Kalahari trip marks 20 years of our safaris

Lioness, Penthera leo, carrying cub, Kgalagadi Tranfrontier Park, South Africa
A memorable Kalahari moment from the old days – on film

It’s a big anniversary for us Toons in 2016. This year, this month in fact, we’ll be celebrating 20 years of safaris in Africa with a trip to the Kalahari – the very place where our photographic adventures first started.

Where did those two decades go? If you want living proof that Africa gets under your skin look no further. We’ve been visiting the continent two or three times a year since then for several weeks, often months, at a time, because, quite simply – we can’t get enough.

Steve Toon, wildlife photographer, Etosha national park, Namibia
Photography on safari in Africa is what we’re about – Steve checks cameras before a drive

That six month trip to South Africa and Namibia in ’96, what Steve refers to now as our ‘road to Damaraland’ conversion, convinced us to ditch our day jobs in journalism and hitch our wagon to wildlife photography instead. Spending almost all our time in the bush on that visit changed our lives completely. Crazily we gave up stable, well-paid jobs in the media for the hand to mouth, roller-coaster existence of the freelance wildlife photographer. It wasn’t easy – starting a new career from scratch – building a portfolio and a profile, getting established with the right photo libraries, mastering the arcane arts of marketing and the 24/7 demands of running our own business.

Leopard, Panthera pardus, male, Okonjima, Namibia
Velvia 50 film – great for richly satuarated portraits but frustratlingly slow for most wildlife

If we’re talking steep learning curves ours has been a Kilimanjaro. We’d just cut our teeth on film when the digital revolution happened. Just in terms of ISO we jumped from a gold standard of 50 (we’re talking the good old days of Fuji Velvia here) to routinely being able to shoot at 1,000 plus without much loss of quality – a huge step forward when so many of the critters in our crosshairs are crepuscular, high-speed or hyperactive.

African fish eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer) fishing, Chobe National Park, Botswana, Africa, October 2014
Cameras like the Canon 1DX have helped us keep pace with our more active subjects

Back in the day we spent an age, plus a fortune on postage, sending out manually labelled and catalogued slides to prospective clients around the world which once out for consideration could not be touted elsewhere. Our hard-won images were sat on for weeks, returned covered in gum from the photo printing process, often sent back scratched and in one or two cases lost forever.

In the field back then we missed so many great moments of action, and nuances of mood, now within our grasp. Exposure was a make or break issue and techniques needed to be nailed in camera – no second chances in the digital darkroom. Looking back it was probably a great way to hone our skills and pay our dues – but what would we have given for a couple of Canon 1DX’s back then?

BPS18 Ann in dune bedroom, Tok Tokkie trail
Waking up to another African dawn after sleeping under the stars in the Namib Naukluft
Giraffe, Giraffa camelopardalis, at dusk, Etosha National Park, Namibia
Big skies and big game plus the thril of not knowing what will happen next

So now we embrace the digital age for the additional freedom and creative scope it brings us, even if it has led to a surfeit of wildlife imagery and a consequent squeeze on earnings. It means we can run our photographic business from home in the wilds of Northumberland National Park, and increasingly from the remote African bush if we have to when we’re away on photo-journalistic assignments or running photographic safaris. And while it’s become tougher than ever to make a good living from photography – we’re doing something far more important – we’re making a life. No-one can take away the rich bank of wildlife experiences we’ve amassed over the last 20 years and the expertise and knowledge we’ve garnered by focusing hard on a well-defined subject area we’re totally passionate about.

African elephant (Loxodonta africana), Chobe National Park, Botswana, October 2014
Helping guests get great shots on our photographic safaris is the next exciting chapter in our African adventures in 2016

Would we make the same move today we did all those years ago – I’m not sure. But then again I think we would. The huge skies, the smell of the dust, that soundtrack of doves, those sunsets, that sense of excitement you feel before every game drive, crossing paths with an elephant or coming face to face, in the flesh, with a big cat, witnessing a unique bit of animal behaviour, or best of all having a completely wild, unscripted scenario unexpectedly developing to your photographic benefit. Nothing beats that. For us it’s just about one thing. Being there…

 

Hare it is – a fitting end to our photography in 2015

Mountain hare (Lepus timidus) in winter snow, Scottish Highlands, Scotland, UK, December 2015
Mountain hare in snow, December 2015

Found ourselves wrapping up 2015 a bit like we started the year with a trip to the Cairngorms National Park in the Scottish Highlands in the snow. Back in January our quest was wintry reindeer shots for a Christmas magazine feature for this month – now safely published and ticked off the ‘to do’ list. This time round our mission was mountain hares – a whole lot trickier to capture than docile deer lured to our lenses by expert herders and a bag of supplementary feed. This one wasn’t a commission so much as a personal challenge and a chance to brush up on our stalking skills and burn up a few calories before the Xmas excess.

Mountain hare (Lepus timidus) in winter coat, Scottish Highlands, Scotland, UK, December 2015
With patience you may get quite close

Unless you’ve been hibernating this winter you’ll know that the weather story in recent weeks here in the north of the UK has been all about milder than average temperatures and the terrible flooding following a soap opera cast list of storms a whole lot less friendly than their names – Eva, Desmond, Frank – might suggest. The white stuff has been pretty scarce so getting any shots of hares in the snow wasn’t looking that likely.

So, a week or so before the Christmas festivities were due to begin, as soon as we heard there had been snow in The Highlands, we headed off. For once luck played into our hands. The roads into the glens were just about passable and the weather was fine and fair. Wrapped up against the minus five temperatures we parked our car and climbed and climbed, and climbed and climbed, following hare tracks here, there and everywhere. It’s tiring, toe-numbing stuff – but what a place to be and what a view all around us.

Mountain hare (Lepus timidus) in winter snow, Scottish Highlands, Scotland, UK, December 2015
Only one hare was prepared to hang around and pose for a picture in the snow that day

Eventually after considerable slogging we spied a couple of hares resting up a little bit higher on the steep face of the mountain. They were watching us as keenly as we were spying on them. Time to go into hare stalking mode. If they don’t scarper straightaway – and a fair few do – then slow patient progress is the way with these subjects. Take it steady and very slow and you may be lucky enough to get quite close as some hares will tolerate you if you don’t push them. We found our new best friend, Canon’s 100-400mm zoom, proved a perfect piece of kit for the job with a 1.4x contender on hand for when you need to work at longer range.

Mountain hare (Lepus timidus) in winter coat, Scottish Highlands, Scotland, UK, December 2015
Spot the hare! The thaw made finding hares a whole lot easier.

We managed to get shots of one fairly confiding hare on that morning’s stalk. You could be lucky and photograph several or not get close to any at all. That’s how it is with mountain hares. Frustratingly we had to make do with photographing stock material at the nearby Highland Wildlife Park on the next two days because an overnight fall of snow made it dodgy for driving into the glen.

Mountain hare (Lepus timidus) in winter coat, Scottish Highlands, Scotland, UK, December 2015
The hares may sit pretty if they have an escape route uphill

We did resume our mountain hare quest later on in the trip, as soon as we were able. But the return of the unseasonal mild weather meant that, when it came, the thaw was just a bit too thorough. The snow disappeared completely – as fast as a fleeing hare – even from the high ground. We did find plenty more mountain hares and took lots of pictures, but charming and characterful as these hardy creatures are, somehow it’s just not the same without the the snow…

 

Flying fish – catching salmon on camera

Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) leaping on upstream migration, River Tyne, Hexham, Northumberland, UK, November 2015
Atlantic salmon – one of autumn’s specials in our neck of the woods

From surfing penguins in South Africa to…leaping salmon on the Tyne. There’s a definite watery theme to our photography at the moment. We’d hardly finished saying goodbye to the two oceans of the Cape peninsula last month than we suddenly found ourselves staring into yet more foaming waters – in this case the iconic north-east England river near our home.

Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) leaping on upstream migration, River Tyne, Hexham, Northumberland, UK, November 2015
It’s a mystery why we hadn’t photographed the annual salmon spectacular before

We’d wanted to photograph the splash and flash of jumping salmon for a while. Although we live in the perfect place to do it – the Tyne is England’s prime salmon river and the annual salmon run’s an autumn highlight in these parts – it’s always ended up being one of those ‘doorstep’ subjects we’ve never quite got around to doing precisely because they’re so handy. You know the ones. You intend to have a serious go photographing them, and even note it down on your shooting list for the season. But then it drops off the bottom again because you tell yourself they’ll still be there again next year and it’ll be a good project to do then because you kid yourself you’ll have more time to devote it in 12 months.

Atlantic salmon, Salmo salar, and sea trout (top, larger), Salmo trutta lacustris, smolts, Kielder Salmon Hatchery, Northumberland UK
Atlantic salmon and sea trout smolts we photographed at Kielder salmon hatchery

It’s a bit weird this particular local shot has eluded us for so long given the fact Steve’s a keen angler – any excuse to stare into a river and dream of finding a free day for some fly fishing is welcome in his book. That coupled with the fact we’d previously done a photo story on the fascinating work of the nearby Kielder dam salmon hatchery.

Atlantic salmon alevin and eggs, Kielder Salmon Hatchery, Northumberland UK
Atlantic salmon alevin and eggs, Kielder salmon hatchery

As a result we have photographs on file of all stages of the hatchery’s work from salmon eggs to smolts, but not a single image of a splashing wild salmon flip flopping in the river. You could well say it was the shot that got away.

Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) leaping weir on upstream migration, River Tyne, Hexham, Northumberland, UK, November 2015
Awesome to see the salmon finally make it over the weir

This autumn we hadn’t even put the salmon on our shopping list of pictures. I think we completely forgot about it. It was only when we were passing by chance, and, attracted by the crowds of spectators gathered above the weir, leaned over to see for ourselves that we truly appreciated what a compelling and photogenic wildlife subject we had within our reach. Why had we left it so long? The sheer numbers of fish exploding out of the teeming waters was staggering, the energy of it all breathtaking, their migration story mind-blowing, their jewel colours against the dark pools of the river mesmerising. They really do look for all the world as though they’re flying. The challenge to capture them on camera was overwhelming. From nowhere the salmon were top of our ‘wish list’ and we rushed home at once to get the camera gear.

Atlantic salmon, Salmo salar, hen selected for broodstock at hatchery, Kielder Salmon Centre, Kielder, Northumberland, UK
Atlantic salmon selected for broodstock at Kielder salmon hatchery

For a couple of days, while the water was high enough and when the light was bright enough to give us the requisite speed for sharp action shots and that all important glint of silver on our splashing subjects, we primed our cameras and trained our lenses on the salmon show.

Stripping eggs from Atlantic salmon, Salmo salar, selected for broodstock at hatchery, Kielder Salmon Centre, Kielder, Northumberland, UK
Stripping eggs from Atlantic salmon, Kielder salmon hatchery

We very quickly discovered it was no use trying to predict where and when the salmon would leap. They’re just too fast. You need to pick your spot – just as a fisherman would.  So to catch our fish we trained our cameras on the busiest part of the weir where the highest number of fish and the biggest specimens appeared to make their leap of faith – making sure we had plenty of speed, a fast frame rate and enough depth of field. Then it was just a matter of waiting patiently for the magic moment when a salmon leaped into our view – a bit like waiting for that tug on the line. Click, click, click…

The technique seemed to work okay and we were quite pleased with our first attempts. If we don’t get back again to exploit the remaining window of opportunity this season we’ll definitely be back to try again next November.

Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) leaping on upstream migration, River Tyne, Hexham, Northumberland, UK, November 2015
Keep your lens trained on a spot where the salmon regularly leap and wait…

Success seemed to be all about holding our nerve as we learned to our cost on more than one occasion. Because it felt stupid at first to narrow our view so much when salmon were leaping along the full length of the weir we kept being tempted to shift position. Don’t. Even though it’s hard to stay focused on the same spot when you start seeing lots of bits of salmon leaping in the corners of your frame, be patient, the fish will jump into your frame at some point. If you take your eye away from the viewfinder, and your finger off the shutter release for just a split second, it’s guaranteed the biggest, best salmon that day will jump perfectly, just where you want it in the frame…

David Kirkland of the Kielder Salmon Centre releasing Atlantic salmon smolts (Salmo sala ), into the North Tyne, Kielder, Northumberland, UK, April 2012
Releasing Atlantic salmon smolts into the North Tyne

Surfing penguins make a big splash in Cape Town

African penguins (Spheniscus demersus) in the surf by Foxy Beach, Table Mountain National Park, Simon's Town, Cape Town, South Africa, September 2015
Home from the sea – African penguins return to the colony after a day’s fishing

There’s no getting over the real sense of surprise you experience when you see penguins in Africa – of all places – and get great views of their antics – without going on a major, massively expensive expedition to colder climes. Even after repeat visits to the famous and unique breeding colony of endangered African penguins on Foxy Beach in Simon’s Town on the Cape – part of the Table Mountain National Park – it’s still a real joy to spend time photographing these compelling, anthropomorphic subjects.

African penguin (Spheniscus demersus) in the surf off Foxy Beach, Table Mountain National Park, Simon's Town, Cape Town, South Africa, September 2015
Graceful in the water this penguin arrives back at the beach in quite some style.

Just last month on our latest photo trip to South Africa we got the chance to return to the handful of beaches where the colony has made its home since the early eighties. We caught up with the characterful penguins returning to the beach, and to their waiting hungry chicks, after a busy day’s fishing out at sea. The tide was high and photographing the penguins riding the surf and exploding out of the water onto the shore in waves of small groups tossed about by the foaming waters kept our fingers clicking furiously.

African penguins (Spheniscus demersus) in the surf off Foxy Beach, Table Mountain National Park, Simon's Town, Cape Town, South Africa, September 2015
This shot, heads all one way in the foam, was just what we wanted.
African penguins (Spheniscus demersus) in the surf off Foxy Beach, Table Mountain National Park, Simon's Town, Cape Town, South Africa, September 2015
Bobbing about and tossed by the waves African penguins splashing in the surf

At first penguin-watchers more eagle-eyed than us were spotting the returning hunters well before they reached the shore – when they were just tiny dots near the horizon. The groups were back at the beach before we’d had chance to fix them in our viewfinders. We soon learned to distinguish the shapes and colours of a distant penguin group from the vast ocean backdrop and began to see the wonderful potential for pictures. Peering out to sea, we were now poised to track them, cameras primed as they surfed the waves at considerable speed back home to the land-based colony.

African penguin (Spheniscus demersus) in the surf off Foxy Beach, Table Mountain National Park, Simon's Town, Cape Town, South Africa, September 2015
It wasn’t easy locking onto to our subjects as rode the waves
African penguins (Spheniscus demersus) porpoising in the surf off Foxy Beach, Table Mountain National Park, Simon's Town, Cape Town, South Africa, September 2015
Bodysurfing penguins on their way back home to shore

The penguins were fantastic to watch as they porpoised through the foam like polished torpedoes. One moment you would see them crest a wave, the next they would disappear beneath it, so hunting a tight-packed group and keeping the birds in focus was a bit of a challenge. Before you could say ‘nailed it’ they were bobbing up back on the beach in a penguin pile, picking themselves up and striding up the shore, chests and tums puffed out, fanning out like chorus line extras from an old Fred Astaire movie in full evening dress. Time for us to try again with the next incoming group…

African penguins (Spheniscus demersus) Foxy Beach, Table Mountain National Park, Simon's Town, Cape Town, South Africa, September 2015
Stepping out – the penguin parade is almost choreographed

A visit to see the birds is a ‘must-do’ on any travel itinerary in and around Cape Town. The colony is just a hop, skip and jump from the ‘Mother City’, one of the world’s most popular travel destinations, so the downside is you do have to share the penguins with others. But there are one or two quieter spots along the shore if you’re prepared to look a bit harder, and on the tiny, family-friendly Boulders Beach, right next door to Foxy Beach, there’s the chance of having a penguin toddle right onto your picnic blanket or join you in the shallows as you paddle. How cool is that?

African penguins (Spheniscus demersus) colony on Foxy Beach, Table Mountain National Park, Simon's Town, Cape Town, South Africa
The penguin colony is now a tourist ‘must-see’ on any Cape Town trip

African penguins are the only penguin species found on the African continent. There has been a breeding colony of the penguins on this beach since 1983. We first visited the penguins on Foxy beach in 1996 before the current tourist boardwalk was built. In those days it was possible to walk on the shore in and among the main colony. Since then tourism has increased so the extra protection for the birds is welcome. Penguin numbers in the colony were rising until about 2005 when there were 3,900 penguins. since when there has been a decline to around 2,100. This is thought to be due to a number of factors including global warming affecting fish stocks, over-fishing and the impact of oil spills and marine pollution.

How to save an elephant

Bull elephants (Loxodonta africana) at the waterhole in front of the lodge, Ol Donyo Wuas, Mbirikani Group Ranch, Amboseli-Tsavo eco-system, Chyulu Hills, Kenya, Africa, October 2012

We’ve been invited to take part in an exciting new project to raise much-needed cash to tackle the appalling elephant poaching crisis – and you can take part too.

‘Remembering Elephants’ is being described as a ‘Live Aid’ moment for wildlife photographers.  Some of the world’s best wildlife photographers (and us!) are donating images to produce a stunning hardback book of elephant images, which will be sold to raise funds for Born Free Foundation’s anti-poaching work.

With well over 100,000 elephants slaughtered in the past few years, this initiative can’t come soon enough.  If you want to help out, you can do so by pledging financial support to the Kickstarter campaign which aims to raise £20,000 to produce the book.  If successful, the project could raise £45,000 to go directly into elephant anti-poaching.  The Kickstarter campaign kicked off today, with a flying start,  but has only one month to reach its goal.  If you can afford to make a pledge, then every little helps, and there are some great rewards. Even if you can’t afford to pledge, please pass on the Kickstarter link to anyone you know.

kickstarter

Well-spotted – Cheetah family posing at Phinda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reinvented EF100-400mm lens wins us over

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spice mix, superglue, a new zoom – must be safari time

AMHB62 Cape buffalo with redbilled oxpecker
We’re looking forward to putting our new telephoto zoom lens through its paces

Steve’s cleaning our cameras. His next job will be to make up some chilli and curry spice mix packs to add to our spice box (much easier to do now than faff about in the dark at camp).

Me? I’ve cleared the memory cards from earlier in the week, printed off our packing and food shopping lists and have just started gathering together assorted items for the ‘bits n bobs’ bag – a universal sink plug, a sewing kit, some superglue – weird but handy stuff that wouldn’t look out of place in Mary Poppins’ carpet bag.

AMHG333 Giraffe at crossroads
We’ll be visiting favourite Zululand reserves

We’re about to head off back to the bush on another African photo safari. With just a few days to go before our trip gets underway we’re starting to get excited about the things we might see and, better still, photograph. This time we’ll mainly be photographing in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, visiting old favourite corners of the Zululand bush and some new ones. We’ll report back on these later – hopefully with some of our results. Trigger fingers crossed we’ll have lots of great photo ops.

We’ll be visiting the newly built hides at Zimanga private reserve, as well as doing some game drives there. It’s on the itinerary of our new photo safaris for 2016 which we’re really chuffed about because this exciting new wildlife reserve is being set up with photographers, as well as wild animals, in mind (at last hides that take our needs into consideration!). We’ve just heard that the alpha female wild dog there is heavily pregnant which is brilliant news. Wild dogs, one of Africa’s rarest apex predators, den in the winter months, now fast approaching in South Africa. Sadly I think we’ll be there a tad too early, on this occasion, to see any playful wild dog pups.

AMPW74 African wild dog
Crossing fingers we’ll run into a wild dog pack in KwaZulu-Natal again

We’ll also be putting our new Canon EF 100-400mm zoom lens through its paces – trying this out in the bush for the first time. We’ve always resisted purchasing big telephoto zooms in the past, opting for the reliability and quality of fixed primes, but…never say never. The thing is there are plenty of times on safari when the ability to zoom out quickly, rather than grab another body or switch lenses would be the ideal. Our 70-200mm lens, for example, is often the perfect fit for ‘shooting’ elephants, and a firm favourite when we’re working in reserves where we can go off road and approach our subjects more closely.

AMHRW193 White rhinos in aggressive confrontation
We’re hoping the new zoom will plug a gap in our kit when close stuff suddenly kicks off

But on those lucky occasions when a lion, or lumbering rhino, walks right towards you through the veld – a quality 100-400mm would be just the ticket. We’re hoping we’ve now successfully plugged this gap in our defences. Certainly when we saw the positive reviews about optical quality this particular zoom was getting we felt the time was right to welcome one into our kit bag. We’ll let you know how it performs on our return and whether we’re now big zoom converts…

BOO56 Steve photographing rhino surgery
Steve photographing for Project African Rhino

Finally we’ll be hoping to find out more, too, about what’s happening on the conservation scene, with a particular focus on rhinos, for our Project African Rhino campaign. The project will have been running for three years next month. Where did that time go? When we began we thought after three years we’d probably wind it down, but clearly there’s too much terrible stuff still going on, and so much great work being done that we can’t just abandon the two African rhino species and the conservationists out there fighting for them.

BPS15 Ann photographing northern white rhino, Ol Pejeta
Our focus on the need to save rhinos from the threat of extinction continues

So far we’ve been really encouraged by all the feedback we’ve had while we’ve been raising awareness about the poaching and its fall-out  and we’d love it, if you like our work here, for you to check out our companion blog to this one and perhaps give our rhino project Facebook page the thumbs up too…

Next stop – Africa.

 

Six ways to add wow to your wildlife pictures

I can tell from the way we’re needling each other now after long days in the office, processing pictures, polishing pitches and chasing unpaid invoices, that it’s high time we were heading off back to the African bush. Our run-down engines are spluttering, our creative juices have evaporated, the RSI is flaring up and our pasty skins and bleary eyes, after hours in the ‘digital darkroom’ with blinds drawn, are truly zombie-like.

It’s got so bad that yesterday, just to keep going on the projects in hand, we had to down tools for 15 minutes to listen to BBC sound recordist Chris Watson’s wonderful Kalahari soundscape, broadcast earlier this week on Radio Four, on the iPlayer. It’s amazing how much renewed energy you can get just hearing the ping, ping, pinging calls of barking geckoes. A sound we’ll forever associate with evenings in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Reserve after a busy day ‘connecting’ with Africa’s awesome wildlife.

Fortunately it’s not too long now before we’ll be taking down our special ‘Africa’ crate once again (see our post ‘Six Things to Love About Photography in the Kalahari‘  about this important pre-trip, packing ritual). Re-charging our batteries and nourishing our souls in the wild just can’t come soon enough.

After years of doing this you’d think we’d have this wildlife photography thing nailed by now. But every time we look forward to travelling we resolve to improve our pictures and return home with better shots than before. While we certainly learned early on that there’s no silver bullet or short-cut to getting that great shot we have found a few simple techniques and approaches along the way that help our pictures pack a punch. Here are just a few (and then we must get back to work!):

1. Turn round
Turning your back, quite literally, on the prevailing wisdom that recommends photographing with the sun behind your shoulder immediately presents you with the opportunity to exploit the changing moods and magical effects of back-lighting. Back-lighting is a boon for wildlife subjects because it allows you to focus more attention on them. Distracting detail, and colour even, is held in check, (or is almost non-existent in the shadow areas) so there’s nothing at all to detract the viewer’s eye from the main event. Keep compositions clean and experiment  under-exposing shots a bit to further dampen down detail and saturate the golden light. Look out for back-lighting opportunities when photographing animals in water, when it’s cold, or in dry, dusty conditions. A golden spray of water droplets, a veil of condensing breath or a shimmering cloud of dust will really enhance the eye-appeal of your shots.

AMHAL17(D) Common (blue) wildebeest (gnu)
Shoot into the light to add mood, magic and mystery to wildlife images

2. Go wide
While the foreshortening effect of long lenses can be brilliant for throwing backgrounds out of focus in wildlife shots (and getting close to stuff in the first place!) the downside is your results can sometimes look a bit flat.

That’s why wherever we get the opportunity we like to use wide-angle lenses. Wildlife images made this way always look refreshingly different and have bags of immediacy because subjects appear so ‘in your face’. Unlike long lenses, the broad angle of view when shooting wide gives pictures a dynamic 3-D feel and allows you to include lots of in-focus background detail, too, telling a story about your subject’s habitat and immediately enriching your picture with context. Wide-angle animal close-ups work best at eye level with your subject (or below it) so you not only need to get very close, you need to get down low – often lying prone. The effect is to exaggerate your subjects’ size and characteristics, making them appear to loom out of your picture – straight towards the viewer.

AMHRW168(D) White rhinos
Low and wide is one way to go if you want to make dynamic images of large mammals

3. Think landscape
When we started out and had splashed all our savings on long lenses we photographed everything close-up – all the time. We still do close-up shots, of course, but we temper that desire to fill the frame all the time now because these shots don’t really communicate much about our subject to the viewer – the habitat it prefers or the eco-system it belongs to. They also don’t really capture the sense of scale of a subject or establish any relationship between the subject itself and the world it inhabits. These days we force ourselves to think more like landscape photographers; placing wildlife subjects in the wider scene as thoughtfully as a landscape photographer would frame a scenic shot. As always, photograph when the light is best to make the most of impressive skies and surrounding scenery.

AMHZ83(D) Zebra with storm
Good landscape techniques with a strong wildlife subject is a winning combo

4. Make eyes
Strong eye contact takes a wildlife image to another level since eyes are the first thing a viewer engages with. We’ve discovered that getting this part of the picture right is vital – putting the ‘life’ into wildlife images. We often pass up on a  subject with no catchlight in the eye because  we know the resulting image will look lifeless. You can add a catchlight at the post-processing stage, but nothing beats a natural sparkle. Always be ready to press the shutter at the precise moment your subject is wide-eyed and be prepared to shift your position in relation to the sun and your subject. If you can’t get a catchlight immediately, this shuffling of viewpoint often helps. Eyes are such an important feature we often try to make them the ‘essence’ or stars of a picture.

AMPL106(D) Lion
Strong eye contact, an alert stare and pupils clear to see will all help grab and hold the viewer’s attention

5. Break rules
Experiment, be creative, aim to find your own visual style and be prepared to dispense with photographic convention. A lightning bolt won’t strike you if you stray away from the rule of thirds. If you feel it will improve the aesthetics of your image, advance the story you want to tell, or convey the emotion you’re after – go for it. The best images are not the ‘me too’ wildlife clichés, but the ones that dare to be different. A word or two of warning ‘though. Be bold when you veer off the straight and narrow. If you’re too tentative you risk not pulling it off – and always do it for a reason.

AMHRW186 White rhino
Dare to be different – rules work, but can be broken too!

6. Be there
Our best and final advice  is quite simple – get out there with your camera as much as you can. Luck is a rare commodity, whatever you’re doing in life, but you can increase your chance of getting better wildlife shots simply by putting more time in. It certainly seems to work for us. That tired old saying ‘F8 and be there’ holds more than a grain of truth. So keep a camera with you at all times when you’re out where the wild things are – that winning shot is out there waiting for you.

AMPFS88(D) Cape fox cub with dead rat
Put as much time in as you can to get the most out – patience brings the privilege of seeing and shooting great wildlife behaviour in the field, whether at home or abroad

Capture your best shots on a photo safari with us!

AMHE584 Elephant herd at dawn
Chobe is famous for its large elephant herds and wonderful photographic light

Since returning home from our photo trip on the Chobe river last October we’ve had our heads down putting together and finalising details for the thrilling 10 night African photo safari we’ll be leading in 2016. We’re going to be combining two brilliant centres – returning to photograph on the Chobe river in Botswana and then on to Zimanga private reserve in South Africa’s game rich Zululand region.

Zimanga’s the first wild game reserve in Africa that’s been set up specifically with wildlife photographers in mind and its state of the art hides, designed by award-wining Hungarian photographer Bence Mate, have only just come on stream.

ABWH192 Goliath heron in glight
We’ll be photographing iconic birds and game from an adapted and very stable photo boat

Both destinations offer some of the best photographic opportunities currently available for getting close to the continent’s iconic wildlife together with the unique chance to shoot from specially-adapted boats and these low level hides. This truly is a trip designed by wildlife photographers for wildlife photographers; offering some of the best photographic angles possible across two of the top photographic safari destinations in southern Africa.

AMHH72 mating Chobe
We’ll be able to approach most subjects up close and use great angles

Having pretty much filled the places for the first date we’re offering within 24 hours of putting the details out (only two spaces remain for the September 7 to 17 trip ) we’re today announcing a further date. We’re now going to be leading a further Chobe – Zimanga photo trip next year from June 22 to July 2.

ABEE57 African fish eagle
As our first trip in September is taking off we’re now planning further dates in June
AMHE587 Elephant crossing Chobe river
Get the full heads up about our exciting 2016 photo trips on our website

If you’d like to join us photographing in Africa in 2016 you can find out more about this photo safari with a difference on our website. There’s lots more information here about the wonderful places and wildlife we’ll be shooting and what the trip entails…

Perhaps we’ll see you there?