have taken tons of pictures of before, but never quite like this.
Here are the rest of the pictures from that day that are worth sharing: [gallery_bank type="images" format="blog" title="false" desc="false" display="all" sort_by="date" special_effect="grayscale" animation_effect="fadeIn" album_title="false" album_id="6"]