Mike Lane - Digital Lane

11th March 2015

We were fortunate in March to welcome zoo keeper turned professional wildlife photographer Mike Lane from Solihul with his collection of stunningly beautiful digital images entitled ‘Digital Lane’. It was good to welcome friends from Worksop and from Lound Bird Club, joining us for this special evening.

Mike began with the observation that in this digital age it was no longer possible to earn a good living from full time photography with many people getting excellent images on commercial tours where they could get close to tame subjects. He has capitalised on this by turning his energies to selling equipment to this growing band of new photographers, but his recent images proved that he hasn’t lost his touch.

The recurrent theme of Mike’s talk was that, for him, the background and props are as important as the subject, if not more so. He seeks out sites and camera angles where a two tone, diffuse background in pleasing colours is achievable. He advocates getting down level with the subject but even he had to get rather lower than normal, rolling under a car to capture some wonderful close shots of an approaching wild elephant.

Mike took us through a range of species, mostly captured on trips specifically undertaken to see that species. His description of nights spent in cramped hides in Finland awaiting early morning calls from noisy black grouse at the lek or the arrival, very close indeed, of bears coming for the food bait put out for them, reinforced the belief that the rewards are not to be gained without determination and fortitude. How many people would like to be locked in a hide without facilities of any kind for thirteen hours in the hope of capturing a shot of a brown bear? Mike’s labours were certainly fruitful. His stunning, sharp images of natural behaviours were beautiful. Even in such cramped conditions he had taken shots against a pleasing background. A hide in the middle of a frozen lake posed a challenge, but had the advantage that the solid, level surface showed the feet of the grouse at this unusual lek clearly and the surface reflected the light onto their undersides well. For those unable to travel to Europe, there is the coot, known as the ‘poor man’s black grouse’, an aggressive creature at the mating season, and much easier to see.

Mike advised that some actions in mating displays, fishing technique etc. are repetitive. By studying the bird he predicts when an action will occur and so it becomes easier to capture the best moments. All black grouse fly together so if he hears wing beats, he presses the shutter knowing the bird in his viewfinder will fly in seconds enabling him to capture images he would have otherwise miss.

Mike provided a kind explanation of why, in our competitions, a ‘bird on a stick’ no longer gets top marks. In the days of film he would have been accepted that a sharply focussed static bird was the best he could achieve and been pleased with it. Huge improvements in digital technology make low light levels very much less of a problem and the aim is now to capture the best this will allow, namely action shots of movement or behaviours which require faster shutter speeds than film could handle.

The internet provides a digital aid for photographers, enabling them to seek out interesting subjects and sites. In this way Mike had discovered goosanders on Lake Geneva. The predominantly black and white birds’ high contrast helps the camera’s autofocus to capture sharp images. Mike occasionally switches to manual focus, but using top of the range kit he finds it is needed less and less.

In a taste of things to come, Mike described how he has discovered that he can shoot video with a high spec 4K camera and extract individual frames of as high quality as a still camera, giving him the opportunity to choose from many more images. His camera shoots a ten minute loop which can be kept if there is a good shot or overwritten automatically without pressing the shutter again, risking disturbing the subject.

To most people the Camargue in the south of France means the famous white horses. To Mike it means water birds enjoying the sheltered harbour. Even here, where his background will be water, Mike conducts a preliminary survey looking for a place which will give a pleasing, two tone, background which he can render diffuse when he shoots. He waits for the weather to be right and then sets up, usually for the first or last hour of daylight and waits for a bird to arrive. The results spoke for themselves.

Mike uses artificial scenes at times, using perching posts or feeding bait to bring birds to predictable spots so he knows where he will shoot. At public sites he tries to be original, changing rocks in a drinking pool or finding a perfect branch then removing them when he leaves to make his images unique. We were amused to know that you can take more shots of native British birds in Hungary in a short space of time than you can here. There the turtle dove, a rare sight here, is quite common, yet the wood pigeon is considered a rarity and is the goal of Hungarian bird photographers coming to Britain.

Closing his talk, Mike noted that only one of his shots contained any digital manipulation, proving that for a talented and dedicated photographer, even in the digital age, it is possible to achieve a level of skill that allows magnificent images to be created in camera.