Behind the Lens with Emma Varley

Primary school teacher, Emma Varley, has always loved and respected nature. In recent years she has honed her photography skills and taken a closer look at beautiful Sussex. Here she talks to Emma Chaplin of Sussex Wildlife:
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I grew up in Stoke-on-Trent, but came to Sussex 25 years ago, meeting my husband on the second day of my new job. We’re lucky enough to live in the South Downs National Park near Chanctonbury Ring. I work in Horsham as a Reception Class teacher.

How did you develop an interest in wildlife photography?

My older cousin gave me my first Kodak Instamatic camera. The Christmas present I remember being most excited about though was a copy of David Attenborough’s Life on Earth. My parents enjoyed walking in the Staffordshire and Derbyshire countryside, which sparked a love and respect for nature. It wasn’t until five years ago that I finally treated myself to a ‘proper’ camera and began to look more closely at beautiful Sussex around me.

What qualities do you need to be a good photographer?
Taking up photography showed me that there is a world of difference between enjoying being in the countryside and truly seeing it. Learning to look closely, appreciating changes in seasons and light and being curious about how wildlife looks through the lens has helped develop my skills. Patience is important, as is a camera that allows control over settings.

What equipment do you use?

I use a Nikon d7200 DSLR camera with a Sigma 105 macro lens for close up work and a Tamron 100-400 telephoto which I picked up second hand. A tripod is useful for low light and landscape work and I always carry a fabric reflector to throw light back onto a subject, which I prefer to flash.

What’s your favourite shot?

A frosty river sunrise near Partridge Green which was taken shortly after having my camera and involved a lot of luck. The excitement I felt watching this magical scene unfold is what keeps me going. It won the Sussex Wildlife Trust Photo Competition that year, which gave me a lot of pleasure.

What are you trying to communicate with your photographs?

Our three children have been lucky to spend time growing up on a farm, surrounded by nature. I love sharing my passion for wildlife with the children at school – we’ve especially enjoyed taking part in The Wildlife Trusts 30 Days Wild each June. Close-up photography appeals because it seems to convey a little of the wonder of being young, seeing tiny treasures for the first time – a slippery earthworm wriggling in your hand or a ladybird tickling your arm. There’s always some surprising new detail to see through a macro lens, though I like to use a shallow depth of field for a dreamier feel.

What do you find most challenging to photograph and why?

Anything that moves too quickly! I’m happy with still subjects such as wildflowers or resting butterflies, but I have challenged myself this year and captured squirrels on Brownsea Island and dragonflies in flight. I was excited to photograph my first Kingfisher at Warnham Nature reserve this year. Well worth the wait.

Where, and when, historically, would you most have liked to be with a camera?

How impressed would my class be with a photo of a T-Rex? As someone who loves photographing insects, the terrifying decline in their numbers makes me wonder how much richer the experience would have been half a century or more ago, and which species our children will still be able to enjoy as adults. It makes the work of the Wildlife Trusts and other ambassadors for nature so important, raising awareness and leading campaigns. It is why I’m so proud to be a member.

Has anything unexpected happened with your photography?

Nothing quite prepared me for the number of kind passers by offering medical assistance when they see me lying on the ground photographing butterflies or fungi – only waving my camera apologetically has prevented a call to the ambulance service.

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