I spent all of last spring (so it seemed) in or around ponds, trying unsuccessfully to photograph frogs and toads underwater for 2020VISION. If I got in (only possible with large ponds), I stirred up clouds of fine mud, but if I lay at the edge and lowered my large underwater camera housing in, the weight of it led me to a slow but inevitable slide headfirst towards the water, only ended when my husband Brian responded to my plaintive cries and dragged me back.
This year, when spring showed its first signs, I knew it was my last chance, so we headed to the pond I’d tried out at the very beginning of the project, a large garden pond in Reigate, where the obliging owners were happy for me to have a go with their toads and frogs, and even brought out a cup of tea for us. But our most amazing experience in amongst the amphibians came at another pond.
We’d discovered it too late last year to catch any activity, at this healthy looking pond on the outskirts of the tiny Surrey village of Coldharbour, but now we turned up just as toads were beginning to gather in large numbers. Every spring, toads make their slow migration back to mate and spawn in the pond where they were born, and are at considerable risk of getting squashed by traffic en route. At Coldharbour, a toad patrol of school kids and other local volunteers, led by National Trust ranger Ruby Cole, gives them a helping hand on their last hop across the road.
Numbers of toads continued to swell on our next couple of visits to Coldharbour, and we watched them plopping about in the water and croaking, as mating got well underway. We stepped into the pond as daintily as we could, clad in bulky drysuits, headed carefully to where the toads where thickest, and stood there for ages to let everything in the water settle. At the height of the activity, hundreds of toads were in the pond, jumping onto our cameras and hands, and one pair let out an indignant squawk alerting me that they were about to be caught between my arm and camera. Some frogs were around too, but kept themselves mostly out of reach.
My only problem now was how to photograph the creatures. I was standing waist deep in the water, and I would have liked to get my head under with my camera to look through the viewfinder of course, but I envisaged myself falling about in my efforts to submerge, kicking up mud and disturbing the toads. So I went for the less intrusive approach, simply holding my camera under the surface to point and shoot. This is a very hit and miss method, not being able to use the viewfinder to focus or compose, and I’d almost given up on it before. But after some practice I’ve found I can manage some successes – by lifting the camera up and checking after every few frames to see how I’m doing, and trying again and again, gradually getting a feel for it. Only a few years ago I was still shooting film, and I couldn’t have done this then. And if I hadn’t been asked to photograph for 2020VISION, I wouldn’t even have thought of trying!