Category Archives: Wildlife

Lucky leopard kicks off our photography year

A distant silhouette on the far ridge. The distinctive outline of a cat, walking. Heading north. It’s not yet light. Instinctively we both feel it could be a leopard. We’re cautious in calling it though. It’s ‘far, far’, very small even through binoculars. Most likely a cheetah,’ we agree. ‘Could be on the way to the water for a drink, it’s hot already this morning’.

Female leopard, Kgalagadi
The early dawn palette flatters our special subject especially when she turns briefly to look at us

There’s a waterpoint back north in the direction we’ve just travelled, about three k’s back up the sandy track. It will be a while before the sun’s up and the best photographic light is with us, so we drive on south for another seven or so kilometres to check out the next waterhole along the dry riverbed. Satisfying ourselves we’re not missing anything further down the valley we turn around and slowly drive back north again.

It’s been a quiet few days photographically. Conditions in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, a vast semi desert wilderness that straddles the borders of South Africa and Botswana, are very dry at the moment. We’re expecting rain anytime soon. The temperatures have been building, but not the clouds. We’re seeing big cats, and ticking over in terms of shots, but there’s not a whole lot of game around yet and we’re missing the raptors and smaller stuff. It’s like hanging around waiting for the grass to grow – literally.

Leopard female, Kgalagadi
We’re close enough to count her spots as our lucky leopard walks right by us

So we’re not really expecting to set eyes on that hint of a cat from up on the top of the dunes. It’s just that on quiet morning drives like this you have to have some sort of plan for when the photographic golden hour arrives – even if it’s just to keep your head up. We continue heading back in the direction we came, to the next waterhole north, on the off-chance we’ll pick up our shadowy feline again. You’ve got to stay positive in this game. If nothing else the waterhole will make a nice spot for morning coffee and a rusk, but, in truth, the idea we’ll get nada once again in the sweet light is killing us.

Female leopard, Kgalagadi
Cat among the ‘pigeons’ – the doves make way for this thirsty feline just as the golden light arrives

Turning into the approach road to the waterhole we notice there’s another vehicle parked under the landmark thorn tree that provides much needed shade to animals and humans alike. Another reason to feel hopeful? But it doesn’t appear there’s anything at the water. It’s then we both spot something approaching the water from the left side of our vehicle. Just as we’re pitching up at the water so too amazingly is our mystery cat. Serendipitous timing or what! Our hunch was right. It was indeed a leopard we saw in the half light earlier on. Up close we see it’s a stunning female with gorgeous markings. We should have trusted our instincts when we saw her up on the dune. She looks in good condition. Predators can do alright for themselves when it’s really dry like this and the summer rainfall is late.

Female leopard, Kgalagadi
Taking a leap so as not to get those big paws wet!

Immediately coffee mode is off, photography is mode on. We’re in position before you can say ‘cat’s whiskers’ with one of us in the back, one in the driving position, and both with cameras ready. It’s time for fast thinking. We need a banker image or two at least from this special sighting. We steady ourselves and begin reeling off shots in the last of the soft pre-dawn light. One of us has the 500mm with a 1.4 converter (700mm), the other the 100 to 400mm zoom. The important thing is for both of us to keep well braced and aim to cover all the bases in case she doesn’t hang around – which is the most likely scenario with a stealthy huntress like this.

Leopard female resting in tree, Kgalagadi
Our leopard takes to a shady thorn tree to rest a while providing more picture opportunities

The pastel colours and soft light just before dawn flatter her beautifully. In the low light her eyes are big; no need to squint as she will when it’s harsh later on. She really is very close to us now and we’re both holding our breath. She stops to look around and check the coast is clear, her long tail curling at her back; she’s making sure there are no lions to worry about before advancing to the water trough.

Female leopard, Kgalagadi
The cat’s whiskers – in the shady light it’s possible to frame softly-lit portraits 

Both of her ears pricked? Eyes both with nice catchlights? Exposure okay? Enough, but not too much depth of field? Composition looking good? Sufficient speed if she explodes into action all of a sudden? All split second decisions. Pretty much second nature, but when there’s a leopard in your viewfinder that’s a big pressure moment. You don’t want to screw up moments like these. Leopards love to keep a low profile. Blink and they’re gone.

Female leopard, Kgalagadi
Action! After each visit to the water this plucky young female bounds across the overflow 

The good light’s almost here and we’re nervous she’ll spook and turn tail before it does. In our mind’s eye we can imagine how it will burnish her coat and how her piercing yellow eyes will pop in our pictures.

Fortunately there’s one thing heavily weighted in our favour. We’re banking on the fact this is the same relaxed leopard, a young female known as Ikhaya, that caused quite a stir by hanging around here for a few days, several months ago, to the delight of everyone staying at the two nearest camps. We’d picked up the buzz on social media at the time, but never expected, hadn’t dared to hope, our visit would coincide with her routine visits here. From her chilled demeanour this morning there’s every reason to suspect this is the same beautiful girl. If so we should be in for a treat. But we still need some insurance shots first – just in case.

Leopard female, Kgalagadi
As the sun gets harsh our subject saunters off to find a  secluded spot to hole up for the day

She’s at the water now and the light is combing its honeyed fingers across her coat. Already we can frame a few simple portraits as she sits on the rocks surveying her surroundings up and down the valley, proud of the background. We’re pretty happy with these first captures, but suddenly the scene is spray-painted gold. Now we’re in business. She dips her head to drink, lifts it, dips again and drinks some more. She’s thirsty and, thankfully, seems in no hurry to leave. We finally have the luxury of time to consider our picture-making. What a star. Her eyes burn into our lenses, we see she has tiny drops of water matting the fur on her lower jaw and two long silver strands of slobber that swing and glint in the low raking sun. We’re smitten.

We spend almost an hour and half with her that morning, and another two hours again 48 hours later. Up there with our best leopard sightings in the park, when we’re reliving it all later back at camp, and reviewing our pictures, we’re both astounded just how casual we were, driving on past her after that first glimpse up on the far bank of dunes.

How lucky that we’d turned back in time when most mornings we would have just carried on south – looking for something nice to photograph…

Staying out ’til dark with the big cats of Khwai

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?

Our first Khwai encounter is a very special one

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.

Resting in a raintree – we settle down too and wait for her to move

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 private reserve is home to plentiful big game…

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.

…but it’s the regular predator sightings that appeal to us

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.

Alert now our quarry restlessly moves from tree to tree

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.

From blue hour to darkness we are spellbound by our very first Khwai encounter

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.

The stench is foul but this dead hippo is a good feed for the hyena clan
A cheetah spends the day near her recent kill

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.

Big bull elephants cut the dust at this busy waterhole where a photo hide has been sunk

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.

Safe in the half-buried container hide you can admire the huge beasts at close quarters

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.

We can’t wait to go back…

Looking back on a memorable visit to a wilderness where predators roam free

Croc Around the Clock – Getting Snappy After Dark

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!

Nile crocodile at night
‘Never smile at a crocodile’ – check out those teeth

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.

Nile crocodile at night
Telephoto zooms helped frame shots on the pool’s edge

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.

Nile crocodile at night
Motionless monster – reflection shots looked ‘jawsome’

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.

Nile crocodile at night
Wider shots also had menace conveying a croc on the hunt

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.

Nile crocodile at night
The perfect mirror reflection shots are quite surreal

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.

Top Tips for Perfect Wildlife Portraits

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

Ears and eyes pricked – wait for perfection in animal portraits

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

A lion’s pupils are key to nailing a predatory stare

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

Underexpose in strong side-lighting to emphasise textures

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

The sombre background purples tone well with the dirty pinks of a ‘striking’ marabou

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

Aim to make the viewer see your subject in a new light

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

Extreme close-ups need careful framing to pull them off

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

A single-eyed stare seems more powerfully intense

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

Frame subjects with out of focus foreground and background – a low angle helps here

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 

Wide angles work well for characterful and comic portraits

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

Find a new way to say stuff – here we wanted to show the rhino’s current vulnerability

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.

Your subjects are the stars.

Dream-like quiver trees captivate our cameras

It’s the quiver tree’s distinctive shape that makes it so photogenic. It’s one of the most striking natural symbols of Namibia, a nation with no shortage of such icons.  These strange, spiky plants aren’t trees at all, but a type of aloe, and they’re a defining characteristic of the southern Namibian landscape.  Sparsely scattered over the Namib desert, quiver trees survive where little else grows. But in a few special places, they not only survive, but thrive, creating bizarre, beautiful, other-worldly landscapes that beg to be photographed.

Quiver trees at sunset

The best known and most accessible quiver tree forest lies on a farm a few kilometres outside Keetmanshoop, a work-a-day town, 500km south of Namibia’s capital, Windhoek.  We’ve been there numerous times, always finding something new to point our cameras at.  We spent two nights on location there earlier this year, but could happily have spent a week. It’s one of those places where the longer you spend photographing, the more images suggest themselves, and in the golden light at dusk or dawn it’s sheer magic.

Quiver trees at sunsetIn the Southern Hemisphere’s summer months when we visited, the best of the evening golden light lasts barely an hour. Visit from April onwards into the winter and the lower sun is a lot more generous. The trade off is the sky can be less interesting, with little or no cloud. If you’re lucky the ever-changing cloud formations of the summer can make up for the small window of good photographic light.

Quiver treesShort zooms are the order of the day here either for portraits of a single tree or for wider scenics of the forest.  A tripod is also essential, unless you are prepared to shoot at very high ISO because some of the best shots to be had are at twilight when the soft, diffuse light produces a lovely ethereal effect.

With so many surreal trees clustered together – the site is a national monument – the biggest challenge is choosing where to start photographing since there are so many possibilities vying for your attention. Arrive well ahead of the best light and walk around before you settle on your first composition. There’s a strong temptation to start at the first stand of trees you see. Resist it and check out the trees further in. You can always come back after scoping the place out. If you find a composition that strikes a chord it’s worth checking it out several times as the light changes; shooting into the light as well as with the light behind you.

Quiver trees are crowned by a dense lollipop of forked branches, each tipped by a rosette of spiky leaves. It’s these branches that give the quiver tree its common name because traditionally the local San people used the hollowed-out branches as quivers for their arrows. The shapes of these lollipop branches are brilliant for dramatic silhouette shots as the sun sets. This is where a longer lens can be helpful, the narrower field of view and compressed perspective making it easier to pick out a prize specimen against the reddest part of the sky.  The quiver tree’s bulbous stems, covered in a thick, corky, yellow bark that glows gold when illuminated by a low sun and is broken up into sharp-edged flakes, make for stunning textural close-ups.

Quiver trees and Milky WayIf anything, the quiver tree forest is even more compelling at night, and if you’re into star photography, you’ll struggle to find better foreground interest.  Namibia is renowned for its dark skies and is one of the best places in the world to photograph the Milky Way.  On our recent visit the Milky Way wasn’t at its absolute best, but was still spectacular.   We used a torch to paint the trees, exposing the scene at around 25 seconds at f/4, ISO 1600. A 17-40mm lens was barely wide enough, but on this trip our kit was skewed towards longer lens wildlife photography.  Something like a fast 14mm would have been perfect.

Speaking of wildlife photography, the quiver tree forest does have its share of fascinating fauna too. There’s a healthy population of laid-back dassies (rock hyrax) clambering among the rocks – early morning, when they are warming themselves is a good time to photograph them.  Lizards are also abundant, and there are some interesting birds.  A pair of pygmy falcons were nesting in the huge sociable weaver nest that had been constructed in one quiver tree while we there; using the crown of a neighbouring quiver tree to court. The sociable weaver nest was also being used as a roosting place for a small flock of rosy-faced lovebirds.

Quiver trees at sunrise

Hope drying up for the Namib’s wild horses

The wild horses’ core area is wonderfully photogenic with a rugged appeal

The rugged plains that line the eastern fringes of the Namib desert are a photographer’s paradise – especially when this hauntingly beautiful landscape is bathed in amber light providing just the right backdrop for our subjects – providing we can spot them…

Stunning as these surroundings are, this place is no Eden for the special creatures we’ve come to capture on camera – especially in 2018 after several years of prolonged drought  has put a question mark over their future survival.

The pastel colours of the Namib desert paint the perfect backdrop for pictures

Each year, tourists from across the globe make the journey to this little bit of  nowhere to see the famous wild horses of Garub, southern Namibia. Earlier this year we joined them, hoping to see how they were getting on some 20 years since they galloped across  the southern Africa sabbatical that kickstarted our careers in wildlife photography.

Pitching up we can see at once there’s nothing here for the horses to eat

We weren’t holding out much hope as we reached Aus, the nearest little town which relies on the tourist dollars the horses, and their century-old story, bring in. That’s because the first scan of our surroundings suggests there’s nothing left for them to eat on the plain all around us. We certainly don’t think, if we do find them, they’ll look anything like the fit, prancing silhouettes on the road signs that warn us we’ve finally reached their desert home.

A misty morning at Garub, where the horses often drink, attracts an oryx down too

The Garub waterpoint the horses frequent is marked from the B4 road some 20km west of Aus. It’s best to go there first thing in the morning and again in the late afternoon, increasing your chances of seeing and photographing these famous equines and the other local wildlife, like oryx,  it attracts. And that’s where we‘re headed now with some trepidation.

No-one’s exactly sure how the horses came to be here. They are the descendants of escapees from a local stud some 100 years ago, that bred racehorses and work horses in the Namib desert’s diamond rush era, or they’re the former mounts of soldiers stationed in the area in World War 1. Or both.  The certain thing is that they’ve been running wild ever since, free from the service of man, isolated from civilisation and fully adapted to the harsh conditions of this unforgiving habitat. They’re now regarded as a breed apart; the ‘Namibs’.

You can often see the wild horses close to the road. We found them in varying condition

Since October 2015 supplementary food has been provided for them, on a regular basis, by the Namibia Wild Horses Foundation to ensure they don’t starve and get enough roughage following the drought. Between 2014 and the start of this year the area is said to have had little more than 5mm of rain. The feeding strategy has helped the struggling horses considerably, although some old stallions and mares have not responded well and still look in poor condition when we finally get our ‘eye’ in and start spotting them. We sadly don’t see any foals. Their future is uncertain, increasingly prey to hyenas, the struggling population has declined heavily in recent years. Some believe numbers are so low they could soon go extinct.

Capturing the horses in that vast space was compelling. We longed for more time there

In good conditions, when food is plenty, the horses play. When we finally see them, scattered over the plain, there’s clearly no time for leisure activity. They’re busy feeding; heads down the whole while. Well, at least they’ve found something to graze on. A closer look at the seemingly empty landscape reveals a welcome hint of green – small flushes of fresh growth following the rain showers of recent days. Feeling just a little more hopeful for their future we set about framing ‘animal-scapes’; picking out tiny horse shapes that look lost amidst the overwhelming beauty of the Namib-Naukluft reserve.

It’s not just the difficult climatic conditions that cast a shadow over the wild horses’ future. The reserve exists to protect indigenous fauna and flora, yet the horses are incomers, not indigenous ‘game’ – with the inevitable issues that brings. Although research carried out over two decades suggests the horses have no adverse impact on the eco-system, a debate about their preservation is raging. Should the indigenous hyenas that have been picking off the weaker feral horses be managed, or fed themselves elsewhere, as has been happening, to hold them at bay? Should a special sanctuary for the horses be set up? Juggling the cost of their care, weighing the appropriate level of conservation intervention and addressing the valid concerns of the tourism industry is a difficult balancing act. For the moment the Namibia Wild Horses Foundation is desperately fighting to keep the horses in their core area through its targeted feeding.

Mist and mountains make an evocative and atmospheric setting for the horses’ wild spirit

For ourselves, returning to see them after 20 years, we’re surprised at just how much we’re drawn to them.  It would be very sad to see them go after they’ve battled this long to beat the desert’s hardships and have finally found an arrangement with their surroundings.

The fundamental appeal  of the Garub horses is clear – it’s the romance of wild spirit in a wild terrain. It’s that sense of freedom and co-existence with the environment that speaks to something in all of us.  But now that harmony has been put at risk…

The Namibia Wild Horses Foundation warns visitors against handing out food to help the horses because it draws them away from the feeding points and may not provide the vital nutrition and roughage they need. People wanting to help the horses can contribute to the feeding programme by contacting the Wild Horses Foundation where you can also find out more about the horses.

Where to Stay if You Want To See and Photograph the Horses

If you want to photograph, or simply observe the wild horses, the nearest place to stay  is the wonderfully horse-themed Klein Aus Vista resort on the edge of the rocky Aus mountains. (There’s also accommodation in Aus itself, the nearest ‘town’, including a good hotel where we broke our journey for coffee and cake ).

We made the Klein Aus Vista our base for photographing the desert’s celebrity horses

Klein Aus Vista has a range of accommodation from camping to rustic chalets to the Desert Horse Inn, where the well-appointed suites are served by a ranch-style communal area with a pool and good restaurant. There are walking trails around the resort and amazing night skies overhead. klein-aus-vista.com.

Raining cats? Two spoiled snappers get it all wrong

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.

Secretarybirds striding out, enjoy a Kalahari puddle

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!

A tawny eagle enjoys a rare paddle in the Kalahari

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…

Shy species like brown hyena hang around when there’s fresh rain water to drink

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?

We’ve already forgotten the Kalahari was so dry there wasn’t a blade of grass
For weeks of our trip the rain promised but the brooding clouds didn’t break

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?

Going green. The Kalahari and its cats refreshed by rain

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.

A Kalahari puddle makes the perfect plunge pool for a leopard tortoise
Secretarybird settling into a puddle right up to its middle for a welcome bathe
We should lap up the rain days and accept they’re great news for our thirstland subjects!

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.

Hot pursuit – Kgalagadi big cats on camera

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.

Cheetah, Kgalagadi
On the hunt – Kalahari cheetah

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.

Lions at water, Kgalagadi
Slaking their thirst – lions drawn to water

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.

Cheetah with scrub hare
Sunrise breakfast – female cheetah with scrub hare

Pass it on – Some simple photo tips for 2018

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…

Time in the field, knowledge of subjects, returning again and again to a place pays off

…Second, do what you want to do – otherwise why bother…

Don’t be hide-bound by rules or the views of others and always follow your passion

…Third, be ethical; it might rub off on others…

Pass it on; behaving responsibly and respecting our subjects is paramount

…Fourth, don’t give up.’

Why would we when it’s fun to keep at it? Enjoy your photography in 2018

Happy New Year.

And remember the first rule of photography is to enjoy it!

 

Lions’ teen spirit nets us African photo award

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…

Winning image. Canon EOS 1DX, 1/800sec, f/8, ISO 320, 500mm lens plus 1.4x converter

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 picked up the same pride on several occasions
We picked up the same pride on several occasions

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.

Big brothers. It was a tough decision to leave these guys and stick with the younger lions

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.

Staying with the group of cubs was a gamble. Would it pay off?

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?

Gotcha! Lion cubs hone ambush moves that will help their survival when fully-grown

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.

Getting your teeth into it. A sibling’s tail at the sharp end of one cub’s canines

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.

Let’s make up. Time for a friendly head nuzzle after the fighting