Behind the Lens with Sara Humphrey

21 March 2020 | Posted in Emma Chaplin , wildlife photography
Behind the Lens with Sara Humphrey
Ringed Plover and Purple Sandpiper, Tide Mills (c) Sara Humphrey

Tell us a bit about yourself 

I'm Sussex through and through. I grew up just outside of Eastbourne, at the foot of the south downs and still live in the Eastbourne area. 

I can't remember not being interested in wildlife. I used to search for frogs, newts and slow worms around our garden pond as a kid and one of my earliest memories was seeing a hedgehog on a family holiday when I was four. As I got older, I volunteered and fund raised for wildlife charities in my spare time until I got a full time job in conservation. Now, I use my spare time to run my Sussex_Sara social accounts, raising awareness of our threatened species through my photography. 

Tell us about how you developed an interest in wildlife photography.

I realised I was seeing and photographing wildlife that other people missed; I'd share a colourful linnet or an iridescent lapwing and my friends would be asking what these incredible species were and how I'd found them. It made me realise a lot of people don't really look for something unless they know it's there. Now it's a bit of a personal mission to help people in Sussex to see what I can find with my camera on our doorsteps. 

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You visit nature reserves using public transport? 

I choose not to drive to keep my carbon footprint down, so when I visit a nature reserve, it has to be accessible by public transport. I visit Rye Harbour a lot. I enjoy exploring the wider countryside as much as reserves though, I've found some amazing wild locations just walking from one train station to the next without a map, seeing what local wildlife I can discover. I love hiking and regularly cover 15 miles on a photography day. Luckily I have a very good internal compass as sometimes I'll get carried away and still be walking while it gets dark.

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Badger at Rye Harbour Nature Reserve

What qualities do you need to be a good photographer?

I don't really consider myself a proper photographer. I know little about camera settings and I've had no formal training, but I have a huge passion for wildlife. I've spent the last year or so discovering great locations and studying species behaviours. I've learned how to find things by sight, sound and instinct. I love capturing intimate portraits of an animal looking like it's making eye contact with my camera, so for me knowing my subject's natural behaviour and how to avoid disturbance, is far more important than editing skills or having state-of-the-art kit. Having a quick reaction speed often helps too.

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What equipment do you use?

I use a Nikon P900, a bridge camera rather than a full DSLR. I take a wide range of macro and distance shots so don't want to hike with lots of heavy lenses or risking missing shots while I change them. I rarely use hides or tripods as I prefer to be on the move, photographing species out in the open. 

What’s your favourite shot? 

My nightingale series. They might not be my best pictures from a technical perspective, but last breeding season I'd heard a singing male at a local nature reserve one evening. I caught the earliest train possible to try to photograph it singing at dawn. Unfortunately, morning mist meant the sun didn't rise until 7am and the nightingale stayed hidden, but I heard another in the distance. 12 hours and miles later, I'd found seven territories, heard a female call for the first time and finally photographed a skulky male hiding in the scrub. Sadly they are so rare now most people will never see one, so the sense of achievement was incredible. I'd had the best day, getting lost, immersed in nature.

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What do you find most challenging to photograph? 

Badgers, bats and nightjar. My camera is a solid all rounder but doesn't do well with low light photography, so by the time they emerge, my camera can't pick them out. And great grey shrikes. I've hiked miles to get to spots where they've been sighted, but they are notoriously hard to spot and I've always missed them.

What’s the most unexpected thing that’s ever happened with your photography?

The first time I came across a weasel. I was barefoot walking a coastal path in Cornwall, heard a rustle in the grass and suddenly out popped a tiny bundle of energy, looking me straight in the eye, seemingly encouraging me to play! I once had a pet ferret (ferrets and weasels are part of the mustalid family) and the open stance was exactly how he used to pose when he was ready to playfight. I was amazed but regained composure and snapped a few shots as the tiny weasel weaved in and out of the dry grass near my feet before disappearing. When I got back from that holiday, I set up my Sussex_Sara photography account to share the experiences I'd had.

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Where, and when, historically, would you most have liked to be with a camera?

I'd stay around Sussex, but go back to when flocks of turtle doves filled farmland fields and nightingales were commonly-heard birds, stone curlews and Kentish plovers nested on the coast near Dungeness, and dramatic drake smew gathered in winter flocks. I'm lucky if I see a single one of these species in a year. It's hard to imagine that just a few hundred years ago, these were the sights that poets and authors like Gilbert White were writing about. It's devastating to think how much has been lost in such a short space of time. 

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What are you trying to communicate with your photographs?

Not everyone feels they can get 'out' in nature; life gets in the way and it can feel like we are separate from it a lot of the time. Yet, once you stop to notice nature, it's literally everywhere. I was just feet away from a sparrowhawk as I walked home from my food shop yesterday. So I share my extraordinary and everyday experiences to try and encourage others to seek out their own. The more people we can connect to nature, the more people will speak up for it, and right now, UK nature needs us to speak up and protect it more than ever. 

See more of Sara's photos on Instagram @Sussex_Sara

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