Photography Tuition | Starlings | Brighton Pier

Learn how to photograph Brighton's famous starling murmurations with expert wildlife photographer, Alan MacKenzie. Suitable for all levels of knowledge and experience. Alan will guide you though camera settings, composition, timing and use of light. Contact Alan now to book a session.
  • Meet in afternoon at Brighton Pier
  • Groups and 1-2-1
  • Printed handout and online feedback
  • Cost: £30 for 1-2-1 and £20 each for groups
  • Gear requirements: DSLR/SLR and telephoto lens

Photography Tuition


Starling Murmuration


Starling Murmuration and West Pier, in a Hail Storm

One's Fallow Men

My visit to a forest on the High Weald in Sussex marked the end of a three month break from stalking deer. I saw 25 deer in total, including this pair of Fallow bucks, sporting a tan coat, cream underside and white spots. Their freshly created footprints and droppings were visible along a woodland path adjacent to where I spotted them moments later in a field. Unusually for this species, they spent about 20 seconds observing me, before running away; they would normally bolt on sight. When I think about it, not many people go out for a walk and enjoy the privilege of seeing this! 

Roe deer seem more abundant in the forest this year. Hopefully in the coming years, it will become a first choice location for Roe. Sometimes, one can wander through the forest and not see a single deer. This evening was one of those a rare occasions when my visit coincided with high levels of deer activity. With my enthusiasm for deer refreshed, I hope to spend more time during what remains of the summer, out in the woods and fields, looking for more beautiful animals to show you.

One's Fallow Men

Precisely two weeks later, I returned to the forest and discovered that the abundance of deer was no fluke. Likely reasons are the displacement of animals from overpopulated neighbouring forests and cool August weather deterring people from visiting the forest. Early in the evening, a Fallow deer buck (see below) appeared along a glade deep into the forest. Minutes later, I saw him chase a slightly younger buck through the ferns. The fleeing buck, unaware of my presence, ran straight towards me, turned sharply and leapt through the air in a 10 metre trajectory. Not many people go for a walk in the forest and see the aerial jump of a Fallow deer at such close quarters (5 metres). The pair of Fallow deer above are 2 years old, while the buck with more well-developed antlers is aged 4 years. Fallow deer can live for up to 15 years in the wild.

Fallow Buck, Woodland Glade

High Summer at Kingston Ridge

Harvest time has come early to Sussex, following above average winter, spring and summer temperatures. A recent heatwave, with daily figures of 28°C, accounts for the parched appearance of fields. I've been following seasonal changes to the landscape at Kingston Ridge since March. Just 90 days ago, the area was vivid green. Now, it is a palette of golden brown and muted red. Compare March and June 2014 to see how different it looks. If September is warm and settled, farmers will sow the fields, as they did last year, resulting in a marked absence of poppy fields earlier this summer. I will be returning here in autumn and winter, for more dramatic seasonal comparisons.

Bread Basket

Harvest Time, Kingston Ridge

High Summer, Kingston Ridge

The Colours of Summer

June is surely the greenest month in the calendar. Perhaps it's just a bit too green for some. The coming of July resolves this, by adding just a hint of red and yellow into fields and pastures. Corn fields start to ripen and by August, the parched fields will have dispersed their seeds and begun to die back. Happily, there's still plenty of time to enjoy the countryside, as the sun continues to shine until 9.15pm and twilight lasts until 10.30.

2014 has been a terrible year for wild poppies in Sussex, but a potentially lucrative one for farmers. Favourable sowing weather in autumn 2013 lead to farmers using their arable land for wheat production. Summer 2014 will produce a bumper yield of grain. If you love the sight of poppies, then a wet autumn is your ally.  

After a mild winter and warm spring, the first Marbled White butterflies were on the wing by June 20th, a full 10 days earlier than normal. They can be found in meadows all over England and live for about 21 days. I spent two hours with a roosting female and male (see last photo) in a vast meadow on the eastern edge of Friston Forest. The red object on the male is a parasite called Trombidium breei, which feeds on its blood. I counted 6 mites in total. A major infestation can potentially kill the butterfly.

Half-a-mile along a path beginning in the village of West Dean is a meadow nestled between Friston Forest and Exceat Wood. This unplanted part of the forest is sheltered from the wind and therefore ideal for macro work. Time always flies past when I'm completely absorbed in butterflies. Friston Forest may be a 20 mile bus journey from home, but nowhere else locally has such a vast range of subjects and locations. We wait months for butterflies to appear and they're around for such a short period of time. It's like spending the day with a friend you won't see again for another year.

A methodical approach is essential when photographing butterflies. Since they are cold-blooded, I always photograph butterflies when they are inactivated by cooler evening temperatures. Winds have to be very light or non-existent, but nevertheless I still utilise an array of sticks and clothes pegs to secure plant stems and prevent any movement. The camera sensor and wings have to be in perfect alignment, otherwise only part of the butterfly will be in focus. It can take two hours and 300 shots to produce the final result. 

Waterpit Hill, South Downs

Balmer Huff

The Gate

Fireweed    Wild Woodland Foxgloves

Poppies in the Red Zone

Marbled White on Pyramid Orchid

Red Admiral, Friston Forest

Marbled White on Pyramid Orchid, Friston Forest    Mating Six-spot Burnet Moths

Marbled White, female and male

Green is Good

Kingston Ridge, near Lewes is a fascinating South Downs location. Dramatic seasonal changes in appearance have made it my favourite Sussex vantage point. It is within easy reach of Brighton and only a short walk from the bus stop at Houndean Rise. The sheer complexity of hedgerows, lines and curves makes it an ideal place to teach student landscape photographers how to identify viable compositions. The landscape is so green in June, it's as if someone has spent the morning placing broccoli florets all over the field edges. The pure greens are just beginning to change in late June and before long, the wheat fields will be ripening in the July heat. Perhaps a future summer will bring carpets of poppies beside the Y-shaped horse gallops seen in the foreground. I'll be the first on that bus when they do!

Kingston Ridge, June


S is for Sussex

Telescope Man


Refugees of Winter

Sunset in early June is at 21:10 and looking back, it's hard to imagine how I survived the mid-afternoon sunsets of December. Brighton is 50.84° north of the equator and night descends gradually over the space of one hour. After the sun set at Fulking Escarpment, I walked a few miles to the bus stop and it was still quite light by the time I arrived. On the way, I heard two baby Roe deer talking to each other and their mother in a field. Their call is high pitched and very rarely used, so it was a great privilege to be among the few people who have heard it. The temperature on Sunday reached 22°C, but it felt like early April on a Wednesday visit to the Seven Sisters. I prefer to shoot landscapes when the weather is unsettled. Picnic weather is good for wildlife photography. I'm glad to have the choice between two genres.

Rabbit and Daisies

Rabbit in Meadow

Roe Buck

Fulking Escarpment

Heavy Showers, Seven Sisters

Seven Sisters, mid-summer

Secrets of a Bluebell Wood

The low, red evening sun reached into the forest, illuminating strips of bluebells in a magenta glow, while monolithic shadows cast by tall, slender beech trees preserved slithers of blue in their wake. I am always a little sad when the bluebells finish. They signify many things: the emergent growing season; lighter evenings; the end of winter and an overall sense of emotional renewal. Completing an entire week of bluebell photography reminds me of being immersed in an absorbing book or film and finding reality disappointing when I've finished.

Bluebells are a deceptively difficult subject and people normally competent in landscape photography, will often be left with disappointing results. The obvious beauty of native Bluebells carpeting a woodland floor leads many photographers to think emotionally, to the detriment of technique, composition and lighting. Cameras are merely pieces of equipment, designed to record subjects in front of the lens. Great subject matter will not automatically lead to great photographs. It is therefore important to look beyond the subject and craft sunlight, shadows and tones into a coherent narrative. I've been in love with forests since childhood. Only during the last few years have I acquired the skills to share that love with others. I always tell my students that while one can learn technique, love of the natural world can never be taught. 

Bluebell Wood

Pheasant & Bluebells


Evening in a Bluebell Wood

In Praise of Deer

On a warm March afternoon, a chance encounter with a landowner, led to my being granted access to a privately owned woodland at my leisure. My camera with a 500mm lens attached is a talking point for the many people I bump into. The landowner suggested I would have more luck spotting deer in her woodland, than the forest I happened to be exploring at the time. I've visited the wood three times now; a stream flows through the centre and about thirty wild Fallow deer roam freely. A further advantage of visiting a private forest is the absence of people. Members of the Katy Perry Generation telling the entire forest that "I'm so OCD about my makeup!" are thankfully consigned to history or Abbots Wood on a Sunday evening. I now have seven good quality deer locations in Sussex to work with. Some are exclusively Roe deer sites, while others, particularly the woodlands are home to Fallow, Roe and Muntjac. I hope you enjoy my latest work and will follow me over the summer, as I bring these beautiful creatures to your screen.

The Famous Five

Leaping Roe Deer

Roe deer and Magpie

Three Roe deer in field

The Sun and the Rainfall

Kingston Ridge, seen from Houndean Bottom is an easily accessible part of the South Downs, for car and bus users alike. Situated just outside Lewes, I often go there to unwind after a busy week. Unsettled weather seems to model the South Downs well, accentuating hilltops and carving out valleys. Rainfall cleans pollutants from the air, improving visibility, while fast-moving clouds allow the sun to cast beams of light over the landforms. The first, third and forth photos were taken immediately following showers; notice the crisp and well defined lighting. In the second photo, the combination of milky cloud and smoke from a bonfire has muted the background lighting, while leaving the foreground gleaming with unfiltered sunlight.

In just a couple of hours, I've managed to show how varying lighting conditions can dramatically alter the appearance of a landscape. I run workshops on the South Downs to teach people how to achieve this. If you are interested in spending a four hour session with me, please visit my Tuition and Workshops page for further details.

Unsettled, South Downs

Kingston Ridge, South Downs

Kingston Ridge, South Downs

Accredited Herd

Late Winter Starlings

To the people who work on Brighton Pier, the sight of a rather tall man carrying a big telephoto lens must be as familiar as the starlings themselves. Meeting people on the pier is an integral part of the experience; a passion shared is a passion doubled. I'm delighted that my photos have inspired so many people to visit, either to simply enjoy the spectacle or create their own photographic narrative. 

Watching starling murmurations is an exciting and rewarding experience in all weather conditions. Starlings are undeterred by gales, hail and thunderstorms. That's not to say that their behaviour is not influenced by the weather. When temperatures are low, starling murmurations last longer, as the birds need to generate more body heat to keep warm overnight. When starlings detect the sudden onset of severe weather, they will fly in to Brighton Pier up to one hour early. Thank goodness for weather-sealed cameras and lenses! I took images 10 to 17 during a hail storm. You may even spot the hail stones among the birds. An atmosphere filled with opaque hail stones removes all colour from images, which is the reason why three photos on this page look as if they've been taken in black and white.

The lighting during the turbulent winter of 2013/14 did not live up to that of 2012/13, but the frequent presence of storms provided opportunities to expand my range and incorporate inclement weather into the frame. There is more to wildlife photography than warm glows and iridescent colours. During late winter, the starlings form murmurations one hour before sunset, which means that the sun is too bright and too far above the horizon and so it must be excluded from shots.

I was delighted to begin teaching photography in February. My clients learned a great deal about wildlife photography and were stunned the spectacle of 40,000 starlings gathering in murmurations around Brighton Pier. Passing on my extensive knowledge of wildlife photography is an intensely rewarding experience and I always look forward to enriching the lives of others with my love of nature. Two years ago, a photography student who worked with me, commented that our rural adventures, were "like being carried away to a far off place in a really good book or film and then finding reality disappointing at the end".

Alan MacKenzie Photography is now on Facebook to keep my fans regularly updated on what I'm doing and to promote my workshops. In addition to starlings, I offer tuition on landscape photography and specialist fields, such as Roe deer stalking and butterfly/macro photography.






Starlings and West Pier