by Mo Farrell
LOOKING INTO the images of award-winning wildlife photographer, Michael Huggan from Four Marks, can illicit an unexpected emotional response, such is his ability to convey his passion and understanding for his subject.
I say looking 'into', because that is what his extraordinary photographs demand.
A tour of his website confirms this chartered mechanical engineer's enviable talent for encapsulating the very essence of his subjects, whether it's the stateliness of a Scottish red stag, the very soul of a lion in Kenya's Masai Mara, or the free-spirited horses of the Camargue.
A seasoned traveller to Africa, Michael has recently released his 2009 calendar, a visual feast of Kenya's abundant wildlife, including lions, cheetahs, buffalo, hippopotami, giraffe, elephants, leopards and impala.
"This was the first time I had ever experienced the Masai Mara with green grass, not brown! This was a result of the tremendous rain and thunderstorms that frequently deluged the plains, and our tent," he says.
"Fortunately for us, the heavy rains came at night. However, during the day the build up of storm clouds dispersed with sunshine bathed the plains and animals in a truly spectacular light. January’s image of the Hippo and November’s image of the tree and elephants shows the quality of the outstanding light."
"Africa has a special place in my heart and I hope some of the passion I share for this magnificent country is conveyed through the images in this year's calendar. Each month tells a story, and I trust you will enjoy the journey throughout the year ahead."
He spent February in the Masai Mara, May in Venice and part of September in the Camargue and Provence taking photos - although he runs an engineering consultancy alongside the photography, it's easy to spot where his heart lies.
It all began when he was a youngster.
"I've always been interested in photography. I remember I went to Greece to a world scout jamboree in about 1963 and I took a Brownie 127 with me. It was a wonderful camera and I came back with marvellous pictures. I fell in love with photography then, but went on to do a five-year engineering apprenticeship at the Firestone Tyre and Rubber Company in the Great West Road, but I had caught the bug and was printing photos in the bathroom where we lived in Brentford."
Since those early days, Michael has been honing his skills in the only way he knows how - trial and error, although he concedes that a number of factors have to come together if a photographer is to be successful.
In his case, success in the form of an Associate Distinction in nature photography with the Royal Photographic Society in 2003, a gold medal for an equestrian image from the RPS Travel Group and earlier this year, a bronze medal from the society group. Michael is also a member of the Photographic Society of America, has held exhibitions in London and has had his photographs published in magazines and journals.
A brief masterclass from Michael makes the process sound straightforward, the pitfalls obvious and easy to avoid:
"Be there, be ready and have the right bit," he says with admirable simplicity.
"Opportunity, time, an eye..... I'm not sure, but I know what works for me. I just sit and watch and wait, have patience and luck."
He elaborates a little more:
"You need to know what you're doing, know your equipment and have a picture in mind of what you are trying to achieve, otherwise you shoot everything and get nothing."
"It's a split second thing and there's an element of luck, but if you're ready and you've got your wits about you, nine out of ten times you'll get it."
Lighting is crucial too - early sunrise, early sunset are the best.
"If the skies are grey, the picture will almost look dead," he says.
It doesn't sound like rocket science, so why can't everyone take award-winning photos?
It's the creativity, the ability to make a connection with the subject, the interpretation of a scene, and the acceptance that every shot is a challenge, that make the difference. That and the "best lenses you can buy." In Michael's case, only Nikon will do.
Africa, the country he fell in love with almost as soon as his plane touched down, continues to beckon - he returns next year - but when it comes to magical places in the UK, he's as happy on his land in Four Marks as anywhere.
"It's wonderfully peaceful. It's inspirational," he says.
Michael Huggan's 2009 Calendar which measures 42 x29 cm (A3) and costs £10 plus postage and packing (£3 for delivery in the UK), his new book African Wildlife Photography - How to Take That Special Picture (a perfect Christmas gift for budding photographers), and other wonderful gifts and images can be purchased online at http://www.michaelhuggan.com