Carolyn O'Grady goes in search of the perfect wildlife photograph in Devon. The pointed, black and white striped face appeared over the ridge about six metres from where five of us waited in the increasing darkness, cameras at the ready, to take photographs. Within a few seconds three more faces had appeared and five minutes later a family of badgers was darting around near our feet, searching out the peanut-butter sandwiches we had placed round their sett.
Even when the camera clicked and flashed they remained, scrabbling after the sandwiches which are apparently a delicacy among badgers. This was the highlight of two days spent photographing wildlife at Slapton Ley FieldCentre.
The centre couldn't be better placed for wildlife photography. Within spitting distance of the Slapton Ley National Nature Reserve, with its large freshwater lake separated from the sea by a narrow shingle bar, it is also near to Dartmoor and some extraordinary woodlands.
The week-long course, Wildlife Photography, is aimed at beginners, but the four other people on my course all arrived armed to the teeth with lenses, tripods, flash guns and light meters, putting my own inexpensive and unaccessorised Canon and lack of experience to shame.
The previous day the group had photographed plant insects round the freshwater lake and now, led by Adrian Davies, college lecturer on photography and author of several books on the subject, we were off to the beach.
Our main subject for the day was lichens, and immediately I was aware of the limitations of my equipment. With my camera they were an unrewarding subject: uninteresting bits of powdery colour on rocks. But magnified through the extended lenses of super-sophisticated cameras, mounted on special bendy tripods, they became spectacular, coloured patterns or, in one case, a lunar landscape.
It suddenly dawned on me why wildlife photographers spend so much on equipment and why they need the patience of Job to wait for the right conditions. I started to spend more time looking through cameras other than my own.
My camera was, however, up to landscape photography from high up on the cliff-top where we wandered in the afternoon while Adrian pointed out dodder, a plant parasite which grows on bushes such as broom, and colourful, six-spot Burnet moths. I began to realise that photography can not only make one see more but see more clearly.
That evening, some of the group showed slides, including magnificent shots from the Galapagos Islands. But you don't need to travel to the other side of the world to photograph wildlife: a garden will do; a rock on the beach can provide a day's work. Wildlife photographs are everywhere.
Contrary to popular imagination, however, not all wildlife photography is done in the wild. Artifice, we learnt, is not disdained. The next day in the lab we took a photograph of a cricket on an oak branch clamped in front of a green painted background or piece of black velvet (it doesn't go grey like boards painted black). Amazingly, faced with a battery of equipment of the kind which greets film stars at a premi`ere, the tiny subject stayed demurely on its leaf.
For pictures of a shrimp in water Adrian Davies used a plate-glass tank, which was filled with filtered water (to make it less murky), some seaweed, a rock and, of course, the starring shrimp. In front of this he placed a black painted board with a hole in the centre through which the camera lens just fitted. This prevented it showing up as a reflection in the photograph. And, hey presto, you had a photo that looked as though you had dived for it.
Andrew's Wood, a reserve described as one of the "most important wildlife sites in Devon", was our destination on the second day of my stay. In the meadow area of the reserve the abundance of wildlife was overwhelming. We photographed crickets and flowers, including the rare heath lobelia, only found in three places in the country. After a picnic lunch we wandered through the woodland looking for orchids and butterflies.
Apart from the photography tips, a great strength of the course is that through Adrian's knowledge of the area it can introduce participants to places which would be extremely difficult to find.
The next day the group was going to Wistman's Wood on Dartmoor, described as a magical place of oaks twisted into weird shapes, where adders, wrens and beetles are found. I left feeling envious, and resolved to get a better camera.
Wildlife Photography is one of many summer courses and walking holidays held at Slapton Ley Field Centre in Slapton, Kingsbridge, Devon TQ7 2QP. Tel: 01548 580466. It costs Pounds 230 for the week which includes accommodation at the centre and meals. For a booklet on this and other Field Centre courses contact: Field Studies Council Central Services, Preston Montford, Shrewsbury, Shropshire SY4 1HW. Tel: 01743 850674.