To most people it sounds like one of those jobs you can only dream about. Sailing a yacht around the wilder parts of the British coastline, photographing and recording mega marine wildlife such as whales, dolphins and basking sharks. Yet this is exactly the kind of work that shark researcher Colin Speedie carries out each summer as he searches the coastline for the second largest fish in the world and the UK's biggest regular wildlife visitor, the basking shark.
In the 1980s, Colin started photographing marine wildlife whilst sailing on the high seas of the south coast of England. He then concentrated on developing his two passions to become a professional yachtsman and wildlife researcher in his own right.
Now as Chairman of the UK based 'Shark Trust', he is currently running a basking shark project funded by WWF-UK and the Wildlife Trusts. The project operates out of Falmouth and Colin spends most of his time aboard 'Forever Changes', an 11.7m yacht that allows him to glide quietly through the waters and photograph these magnificant creatures.
The project has utilised Canon's SLR camera equipment to help identify individual basking sharks. These photographs are then correlated into the European Basking Shark Photo-identification Project. This larger scale project has also received shark images from as far afield as France and Scotland and promises to shed light on many of the mysteries which still surround this enigmatic creature.
Colin believes that 'Most people think they have to travel to the other side of the world to see exotic and interesting marine species.' If that was the case then surely he would not use too much film in a week? 'Not the case' Colin says, 'Since 1988 I have photographed ten different species of whales and dolphin in UK waters plus hundreds of basking sharks as well as the odd sunfish and a few leatherback turtles. The seas around the UK are highly productive and rich in marine wildlife - you just have to know where to look.'
Colin is a convert to Canon's high-end generation EOS 1V SLR camera system, having previously used simple, robust, manual photographic equipment. 'I used basic pro kit for many years for two reasons: First, the marine environment is just about the harshest there is for equipment and I confess I have broken or drowned my fair share of equipment over the years. Secondly, until recently the auto focus cameras I tried simply couldn't cope with the difficulties of focusing on rapidly moving animals, especially in a seaway. I ended up with piles of perfectly in-focus waves but the animals were always infuriatingly out of focus - very frustrating. However, since I started using Canon's EOS 1V I have become a firm convert.'
With so many converts to digital equipment these days, was Colin not tempted to go down that route? 'No' he says, ' I prefer slide film even though it has less exposure latitude than print film. I spend a great deal of time giving lectures in the winters and I use slides for this reason. The quality of my photographs is important because much of the work I do is raising awareness of marine life around our shores and good images are our best weapon to get the message across.'
Colin sets up his photographic equipment to suit the type of marine life he expects to encounter. 'I mainly use the EOS 1V with an EF 70-200 f2.8 USM zoom. I don't use a booster because I find that I obtain my best results shooting less frames rather than more. Also a booster would add weight - a major factor when trying to control a camera on a sometimes heavily rolling moving deck.'
Another lens that Colin uses regularly is the EF 75-300 IS (Image Stabiliser) which he describes as being light, with a good focal length for the more distant animals. 'If light allows, we also use an EF 1.4x converter on the EF 70-200 which is especially good for those difficult times when the subject is just too far away for a decent photograph.'
Colin generally sets the EOS 1V up on Canon's evaluative metering system saying, 'It means one less job for me to do, it is hard enough just composing the shot and making the image fill the frame. But to its credit the EOS 1V's SLR system has never got it wrong.' Single Shot AF and shutter priority are the order of the day in most circumstances. 'I vary the shutter priority speed depending on the animal and the conditions. With a minimum setting of 1/500th, suitable for slow moving creatures like the sharks whilst selecting a faster speed for fast moving animals like dolphins.' He continues. 'Combine this with the big AF Sensor footprint on the EOS 1V and the animal will almost certainly be in focus - I reckon we have nearly doubled our rate of usable images since we have started using the EOS 1V.'
A wide variety of film stock is carried aboard the boat, ranging from 100 to 400 ASA and is selected according to light availability. 'Film has improved dramatically in recent times and we now expect to obtain results from 400ASA which would not have disgraced 200 ASA five years ago, but we can still push film if necessary.'
Out in some of the worst elements you can imagine protecting the equipment is also a major concern and as Colin says, 'We normally store the cameras in a weather proof shelter on deck for ease of access. At the end of each day they are carefully cleaned before being placed in a watertight case for safe keeping. Even so, it is still a very hostile environment for any camera and that was one of the main attractions of the EOS 1V, which has protective seals throughout. Plus it is also built like a brick - it can withstand this type of rough use.'
So are there any secrets to this type of photography? Colin thinks there are a few ground rules, 'Use a boat handler who understands and respects the species as they can anticipate where the animal may next surface, this will allow you to focus on that point and in turn improve your personal success rate.' And use good equipment? 'Definitely - my experience of the EOS 1V has been wholly positive. A really tough piece of pro equipment which has delivered on every level. I wouldn't be without it.'
This article was supplied by Canon UK www.canon.co.uk. We thought it was an interesting read and that you would like to hear about Colin Speedie's project.
Pictures Colin has taken on this project are below: