Helen Macdonald, photographed for The Times

When The Times asked me to photography Helen Macdonald, author of the prize-winning H is for Hawk I didn’t quite know what to expect. Not because of Helen (who turned out to absolutely wonderful) but because she was going to be posing with a Goshawk.

To quote Helen in her book, “goshawks resemble sparrowhawks the way leopards resemble housecats. Bigger, bulkier, bloodier, deadlier, scarier and much, much harder to see. Birds of deep woodland, not gardens, they’re the birdwatchers’ dark grail”

Pretty intimidating, huh?

I met Helen after she’d completed a day’s filming at Stonham Barns Owl Sanctuary for a new TV series. Since we wouldn’t have much time with the hawk, I found a few locations that would give me what I wanted and set up a light in advance – an Elinchrom Ranger Quadra with a large softbox. It was a fairly overcast day, and I wanted to use some flash to make Helen stand out on a dark background.

Helen McDonald, photographed by Ian Farrell for The Times

Goshawks, it turns out, are pretty jumpy things. In fact Helen told me they are either “nervous, or in the mood to kill something.” So much so that every time I moved the light stand, Helen had to turn away so he couldn’t see it moving. I was worried the flash itself would spook my new feathered friend, but actually he seemed pretty OK with that.

After a few pictures at the arena, where the sanctuary usually puts on falconry displays, we moved towards a more wooded section, where the goshawk’s behaviour changed noticeably. He was fascinated with the trees, and started looking all around him. Helen told me he was after food – this was obviously the ‘I want to kill something’ part of the goshawk’s personality.

Later I found we were shooting near to an enclosure of red squirrels. That must have been the raptor equivalent of walking past an Indian restaurant on the way home from the pub.


Group shots on Cromer Pier

Group shots can be tricky things to get right. Left to their own devices, folks will always arrange themselves as if they were posing for a school sports photo. In fact, so strong is the desire to stand shoulder-to-shoulder that, after individually positioning every person in a group, I have turned round to find them standing in a straight line again.

Breaking up a line of people by having them sit or stand and turn in different directions is one way of making things more interesting, but I think the real secret to a good group shot is Continue Reading

Personal work

Vive la film!

It’s a good time to be a film photographer. A few weeks ago, Kodak announced they’re bringing Ektachrome back from the grave and are looking into doing the same with Kodachrome. Then we have a brand new black & white ISO 400 film from Bergger, which uses both silver bromide and iodide for extra dynamic range and is available in lots of different formats.

I like film photography, and still keep a handful of film cameras on the go. Continue Reading

Personal work

Jess, with dreadlocks

I walked into the studio a couple of weeks ago to find that my colleague had constructed a kind of cubicle from dark background cloth, which he had used to shoot some video for a musician friend. I was pretty intrigued by it (and the way you sound when stood inside it – no echo at all) and really wanted to shoot some gungy looking portraits using it as an alcove. Continue Reading

Personal work

Lundy Island

One of my favourite places in the world is Lundy island, a 3-mile long lump of granite in the Bristol channel just off the Devon coast. It’s not a place many people have heard of, yet alone visited, but I’ve been fortunate to have been there three times now. Continue Reading


Farming in The Gambia

Spending a week in a small village in rural Gambia still ranks as my my most enjoyable job as a photographer to date. I was commissioned by the Medical Research Council to photograph the activities that happen in and around one of their field stations, which range from nutritional research to healthcare.  Continue Reading