Bird Photography with Antonio Vázquez

My past few months in the photographic department had been distinctively anthropogenic, spent in the tubular labyrinth below the capital city of the world. For days I had navigated the endless subterranean seas of living human bodies and formations of ceramic and cast iron almost venerable enough to be geological, searching for those elusive points in space and time for my upcoming London Underground Photo Exhibition. The end of January saw the completion of this mission, freeing up camera time for something different. There could hardly be a better time than this to be offered an opportunity to return to my early interest in wildlife photography.

It was a great privilege for me to join the acclaimed Spanish photographer Antonio Vázquez and his son-in-law Raúl Rodríguez for a bird photography session at the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust’s Welney Wetland Centre in Norfolk. It does not really need mentioning that Antonio has had a remarkable career decorated by prestigious awards and a long list of books. In this brief biography there is a funny anecdote about getting his first camera that is a testimony to his commitment right from the outset.

Antonio’s grandfather, though not a photographer himself, infected young Antonio with a love for nature and animals by showing him beautiful pictures. Later on, Antonio was inspired by the great Spanish naturalist and filmmaker Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente who tragically died in an air crash while doing what he loved in Alaska. Why photography and not video? It is a matter of personal preference, Antonio says, to capture the special moments in still life, and I happen to identify with this. I also find it heartening that he is a wholly self-taught photographer, which in some ways gave him more space to explore and develop his own unique style, the very thing I am struggling to do myself.

At Welney, the recent snowmelt and subsequent rainstorms had brought upon a great flood that inundated all but the biggest hide. Strong winds were whipping the water into white-capped waves decidedly uncharacteristic of wetlands—just what we needed for some dramatic pictures. We wasted no time deploying the weapons systems.

A view of the great flood from the main hide at Welney Wetland Centre. Photo: Yangchen Lin

Antonio Vázquez with the Nikon D3x and 600mm f/4. Photo: Yangchen Lin

Antonio prioritizes on fast autofocus with no teleconverter, and achieves full control over the position of the active AF sensor in the viewfinder by manually toggling the four-way button on the D3x rather than relying on the camera’s automatic 3D tracking. Copyright Antonio Vázquez

I had intentionally travelled to the UK without what I affectionately called my ‘intercontinental ballistic missile’ (400mm f/2.8), my priority in the UK being scientific research. Antonio said that the 400mm f/2.8 was the best supertelephoto of all, surpassing the 600mm f/4 by a slight margin in terms of image quality (and of course, speed). I resolved to take it out more often in the future and savour its legendary sharpness and colour. For now, my armament ranged from 16mm to 200mm, and I set about doing the kinds of photography appropriate to those focal lengths.

Pochards swimming at Welney Wetland Centre

Atlantic Fleet: an attempt to evoke the magnificent lyrical turbulence of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2. The 70–200mm f/2.8 is not inadequate for birds provided one does not attempt to apply it in ways for which it has not been designed. Photo: Yangchen Lin

I was also curious to hear Antonio’s opinion on 800mm supertelephotos, Nikon having recently introduced their latest incarnation of the 800mm f/5.6. He feels that it compresses, or flattens, the perspective too much for birds at the usual distances, but is great for large oceanic waves. In an ongoing photographic project on coastal storms, he uses the 600mm with the 1.7-magnification teleconverter to get into firing range.

Nikon D3x | 600mm f/4. Copyright Antonio Vázquez

Raúl is Antonio’s disciple and enjoys using the Nikon D800 with the 200–400mm f/4. Juggling a career in the transportation industry with family commitments with young children means that he is unable to go all out with developing his own photographic art at the moment, but he follows Antonio and learns all he can.

Raúl Rodríguez with Antonio Vázquez. Photo: Yangchen Lin

The golden light prized by Antonio. Copyright Antonio Vázquez

Sunset at Welney Wetland Centre with Antonio Vázquez. Photo: Yangchen Lin

It was dusk when we finally packed up and headed home. As the rolling landscape out the car window steadily receded into darkness, we contemplated the future of photography. Antonio fears that photography may eventually cease to be a profession. With the advent of the Internet, photographers are no longer competing within their respective countries to sell their work, but with competitors from all over the world. As the number of photographs available on any given subject grows rapidly, individuals and organizations are on average becoming progressively less willing to pay the true value of a good photograph and less discerning between outstanding and not-so-outstanding photographs. Antonio now sees countless superlative images offered online for a tiny fraction of the amount invested in getting the shot—in the background research, equipment, logistics and creativity. And there is competition of another kind. Computer graphics have advanced to a point where it is no longer possible to tell a real photograph from a computer-generated image of a watch or a car in an advertisement.

Perhaps all is not lost, however. Antonio recalls a morning in Grand Teton National Park. It was 6 a.m. and –12 degrees Celsius—but 250 photographers were already in position at exactly the same spot, cameras all pointing towards the great mountain ready to freeze that magic moment in eternity. Despite the seemingly hopeless situation for getting anything that isn’t identical to 249 other copies of the same thing, Antonio insists otherwise. He gives an example: the vastly different photographs he and I took today, from the same spot.

Happy Valentine’s Day. Copyright Antonio Vázquez


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