Well-spotted – Cheetah family posing at Phinda

Cheetah with cub (Acinonyx jubatus), Phinda private game reserve, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa, June 2012
Cheetah with cub on a termite mound – a bucket list photo opp

We’re stuck in the office on a typical British summer’s day (cloudy with a chance of rain showers) wrestling with photo processing, marketing, boring admin and magazine deadlines. Each of us is waiting for the other to go downstairs and brew a mug of coffee or make that much-needed call to the boiler-repair guy. Who was it said wildlife photography’s a glamorous, well-paid job? At moments like these (and there are many) the mind easily drifts off to past photo opportunities and adventures. Like the time we finally got the chance to photograph that African savannah classic; a cheetah mum with cubs on the top of a termite mound…

Okay so perhaps it’s not cool to want ‘me-too’ pictures of a subject photographed tons of times before. But we’re not too proud to admit that sometimes we do. We can’t help it. Especially when there’s the chance to spend a morning photographing a fantastic feline, and her playful offspring, in good light in a great location – just as we dreamed about doing when we first started out in this game and saw great shots of cheetah by wildlife photographers we aspired to emulate.

The thing is that until that day we’d never had much luck with cheetah cubs. From the Kalahari to Kruger, the Karoo to the Kunene, we’d been fortunate to watch and photograph wild cheetah in some of southern Africa’s most spectacular locations, yet somehow cute little cubs just eluded us. So when our guide told us he was confident of finding us a mother with three quite small youngsters, we snapped to attention.

Steve Toon photographing cheetah, Phinda game reserve
Steve photographing one of Phinda’s cheetah with top guides Bernard and Daryl

We were staying at Phinda, the upmarket operator &Beyond’s private game reserve in KwaZulu-Natal. It was three years ago now, at the start of our Project African Rhino photo-journalism campaign. We were there to find out about the important rhino conservation work being carried out on the reserve (today &Beyond is part of a bold initiative to relocate around 100 white rhinos from South Africa, where they’re being hit really hard by poaching, to Botswana, a country with low density rhino populations and a good anti-poaching record).

The opportunity is too good to miss. We’d worked with specialist guide Daryl Dell and tracker Bernard Mnguni before, tracking leopards that were part of a long term research project on the reserve, and we knew teaming up with them again would be both fun and rewarding. Our trigger fingers were itching.

Cheetah, Acinonyx jubatus, killing young impala, Aepyceros melampus, Phinda private game reserve, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa
The cheetah came crashing out of the bush and nailed the young impala right in front of us

Phinda’s always been a great place to see cheetah. On our last visit we’d had a cheetah explode from the trees by our vehicle and hunt down a young impala. Lots of research is carried out on the reserve’s cheetah, making them some of the most intensively monitored cheetah in South Africa. While we were there conservationists were collecting skin samples for DNA testing to gain a clearer picture of the familial relationships between the individual cheetah.

We headed out for the open terrain of marshland in the north of the reserve, where the cubs had been spotted the previous evening. Our search began by patrolling the track along the edge of the floodplain, Bernard on the tracker’s chair up front, scoured the sand for fresh spoor (pawprints).

It was Daryl who spotted her first – the tell-tale, compact, square head of a female cheetah poking out from a clump of grass. You needed a trained eye to pick her out, but there she was keeping on the look out for trouble, and seeming more than a little nervous. We turned off road and nosed the vehicle cautiously to within 20 metres or so. We could see right away why she was so wary: sprawled in the long grass by her side were three cubs, and by her feet, the remains of a fresh kill.

Cheetah female (Acinonyx jubatus), Phinda private game reserve, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa, June 2012
Luck, and typical cheetah behaviour, was on our side as she climbed on the nearest mound

It was tempting to start photographing at that point, but the three were partially obscured by long grass and there was little chance of framing clean compositions. The background was cluttered and we were looking down too much. Daryl, who knows the place like the back of his hand, motioned to a low termite mound nearby and whispered to us that she just might go up there to check everything was safe before settling down for the day.  Cheetah often use vantage points like this to scan the terrain, but could we be that lucky? Many of the classic shots of cheetah on termite mounds you see are taken in East Africa and even there you need to be in just the right place at the right time. Picture perfect encounters are not as common as you might think. Could Daryl be right? Did we have a chance at photographing this classic cheetah behaviour we so wanted? And with cubs to ice the cake too?

The youngsters seemed more interested in snoozing than moving position, but we could see their mother was restless. After a few minutes we watched her get to her feet. She stood and looked around for what seemed like an age. Then she walked. She walked straight. Straight to the termite mound. Daryl grinned. I don’t think he could quite believe it either. In no time at all she was atop the mound, posing perfectly, lean and long-legged, fur glowing golden in the warm light of the newly risen sun.

Cheetah with cub (Acinonyx jubatus), Phinda private game reserve, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa, June 2012
We now had our own classic encounter with cubs for a bonus

Over the next hour we were treated to the early morning rituals of a young cheetah family. All four were draped over the mound, like a scatter of fur rugs. The adult and two of the youngsters seemed content to rest in the warm sunshine, but one cub had other ideas.

Cheetah cub (Acinonyx jubatus) tormenting mother, Phinda private game reserve, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa, June 2012
One playful cub tries to get the better of mum who just wants a rest
Cheetah cub (Acinonyx jubatus) tormenting mother, Phinda private game reserve, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa, June 2012
If you can’t beat ’em…mum joins in the game with her cub

He played with his tail, then mum’s tail; then started pouncing on her head. She was tolerant at first but soon had enough. She quickly pinned him down and gave him a cat’s lick of a wash with her rasping tongue to calm him down. Freed from her grip, he turned his attention to the other two cubs, but they weren’t interested in playing, and eventually he too was comatose. Our fantastic photo session was at an end. To spend so much time in their world had been truly special – but now we had to rejoin our own.

Simon Naylor, reserve manager of &Beyond Phinda private reserve, at white rhino bomas, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, February 2013
Reserve manager Simon Naylor tells us why Phinda’s a top spot for cheetah

Back at the lodge reserve manager Simon Naylor told us that at that time Phinda’s cheetah had produced more than 100 litters and more than 250 cubs since the first 15 animals were reintroduced from Namibia in 1992-94. ‘It’s been one of the most successful cheetah reintroduction programmes in South Africa. Phinda was the first private reserve in KZN to reintroduce cheetah successfully,’ he told us. ‘It’s one of the best, if not the best place in South Africa to view wild cheetah,’ he added.

Right now we’d give anything to be back there… Now where’s that boiler repair man’s number?

Reinvented EF100-400mm lens wins us over

White rhino bull (Ceratotherium simum), backlit with dust,  Mkhuze game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, May 2015
The 100-400mm MkII exhibited good contrast and low flare

OK, so this is where we eat our words. After years of avoiding big zoom lenses in favour of primes, we’ve finally gone to the dark side. Canon’s latest version of its 100-400mm L series zoom has won us over – and how.

It was with considerable reservations that we decided to invest our hard earned dosh in the Canon EF 100-400L f4.5-5.6 L IS MkII zoom lens. Actually, it’s with considerable reservations that we invest our dosh in anything that costs four figures, being naturally ‘careful’ with our limited resources (he means stingy – Ann). We’d played with the 100-400mm MkI a few times, and been distinctly underwhelmed. Apologies to any proud owners out there who love the old lens, but how do you live with that push-pull zoom? Never the sharpest lens in the block, it just didn’t cut it for us, and we stuck with our trusty 500mm and 300mm primes, reserving zooms for the sub-200mm range.

African elephant bull (Loxodonta africana), Kruger National Park, South Africa, October 2014
Kruger elephant – the zoom is handy for when big game approaches your vehicle

But the constant headache of dealing with restrictive carry-on allowances on aircraft, the frequent frustrations of trying to shoot with an unwieldy 500mm on safari vehicles that simply weren’t designed for big lens photography, and the positive reviews for MKII of the 100-400mm after six months on sale, persuaded us to give it a shot. Our recent trip to South Africa, where we were shooting from vehicles, on foot, and in hides, proved a perfect testing ground, and our new baby passed with flying colours.

This isn’t a fully fledged review, there are plenty of those online already, complete with full lens specs, and detailed tests of the lens’s optical qualities. This is a brief subjective assessment, based on a month of shooting in the African bush. How a lens performs in the lab is, of course, important, but for us it’s how it works in the field that matters. Can we get commercially useable shots, consistently, under tough real world conditions? The answer to that is a resounding yes.

Young lion (Panthera leo), Kruger National Park, South Africa , May 2015
Young lion, Kruger: wielding a large lens in a vehicle can be awkward, so the 100-400mm’s compact form is a blessing

First impressions of the lens were positive. Slightly larger and heavier than the original 100-400mm, the new lens is nonetheless fairly compact – not much bigger than Canon’s 70-200mm F2.8 when not extended – and feels very well engineered. You’re certainly not likely to forget you’re carrying a lens that weighs more than 1.5kg, but it’s nonetheless eminently usable as a walk-around lens for hand-held shots, for example when stalking animals, especially given its excellent image stabilising system. Its compact form was also a pleasure to use when in a confined space, in our case a closed vehicle or a hide. So much easier to manoeuvre than the 500mm.

The rotary zoom is much more to our liking than the old push-pull, and has a zoom touch adjustment ring that allows you to easily adjust the zoom ‘tightness’. Set to the lowest friction level (‘Smooth’), it’s easy to zoom in and out with little effort. At the ‘Tight’ setting, the zoom isn’t quite locked, but there’s little chance of accidentally altering focal length. This is important, for example, when you want to keep the lens to its maximum focal length, such as when we were photographing small birds at the bird bath hides at Zimanga private game reserve.  (We were visiting Zimanga in preparation for our 2016 photo safaris  – visit www.toonphoto.com/safari if you’re interested in signing up.)

Shooting waxbills, twinspots and the like at a range of about five metres, we needed every bit of the lens’s 400mm maximum extension most of the time – until a big old warthog boar showed up for a brief drink, at which point the advantage of using a zoom was very obvious!

Warthog (Phacochoerus aethiopicus), at water, Mkhuze game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, May 2015
Warthog at Zimanga bird bath hide: the flexibility of a zoom is great when subjects change unexpectedly

Point the lens downward, with the friction ring set to ‘Smooth’, and the lens does slowly extend itself under gravity, but it only takes a slight adjustment of the ring to stop this. So even if the zoom action slackens after a year or two of hard use, it should be easy to compensate by tightening the friction ring a little more.

The lens is supplied with a twist-on, locking hood. It’s nice and compact when reversed for storage, but we found it a bit fiddly to attach in a hurry. The hood includes a small sliding window, that allows you access to any rotating filter that you might have attached, such as a circular polarising filter. This is a great idea in principle, but in practice we found the slide was a bit loose, meaning the window occasionally opened itself, creating a potential problem of flare. As we almost never use filters on our longer lenses, I suspect we’ll end up supergluing the window closed.

By contrast, the various switches on the body of the lens are anything but loose, requiring a reasonable amount of pressure to alter. This is a very good thing, as it greatly reduces the chance of accidentally switching off stabiliser mode. When we’re on safari we’ll often keep our camera/lens rigs on the back seat of our vehicle as we drive around, and with our elderly 500mm lens in particular we’ve found the stabiliser switch often gets turned off accidentally as we jolt along corrugated roads. In the heat of an exciting encounter it’s easy to not notice that you’re shooting without stabilisation.

Yellowbilled stork (Mycteria ibis), Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, May 2015
Yellowbilled stork catching fish at Zimanga lagoon hide: with mobile subjects at close range, the flexibility of the zoom really came into its own

You can’t remove the tripod collar, but you can unscrew the tripod foot without the need of a tool. We preferred to keep the tripod foot attached, even when shooting on beanbags, as we often do when in a vehicle. Resting the lens on the tripod foot reduces the chance of unintentionally altering the zoom or focus rings when you pan on a bean bag. The tripod ring is well engineered and easy to rotate when using a tripod.

One thing that took a bit of getting used to was the orientation of the manual focus ring and the zoom ring – they’re the opposite way round to those on our 70-200mm f2.8, with the manual focus ring near the camera body, and the zoom ring in front. Not a big issue, we just had to retrain ourselves.

The IS system on the lens claims a 4 stop effectiveness. The slowest handhold speed we tried was 1/40 sec at 100mm, and the image was pin sharp. This was using IS mode I, which damps movement in all planes and is our default setting. Mode II reduces shake during panning, while Mode III corrects vibration only during exposure (and only in one direction if you are panning). We need to experiment more with these modes, and at slower shutter speeds, but initial impressions were certainly favourable. IS is very quiet, to the point that we sometimes had to double check that it was switched on.

Pink-throated twinspot (Hypargos margaritatus), male (left) and female, Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, May 2015
Pink-throated twinspots at Zimanga birdbath hide: 100-400mm with 1.4x extender attached, and the images were remarkably sharp

Focus is fast, accurate and quiet, and while the lens is never going to snap onto a subject as quickly as, say, a 300mm f2.8, it is more than proficient for the vast majority of wildlife situations, including moving subjects in decent light. There’s a focus limiter switch with two choices, full or 3 metres to infinity. We used the 3 metre setting when shooting from the Zimanga bird bath hides, where subjects were always more than 3 metres away, and the full setting in Zimanga’s new lagoon hide, where waterbirds often approach much closer. In truth, focus acquisition isn’t noticeably slower on the full setting, so I doubt we’ll often use the limited range. Close focus on the lens is an impressive 0.98 metres, which is great for us, as we often use a long lens for close-up shots of small subjects such as rodents, lizards, large insects, flowers and fungi, where we specifically want shallow depth of field and narrow field of view.

Of course, all of this counts for nought if the images produced by the lens aren’t sharp enough. And in this respect the lens considerably exceeded our expectations. It’s fair to say that shooting from the hides, with the lens firmly held on a Manfrotto tripod with gimbal head, the sharpness of the images it produced were indistinguishable from those produced by our 500mm used on the same subjects at the same time. Images were not only pin sharp, but had excellent colour and contrast. Image sharpness is maintained throughout the zoom range, and whether stopped down or opened wide. Bench tests may tell you that certain apertures will deliver optimum sharpness, but for practical purposes (in our case shooting mainly for editorial use, where images may be cropped and printed as double page spreads in magazines) this really isn’t an issue. This is great news for us, as we’re often shooting at the ends of the day, in very low light, when maximum aperture is essential to get a realistic shutter speed.

Banded mongoose (Mungos mungo) drinking, Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, May 2015
Banded mongoose at Zimanga bird bath hide: with the 500mm we could only fit four animals into the picture.

We expected image quality to be very good, having read a few reviews, but what really surprised us was when we stuck a 1.4x extender on – just out of curiosity, and with no expectation of getting a satisfactory image. We never use extenders on zoom lenses. Correction, we never used extenders on zooms. In good light, and with a stable platform, the lens plus extender delivered very sharp images, certainly good enough for print. On our 1DX and 5DIII bodies autofocus was maintained, though only the central AF point works. Of course, with the 1.4x extender attached, the maximum aperture becomes a rather slow f8 at the 400mm end, which can be problematic in low light. When we need reach we’ll still be using our 500mm as our first choice over the 100-400mm plus 1.4x pairing, but where we can’t use the 500mm, for example if travelling with restricted baggage, we’ll be happy to use the zoom with extender if there’s reasonable light.

The lens produces a little vignetting, particularly at the 400mm end, but this is easily rectified in Lightroom. There’s minimal chromatic aberration in most circumstances, and again where it does appear it’s easily dealt with in post processing.

Overall, we’re definitely in love with the 100-400mm version II, and it will be seeing a lot of action. It’s perfect for safaris, with a zoom range that covers many eventualities, and a compact form that makes it suitable on vehicles, boats and in hides, and easy to pack in carry-on baggage. If, like us, you’re keen on photographing birds, then you’ll still want a longer lens such as the 500mm or 600mm, but if your budget or baggage allowance won’t stretch that far, then a 1.4 extender is certainly a viable alternative. Pack a short zoom (say a 24-105mm) alongside the 100-400mm and a 1.4x extender, and you’ve a highly portable and very practical pared-down kit for travelling with your camera.