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Nature Photography Inspiration for Summer in the UK

how to photograph sand martins

If lockdowns have taught us anything, it is that there is plenty of nature all around us. I strongly believe that we don’t need to travel far to take great photos of wildlife.

What we need to do is focus on what’s close by, so we can spend plenty of time getting to know our subject and experimenting with different camera techniques.

So, for my summer photography inspiration I am choosing to focus on a few varied subjects that are relatively common and widespread at this time of year.

Read more:Top 10 Locations for Wildlife Photography in the UK

Swallows and martins

Swallows and martins belong to the family of birds known as hirundines. We have just three species breeding in the UK: the barn swallow, house martin, and sand martin.

The swift flies in a similar way and is therefore often mentioned in the same breath. Though the swift actually belongs to a different family, I will discuss it briefly here to allow for a comparison of identification features.

Photographing swallows in UK
A clutch of young swallows on the nest, taken with two flashguns and a remote release.

All these birds are summer visitors to the UK, so now is the time to see and photograph them. But before we do, we must first understand how they operate, and learn their activities that might be worth photographing.

Photographing swallows 

The swallow has very close ties to humans, as this is a species that builds its cup-shaped mud nests on beams in our barns, sheds, porches, and other outbuildings. Swallows often feed low over fields where domesticated animals, particularly cattle, are kept. They also fly along hedges, where their insect prey finds shelter from the wind.

Swallows love to perch on wires. They are known for gathering on telegraph wires in large numbers in autumn, but they can’t resist a short rest on a fence, and sometimes on roofs or guttering. They definitely have favourite spots where they return regularly.

Identifying swallows in bird photography
The male swallow has long tail streamers.

They are fast in flight, slowing down only when they have a strong headwind, or if they are swooping low over water where they might take a drink, pick off an insect, or even have a brief plunge-bath.

Their agility in flight is remarkable; they are able to fly through narrow openings to access their indoor nests. The only time they alight on the ground is to collect mud and bits of dry grass to construct their nests.

ID: swallows have long tail streamers (longer in males than females). They are gun-metal blue above and creamy white below with a red throat.

Read more: How to Photograph Nesting Birds

Top photography tips

Close to the nest, swallows will often perch in predictable places and, because they choose to nest close to people, they can be quite approachable. So, I have regularly photographed them on fences and gutters without the need for a hide.

For other portrait shots I have sometimes found swallows perching on fences beside roads, where I have used my car as a hide. But generally, I find it easiest when the swallows have chosen to nest in close proximity to busy places where they show less fear.

It’s always worth looking for swallows coming to the ground to collect mud and grass for nest-building. I have been lucky enough to find this sort of behaviour beside muddy pools in car parks where I have used my car as a hide.

Photographing swallows in flight tips
Here a swallow dips down to take a drink from a pond (taken with a 300mm lens with shutter speed of 1/4000th of a second).

I don’t often use flash for wildlife photography but I sometimes find it acceptable at swallow nests. It seems to have little impact on the birds, perhaps because they nest in buildings where lights are probably turned on and off at various times.

When I do opt for flash I use two or three flashguns, generally two from the front and one from the back, if possible. It is better to use two or three, rather than just one, because they give a better distribution of light.

The biggest challenge I have undertaken with swallows is to catch them in flight. There are two potential moments when this seems possible (in my experience).

The first occurs when they fly towards their nest on a predictable flight path, perhaps through a hole in a shed wall. The second is when they swoop down to take a drink from a ditch or pond.

In my experience, autofocus will not keep up with a swallow in flight. So, my preferred technique is to focus the lens manually at a certain spot, with the camera on a tripod. Step back with a remote release and take a burst of photos as the bird flies through the chosen spot. Sounds easy!

Read more: Back Button Focus – When and Why to Use It

Photographing house martins

House martins make their nests under the eaves of houses (sometimes on cliff faces). The nests are constructed of mud and are cup-shaped with a single, small opening at the top. They will perch on wires and, like swallows, will come to ground to collect mud for nest-building.

Photographing house martins, bird photography
A house martin builds its nest, notice its white rump. For this photo I used a fill-in flash.

ID: house martins are gun-metal blue above and white underneath. They have short forked tails, quite stumpy wings, and a distinctive white rump.

I have photographed house martins in three ways: in flight (see notes for swift), at the nest, and collecting mud. Their nest sites are often very high up, so I try to find birds that are nesting lower down, maybe on a bungalow or in the alcove of a lower window, for example.

How to photograph house martins
House martins collect mud for nest-building.

It might seem strange, but house martins can be seen nest-building throughout the summer. Obviously there is a peak of activity in early summer when they arrive back in the UK, but some birds fail and start again, and others seem to begin the construction of nests which they will come back to next year.

How to photograph a house Martin in flight
A house martin in flight, taken late in the day with a 300mm lens and 2x converter at 1/2500th of a second.

I like to photograph house martins when they come to ground to collect mud. They will often do this on muddy beaches, but also in puddles on farmyard tracks. Firstly I find where they like to do this, and then conceal myself nearby.

My best shots were actually taken next to a busy path, because the birds had become accustomed to seeing people close by. Many passers-by were slightly bemused to see a photographer lying on the ground, but the most intimate shots require a very low angle of view.

Read more: How to Use Perspective in Nature and Wildlife Photography

Photographing sand martins

The sand martin is usually one of the earliest migrants to return to the UK, often spotted in good numbers from early March, with most swallows and house martins returning from April.

Sand martins nest in sandy cliffs, in which they dig relatively deep tunnels and a nest cavity in which to lay their eggs. These nest sites are often found high up in quarries, but they also use small sandy cliffs along mature rivers, and sometimes sand dunes which are being eroded by the sea.

how to photograph sand martins
A young sand martin, distinguished from the adults by its pale-fringed feathers, rests on a fence to preen.

Like swallows, sand martins will perch on wires and regularly fly low over water, picking off insects or taking a drink or a dip while in flight.

ID: the sand martin is brown above and white below (apart from a brown breast band), with a short, forked tail.

Top photography tips

I have photographed sand martins when they are in flight (see notes on swift), perched on wires, and at the nest. The best spot I have found for photographing them perched on wires is near a breeding colony, where there is a fence adjacent to a pool.

How to photograph a sand martin in flight
A sand martin in flight, taken with a 300mm lens and 2x converter at 1/3200th of a second.

The sand martins regularly drink and splash bathe in the pool, and afterwards usually sit on a wire to preen themselves. This gives me my opportunity.

With slightly wet plumage they are a little less likely to fly so, with a telephoto lens, I am able to get close enough without a hide, especially to the youngsters who are not quite as wary as the adults.

Whilst house martins and swallows choose to nest close to people, sand martins do not. For this reason I find them a little more wary, so we have to be sure not to disturb the birds.

Photographing sand martins
An adult sand martin at the entrance to its nest tunnel.

For my nest photographs I found a spot that wasn’t too high up, and where I was able to set up a hide which I moved closer to the subject over a few days. By doing this, the birds weren’t upset and continued to behave normally.

Read more: What are the Best Lenses for Bird Photography?

Photographing swifts

The swift is a different challenge for the wildlife photographer. This is a bird that never comes to ground, nor does it ever perch except at its nest site, which is usually in a roof space in a very tall building.

Swifts are completely adapted to life on the wing. They eat, sleep, and mate while flying, and don’t touch a solid surface from the time they leave their nest to their return the following year. This is only possible because they can sleep one half of their brain at a time, so they can take a nap and still see where they are going.

It’s rare to see a swift drinking, as they get most of the liquids they need from their insect prey, but they can drink rain drops and will occasionally swoop low over water. However, for the vast majority of the time, swifts fly high in the sky, coming slightly lower in poor weather or when they get close to the nest.

ID: swifts are dark brown all over (except for a small pale patch on the throat). They have short, forked tails and sickle-shaped wings, and are the largest of this group of birds. They have a distinctive screeching call.

Top photography tips

I have only ever photographed swifts in flight, which presents an interesting challenge. To photograph such fast birds in flight, you need to have a steady flow of opportunities! So, the first step is to find a place where there are lots of birds flying around.

How to photograph swifts in flight
To see the detail in the plumage of this swift in flight, I wanted to capture it late in the day when it banked to one side, turning its body and wings towards the low sunlight. Taken with a 300mm lens and 2x converter at 1/2500th of a second.

I use my fastest lens and camera. I set it on a relatively high ISO to achieve a fast shutter speed (1/2000th of a second or faster), and set it to burst mode with continuous autofocus and a cluster of nine focusing points.

I use a larger focusing cluster when photographing birds flying against the sky than I would if the birds were against trees, which might confuse the focusing mechanism.

I tend to pre-focus the lens on a ‘suitable’ distance, and start by following the bird out of focus in the frame. When the bird comes close to being in focus I will activate the autofocus. By doing this, I can be sure the focus doesn’t have to hunt too far. I will then attempt to stay on the bird as long as possible, taking bursts of photos.

For birds in flight, it is best to shoot in bright light. However, doing so in the middle of the day is not great because the underside of the bird will be in the shade. 

So, I usually try this technique late in the day when the sun is low, as this will help light up the underside of the bird – particularly when it banks and turns. It’s also best if the birds are flying into a headwind, so the combination of a westerly wind and an evening sun works well.

Read more: 4 Essential Tips for Photographing Birds in Flight

Photographing marbled white butterflies

The marbled white isn’t the most colourful butterfly in existence but it is one of the most beautiful and intricately marked species, with a wonderful black and cream marbled pattern on the upper and under wings.

It flies in summer, and the best month to photograph it is July when it is fresh and at its most numerous.

Photographing butterflies in summer
By getting down low and shooting against the sky, I was able to use a small aperture (f/11) to get the whole marbled white butterfly sharp without a cluttered background.

This can be an abundant butterfly but only in the right habitat. The marbled white favours unimproved grassland where its caterpillar food plants (various grasses) grow tall.

It is most common on chalk and limestone and is found across much of southern England, as well as some spots in south Wales and a few locations in the northeast of England.

The way in which to find them is to either walk through suitable meadows, or do some research on the website of your county Wildlife Trust to find a nature reserve where they can be found close to where you live.

This is a good species of butterfly to photograph because it occurs in colonies, meaning there will likely be a good number of them close together. This means we have a fighting chance of finding them as they go to roost in the evening.

So, I would recommend an evening visit to find them as they begin to settle down; at this point it will be relatively easy to photograph them with their wings closed.

Photography tips for butterflies in summer
For this shot I wanted to show off the beautiful grasses in the evening light, so I avoided getting too close with my 100mm macro lens.

Having located the butterflies in the evening, I make plans to go back again early the next morning to photograph them again.

This gives us a chance to get shots of the butterflies with dew, and as they wake up they will slowly open their wings to take in the first rays of the morning sun. This gives us our best opportunity for a back shot.

Read more: How to Photograph Butterflies and Insects

Top photography tips

Choose a calm day to photograph marbled white butterflies, as they roost on grasses which blow around in the wind.

Photographing grass

If you are looking for marbled white butterflies, or just wandering through meadows, you will come across many tall, flowering grasses.

How to photograph grass in summer
Flowering cocksfoot grass, photographed with a 300mm lens and 1.4x converter, set against a warmly-lit background.

As photographers we tend to focus on colourful flowers, but we should also take time to explore the potential of the wonderful textures and shapes of grasses in the summertime.

Photographing grass in summer in the UK
Quaking grass, photographed with a 100 mm macro lens.

One thing is certain: as the sun goes down, there are few more inspiring sights than a meadow of backlit grasses. So, how about ignoring the flowers and focusing on the grasses for a change!

Top photography tips

To get a special photo, use a specialist lens.

How to photograph grass in summer in the UK
The flowers of Yorkshire fog, backlit amongst red campion, taken with a 300mm lens.

Don’t be tempted to use a standard zoom; use a dedicated macro lens to get in close or try a telephoto lens to blur the background and get some interesting bokeh. Telephoto lenses are best for backlit subjects.

Read more: How to Create a Beautiful Bokeh

In conclusion

It’s reassuring to know that we don’t have to travel to exotic destinations to find a great selection of wildlife to photograph. Summer in the UK is full of opportunities and the days are long.

My advice is to focus on a few target species, maybe including those that I have chosen here, and challenge yourself to take photographs that you previously thought you might never be able to take.

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Visit David's website

Originally a maths teacher, David has been a professional photographer and writer for the last twenty years specialising in wildlife and landscape photography. He has undertaken many photographic commissions; lectured on the Marine and Natural History Photography degree course at Falmouth University and written thirteen books about wildlife and photography in his adopted county of Cornwall where he has lived for the last twenty-five years.

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