• Life in the backyard

    The photographing professor

    At work Gertjan ter Horst studies neurobiology of psychiatric disorders. However, when he gets home, he grabs his camera and stalks the birds and bees in his own backyard. The results are stunning.

    He’s already zoomed in on all kinds of creatures: a yellow butterfly, for example, a greenfinch or a sexton beetle. Whenever the neurobiologist – who is also known as ‘Doctor Love’ for his research on what happens to a person’s brain when they are in love – has some time off, he takes his camera and bike and heads off to the nearest nature reserve. ‘I prefer wetlands and peat areas. They are literally buzzing with life, far more so than a forest. It’s also important to know the area. Just driving somewhere is useless’, he says.

    For most of his photos, though, Ter Horst hasn’t had to leave home. He takes them in his own backyard in Nijverdal, in East Holland. He spreads branches and breadcrumbs on the ground, and then hides in his shed. ‘Insects are just there on the plants and the trees, but to get a bird in the right spot, you have to lure it there.’

    Lure the birds

    It usually takes a couple of hours before they come, normally early in the morning or on a summer evening. Also, wind and light are important. The slightest breeze can influence whether a photo is in focus or not. ‘Especially in a windy country like the Netherlands, that can be very difficult’, the professor laughs.

    Ter Horst has been keen on photography since secondary school. ‘A friend of mine had a darkroom where we would spend hours developing photos.’

    However, then he started studying and his career overshadowed his love of taking photos. ‘Ten years ago I picked it up again. I reckoned that I needed a hobby when I retired’, he laughs.

    To get that exceptional shot isn’t as easy as it might seem, says Ter Horst. ‘I usually take a few hundred photos in an afternoon. Half of them are just too blurry, because the creature won’t stay still. Then there’s the composition and the background. In the best photos the background is even.’

    The local newspaper has already published some of his photos. A Polish water management magazine has also used them. However, his biggest audience has been on Flickr. ‘Some photos have received almost 1,000 hits.’