insight - Charlie Hamilton James
Written by Ron Toft
Occupation - Wildlife photographer
As a lad, Charlie Hamilton James was interested in birds, although he didn’t know very much about them at the time.
He remembers drawing a kingfisher for his teacher when he was just six, “utterly hooked, completely obsessed” by the stunning, electric-blue kingfishers he saw along the river near his home in England’s West Country.
That childhood obsession was to stand Charlie in very good stead. From the age of 14, he began making himself known to producers and researchers at the BBC’s world- renowned Natural History Unit.
“I had something to offer them – knowledge about kingfishers. I had something that was actually useful to them rather than just myself. Luckily I had chosen kingfishers. People like to see kingfishers on television, so there was a demand for footage of them.
“The BBC was trying to film kingfishers for a David Attenborough series. They are seen as quite difficult birds to film, so from the age of 16 they began getting me in to do little jobs for them – to help the cameramen and make it all happen.”
Today, 20 years later, Charlie Hamilton James (36) is a highly regarded wildlife cameraman and stills photographer, and not surprisingly, given the thousands of hours he has devoted to his beloved birds over a period of many years, a leading authority on kingfishers.
Charlie has won a string of prestigious awards, including Young Photographer of the Year in 1990 and 1991; best cinematography at the Wildscreen and Living Europe film festivals in 2004 for My Halcyon River (this film was also ‘best in festival’ at Living Europe); the Royal Television Society’s (Regional) best cinematography award in 2005 for The Wild Wood; and the Royal Television Society’s lighting, photography and camera award in 2007 for Wye Voices From The Valley. The latter also resulted in a BAFTA nomination for Charlie in 2008.
Charlie lives with his wife Philippa Forrester – an accomplished and highly experienced television presenter and producer in her own right – and three boys, Fred, Gus, and Arthur, in an old mill worker’s cottage adjacent to the river on which he spent so much of his youth.
The brook, he goes on, is a “perfect marker” of the seasons and the “perfect backdrop” for watching kingfishers. Charlie, who has dubbed the waterway Halycon River, says he will not reveal its true name. “But on a bright dawn in spring, there is nowhere else on Earth I would rather be.”
Photographing wild birds is rarely easy. Getting really good, evocative shots requires a detailed knowledge of the particular species’ habitat and behaviour, endless patience, being in the right place at the right time, and a measure of luck.
“The thing about kingfishers,” Charlie explains, “is that they are creatures of habit. Unlike lots of birds, you know they are always going to sit on the same perch and will always be doing this and doing that. Once you are sort of clued into them, it becomes a lot easier.”
When Charlie first began photographing kingfishers, he used his parents’ garden pond as a film set, leaving a camera in a waterproof container in the water for two or three weeks at a time. “The camera was triggered by anything that broke an infra-red beam. A kingfisher might dive 200 times into the pond over a period of several weeks, but would only break the beam several times during that period.”
Nowadays, Charlie films kingfishers in the wild. “I just let them do their own thing and try to capture what they do it in the best way I can, which is much harder!”
Over the years, Charlie has taken thousands of photos of kingfishers. The casual reader could be forgiven for thinking that Charlie takes stunning shots time after time. But nothing could be further from the truth.
“Most of the pictures in the book were taken after 2004 and took countless hours to secure. Every few weeks I would get one with which I was reasonably happy. Having said that, generally I am not happy about anything I take. I’ve always got an image in my head of the perfect shot. Unless I achieve that perfect shot, which is almost never going to happen, I am not really happy. Interestingly, over time I grow to like a picture more because I forget what image I had in my head when I actually took it.”
Kingfisher: Tales From The Halcyon River includes photos of non-British kingfishers, such as the spectacular giant kingfisher on the Zambezi River and stork-billed kingfisher in Borneo. “Wherever I go, even when I am doing something else, I always find the time to look for and photograph or film kingfishers. We always have a kingfisher somewhere in our films. There are 86 known species of kingfisher and I simply can’t get enough of these beautiful birds.”
The Right Light
Charlie loves cameras and has many of them. His workhorses at present are a pair of Canon EOS 5D Mk 2 models, one of which has been converted to work solely in infra-red light. “The image quality is fantastic and the ‘live view’ makes my world a better place.” His biggest lens is a 500mm telephoto.