Tattooed with bruises from off-roading. Eyes sore from peering into the bush (and through our camera viewfinders). Cold in the mornings, hot in the afternoons. Sun drilling down on just one side of our faces. Grit crunching between our teeth. Creased old khaki duds. Dust everywhere. Why put yourself through it?
The answer is currently staring down at us from a stately raintree in Botswana’s Khwai conservancy on the edge of the Okavango Delta. She’s draped over a thick branch, her head resting heavily on huge paws; her wide-eyed gaze meeting our own. This is our first visit to this conservancy and we’re super-excited to meet our first resident of this special place.
Our little plane only touched down just a couple of hours earlier, yet here we are cautiously tailing a beautiful, thick-set (possibly pregnant?) female leopard we picked up about an hour ago – just moments into our very first afternoon game drive out on the reserve.
This 180,000 hectare wilderness, sandwiched between the world-famous Moremi and Chobe national parks, boasts just a small handful of lodges so tourist traffic is light. We’re guests of Pangolin camp. There are no fences between Khwai and the neighbouring protected areas and wildlife moves seamlessly from one reserve to another. Because the concession is private we also have the added bonus, for us wildlife photographers, of being able to travel off-road to get closer and also achieve much better angles on subjects.
Khwai’s noted for its regular predator sightings, its water channels attract good amounts of game and birdlife, wild dogs pass through, denning there in the winter months and there are buffaloes and elephants aplenty. So you can imagine how keen we were to explore the place on this recce. Despite all we’d read, we didn’t expect to have two hours of prime leopard-time on our very first drive.
When we first clapped eyes on our spotted friend she was resting at the base of a tree. Well-camouflaged in the swaying, sun-bleached grasses, it took a while to pick her out. The light was still harsh and there wasn’t really a good image to be had. But you don’t pass up, or pass by, a sighting like this one. We waited patiently for better light and the chance she might move.
We didn’t have to wait too long. For the next couple of hours we followed closely, but carefully, as she restlessly prowled around, trying out different trees for size. She climbed them effortlessly, bounding up the trunks, selecting the right branch and snoozing for a while, then climbing back down and beginning her evening perambulations.
The light softened, then turned gold. The blue hour came and went and still we kept our eyes and lenses locked on her. When all available natural light was gone, we resorted to using a spotlight – gently and sparingly – marvelling at her grace as she stretched before starting out on her long night of hunting. We stayed with her until the very last moment, then bade her goodnight and watched her disappearing into the blackness.
It was the best of Botswana welcomes.
In the following few days we got lucky with wild dog, spent time with a cheetah that had just killed a reedbuck, held our noses while photographing a hyena clan enjoying dead hippo for their picnic, and found a very handsome male lion lurking in the long grass. We had sniffs of other leopards too, but in the end the trails went cold.
We also spent time trying out the conservancy’s famous low level elephant hide where massive adult bulls regularly come to drink and pass almost too close for comfort; kicking sand in your face (and lens!) It’s an awe-inspiring experience which should be enhanced even further when a second low-level hide is opened elsewhere on the conservancy sometime soon.
We even found ourselves with front row seats at the bush premiere of Nat Geo conservationist and explorer Steve Boyes’ fascinating new documentary film ‘Into the Okavango’ which had its TV world premiere this month on Nat Geo Wild. Before the titles rolled (we were joining US journalists who were there on a press trip and also passing through Pangolin camp), Steve gave a talk about the epic four-month expedition to explore the river system that feeds the Okavango, discussing the making of the film and his passion for this vast wetland wilderness that wrapped us round beneath the stars .
And all the while, as elephants rumbled in the distance, we chomped on popcorn, just as you would in any local multiplex.
It was too short a visit. Just a few hot, dusty, memorably magic days.
Q: What’s more scary than a two and a half metre predatory crocodile patrolling silently through the water with its great big, grape green eyes on the lookout for dinner?
A: A two and a half metre predatory crocodile patrolling silently through the water with its great big, grape green eyes on the lookout for dinner…IN THE DARK!
Jaws. Jurassic Park. That’s what’s running through our heads as we enter the photo hide an hour or so after sunset. The pipe we’ve just walked down, hunched over to fit into this cylindrical echo chamber that forms the entrance while carrying heavy camera bags on our backs, feels tonight like a time tunnel. We’ve padded down here with our guests on safari many times before, usually looking ahead to some great low level, intimate wader and waterbird photography. But now we’re here for the first time to photograph after dark. The novelty of negotiating the pipe is ramped up further this evening. No-one will admit to it, but you can sense everyone’s a tad nervous. That’s because our subjects today are much bigger and way more menacing than graceful water birds and diving kingfishers.
As we file into the hide we can see straightaway that the water of Zimanga’s custom built lagoon hide, milky blue by day and the perfect foil for beautiful bird photography, has changed under cover of darkness into a black primordial soup. Ghostly moths and insects spiral and swirl over the surface where the creatures we’ve come to photograph may already be lurking. Steadying the hands to attach cameras to tripods is difficult in the dark and we fumble and stumble nervously with our gear, working quickly to ensure our photographic set-ups at least won’t be shaking. Then we spot it – out there in the shadows, partially lit by the LED panels on either side of our ‘shooting gallery’ – the unmistakable shape of a hulking great Nile crocodile.
Breathe. Remember to breathe. The expensive, specially designed one-way glass in this custom-built hide is all that separates us from the monstrous reptile that’s now circling in the water just inches away. The blind that closes our portal to this Jurassic world has been lowered for tonight and the slit we will photograph through seems as narrow as a letterbox. But it’s very important the croc can’t mistake any reflection of itself in the glass for a rival. We certainly don’t want him fighting with himself! We need to set up quickly. The croc is already swimming up and down in the shadows at the edges of the light, stealthily surfacing and submerging by turn. On the hunt…
We’re itching to photograph. We’re missing a three-course dinner back at the lodge for this, but who cares. As photo opps go this is pretty unique. The cruising croc, on the other hand, clearly does have food on his mind. His great green eye has a sinister and hungry-looking stare.
This is a bonus photography session on our final 2018 safari to Zimanga private game reserve in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. Charl Senekal, Zimanga’s pioneering photographer/owner, is constantly looking to push the photographic bounds of the existing photo hides, as well as planning new ones (a forest bird hide is currently being developed). He’s invited our two small groups of guests to be ‘guinea pigs’ in some trial runs of the new LED lights he’s just installed, designed primarily to extend lagoon hide sessions to allow photography of shy, crepuscular visitors and nocturnal birds like night herons and painted snipe. Do crocs eat guinea pigs we wonder?
As we settle in we need to contend with the fact that our view on the watery world of night-time is quite narrow, albeit wide enough to shoot freely through. We also need to ensure we’re on single shot mode as multiple shutter bursts might scare off our sensitive reptilian subjects. (Silent-shooting folk with mirrorless cameras needn’t pay heed to this bit and may choose to feel smug). The crocodiles are being drawn into the lit area in front of the hide with a few butchers’ scraps, luring them into the pool from the nearby, larger dam they usually call home.
The croc that’s already in the pool is hunting widely from one end of the water to the other, so we decide the best lenses for the job are going to be our 100-400mm Canon f4-5.6 zooms. A 70-200mm f2.8 would obviously give us valuable extra speed in these conditions, but we’d need the subjects at close range, whereas the crocs spend much of their time at the farthest edge of the pool. With the longer zooms we can frame shots at range, or go wide enough to include the wonderful reflections when the crocs are at rest and closer to us. It’s these reflections that deliver some of the most spelllbinding shots from the two sessions we have with our groups.
At times, when two or more crocs are present, there’s a brief flurry of interaction, as they scrap over scraps. But even under lights it’s impossible to freeze fast movements without using ridiculously high ISOs, so we keep with the extra flexibility of framing rather than speed, and concentrate on the static portraits.
It’s important to ensure the highlights aren’t blown when photographing under lights at night, otherwise it’s easy to kill the mood of these special shots. We ignore our camera’s meters, and shoot in manual mode, starting at an ISO of 1600. Settings of around 1/20sec at f/8 prove just about right, but we’re constantly adjusting as the animals move nearer or further away. At such low shutter speeds the crocs have to be motionless, but this isn’t a problem, as the animals regularly lie completely still. We even drop our ISO to 400, and try a few shots at very low shutter speeds, locking our cameras tight on the tripods, for ultimate, noise-free quality. The amazing reptilian reflections make compelling images.
It’s a memorable evening’s photography. The darkness completely changes the way you see and experience wildlife. It’s what makes the nocturnal photography on Zimanga so fascinating. With no distracting background to impede the eye, subjects become exaggerated, heightened versions of themselves. You notice their size more, their shapes become more defined and characteristics more emphasized. And the sharply contrasting interplay of light and dark totally magnifies the drama. Add a mirror-reflection to the mix and the whole thing becomes quite mind-blowing.
It’s wildlife photography alright…but not as we know it.
NB It’s expected that in future the nocturnal crocodile photography will be a summer-time activity on Zimanga offered in the months between November and February.
It seems there’s an obsession with action in wildlife photography these days – understandable perhaps given the dynamism of a well-executed example, coupled with the technical ability of today’s top-end digital cameras to seriously increase the overall hit rate. But sometimes this comes at a cost to the ‘humble’ animal or bird portrait, sadly, and strangely, undervalued and ignored as a result.
The perception seems to be that action shots are tougher to nail and so therefore trump wildlife portraits which are seen as too easy or less interesting to the viewer. On the surface that might seem a fair assessment, but with modern cameras doing a lot of the work when it comes to fast-action photography you could argue the very best wildlife portraits – those that communicate something more, or something deeper, about the subject – are not at all easy to pull off and can often be more evocative, emotive and powerful than action photography, while equally as compelling to the audience – just look at the images that top the portrait categories in the world’s leading photographic competitions for example.
Making better wildlife portraits, like everything, takes practice and time, but there are a few things we’ve learned over the years that will help give your animal portraiture more punch. The text is a reworking of an article we had published in ‘Australian Photography’ magazine a few years ago that came to mind the other day as we began preparing to head off on another photographic safari. The images are a mix of new and old from our files…
1.Picking the right subjects
The best chefs select the choicest ingredients and simply let them sing. They know for the best results they need the best raw materials. The same goes when shooting wildlife portraits. Be ultra picky and shoot only the finest, most striking subjects. Wild animals are not models, but if you take your role as critical casting agent seriously, searching out the most charismatic critters, you can find half your work is done. Unless we’re looking to make a photographic point about a wrinkled, old, wounded specimen we pass over poor-condition subjects and those with ‘cosmetic’ flaws, that might niggle and distract a trained viewer. One floppy ear when both should be erect, a torn lip, worn or lifeless fur, missing canine teeth all could mar your results unless you make it absolutely clear to a viewer that’s what you intended. Many wild animals have scars – some photogenic, others less so – hence the need to scrutinise potential subjects vigorously. It’s surprising how easy it is to overlook fine details in the heat of the moment – only noticing them on the computer when it can be too late.
2. Making eyes
Check carefully you’re focused on the eyes –the most important part of any portrait. Direct eye contact with the added spark of a twinkling catchlight are the gold standards to aim for here. If not looking straight at you then wide-awake peepers will help wildlife portraits pop. Snoozy-looking subjects just won’t cut it. To give eyes an extra gleam you could try a dab of fill-in flash or make the most of any handy natural reflectors like water, when animals come to drink, bathe or socialise, to bounce extra light into your subject’s eyes for an added twinkle. Careful positioning of a subject’s eyes within the frame will also help enhance their impact. The ‘golden-ratio’ or rule of thirds works well here. Many animal portraits you make will be in ‘portrait’ format and you’ll find that your image will be more visually appealing and engaging to the viewer if you place your subject’s eyes on or near where an imaginary line bisects the image roughly two thirds up from the bottom. That said rules are to be broken and really extreme close-up portraits cam be very arresting if only a single eye is shown.
3. Sculpting with light
The general advice when shooting animal portraits is to go with bright, slightly cloudy conditions. Light cloud cover acts like a giant diffuser softening harsh shadows and rendering fine fur and skin detail and colour beautifully. On sunnier days make do shooting animal portraits in light shade. All sound stuff, but if it’s a drum-roll and drama you’re looking for you’re going to need more moody lighting. Low-raking bright sunlight works a treat if you want to crank up the atmosphere. We love using strong side-lighting at both ends of the day to help define a subject’s strong features such as horns, wrinkly hide, and so on. Angled-light throws a subject’s face into sharp relief, illuminating some elements more than others, producing a 3D, sculptural effect. If you like the result, experiment with more extreme low-key techniques where even larger areas of your subject are unlit. Shooting subjects against a dark backdrop and underexposing a bit will help, although you can always tweak backgrounds later in post-processing if you’re not confident. Portraits made this way can have a powerful quality so play around until you get it right.
4. Being background savvy
Keep backgrounds simple for portraits. Your subject has the lead role – the background plays second fiddle – so steer clear of anything that might steal attention from your subject. Be as colour-wise as a designer too – alert to backgrounds with a palette that complements or contrasts well with your subject. Shoot fairly wide open, where you can, to throw the background out of focus; bearing in mind you’ll need enough depth of field to ensure your subject is pin sharp from the nose-tip to the eye. In long-snouted subjects that can mean stopping down quite a bit so we try to ensure subjects are not positioned too close to the background. It helps here to exploit situations where a subject is sitting out in the open or standing proud of its surroundings. If this isn’t possible, try a low-angle and isolate your subject against a bright blue or pale white sky ( keep a close eye on exposure as you go). By ensuring backgrounds drop away we can stop down as much as we need to make sure our subject’s sharp throughout while being confident the distant background won’t intrude. Always try shifting your viewpoint in relation to your subject to assess the different background options a fresh perspective might give you.
5. Building character
The most successful wildlife portraits communicate a strong message about the animals they portray. Consider what you want to emphasise to the viewer most about your chosen subject – the imperiousness of a male lion, the intense concentration of a hunting heron, the don’t-mess-with-me attitude of a grouchy old buffalo. Because you haven’t the luxury of lots of background context in a portrait shot you’ll be relying on lighting and composition to help you communicate the spirit of the species. Bear in mind that curving, sinuous shapes, blurred edges and soft lighting are better suited to vulnerable, small or elegant subjects. Hard lines, high contrast and strong, directional lighting work best for big, bold, intimidating creatures. Aim to match the mood of the image with the key characteristics of your subject.
6. Getting closer still
If you find your portraits still don’t pack a punch it could be you’re not getting close enough. Extreme close-ups, with frame-busting facial features, can be hugely effective providing you crop and compose them well. Close cropping needs to look deliberate or it can look like a mistake – as if you misjudged things and accidentally clipped bits at the edges of the frame. So if you’re going to try this, don’t be tentative. Extreme close ups tend to work best with large, or menacing and fearsome creatures and those subjects with really fascinating, ugly or heavily furrowed faces. Be bold.
7. Concealing to reveal
Mystery adds the spice of intrigue to a portrait and one of the simplest ways to add mystique is to take something away. If you want to hold the viewer’s attention – leave something to their imagination. Try photographing just part of a subject’s face and head. Your subject might be partly hidden by a rock or you could crop in so closely that only part of the face, or just one eye, features in your shot. Doing this helps throw attention on the ‘curated’ features you choose to include. This selective cropping can prove useful in conveying a message about your subject too, for example, showing only part of a leopard’s face might communicate the idea that staying hidden is this stealthy predator’s modus operandi.
8. Framing portraits
An effective way to emphasise and draw attention to your subject is to frame it. By framing we don’t mean hanging it on the wall in the conventional sense, but creating an inner frame within the confines of your image to pull a viewer further to your focal point. We’re always on the look out for backgrounds that contain a natural frame into which we can place our subject – the curving branch of tree neatly overarching an animal’s head, perhaps, or a ‘window’ in dense foliage. If there’s nothing suitable that suggests itself, try using a shallow depth of field. Photograph wide open, lock focus on your subject and then shoot with your camera very low and very close to the foreground, whether it’s grasses, a bank of sand or tangled undergrowth. The shallow depth of field will mean everything, other than your subject, will be out of focus – framing it softly.
9 Holding up a mirror
Take a look at successful wildlife portraits and you’ll see many appeal because they’ re anthropomorphic – their content reflects back our own human behaviour and emotions, from tenderness to humour to aggression. Recognising the kind of behaviour, or subject, that will resonate with the viewer in this way is the easy part – capturing the exact character or moment of interest is the hard part. Being there is half the battle. So spend as much time in the field as you can patiently watching and waiting. And when you find promising subjects stick with them for as long as possible. Wait to see what happens next. Something usually does.
10. Ignoring all the above
The above tips work routinely for us, but that doesn’t mean you should follow them slavishly or that’s all there is to it. The trick is to evolve your photography and try something different. We’re always looking to take our photography forward and find something fresh whether it’s unusual angles, unconventional framing, creative blur and so on. At the end of the day it’s your call. But whatever you decide there’s one single thing to remember to be sure of success.
The wind takes a deep sigh and enters the house through the broken windows. It deposits a dusting of sand in the parlour then wafts out the open front door like a phantom…
This is how the Namib desert is reclaiming one of southern Namibia’s most famous and most photogenic ghost towns, taking back its territory mournfully, grain by grain…
It’s hard to resist the poignant photographic appeal of Kolmanskop. Everywhere you look you’ll find a picturesque decay – peeling paint, shards of glass, broken boards. Everywhere you look you’ll find inspiration for pictures.
In its heyday Kolmanskop, about 10 kilometres from the coastal desert town of Luderitz, was a shining gem in the dust; a thriving diamond mining town on the edge of one of the world’s oldest deserts. At the peak of the diamond rush in the early 1900s the residents here toasted their good fortune in Champagne, listened attentively to the European opera companies that visited their theatre, exercised in its pool, bowled in its skittle alley and boasted about having southern Africa’s first-ever X-ray machine in their hospital.
Today the place is a tumbledown ghost town left to the desert’s devices. When richer diamond deposits were found further south the writing was on the wall for Kolmanskop’s luxury lifestyle. Now the once fine buildings are skeletal; the debris of the residents’ daily lives strewn widely across the sprawling site. Inside the homes the rising tide of sand is already up to the light-switches, marooning cast-iron baths and old bedsteads in the middle of sitting rooms. Doors have drifted into passageways, or rock crazily on rusting hinges, window frames have been cast against walls and the tracks of jackal and brown hyena crisscross the floors of former bedrooms. Occasionally a prettily-stencilled frieze, a small piece of china, or an eerily silent classroom pulls you up short – all that’s left of someone else’s hope and ambitions.
Yet people are drawn here from across the world – these days mining for images. We’ve made several stop-offs in the past during visits to Namibia; making full use of the special photography permits, available from the nearby town, that allow access to the site for the whole day, and from first light when the place is deserted – well before the daily guided tours get underway. This is when the footprints of yesterday’s visitors, that might otherwise stomp across your images, have been neatly swept away by the ever-present desert wind – another compelling reason to be first on site.
Kolmanskop is a hugely atmospheric place and the fact you’re allowed to roam all over the expansive site and explore inside the countless dilapidated structures makes photographing here overwhelming at first. Where the hell to begin? Our advice would be to start with a few exterior shots, exploiting the subtle colours and intense mood just as dawn breaks; perhaps concentrating on the impressive, well-to-do homes that will catch your attention on arrival.
A tripod is essential to deal with the low light conditions at sunrise, but also for later when shooting interiors. Ideally pack one that can be used at low levels and in awkward places as some of the rooms are so full of sand you might end up on all fours. A tripod will also help you consider and perfect your shots – tweaking camera settings and making minor, thoughtful adjustments while framing. That said it’s quite possible to work free-hand if you have a DSLR that performs wells at high ISOs. It’s up to you. We ended up doing a combination of both; losing the tripod where we wanted the freedom of movement to go for a few more abstract, creative shots.
Try not to trample over and ruin potential foregrounds as you move around, particularly doing broader landscape shots of the town; once you’ve spoiled the pristine sand ripples that’s it.
Once the sun’s up we tend to find the conventional syrupy, postcard light less evocative to work with so this is when we move the operation indoors to where the real photographic treasures lie.
As it climbs in the sky, the sun streaks into the empty rooms through cracks and empty windows creating a wonderful, changing play of shadows, shapes, textures and patterns – the raw materials for capturing great, dream-like room studies and abstract detail shots. Each building and room you enter draws you in further and there are lots of buildings and rooms. Allow yourself plenty of time. Window frames, doorways, inner passages – provide endless opportunities to construct images that lead the viewer in, and for shots that frame ‘frames’ within a frame. The worker’s houses at the far end of the site might look less prepossessing than the big houses, but they harbour plenty of photographic potential, so don’t limit yourself solely to the posher-looking buildings. The captivating paint colours, decorative touches, surreal build-up of sand, and the surprise bits of old furniture offer a rich seam for images on this side of town.
Looking for a fresh take on the place in February this year we set ourselves the challenge of capturing images that summed up the ‘ghostliness’ of the place – it is a ghost town after all. images that might better convey the strange and unsettling feeling of journeying through past lives; through endless abandoned rooms filling with sand. We attempted this in some shots by deliberately overexposing our images to create a high-key effect. We quite liked the way this made our pictures look ‘ghostly’ pale and washed out as it the life and colour had been drained away – just like in the town.
Our other approach was to go even more abstract. We used very slow shutter speeds when shooting some interiors (experiment by reducing your ISO and increasing the depth of field), and purposefully moved the camera a little while releasing the shutter, to create a sort of ‘ghosting’ in the final image. You have to trial this a bit to get it right according to whether you want a really ‘out there’ effect or just a hint of things off-balance, it’s really up to you. When reviewing our pictures afterwards some of these more off the wall images really caught that surreal sense of another reality we both got walking around this sad, but strangely beautiful place.
If you fancy discovering the photographic possibilities of Kolmanskop ghost town for yourself it’s easy to arrange as part of a self-drive trip to Namibia, perhaps as an add-on to one of our photo safaris.
Sitting in the office in the grey old UK with rain streaking down the windows, we can’t help feeling cheesed off. Rainy weather means there’s no escaping the drudge work of our job. After seven weeks of being fortunate enough to photograph every day in wild places, and almost always in great light, we’ve come down to earth again along with the snow of recent days, the subsequent thaw and now the persistent drizzly rain of a slow-starting British spring.
We’re working through the mundane and monotonous tasks that always welcome us back from a trip. The not often talked about stuff that’s as much a part of being professional wildlife photographers as the field work – if not more so. Clearly this side isn’t our favourite part, even if as former journalists we respond like Pavlov’s dogs to a deadline. So we’re busy key-wording and archiving images as fast as possible, so we can put them out to work for us – assigning them to the right places in our portfolio, to various stock agencies and getting them ready for marketing, for preparing upcoming lectures and for promoting our photographic safaris. All must be done in the narrow window available between trips. There’s no escaping the fact that wet weather days are admin days. Bor…ing!
Exactly what type of office work we’re doing isn’t the issue; that depends on urgent deadlines, what’s hurtling towards us in the diary and, of course, on what, if any, photographic treasures we’ve managed to dig out on our latest photographic crusades. This time in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (KTP) the big cats, always stars, seemed to emerge as a key theme. So we’re post-processing big cat images all the while and pedaling as fast as we can. The only thing that can stop the treadmill is good weather (or dry stuff at least) providing us with the excuse to drop the office jobs we’re juggling and get back out there with our cameras…
Filling in the requisite data fields on photographs for various agencies which each require the procedure done differently, on a dull, damp weekend afternoon, we’re both missing the warmth, sunshine, reliable light, guaranteed subjects and sheer freedom of photographing in the bush in an African summer…
…Then scrolling through our pictures from the Kalahari section of our recent South Africa/Namibia trip it dawns on us maybe we’ve got it all wrong. Have we not become a tad spoiled?
How could we have forgotten so soon just how dry the KTP was for those first few weeks of our trip, and how desperate and expectant the animals, and the veld, seemed to be for the late rain to arrive?
When we remove our favourite images, putting to one side those shots we’ve earmarked as priorities for immediate post-processing, a simple, humble story emerges. Our incidental pictures, grabbed when driving back to camp once the best light had gone, a bunch of odds and sods really, languishing in Lightroom folders labelled ‘miscellany’, are quietly revealing the significant impact the rain finally made on the everyday lives of our KTP subjects when the clouds broke.
So we’re enjoying this small selection of images from a few weeks ago in the KTP in which the residents are making the most of something we all take for granted – puddles in the road. Simple shots, nothing loud, exciting, sexy or dramatic – just a handful of regular stock pictures gathered along the way that served to remind two whingeing wildlife snappers to suck up the rain, get on with it and accept that a good downpour isn’t a downer for everyone.
The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park – two dry riverbeds, edged by red dunes, jagged calcrete ridges and twisted thorn trees, the brittle shards of their grey bark slashed with black shadows. This is where you’ll find some of Africa’s stealthiest big cats pursuing scarce huddles of wary game along the margins of the bronze-gold light…
For the past month or so we’ve been like them, tracking closely in their shadows, forever chasing the best photographic light and our own tantalising visions – those half-formed ideas for images that nag in the corner of the mind’s eye; hoped for, yet still far off, like the rain.
This season the South African Kalahari has been much drier than usual and only localised areas have received enough water to wash the sun-bleached riverbed with a green stain of grass. Finding sustenance in this semi desert eco-system can be a real challenge for the wildlife, even more so when the brutal summer heat steals the last reserves of your energy. The struggle for survival becomes a constant and wearying battle.
Only in recent days, more than three quarters into our visit, has there been any sign of relief from this oppression. Heavy downpours have gifted shallow ephemeral pools and runnels in the veld as well as welcome puddles along the gravel and sand tracks. Fresh water to soak sleeping seeds and quench an aching thirst. Water enough to bathe in – soaking fur and feathers – if the coast is clear and it’s safe to permit yourself a clean up.
We woke after the first good storm to a rare chorus of frogs – heralding the good news. Finally for us some respite from the ubiquitous dust that clogs and clings to everything – particularly our camera gear. For a while, at least, it’s tamed, tamped down and held in control by the unaccustomed cool dampness.
In the fresh morning air we can at last feel our focus clearing. And on the top of a landmark sociable weavers’ nest along the Nossob road a pair of pale chanting goshawks we’ve come to know make their first appearance of the year. We watch them for a while and hear them courting – a song of renewal and, hopefully, creation.
This year we arrived to find the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park bare and almost silent. When we left it had a bright green coat picked out with the sunshine yellow of devil’s thorn flowers. And the air was filled with birdsong.
New Year – Blank Canvas. It’s that time again for making photographic ‘resolutions’. We’re probably all doing it right now – looking ahead, making plans, setting goals and pre-visualising the images we’d love to get in the weeks and months ahead. We bet you’ve also got good intentions, just like us, to photograph much more and a whole lot better in 2018. But as we get our camera gear checked off and ready for our first visit of the year to Africa – butterflies stirring in the pit of our stomachs already – we thought it might be time for a bit of perspective on the whole thing.
It’s always tempting, with a fresh calendar ahead, to over-complicate things and perhaps expect a bit too much of ourselves. There’s nothing worse for killing creativity than raising expectations way too high. So instead of being over-ambitious this year we’re stripping back to basics with a wonderfully simple reminder of some fundamentals from well-known US street photographer Jay Maisel who has a great tell-it-like-it-is way of distilling stuff about photography; putting everything to do with the whole art, business and passion for picture-making into a proverbial nutshell…
We hope he won’t mind us quoting his wise words here, alongside some of our images from 2017, as we look ahead with excitement to another year of wildlife photography.
It’s just four short pointers, but each rings true for us…
‘First, perseverance trumps talent…
…Second, do what you want to do – otherwise why bother…
…Third, be ethical; it might rub off on others…
…Fourth, don’t give up.’
Happy New Year.
And remember the first rule of photography is to enjoy it!
Every so often in wildlife photography things just seem to ‘click’ into place. That was the case earlier this year during our visit to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (KTP) in South Africa when we spent a very happy morning photographing a pride of lions in the Nossob riverbed. One of our images from that morning’s haul has just received an award in this year’s ‘Nature’s Best Photography Africa’ competition; the continent’s most prestigious wildlife photography contest. (You can see all the 2017 winning images here). Here’s the story behind our successful shot in this year’s competition…
It was one of those mornings when you manage to cross paths with a great subject at just the right time; when the light’s still very usable. One of the many reasons we love photographing in the KTP is the fact you can often follow the same animals for days; learning their routes and routines. The Kalahari’s famous lions are a case in point. The excitement begins with a just a handful of paw-prints in the sand and then, if, and when, we catch up with our quarry, due to the wonderfully open terrain, it’s possible to document our subjects’ behaviour intimately; setting active subjects off to great effect against a stunning background wash of semi-desert hues.
We’d been following one pride with five sub-adult cubs for several days. The adult members of the pride liked to sit on the face of a favourite dune and we’d managed to pick them up there on a couple of mornings. Sometimes the youngsters would join them; sometimes they weren’t to be seen.
On this morning we’d suddenly found ourselves with front row seats as the whole pride, both adult members and their boisterous, almost ‘teenage’ cubs, were reuniting after a night on the prowl. As you might imagine there was much running around with lions coming in from every direction off the nearby dunes.
With so much going on it was difficult to predict where to manoeuvre our vehicle for the best. Anticipating which individual subjects to follow with a camera can be a nervy gamble. Even with two of us keeping an eye on the developing situation we truly were spoiled for choice. We were anxious we’d get it wrong and end up with a wonderful memory of the unfolding episode, but nothing on our memory cards to back it up.
In a situation with lions it’s always tempting to follow the photogenic males – even more so in this case as they were two stunning black-maned bruisers. We’d photographed the same pair a few days earlier as they walked side by side on the sand like brothers in arms, so we knew they were potentially the best prospect. But with the sun now rising higher in the sky we decided to break with convention and placed all our bets on the youngsters instead.
We reckoned the experienced big males would soon be headed for the shade. Probably not much chance of anything new on the photo front there. There’s usually only a slim window of time and good light to make interesting behavioural shots before lions disappear into cover to sleep as the day hots up. Getting cleanly composed images in sweet light is always a challenge.
The hyperactive cubs, on the other hand, too stupid for their own good, were still wandering aimlessly out in the open, clearly frustrated by the adults’ sober pace. Rather than resting up in the shade (obviously not quite cool enough for juvenile big cats) they seemed content to stay out in the riverbed. The pastel colours of the distant dunes dropped off perfectly. We could see they provided an ideal complementary background for the sort of entertaining antics we were hoping for. We were now staking everything on shots of the young lions playfully interacting. But would they oblige?
Just as we expected they soon began taking their pent up predatory frustration out on each other; ambushing each other, chewing each other’s tails and sparring in mock combat in that way that tearaway young lion siblings always will – sooner or later – rehearsing moves that would one day make all the difference to their survival in this unforgiving eco-system.
Sometimes following your instinct about a wildlife subject pays dividends. Good fortune plays its part too of course, but don’t underestimate hard-earned knowledge picked up along the way. Because at times like these you realise those endless hours spent observing your subjects’ behaviour, without a decent image for your effort, really isn’t really a waste of time at all, but a worthwhile investment you can cash in later.
The header says it all really. A simple post centred on three recent images from the files and the stories that led up to them…
Vanishing Point – White Rhino
Canon EOS 1DX, 1/5 second, f/8, ISO 100, Canon EF 300mm f/4 lens
Working for several days from a hide in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal we’d often used in the past our visit had been productive. We were photographing rhinos as part of a project to raise awareness and document the ramifications of the poaching crisis there. We’d photographed lots of rhinos and the cows’ very small babies had completely charmed our socks off, but we hadn’t really got anything that conveyed what we felt about the whole sorry saga – something that summed up our sense of the rhino’s vulnerability; that here was a species on the brink, under threat of disappearing forever before our very eyes.
On our final day the light was poor, so we didn’t hold out much hope we could really add anything more. It was overcast, so there were no reflections to exploit at the water, and the whole scene appeared flat and lifeless. Perhaps because it was also a cooler day, there were fewer animals coming down to drink. It really was a head-scratching time.
Then out of nowhere a lone rhino lumbered slowly down to the water. The muted colour palate made for an altogether more sombre mood than on previous days and that suddenly struck a chord with us. Perhaps here was something to work with. The germ of an idea?
Selecting a slow shutter speed and deliberately moving the camera while photographing to create a, softer, more painterly, effect we experimented photographing impressionistic images of the lone rhino at the water. The results seemed to us much more emotive than the ones we’d taken in the bright, warm sunshine and certainly chimed more with our sense of sadness and despair at the pointless slaughter of these innocent creatures…
Buffalo Nocturne – Cape Buffalo
Canon EOS 5D Mk III, 1/50 second, f/4.5, ISO 2000, Canon EF17-40mm EF lens
Staying quiet for hours in a nocturnal hide in the middle of the bush when there’s nothing but stillness, eerie sounds and the black velvet curtain of night outside is an unusual experience to say the least. Being able to witness and photograph Africa’s large mammals in such a setting ( with wide angle lenses and without the need for flash); to gain a unique glimpse into their night-time world is truly something unique.
We’d been ensconced in this hide for a while, slowly getting accustomed to using our camera controls in the darkness when out of nowhere a small group of thirsty buffalo approached…
The bulls nervously moved closer to the drinking edge – a scant four metres from our lenses – and dipped their huge, heavy heads to drink. Their bony horn bosses and shiny wet muzzles felt near enough to touch. Right next to us in the dead of night were three burly Cape buffaloes, members of Africa’s legendary Big Five and one of the toughest and most dangerous species on the continent. Our hearts were racing as we moved to the viewfinders on our cameras waiting to squeeze the shutter releases. Against the darkness the LED lights on the outside of the hide moulded the muscular lines of their massive bodies reminding us just how powerful these heavyweight contenders really were. We both held our breath in awe.
We took tons of pictures as you might imagine, but it wasn’t until the trio arranged themselves around the water’s edge like a diorama from a natural history museum display, that we not only had an amazing and memorable encounter of wildlife by night, but we also had our perfect composition.
Dance of Death – Cheetah with Springbok Lamb
Canon EOS-1DX Mk II, 1/800sec, f/6.3, ISO1600, Canon EF f/4 100-400mm zoom
Summer in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is a time of unbearable heat, thunderstorms and heavy downpours; a time when rain brings temporary relief, when food becomes more plentiful and when the resident springbok drop their lambs. Cue the reserve’s cheetahs. Their success when hunting springbok fawns is almost assured…
We’ve been photographing in the Kalahari at this time for several years. On this occasion we’d been watching a female cheetah for over an hour. We’d been lucky in spotting her settled in a shallow gully; well hidden from us and the small herd of springbok grazing in the riverbed nearby with their newborn lambs. Although it didn’t appear as if she was actively hunting, the fact she was in cover, with an excellent view of nearby prey was reason enough to stay with her and wait.
Most of the time she was motionless, just twitching her ear or flicking her tail every now and then. The wait seemed pointless given the herd wasn’t moving nearer. Perhaps it was time to give up and move on? Then a solitary lamb began moving away from the protection of the herd right in the direction of the cheetah; seriously cutting the distance she needed to make to secure her next meal. We knew it was going to happen any minute now.
The chase happened so fast it’s difficult now to recall exactly how it panned out. Trying to follow the fast unfolding action while making sense of what was going on seemed almost impossible; particularly as the startled young lamb zig-zagged and the the chase took both predator and prey right out of sight at one point behind a thick clump of low bushes.
When the dust settled, we could see she had taken the lamb down right beside us. There she was, in the warm light of late afternoon, with the tiny springbok in a chokehold, struggling to lift and control the deadweight. It was vital for her to get away from the open terrain of the riverbed to safety with her quarry before darkness. She looked directly towards us for a brief moment before turning towards the dune with her prize and that was the picture of the two – predator and prey locked in a macabre pas de deux. No time to dial down our ISO but just press when her eyes met our own.
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones… We’re bouncing along the top of a dry, grassy plateau in the Maluti Drakensberg in South Africa’s KZN province. It’s day three of our triple session in the famous vulture hide at Giant’s Castle in the Central Drakensberg and the large, sunny yellow bucket of bones we’re bringing up to these dizzy heights are rumbling deeply in the far corners of our 4×4. The far corners bit is important as the smell’s pretty stomach churning…
This has been the pattern for the last three mornings; set the alarm for just before dawn, grab a cuppa, and then swing by reception at the rest camp to pick up the bone bucket. As the sun creeps over the mountain tops we make the slow, winding climb to the hide; ogling the wraparound views of rust-coloured massif and the recession of rugged horizons stacked just like the shaded paper cut-outs you made in art class as a kid.
Hide photography is rather in vogue at the moment, but this cliff-top eyrie, its camera ports opening onto a magnificent berg vista, is a real old stager, yet it still holds its own against the shiny up-comers. The hide, in this precarious, jaw-dropping location, dates back to 1977, although there was a ‘Lammergeyer Hide’ in the mountains here some 10 years earlier (it had to be relocated as there wasn’t a handy cliff edge for the vultures to take off from).
The one we’re now hunkering into with cameras poised has been refurbed a couple of times in the years we’ve been visiting. It’s been around 10 years since we last dropped by. Things have been spruced up a little in the meanwhile. These days the rest camp kitchen will provide you with a packed breakfast if you’re staying over and have to forego the restaurant’s hot buffet to be in the hide at sun up. There’s even a loo up here now, but the place feels and looks pretty much as always – one of the world’s top spots to eyeball and photograph endangered bearded vultures and endemic Cape vultures cruising at altitude along regular flight paths and at wingtip level.
Sensational flight shots of these beautiful birds riding the thermals against the distant mountain backdrop are one thing, but the pulling power of this location is the chance to capture dynamic shots of the birds coming in to land with their wings and landing gear at full stretch. The hide is positioned perfectly for warm morning light and suits 100-400mm zooms for both landings on the cliff edge and anything that flies. A 500mm is also very useful for more distant flight shots and shots of the smaller stuff that will show up. The thrill never wanes as you marvel all over again at the power and grace of these birds, their aerobatic prowess and that hypnotic sound of their low whooshing wing beats as they almost brush past the end of our lenses.
There is much frustration of course. Shadows of raptors soaring way above range tease us frequently; bearded vultures fly past repeatedly down below us, tantalisingly out of reach; the red winged starlings, snacking on the bone feast, fly off suddenly, suggesting something good’s coming in to land, but more often than not it turns out to be a white-necked raven. The aerial acrobats of which at least keep us amused when things go quiet.
But the highlights are plentiful too. On our first session the Cape vultures are stars. We have them flying over in number, in squadrons, and certainly get the chance to practise our ‘landing techniques’. They look amazing as they come down – all sharp beaks and talons. In all our previous visits we’ve never notched up a bearded vulture landing so we’re keen to get it right if they do. But all our beardies on the first day are cruise-bys.
On day two the beardies headline. We have adults and juveniles flying back and forth most of the morning – many really close to the hide. One of the juveniles has a bone clutched in his claws. But still no landings. We do get a jackal buzzard coming down to feed briefly, which is a highlight and one of the shots of the morning. When he takes off again he’s flying straight towards us. He’s so in our faces we only manage one sharp shot of him departing between us.
It’s now day three and its been a slow start. The usual suspects, the ravens and starlings, hog the dinner table as before. At one point a flock of bald ibis flies over, but we’re both too slow to catch focus and have to make do with the consolation that this is still a nice sighting. The occasional vulture cruises around and as yesterday we get several good eyeball to eyeball close views, and shots of them on the wing. A single Cape vulture lands, but the bearded vulture landing pictures we dream of are still just pie in the sky…for this trip at least.
It’s been great rediscovering this photographic ‘high point’ after such a long absence. That somebody had the vision to build a hide in such a difficult and lofty location as this in the first place, and the fact public access has been safeguarded and improved over the years, is a special treat for nature tourists from around the globe. But the bird-watchers and snappers who regularly book the place out are really just a small part of this hide’s story. The place really exists to help conserve two vulture species that continue to face the prospect of extinction from a growing range of threats, including poisoning (farmers and poachers), electrocution (power lines), and the practice of traditional medicine.
This Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife-run hide provides a vital supplementary feeding site (vulture restaurant) that augments today’s dwindling food availability for these important scavengers. Carcases and pieces of bone, free from harmful veterinary drugs and agro chemicals, are put out regularly – mostly by hopeful photographers like ourselves in search of the perfect action shot. The bearded vulture (this remote and isolated population in the Maluti Drakensberg consists of around only 300 to 350 birds) eats bones almost exclusively. They break the bones by dropping them from high up and they can swallow pieces more than 20 cm long. They also require meat during the winter breeding season to feed their chicks. The extra scraps of fat and fragments of bone help boost the survival rate of young vultures in their first year after leaving the nest.
So in paying your dues to come here and enjoy the world-class photo opportunities available, and by collecting your yellow bucket of smelly bones excitedly each morning, you’re doing your little bit for vulture conservation. These beleaguered birds need all the help they can get right now and so much of what we cherish in the wild depends on the sterling clean up operation these undertake.
We reckon that’s surely worth taking into consideration in the current debate that’s raging over baiting for photography? We’d certainly argue that as far as this awesome, and vulture-supporting, photographic hide goes the discussion’s definitely not as black and white as you might think…
Wildlife, conservation, photography and ecotourism: the adventures of award-winning photojournalists Ann and Steve Toon