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.


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The Bird and the Bystanders


A crowd had gathered around a washed up Guillemot on Brighton beach. Frequent storms this winter have weakened many sea birds, causing them to get stranded on beaches around the English coast. Many casualties were covered in oil. Rather than use their initiative and find a solution, the bystanders faffed about. Some filmed the bird on their smart phones; others talked at length about doing something, but then failed to act. Humans may think they have freewill, but it is well established that they behave in highly predictable ways, especially when in groups. A phenomenon called the diffusion of responsibility causes individuals in a large group to refrain from helping a stricken person, bird or animal. This is regardless of personality, culture or socio-economic status. We are all capable of walking past someone who has collapsed in the street.

I decided to phone the RSPCA. It's fairly straightforward: one has to look them up on Google, tap the Call icon and navigate through a menu of options, before speaking to an advisor. In the meantime, a man stood by, allowing his son to threaten and throw stones at the stricken bird. I stepped in and shouted at them, but it was too late. The bird used its flagging energy to swim off into the sea. Seagulls hovered over the Guillemot, sizing up their potential meal. Nothing goes to waste in nature. That's just the way it is. The advisor informed me, if the bird had gone into the sea, there was nothing the RSPCA could do. I had to say something to the man, so I approached him for a word. For a moment, I wished a one-way plane ticket to North Korea on him. I explained that the bird now faced certain death. It wasn't his son's fault; he's only three, the man said. "But you're the adult, you should have stopped him", I replied.

Starlings

I had planned on photographing the starling murmurations, but the incident had upset me. After giving up on the starlings prematurely, I packed my camera away and nearly left, but for a last minute decision to walk along the beach on the off-chance that the waves had washed the Guillemot up again. Eureka! There he was, on the pebbles, trying to remove the oil from his feathers. With the first nice day in weeks, I knew I was in for a very long wait. It was a cold Saturday evening. Animal lovers had been out and spotted lots of creatures in distress. The RSPCA was experiencing heavy demand on their services. At 6.30pm, RSPCA Inspector Tony Pritchard called me to say he was 35 miles away in Bognor Regis and would be with me in an hour. I stood guard, asking people if they would keep away from the bird. I once stood for 90 minutes at the Chattri in temperatures of -13°C, so two hours on Brighton beach in February was easy. With me standing by holding a torch, Tony captured the Guillemot in seconds using a net on a pole and placed him inside a box. The bird put up a struggle, which according to Tony, was encouraging. Of course, I will never find out if the bird survived. All I can do now, apart from drink the beer in my fridge, is donate some money and hope all goes well.

Amazing Starling Murmurations at Brighton Pier


Huge numbers of starlings are now gathering over Brighton Pier every afternoon at sunset. It is possible to observe excellent displays on both sides of the pier, regardless of weather conditions. I would estimate the total number at under 40,000, which is down on last year. It could be that locally, starlings are in decline, but it is also possible that competition for places to roost have forced some birds to find other locations in which to sleep. Murmurations now gather over rooftops along Church Road, Hove. Earlier in the winter, a large and long lasting murmuration would form over Churchill Square, but recent activity from construction workers displaced them.

Due to the ongoing pattern of wet and windy weather, lighting conditions have disappointed on many occasions. I have now visited Brighton Pier 50 times this winter. In February, starlings begin gathering at about 16:25 and fly at high altitudes until numbers swell to several thousand, when the flight elevation drops to below 50 metres. Two murmurations form, on either side of the pier and one can observe the larger and longest lasting group on the east side. 

Watching this amazing spectacle is a great way of meeting people, as Brighton's starling murmurations draw people from across the country. I have met quite a few photographers and interested members of the public. I even met the 1980s singer, Jimmy Somerville, who introduced himself by showing me a starling tattoo on his leg. As we talked about the amazing and beautiful murmurations, I realised where I'd seen his face before: on my brother's record sleeves circa 1987. The starlings will remain in the area until late March, when they all return to Scandinavia. I plan to bring you a third instalment of photos and hopefully by then I will have bumped into Depeche Mode. Dave, Martin and Andy: I'll be sitting on a deckchair, wearing a crown and holding an autograph book. We all have our guilty pleasures.


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Starlings and Brighton City Centre

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Fun with the Canon EF 50mm f/1.2 L USM


I don't photograph people nearly as often as I'd like, but I always enjoy it, especially when they are photogenic and look natural in front of the camera. Developing bonds with people unfortunately means having to say goodbye at some point and on Saturday, two lovely people said farewell to us on a night out in Brighton. Zane is returning to Latvia, while Laura is returning to Albert Square as Kat Slater. I wanted to create a permanent record of the occasion and chose the super-fast Canon 50mm f/1.2 L USM lens for the job. This exotic optic is designed for use without a flash in dim light by maximising the transmission of available photons to the camera sensor. Depth of field is extremely shallow, requiring very careful focusing and lens calibration. The resolution is surprisingly good at f/1.2 and bokeh is absolutely beautiful. I would however, like to see a version with an image stabiliser, as shutter speeds of 1/60th second are just on the margin of acceptability. 

Many thanks once again to my friend, Alex for lending me this wonderful lens. Precious and fragile things need special handling and I have my own Personal Jesus to thank for not dropping the £1250 lens into a pint of beer. Dropping lenses into the English Channel or onto hard surfaces is a pain that I'm used to, but I'm pleased to report that the night out was fun packed; the lens still intact.

Black Celebration

Photograph of You

Starlings      Peace

A Broken Frame

Dressed in Black



Enjoy the Silence


I had the pleasure of introducing Alex Lawrence to Beachy Head in January 2014. Attractive cloud formations and warm afternoon light added to an already stunning location on the Sussex coast. And what better way to finish a trip to Beachy Head with a vindaloo or phall at the Elizabethan Cottage Tandoori in Brighton.

Beachy Head

Enjoy the Silence

The Beautiful Starling Murmurations at Brighton Pier


Every winter, starlings escaping the harsh Scandinavian winter migrate to the British Isles and other mild European countries. Starlings feed in gardens and farmland in the daytime and gather in huge groups called murmurations over Brighton Pier in late afternoon.  Murmurations are thought to serve a number of purposes. Firstly, they are a defensive strategy against birds of prey; each starling monitors and shadows seven of its neighbours and this leads to murmurations adopting a typical fluid movement. Should a predatory bird attempt to intercept a murmuration, each starling in its path will automatically move aside, allowing the adversary to pass straight through. Flying in murmurations generates body heat and the collective warmth of bodies acts as a giant radiator when the starlings roost. Competition for the most sheltered places to roost is fierce and dominant males get first preference. Females and juveniles have to sleep in more exposed spots.

Although migrant starlings begin arriving in late October, the best time to watch murmurations is from January to March, half an hour before sunset. Viewing quality is influenced by weather conditions. Cold, clear sunny weather is the best time, as starlings will spend longer on the wing, probably to generate body warmth for the long night ahead. Clear, sunny and mild weather causes starlings to arrive at the pier very close to sunset and roost shortly afterwards. The sudden arrival of heavy downpours, accompanied by high winds and thunder, will prompt starlings to leave their feeding grounds up to one hour before sunset, but adverse weather does not seem to deter starlings from gathering in murmurations. I have seen murmurations lasting ten minutes in hail, gale force winds and thunder and lightning.

Photographing murmurations on Brighton Pier is a good opportunity to meet people. I've met several Flickr contacts this way and it's always nice to chat with interested members of the public. Photography is about taking pleasure in sharing - sharing my work online, showing my work to people on my tablet and of course sharing the actual experience in the company of others. If you're interested in meeting me, just send me an email or come and say hello on the day.

Wildlife photography is a tricky field. So many events have to occur at the same time for an image to work. Owning high end lenses and camera bodies is just one element in a complex array of variables. Wet, windy and cloudy weather this winter limited opportunities for photography. Often, when the sun did shine, mid-level cloud over the horizon blotted it out. Luckily, my desire to bring you a quality selection of photos, coupled with patience and perseverance, meant that I was down Brighton Pier at every available opportunity. I have now reached the half-way stage of my starling photography. The next instalment of photos will be posted in late March. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy looking at what I've taken so far.
 

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Murmuration at Sunset

Starlings over sea

Starling Murmuration

Starlings and Brighton Wheel

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