And Shoot...

Welcome to my blog; my take on all things photography, travel, wildlife and a few other things too.

Hope you enjoy it.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

War, Huh – What is it good for? Absolutely Something!

Like many of you, I have watched on in horror and sadness in recent months at the events in Syria. I I heard all of the arguments for and against military action, often both passionate and well-reasoned and was delighted when the situation abated and came to a relatively peaceful conclusion, for now. However, the more I have reflected on this, the more I have come to realise that there is one school of thought on war that I simply cannot abide; the argument that there should never ever be any action, no matter the cost.

Let me state upfront that I abhor violence and suffering of any kind, but that is precisely why I believe in war. Just imagine for a moment if you can, that the Conservatives suddenly decided to engage in chemical warfare against the North of England for opposing them and voting Labour. Men and women, children and the elderly, all dying excruciating deaths in front of their families – with no doctors or nurses able to do anything to help. And imagine those that managed to survive the horror, living in constant fear that a second or third or fourth strike could happen at any time.

And imagine still further, if the rest of the world simply turned a blind eye and said ‘Oh I'm sorry we can’t get involved – we might make things worse’. Cameron could simply give the order again, whenever the whim takes him, without fear of reproach or retaliation or retribution. Silly analogy I know; ridiculous and far-fetched. Well this almost exactly what happened to the Syrian people.

Listen, I fully understand the concerns that the ill-fated forays into Iraq and Afghanistan have raised. I can entirely agree with the notion that a robust and well planned exit strategy (hell, even the bones of one) is required before putting more civilians and our own soldiers at risk. You cannot go in all guns blazing to these situations without firm proof and the risk of escalation should be minimized at every opportunity. These, of course, should be a given before any proposed action takes place.

But what really gets me angry is those who decry war whatever the circumstances. Those like American Senator Paul Rand ‘’War should occur only when America is attacked, when it is threatened or when American interests are attacked or threatened’’ or activist and anti-war protester David Swanson who said on Syria ‘’Risking a major war, no matter how slim you think the chance is, ought to be done only for some incredibly important reason. The White House doesn't have one.’’

But what really gets me angry is those who decry war whatever the circumstances. Those like American Senator Paul Rand ‘’War should occur only when America is attacked, when it is threatened or when American interests are attacked or threatened’’ or activist and anti-war protester David Swanson who said on Syria ‘’Risking a major war, no matter how slim you think the chance is, ought to be done only for some incredibly important reason. The White House doesn't have one.’’

Doesn’t have one??! I simply cannot believe they actually mean this. Are they saying that if we reached 6 million deaths like in WWII, they would still disagree that action was needed because America is not being threatened or because things might get worse? Surely not but if there is a red line of numbers, or circumstances then what is it?

I despise those people who take the tone of a moralist when children are being murdered. They have no genuine respect for the dead, neither for the civilian victims, nor those who bravely and selflessly fight to save others. I can only assume they have either not thought through the argument fully, or else are attention seeking; jumping on the trendy bandwagon of anti-war protesting to get themselves some notoriety. I bet they do not even wear a remembrance poppy.

Even the Pope is getting in on the act ‘‘violence and war lead only to death’’. This comment is na├»ve at best; war can also lead to the freedom and liberation of those persecuted by dictatorships and evil regimes. I wonder if the survivors of the Jewish concentration camps would agree that going to war with the Nazi’s was an immoral, foolish idea.

No. You must to strive to end the conflict. It is the duty of the strong to protect those who threaten the weak. Of course peaceful negotiation is the preference but news flash: evil people are generally not reasonable. So force is sometimes necessary and even if the violence does escalate, who is to say this outcome would still not be preferable to what would have occurred should we have done nothing? Who is to say an abstinence of action will not encourage even worse atrocities to take place in future? Only time will tell but the point is to try with the best of intentions, to help – this is surely far more forgiveable than doing nothing?

It is the teacher who tries to stop the school gunman. It is the plane passengers who try to bring down the terrorists. Who criticises them now, despite their failed efforts? I doubt you can ever reason with such individuals or groups but perhaps, just perhaps, if they had tried to do so instead of trying to overthrow them with force, there is a small chance they would have prevented further deaths.
But surely no reasonable person could ever hold that against them? I cannot imagine having any grievances with somebody who has tried to help but failed. However, I could very well have cause to complain against those who stood by and did nothing.

It is oh so easy to sit in your Ivory Tower, atop the moral high-ground, hurling names at those who fight beneath you. Just know that you will need more than sticks and stones if the hunters run out of elephants and their cast tusk-hungry eyes towards your own home instead.

Monday, 14 October 2013

First Impressions (music blog)

I am 9 years old. It is my birthday.

I have been given a cassette player along with a single cassette; a collection of classic 70’s and 80’s rock songs. It is the soundtrack to the TV game show ‘Gladiators’.

My father enters into my bedroom as I play my favourite track from my one and only cassette. ‘I have the full album of this downstairs’ he says casually.
‘What do you mean?’ I ask him in a state of confusion, verging on shock.
‘Bat out of Hell by Meatloaf; I have it downstairs'.
‘The full album?’ I ask, not even sure what an ‘album’ really is yet. I have only ever had one cassette.
‘Yes, it’s other songs by Meatloaf, not just this one’ he explains.

I follow him immediately downstairs and fidget impatiently and he takes forever to dig it out from his gargantuan record collection. He places it in my hands and I gaze down in wonder at the greatest drawing I have ever seen.

I am captivated; a man on a motorbike, long blond hair flowing behind him in the wind (and muscles bigger than even the gladiators themselves) bursts out of a gravestone. My adolescent senses overloaded, I stare entranced at the hero, my new hero, escaping the clutches of a giant bat from under a blood red sky.
‘Can we put it on?’ I venture nervously to my father.

I listen to it religiously. The adrenaline fuelled lyrics, the crashing symbols, the roaring guitars, the sweeping piano melodies. They penetrate my innocent ears drums, permeate my brain and saturate the blank canvas that is my musical taste. It is my first real venture into the world of music and it is one that will shape the very person that I become. Whilst my friends listen in their groups to the latest chart music down at the park, I listen to Bat out of Hell in my room, 25 years late. I pour over the lyrics printed on the album sleeve, trying to make sense of this strange new language.

I am 9 and a half years old.

It is my first day of the new term. We have a new English teacher; Mr Anderson. He asks us who our favourite singers or bands are. It is the start of an elaborate and ingenious ruse (at least to me) to get us to appreciate song lyrics, then by virtue creative writing… and inevitably, of course, English literature. I utterly stun him by announcing that my favourite lyricist is Jim Steinman.
‘Give that boy a flying coconut!’ he exclaims.

Mr Anderson is also our music teacher. He holds me back after the lesson and asks me to expand on my earlier comment. I tell him simply that it is true, Bat out of Hell is my favourite album and that ‘Paradise By The Dashboard Light’ is currently my favourite song (I neglect to mention it’s my only album and that Steinman is probably the only songwriter I know).

Mr Anderson asserts that out of the 520 children in my school, he is absolutely positive that I am the only one who knows who Jim Steinman is. He also tells me that Jim Steinman is one of the greatest song writers of all time and that I am incredibly ‘mature’ for listening to such music.

And there it is… the reward.

This small positive reinforcement by one old man, is all that is needed to lock away my canvas forever.
Paint still wet, isolated but proud, it stands in its sealed display case impenetrable to the other children who will try to paint over it, to the other musical genres that will try to cover it in their graffiti.

Accessible to me and me alone, I will of course add to it, build up its layers, change its brush strokes. From time to time I will introduce new tones and remove many when the passing fad is over. But it’s base colour, that gorgeous blood red and blood orange base colour, will never be eroded. My musical tabula rasa is no more.

Of such small quirks of fate we are all made. Initial exposures and first impressions I believe can count for so much. The first cut is indeed the deepest, to quote another classic.

I am 9 and a half years old and I am changed forever.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

In Defence of England

In a recent travellers vote I participated in, I found I was not allowed to vote for England as 'Best European Country'? Reason; it couldn't be classed a 'travelling'.

So allow me to state my case here instead.

England has some of the most fantastic cities, towns and countryside in all of Europe. We have such a relatively small country, most of which can be reached in a long weekend and yet us English all too often turn up our noses and turn our backs to it, in search of better lands.

Let me give you a few examples; London! The Cotswolds! The Lakes! The Peaks! Cornwall! Northumberland!

Coastlines, castles, cream teas, countryside, pubs, history that cannot be rivalled in any other European country. Just read Shakespeare's Richard II Royal Throne of Kings speech if you don’t believe me!

Not to mention the fact we also leave most other countries in our wake when it comes to infrastructure, transport, tourist info and healthcare, all of which are largely overlooked but can be so important when booking a holiday.

Yes, for some reason we very often think the grass is greener overseas - but let me tell you - I've been to Devon and it's not!

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Guest Blog... Charles Darwin.

Not only a great scientist but also a great humanitarian.

''I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave-country.

To this day, if I hear a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my feelings, when passing a house near Pernambuco, I heard the most pitiable moans, and could not but suspect that some poor slave was being tortured, yet knew that I was as powerless as a child even to remonstrate. I suspected that these moans were from a tortured slave, for I was told that this was the case in another instance.

Near Rio de Janeiro I lived opposite to an old lady, who kept screws to crush the fingers of her female slaves. I have stayed in a house where a young household mulatto, daily and hourly, was reviled, beaten, and persecuted enough to break the spirit of the lowest animal. I have seen a little boy, six or seven years old, struck thrice with a horse-whip (before I could interfere) on his naked head, for having handed me a glass of water not quite clean; I saw his father tremble at a mere glance from his master's eye.

... And these deeds are done and palliated by men, who profess to love their neighbours as themselves, who believe in God, and pray that his Will be done on earth! It makes one's blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty... ''

Charles Darwin 1839

Monday, 19 August 2013

Top 10 Tips - also available here - with Pictures!!

Top 10 Tips For Photography Abroad

1.       Respect Your Environment
Most importantly of all, look after your surroundings. Do not destroy delicate plant life, endanger or frighten an animal just to get a good shot. If you truly value the beauty of your subject, please take the time and care to protect it.

2.       The Earl Bird Catches The Worm
And the early photographer catches the early bird, catching the worm. Be prepared to put yourself out a little if you want to get that stunning shot. Really attention-grabbing or thought-provoking shots rarely fall onto your lap; you have to go and look for them.

3.       Dusk ‘Till Dawn.
Getting up early leads me nicely onto my next tip. There is a reason why photographers get up before sunrise and stay out after sunset; the light is soft and beautiful here. Unfortunately, there is nothing pretty about the bleached-out skies of the midday sun.

4.       Failing To Plan, Is Planning To Fail
Think about what equipment you will need to get a good shot that day. Simple things such as a fully charged battery, a waterproof cover or a tripod can be essential. I once forgot my underwater camera on an excursion to swim with Galapagos Penguins and will always regret it.

5.       The Eyes Have It
If you are taking photographs of wildlife, particularly head-shots, it is vital to get the eyes of the animal in focus. The eyes convey so much of the life and soul of an animal so when composing your shot, be sure to keep this in mind.

6.       Patience Is The Watchword
Photography can often be boring. There, I said it! Hours sitting alone, waiting for the perfect shot are not much fun, especially when nothing is happening. However, don’t give up - you will get many more hours of pleasure from a framed photo on your wall, than you lost waiting to take it.
7.       Practice Makes Perfect

Whether it’s a DSLR, a ‘point and shoot’ or even the latest smart phone, it’s important you get to grips with your camera’s settings before you heading abroad. Don’t miss that once in a lifetime opportunity simply because you couldn’t turn the flash on in time.

8.       People Power
Taking shots of the locals is often one of the most pleasurable aspects of photography abroad. Ask permission beforehand or gesture with your camera if you don’t speak the language. Don’t be afraid; I usually that find people are more than happy to do this and the worst they can say is no.

9.       Constructing The Perfect Photo
Architecture abroad can be fascinating, with no two countries exactly the same. Try getting up high or shooting from low down for more interesting vantage points and compositions. Look out for striking lines and angles or get in really close for that often missed detail.

10.   And Finally…
Don’t live your life through a lens the entire time you are on holiday. The scenes you see through a viewfinder do not compare to taking in the real thing with your own eyes. Use your photographs to remind you of the magic and beauty you witnessed but make sure you do witness it!

Sunday, 11 August 2013


I was recently having dinner with my in-laws, when the conversation drifted towards holidaying in Oceania. I have been lucky enough to have sampled all 5 of Australia’s states but have never been to New Zealand. My mother and father-in-law have been to NZ but not to Australia and my brother-in-law has travelled extensively in both.

During dinner my in-laws raved about NZ, 'one of the most amazing places' they had ever been. My brother-in-law stated he had nothing bad to say about Australia, apart from it being ‘too big’(!) but that it just did not compare with NZ. Perhaps jealous I haven’t yet experienced the country for myself, perhaps annoyed that I have sometimes observed elsewhere a snobbishness towards Australia (particularly when compared to NZ), I suddenly found myself asserting that ‘I would be astonished if NZ was better than Australia'.

This comment has since rankled with me, not only because it was a poor show of passive aggressiveness on my part - but also because I now realise it was completely absurd. So indulge me, if you will, while I go through the cathartic experience of describing just how truly ludicrous it is to believe one country can be superior to another.

Okay, let us try to do this scientifically. To begin with, there needs to be some set criteria. Let’s think about some of the things that people enjoy when travelling abroad: climate, scenery, wildlife, food, terrain, accommodation, cities, the locals, history, entertainment or adventure. Of course this is just a sample, there are hundreds if not thousands more and each will have sub-categories. Take scenery just for example - you could have savannahs, forests, rain-forests, cloud-forests, deserts, the tundra, beaches, mountains volcanoes, hillsides, rivers, oceans, lagoons, waterfalls reefs, fjords - the list goes on and on. And what is attractive to one traveller, is not necessarily attractive to another. Some people think volcanoes are ugly, some people don't like clubbing, some people hate the cold.

Somehow then, the world’s entire population needs to come to a consensus about which features of a country (and their thousands of subcategories) make them attractive to visit. Impossible, right? There’s no way we can get everyone to agree on every single category. Fear not, perhaps we can appoint a panel of 100 experts from around the globe to help us decide. A tough job but like a jury deliberating over a most important verdict, we won’t let them go home until they have come to a unanimous decision. Sorted.

Now that we have an agreement, we need to 'weight' each of these features. For example, we could stipulate that if a country has a forest it gains one point, if it has a desert it gains 3 points etc. Then we simply tally up the points for every country based on which features it has. We can then decide which county is indeed the best. Simple.

However, if one person feels a mountain should score 6 points, another person is sure to disagree and score it only 1. Back to the panel to decide then. There’s only 100 of them remember – surely they can come to a fairly swift decision.‘’But wait’’ cries the foreman, ‘’Don’t we also need to score each ‘individual’ feature, rather than a average?’’.

Silly me, of course they do. You can’t give Mount Rushmore the same score as Mount Snowdon for goodness sake! Or can you? Hmmm... Oh well, rather them than us.

Don’t worry, we’re nearly there.

We now have at least 25 billion individual features, each with an unique score that our panel of experts has kindly provided for us. Their work is done, they can go home now and feed their fictional fish. All we need to do now to verify all their hard labour, is save enough money and take enough annual leave to ensure we can visit every last feature of a particular country has to offer, followed by every single feature of another country.

Then I can climb the tallest ‘+3’ mountain I can find and shout with certitude ‘’Yes, I can confirm, Australia is better than New Zealand’’

There’s just one, teeny, tiny, final problem to resolve; the thorny issue of ‘experience’.

You see, there is another variable at work here; ‘luck’. Simple things such as a broken down coach or a delayed flight, a minor accident or even the weather, can all heavily influence our enjoyment or opinion of a particular place. I travelled to Bruges for a short break a few years ago and it rained constantly for 3 days. I didn’t really enjoy it at all. Yet I have no doubt thousands, if not millions, of other tourists think it is wonderful.

And then, I remember Noosa Heads in Queensland, Australia,

On this particular day, we had miscalculated the distance from the coach-stop into town and so walking uphill for what seemed like days, sun blazing overhead and carrying the heaviest backpack I had ever travelled with, we eventually happened upon a beautiful little hotel. Desperate to go no further, we were crushed to find that it was just too expensive for us to stay (we were on a very strict budget). Fortunately for us, it was out of season and taking pity on us, the owner gave us an incredible 70% discount to allow us to stay the night. Dropping our bags to the floor, we fell onto a king-sized bed and into laughter at the bizarreness of how quickly our situation had changed from oppression to opulence.

We spent the next half hour in an enormous, stone-tiled wet-room, soaking our sore and weary bones. Refreshed, revitalised and re-energised, we strolled down into town, hand-in-hand and never more in-love, basking in the glow of the warm evening sun and a soothing coastal breeze. We sat down in a pretty little sea-front restaurant, where we enjoyed one the most lovely evenings we have ever had together. And believe me, we had earned it.

This is just one of a number of immeasurably pleasurable memories I have from Australia and no expert in the world can assign a score to it, to tell me otherwise. I see now what I fool I was in suggesting it was better than NZ. I was completely missing the point that they both have incredible amounts to offer and moreover, they offer different things to different people. How presumptuous to imply that my experience should be the same as that of anyone else.

So yes, I will be astounded if I enjoy New Zealand more than Australia and I really hope I do... but it's clear to me now that even if this is the case, it will in no way, shape or form, mean that it is 'better'.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Nazca Boobies

Nazca Boobies by
Nazca Boobies, a photo by on Flickr.

Probably my favourite photo from my trip to Galapagos. Not technically the best but I think the birds are absolutely oozing character here.

Eat your heart out snooty fox!

Luna de Miele

Two years ago my wife and I travelled to the Galapagos Islands for our honeymoon. Not your typical destination to bask in the ’luna de miele’ you may well be thinking but Lucy has a PhD in animal behaviour and adores wildlife. She has wanted to visit the islands since she was a little girl and as a photographer and nature lover myself, I was more than willing to submit to this request.

I have been lucky enough to travel to many exotic destinations across the globe but I cannot ever remember a more palpable sense of anticipation on board a plane, than there was that morning as we made our descent towards that giant sea-horse archipelago of the Pacific. My wife and I had both long read that this was a place to savour and before we had even touched down, we had experienced our first taste.

Out of our window in the middle-distance, giant frigate birds flew in parallel to us, flanking the plane like fighter aircraft, escorting us down to land. There is definitely something of the pterodactyl about these amazing birds and this only served to enhance the feeling that I was about to set foot in ‘the land that time forgot’. Leaping over lava lizards and circumventing cacti, we scampered across the runway to the surf-shack structure that is Baltra Airport. Finally, we had arrived.

Of course, Galapagos is famous for the tameness of its animals; as a photographer it is simply Heaven. For starters, there is a non-stop abundance of unique and rare creatures to be found in this tiny sanctuary of our planet. But not only this, much more than this, they also advertise themselves completely openly for you to look upon their beauty. Devoid of natural predators for so long, the animals here live without a fear of man like nowhere else on Earth. Sleeping, eating, occasionally affording you the pleasure of their curiosity, they go about their daily lives undaunted. It was truly wonderful to feel so insignificant and unthreatening to such defenceless creatures.

The local people here too, it seems, are as relaxed and approachable as the animals themselves. Our guide and boat crew in particular were polite, friendly, helpful and calm. In fact, for islands born of fire, it is surprisingly hard to imagine life getting heated here at all. Everything seems peaceful and tranquil; from the sunbathing marine iguanas, strewn like confetti on the rocky shores of San Cristobal, to the park-bench sleeping sea-lions I found in the town of Peurto Ayora.

On each and every excursion, I was able to get up close and personal to the wildlife with my camera, in a way I could only dream of elsewhere. Whether snorkelling with sea turtles, watching waved albatrosses enjoying their first dance, or trekking with giant-tortoises, there was something breath-taking to photograph at every turn. Even between excursions the wildlife was never too far away, with dancing dolphins ushering us along in the waters below and an endless bridal trains of birds flying behind us overhead.

It may be surprising to learn then, after reading of all this wonder, that the islands were originally described as ‘worthless’ and as ‘hell on earth’ by their early visitors. Even Charles Darwin compared them to the ‘Infernal regions’ but to be brutally honest, I can understand why. If you are expecting an equatorial paradise; miles of unspoilt gleaming white beaches, waterfalls, tropical lagoons or unbroken sunshine, then think again. A mass of black volcanic earth, peppered with scrubland below an overcast sky, is a more accurate description of these somewhat drab and desolate isles.

However, long ago pirates would often use these islands for refuge; and if you look more closely you will quickly uncover their hidden treasures. The Giant Tortoise, The Galapagos Sea Lion, three iguana species, lava lizards and snakes are all found here and only here alone. As for unique birds; along with the albatrosses there are herons, hawks, doves, penguins, gulls, mockingbirds, finches and of course, the indomitable Flightless Cormorant. Yes, beaches, waterfalls and sunshine can be found in any corner of the world but make no mistake - there is nowhere quite like Galapagos!

And so as we taxied the runway, accompanied by the frigates for one last time, my thoughts vacillated between waves of sorrow and delight. I felt sad to be leaving but extremely fortunate to have visited these havens of volcanic sand, which get under your feet and under your skin. The honeymoon was over but I knew I had been wedded to these enchanted islands forever.

I have already made them my vow; I will return.