Review - Paul Colley "Innovations in Wildlife Photography for Conservation", 21 Sep 2020

A review by Jane Lee - Paul Colley FRPS, "Innovations in Wildlife Photography for Conservation", 21 September 2020
Paul Colley is a former Chairman of the British Society of Underwater Photographers and Fellow of the RPS. He is an innovative wildlife photographer and freelance writer and the majority of the income he generates is reinvested directly in wildlife and habitat conservation projects.

The title of Paul’s talk actually underplayed the fascinating evening we had in store. He started by explaining how his photography had gone down the conservation route since he last spoke to the club a few years ago.

Paul had been photographing the very rare and very large blue fin tuna off Malta which involved diving inside a commercial fishing net. At about 2 metres long, some fish weigh in at 1000lb and the biggest can be worth up to £1m (yes, you did read that right) but in spite of various legal protections, they are subject to relentless pursuit because of their high value. Paul was so shocked by what he saw with the large scale slaughter of these beautiful creatures just to supply the high end sushi market that he was moved to do something and is now very much focussed on using his photography for conservation work.

Paul showed us some beautiful underwater images of colourful fish, sharks, crocodiles, coral reefs and shipwrecks (both natural and those sunk as artificial reefs) but he is always looking to produce something different. He showed a series of fish portraits where he had tried to capture his subjects either from an unusual angle or to show the character of the fish.

Paul was heavily involved in preparing the evidence which enabled a marine conservation area to be put in place in Cambodia and is also involved with the Misool Marine Reserve in Indonesia which now has 465 square miles under marine protection. Misool has been a real success story, with careful nurturing and legal protection, the devastated reef has been transformed to a beautiful reef full of life and has become a high end eco resort. Even the local fishermen are seeing the benefits with large catches in the areas they are legally allowed to fish.

Paul talked about the river project from his previous talk and how he sets out with a particular image in mind and then works out how to achieve it. As he couldn’t dive in a river he had to make special kit to use cameras in waterproof housings on long poles, which have now progressed to being remote controlled. He still works on numerous river projects but is particularly concerned with images portraying the effects of litter ending up in rivers whether that’s old cans, crisp packets, plastics or an excess of sticks thrown by dog walkers which have been found to inhibit the weed growth that fish rely on. Paul enjoys making ‘split level’ images which show what is happening both under and above the water. He showed a number of his award winning underwater images of river fish and comical photobombing mallards as well as his split level swan feeding.

In the second half Paul came out of from ‘under the water’ but only as far as the surface. Whilst photographing trout on the River Test, he noticed bats feeding on the same insects as the fish were after and set himself a new challenge to capture images of bats in flight taking insects off the surface of the water. He spent the next 14 months researching the insects, studying their feeding and breeding habits and finding bat roosts (in liaison with licensed bat groups). He experimented with an assortment of kit from basic and sophisticated bat detectors and laser triggers with mirrors to different types of flash and worked out how to secure the kit on tripods in the water just above the surface whilst ensuring at all times that nothing would be harmful to the bats. Most of these bats are about the size of an adult thumb, weigh about the same as 2 teaspoons of sugar and have a wingspan the size of an A5 piece of paper but have an average speed of 40km/h so timing is critical. He undertook numerous recces in daylight and there were lots of safety issues to consider as he would normally be working solo, in a river, in the dark and with all his kit connected with electrical leads. If you fall over in water wearing waders, especially in the dark, you could find yourself in serious trouble.

Having meticulously studied the insects he established where thousands would be coming to the surface. He knew what kit he needed and where to position it for a 90% chance of the bat triggering the camera. And did he achieve his aim? Of course he did! We saw the most amazing images of bats swooping down to catch insects with their talons. In some shots you could even see the insects clearly trying to take action to avoid the inevitable. Paul’s level of dedication, patience and skill is without question and you can easily see why his images win so many accolades and awards.
Having completed that challenge he is now trying to get ‘Better Bat Backgrounds’ and experimenting with astrophotography as a way of achieving this. Bats with star trails, bats with comets and meteors, bats with the Milky Way, bats with the Moon … However, many different things need to come together to achieve this and sometimes multiple exposures or composites have to be used. We even saw a wonderful ICM image of bats in a landscape!

What’s on your ‘To Do’ list for the next 12 months or so … well this is what’s on Paul’s: continuing to work with river and bat conservation groups; finding better bat backgrounds; more astrophotography (including deep space); projects with conservation agencies to find new ways of photographing owls, otters and red kites; another book, another RPS Fellowship …… oh and just the small matter of achieving a split level shot of Scottish Atlantic salmon leaping!

It sounds like all this is going to keep Paul fully occupied for some while but hopefully we can invite him back in a few years’ time to show us the results of these endeavours.

It was a wonderful evening full of amazing photography.

~ Jane Lee