Tag Archives: Kalahari

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

 

 

Three pictures and the stories behind them

The header says it all really. A simple post centred on three recent images from the files and the stories that led up to them…

Vanishing Point – White Rhino

Canon EOS 1DX, 1/5 second, f/8, ISO 100, Canon EF 300mm f/4 lens

White rhino, Kwazulu Natal

Working for several days from a hide in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal we’d often used in the past our visit had been productive. We were photographing rhinos as part of a project to raise awareness and document the ramifications of the poaching crisis there. We’d photographed lots of rhinos and the cows’ very small babies had completely charmed our socks off, but we hadn’t really got anything that conveyed what we felt about the whole sorry saga – something that summed up our sense of the rhino’s vulnerability; that here was a species on the brink, under threat of disappearing forever before our very eyes.

On our final day the light was poor, so we didn’t hold out much hope we could really add anything more. It was overcast, so there were no reflections to exploit at the water, and the whole scene appeared flat and lifeless. Perhaps because it was also a cooler day, there were fewer animals coming down to drink.  It really was a head-scratching time.

Then out of nowhere a lone rhino lumbered slowly down to the water. The muted colour palate made for an altogether more sombre mood than on previous days and that suddenly struck a chord with us.  Perhaps here was something to work with. The germ of an idea?

Selecting a slow shutter speed and deliberately moving the camera while photographing to create a, softer, more painterly, effect we experimented photographing impressionistic images of the lone rhino at the water. The results seemed to us much more emotive than the ones we’d taken in the bright, warm sunshine and certainly chimed more with our sense of sadness and despair at the pointless slaughter of these innocent creatures…

Buffalo Nocturne – Cape Buffalo

Canon EOS 5D Mk III, 1/50 second, f/4.5, ISO 2000, Canon EF17-40mm EF lens

Cape buffalo at night

Staying quiet for hours in a nocturnal hide in the middle of the bush when there’s nothing but stillness, eerie sounds and the black velvet curtain of night outside is an unusual experience to say the least. Being able to witness and photograph Africa’s large mammals in such a setting ( with wide angle lenses and without the need for flash); to gain a unique glimpse into their night-time world is truly something unique.

We’d been ensconced in this hide for a while, slowly getting accustomed to using our camera controls in the darkness when out of nowhere a small group of thirsty buffalo approached…

The bulls nervously moved closer to the drinking edge – a scant four metres from our lenses – and dipped their huge, heavy heads to drink. Their bony horn bosses and shiny wet muzzles felt near enough to touch. Right next to us in the dead of night were three burly Cape buffaloes, members of Africa’s legendary Big Five and one of the toughest and most dangerous species on the continent. Our hearts were racing as we moved to the viewfinders on our cameras waiting to squeeze the shutter releases. Against the darkness the LED lights on the outside of the hide moulded the muscular lines of their massive bodies reminding us just how powerful these heavyweight contenders really were.  We both held our breath in awe.

We took tons of pictures as you might imagine, but it wasn’t until the trio arranged themselves around the water’s edge like a diorama from a natural history museum display, that we not only had an amazing and memorable encounter of wildlife by night, but we also had our perfect composition.

Dance of Death – Cheetah with Springbok Lamb

Canon EOS-1DX Mk II, 1/800sec, f/6.3, ISO1600, Canon EF f/4 100-400mm zoom

Cheetah with springbok kill

Summer in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is a time of unbearable heat, thunderstorms and heavy downpours; a time when rain brings temporary relief, when food becomes more plentiful and when the resident springbok drop their lambs. Cue the reserve’s cheetahs. Their success when hunting springbok fawns is almost assured…

We’ve been photographing in the Kalahari at this time for several years. On this occasion we’d been watching a female cheetah for over an hour. We’d been lucky in spotting her settled in a shallow gully; well hidden from us and the small herd of springbok grazing in the riverbed nearby with their newborn lambs. Although it didn’t appear as if she was actively hunting, the fact she was in cover, with an excellent view of nearby prey was reason enough to stay with her and wait.

Most of the time she was motionless, just twitching her ear or flicking her tail every now and then. The wait seemed pointless given the herd wasn’t moving nearer. Perhaps it was time to give up and move on? Then a solitary lamb began moving away from the protection of the herd right in the direction of the cheetah; seriously cutting the distance she needed to make to secure her next meal. We knew it was going to happen any minute now.

The chase happened so fast it’s difficult now to recall exactly how it panned out. Trying to follow the fast unfolding action while making sense of what was going on seemed almost impossible; particularly as the startled young lamb zig-zagged and the the chase took both predator and prey right out of sight at one point behind a thick clump of low bushes.

When the dust settled, we could see she had taken the lamb down right beside us. There she was, in the warm light of late afternoon, with the tiny springbok in a chokehold, struggling to lift and control the deadweight. It was vital for her to get away from the open terrain of the riverbed to safety with her quarry before darkness. She looked directly towards us for a brief moment before turning towards the dune with her prize and that was the picture of the two – predator and prey locked in a macabre pas de deux. No time to dial down our ISO but just press when her eyes met our own.

Meet the meerkat mob that stole the show

Playful young suricates get into mischief at the den one evening

It’s just before sunrise and we’re squatting uncomfortably in a clump of bushes in a quiet corner of our Kalahari restcamp.  We’re keeping quiet.  For two reasons. First up, our subjects are still snoozing, although we’re not too concerned about disturbing their slumbers (they’ll be up like clockwork with the sun in a few minutes). But more importantly we don’t want to draw anyone else’s attention to what we’re doing…

It’s not that we don’t like sharing, and we’re not usually this clandestine about subjects (we even took a detour and sneaked round the long way this morning in case anyone spotted where we were headed). With subjects this obliging we are unusually keen to keep this one to ourselves.

Keep schtum! We really need to keep this quiet – hence the secrecy

We stumbled upon the spot a couple of days ago, almost by accident, and we have spent a few wonderful mornings (and sun-downs) with the ever-popular species that occasionally has sleep-overs here. We worry if we draw a crowd the group could be disturbed and might not choose to sleep in camp with us again.

What are we up to?  We’re door-stepping meerkats.  We certainly feel like paparazzi skulking about secretively with our cameras and lying in wait for the money shot.

It’s a golden opportunity to observe these busy creatures intimately at low level

But the chance to photograph a family of suricates – fascinating, characterful, charming, comical and anthropomorphic as they are – out of our vehicle, up close, at ground level, interacting and behaving totally unselfconsciously (and with the prospect we might even be able to use a wide-angle lens if we take things slow and don’t push it) is not one to let go.

It’s summer here, when suricates breed, and we’ve been lucky to see a couple of photogenic ‘clans’ with young – including some really tiny babies ( more of them to come in a later post…)

The last time we had the chance to photograph meerkat families socialising as intimately as this, we were photographing at the real life ‘Meerkat Manor’ from the TV, at the home of the long-running Kalahari Meerkat Project, for a magazine feature. It’s not a place that grants access to photographers lightly so a meerkat den in a secret corner of our camp in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park a few weeks ago, with habituated residents, was going to make missing the odd the big cat sighting on morning and evening game drives for a day or two more than worthwhile.

Last out’s a sissy. Checking the coast is clear a single merrkat pops up to say hello

Just as cramp is setting in our lower limbs we see the first signs that our photo session is about to begin. A sleepy, long-snout noses out of the sandy hole followed by a skinny body. The early riser clocks that we’re here, but isn’t fazed by us.  This clan is used to people with cameras. This is because they’ve been spending the odd day here or there foraging on the campsite to the delight of tourists.

It was an amazing experience to watch them socialise right in front of our camera lenses
One meerkat would act as sentinel climbing a bush to check the coast was clear

Having spent a few days with them now we marvel at their ability to be in plain sight one minute on the campsite, then ‘puff’ they’re gone from right under everyone’s noses the next.  Nobody seems to notice them taking a cautious, sometimes circuitous, route home to the far reaches of the restcamp, picking their moments before clumping up in a tight, secure group when they need to cross an open bit of ground… followed discreetly a minute or two later by two self-conscious, stupid-looking photographers, trying hopelessly to look nonchalant…and invisible.

Emerging into the spotlight as soon as the sun is up – the morning meerkat show begins

Meerkat number one is now completely out of the hole and scoping around to check the coast is clear. The gang don’t always see eye to eye with their closest neighbours, a family of yellow mongoose, who get out of bed around the same time, but they’re nowhere to be seen this morning.  Like peas being shelled from a pod, the rest of the clan – all 14 – pop out of the hole in quite quick succession. It’s a treat to watch. They seem to ignore us completely and while a sentry climbs a nearby bush to keep watch, the morning rituals of getting up ‘meerkat-style’ begin.

Characterful and comical their antics keep us busy until they head off to forage
The pregnant alpha female and a youngster bask in the sun

On hot summer mornings like this these suricates won’t hang around long sunbathing so we need to shoot quickly and efficiently – without getting in their, or each other’s way.  We start framing shots of tight huddles of adults, and young interacting close to the burrow, using our 100 to 400mm zoom lenses so we can easily make a variety of compositions without moving position and disturbing them.  Gradually the huddles break up and we divide our attention between digging adults and playfighting juniors, clicking away hungrily before inching slowly towards one of the more confiding groups with a short lens.  This allows for a more dynamic perspective and one we certainly couldn’t get beyond the confines of camp where we’re confined to working from our vehicle.

When the time is right we inch closer with a wide angle lens – but don’t like to intrude

It feels intrusive, however, with a camera right in their faces, and given we’ve had such close access to them already, we quickly grab a shot or two and retreat to a respectful distance.

Scampering off for the day past the resident ground squirrels in camp

Before long they’re off and away, as on the other mornings, the gang fanning out as they forage – all the while chattering reassuringly to keep contact with one another as they frantically dig and search around with noses down.

It’s only when the den site is quiet and empty once again that we notice just how painful it’s been working hunched up on the uneven ground, sprawled in and around the prickly bushes and network of old ground squirrel burrows.  But that doesn’t matter. It’s not every day you get to wish ‘good morning’ to a bunch of meerkats; going eyeball to eyeball with the whole gang as they emerge from a secret hideaway that nobody else knows exists.

The Marmite moments of a photography couple

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) with cub, Kgalagadi Transfronter Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, June 2016
We’ve waited a long time to photograph cheetah cubs this size in the Kalahari

Wildlife photography really is a Marmite profession. We’re either tearing each other’s hair out through frustration or hugging each other for sheer joy. There’s no middle ground.

We were reminded of this fact again recently on our last visit to the Kalahari, a few short weeks ago, when we managed to shoehorn ourselves into a packed Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park for a couple of weeks last minute before the first of our new African photo safaris. The idea was that some time spent in one of Africa’s last wilderness areas would refresh us after a particularly hectic time back home in the office trying to twist editors’ arms into running our material etc etc.  We reckoned a good photographic ‘tune-up’ in the field before meeting up with and leading our first safari guests would be just the ticket.

Leopard female (Panthera pardus), Kgalagadi transfrontier park, South Africa, June 2016
Leopards were like buses. Two came at once on our recent visit to the KTP

A good idea in theory, but we’d forgotten to factor in the Marmite effect. For the first week we struggled to find a rubbish subject to train our lenses on, let alone a decent one. Ordinarily in these situations we’d change camps to see if other parts of the park proved more fruitful, but the place was chock full. Daily marches to reception to see if there was a cancellation somewhere drew a blank and the dust started to build up on our barely-used gear.

Lion (Panthera leo) cub, Kgalagadi transfrontier park, South Africa, June 2016
To get lion and cheetah cubs on a short visit was special

Anyone who has been to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park will know that seldom are things served up on a plate in this vast thirstland landscape. It’s never easy getting great images even though it is one of our top spots to photograph in.

Leopard female (Panthera pardus), Kgalagadi transfrontier park, South Africa, June 2016
This female walked straight towards our lenses

Goodness knows how many hours we’ve spent parked up waiting for something to happen, or driving up and down the same old sandy, corrugated tracks that trace the dry riverbeds of the Nossob and Auob.  Patience and persistence are essential tools in the armoury in this semi-desert eco-system. Nine times out of ten the cheetah we’ve been following for hours doesn’t hunt, or the chase explodes in the wrong direction  leaving us with nothing but a big anti-climax for our efforts. Leopards stay tantalisingly out of camera reach on the far calcrete ridges or glare down disdainfully from the intensely-dappled shade of a camethorn tree – a perfect jewel marred by its bad setting. Great to witness but lousy to photograph subjects can sustain a photographing couple only so long.

This photographic drought was something else. The days were fast slipping by and we had zilch to show for it. Our grumpiness was getting worse…

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) cubs, Kgalagadi Transfronter Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, June 2016
You can’t stay grumpy for long when you have photo opps like this

Then suddenly the pendulum swung in the opposite direction. Would you credit it? Out of nothing we suddenly found ourselves with seven leopard sightings in as many days (something of a personal record for the KTP). Not one but two confiding female leopards chose to share their early morning patrols with us, posing close to the cameras, which is not your typical wild leopard response to interlopers. Three tiny cheetah cubs (still with their white fur hoodies intact and our first at this young age for several years) turned up out of the blue. They hung around for ages  with mum  so we had both evening and morning drives with them playing and getting up to mischief while we clicked away. Then, en route for our second helping of said cheetah cubs, we tripped over a couple of really little lion cubs beautifully lit at dawn.  They were totally under our radar until that morning. You couldn’t have scripted a more opposite week to our first one.

Leopard female (Panthera pardus), Kgalagadi transfrontier park, South Africa, June 2016
Twenty years ago we hardly saw leopards they were so shy in the Kalahari

What a trawl of anniversary presents! We’ve been celebrating 20 years of visits to the Kalahari in 2016, but we never expected we’d be doing it with such brilliant photographic encounters as we had that second week. More Marmite please…

Lion (Panthera leo) with cub, Kgalagadi transfrontier park, South Africa, June 2016
What a way to celebrate 20 years of visiting this magical African wilderness

‘Hunny’ badger liking tortoise too much!

Honey Badger or ratel (Mellivora capensis), Kgalagadi Transfrontierl Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, February 2014
‘I can smell tortoise, I can see tortoise, but I can’t taste tortoise.’

It’s not everyday you cross paths with one of these tough little guys in the wild – and when you do see a canny and cunning honey badger it’s more often than not a fleeting glimpse and hardly ever a photograph.  Nine times out of 10 they’re gone before you’ve got your camera ready.

So imagine our surprise when we met this chap one rainy morning just before sunrise in the Kalahari’s Nossob riverbed. We hadn’t been up long and were still feeling groggily half-asleep. As a result we were pretty slow to react when we spotted it.  We almost drove past making it necessary to turn right around – a manouevre we knew from experience was guaranteed to buy this wily predator just enough time to effect his escape.

Honey Badger or ratel (Mellivora capensis) eating leopard tortoise (Geochelone pardalis), Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, January 2016
Our honey badger getting to grips with a large leopard tortoise.

We couldn’t believe our luck when we saw the animal was still there after all our clumsy faffing about. What was keeping it so busy and so preoccupied it didn’t want to flee the scene even with our vehicle noisily bearing down on it?

‘He’s got a tortoise. He’s got a big tortoise and he’s eating it!’

Perhaps you have to be an African wildlife afficionado to fully appreciate just what a rare and exciting sighting this was.  Magic. Unless you happen to be a tortoise that is – and certainly that particular tortoise. Feisty, fierce but full of character it’s not your everyday animal that can get through such defences. A bit like opening a can of corned beef without the key or a tin-opener.

Honey Badger or ratel (Mellivora capensis) eating leopard tortoise (Geochelone pardalis), Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, January 2016
Winnie the Pooh with his jar of ‘hunny’?

Call us weird, but putting aside the harsh reality of the ‘red in tooth and claw’ aspects of this sighting,  we couldn’t help noticing similarities to that famous E H Shepherd illustration of a portly Winnie the Pooh with his paws in the ‘hunny’ pot as our badger delved deep into the tortoise shell to extract more of his tasty meal.

Given the honey badger was happy for us to gawp at him eating his breakfast in the rain we took lots of stills, shot some video and just watched.  The captures are not what we like to call ‘photographers’ photographs’; the light was poor, we had to use flash, and you can hardly call our results aesthetically pleasing, but the chance to  document a moment like this doesn’t come often. We probably won’t see this behaviour ever again.

It’s why we go to Africa.  In the hope that we might do!

Kalahari Big Cats – the Might and the Mane

We seemed to have the lion’s share of big cat sightings on our trip to the Kalahari last month. Always cool for cats, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park surpassed itself on this occasion and provided us with not one, but two sets of cute lion cubs to contend with, a camera-friendly female leopard posing on the red sand as if it were the red carpet, some cheetah cubs washing up after their dinner of springbok tartare and a bunch of muscular, black-maned male lions strutting their stuff up and down the Auob and Nossob riverbeds.

That all added up to some spectacular wildlife encounters and adrenaline-fuelled, feline photographic opportunities despite the 40 plus degree temperatures in the shade. You can imagine the two of us, hot and bothered, getting camera gear and gearstick in a tangle in our excitement to soak up (capture and expose correctly!) all those awesome big cat sightings.

It’s never easy trying to manoeuvre a vehicle speedily and efficiently into the best position for the light, relative to an often moving subject, at the same time as changing camera settings in a nano-second, in a small space, all the while  ensuring you’re well-braced for each shot. The results can’t ever reach up the the magic of the real-time moment, of course, but here, as they say, are just a few of the ‘mane’ highlights…

Leopard (Panthera pardus) female, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, February 2016
Most leopards are camera shy. Not her posing near her kill.
Lioness with cubs (Panthera leo) drinking in the Kalahari, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, February 2016
A wedding anniversary photo bonus for us to find this mother and cubs.
Lion (Panthera leo), Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, February 2016
Black maned males like this chap are the pride of the Kalahari.

 

Lioness with cub (Panthera leo) in the Kalahari, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, February 2016
This little chap needs to walk off that full tummy as he goes to the water with mum.

 

Cheetah cubs ( Acinonyx jubatus), Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, February 2016
We found these spotty siblings relaxing in the shade after a springbok meal.
Lioness grooming cub (Panthera leo), Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, February 2016
Watch it mum that’s a big tongue you’ve got!

 

 

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…

 

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

Seek out the top photo hides in South Africa

ABEM98 Black-shouldered kite in flight, Intaka
Black-shouldered kit in flight

Specialist hides, where you often pay a premium to photograph, are springing up at the moment like fungi after a flood. All good stuff perhaps, but let’s not forget, in these straitened times, there are still quite a few top-notch public hides that are perfectly positioned for getting excellent shots and most of them are a bargain. Here are a few of our personal favourites from our many visits to South Africa:

Intaka Island

ABWH157 Little bittern
Little bittern, Intaka

Shop ’til you drop or photograph birds to your heart’s content at this hidden Cape Town oasis with Table Mountain for a backdrop. This compact, and cleverly thought-out, urban wetland area has been created right at the heart of the Century City development so you can hop on a boat to the nearby shopping mall for brunch after a busy morning photographing various kingfishers, shy bitterns, ducks, geese, ibis and even the odd raptors that sometimes pass by.

ABKK38 Malachite kingfisher with beetle
Malachite kingfisher with beetle, Intaka

Best bit:  When we’ve visited,  when passing through the Mother City, natural perches were extremely well-placed for photography.

Our tip: Go early, and mid-week, if you want the best spot for photography – this tiny hide is popular and can be very busy on weekends.

Giants Castle Vulture Hide

ABEV79(D) Bearded vulture adult and squabbling subadults
Bearded vulture with sub-adults, Giants Castle

We haven’t been to this perennial favourite for a while – probably because it’s regularly booked out these days. Where else can you go eyeball to eyeball with bearded and Cape vultures as they soar effortlessly on the thermals against the stunning Drakensberg mountains of KwaZulu-Natal in a precariously placed eyrie of a cliff-top hide.

ABEV71(D) Bearded vulture subadult
Juvenile bearded vulture, Giants Castle

Best bit: A morning in this amazing state park-run hide is a wonderful experience even if you don’t pack camera gear and simply sit there absorbing the avian aerobatics and fly-pasts.

Our tip: Booking well ahead goes without saying, but if possible book out the whole hide (it’s not expensive) so you’ve got plenty of room and can use whichever camera portholes are best on the day.

Kumasinga Hide

AMHRW193 White rhinos in aggressive confrontation
White rhinos confront each other, Kumasinga

Staying in KwaZulu-Natal, this dry season hide that sits over a tree-lined waterhole in Mhkuze game reserve is no secret to photographers and bird-watchers alike. Since its recent refurbishment, however, we reckon it’s now even better for photography. Perhaps we were just lucky on our last visit, but the place was heaving all morning with nyala, wildebeest, impala, zebra, rhino, baboons, warthogs, the odd ellie or two and even comical terrapins.

AAT02 Marsh terrapins (African helmeted turtles)
Comical marsh terrapins, Kumasinga

Best bit: Photo opportunities here are rich and rewarding and you’re beautifully close to the busy morning animal activity  with the perfect orientation for the light.

Our tip: Be alert to what’s going on behind you when you’re there. There can sometimes be good opportunities for contre-jour shots in the very early morning on the less busy side of the hide.

Mata Mata Restcamp Hide

AMPL327 Lioness and cubs at water
Wary lioness with cubs, Mata Mata

We can’t resist including this one from the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park because we’ve so many awesome memories of big cats coming to drink here by night and day. Of course you don’t need to be inside this purpose-built hide on stilts; you can watch the wildlife just as easily from the (sometimes flimsy-feeling!) camp fence, but the hide makes photographing with big telephotos that bit easier as there’s a handy ledge to support your lens and no wire to get in the way.

AMPL339 Lion drinking
Majestic male visits Mata Mata camp waterhole for a drink

Best bit: You’re right at camp so can pop down from the hide to turn your chops on the braai while you’re photographing the lions.

Our tip: If cats have been seen around camp in the morning, or are sitting up on the distant dunes in the afternoon, you may want to forgo an evening drive and sit patiently in the hide – they’ll generally move down to the waterhole for a drink just before sundown.

AMPL338 Young lions
Eyeing up the campers? Young lions from the Mata Mata hide

So these are just a few of our favourite ‘public’ hides for photography. Perhaps you have your own favourites?

‘Beat About the Bush’ New Trip Awards

At last we’ve finished processing the images from our recent South Africa trip. We’ve been going as fast as possible, while at the same time marketing pictures, pitching feature ideas and ensuring existing deadlines are met (not to mention exploiting photo opportunities when the weather’s fair here in the UK). It’s a time-consuming juggling act – cue violins – but helps explain why we haven’t been here for a while and why it’s taken this long to present the inaugural Beat About the Bush ‘Travel Awards’ based on our latest round of African adventures. Here at last, for what it’s worth, is our round-up and recommendations.

Best Braai (with guests and surprise visitors)

Curious after dinner guests - these young genets were a welome intrusion
Curious after dinner guests – a welcome intrusion

Home-made ostrich burgers charred on the coals overlooking the waterhole at Mata Mata in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park shared with our German photographer and ecologist friend Bernd, who’d come down to see us from Namibia where he’s based. We’d treated ourselves to an accommodation upgrade and were staying in the smart river front chalets (in part to catch up with the sport on TV shame to say) so had a brilliant stoep location for dinner. The menu featured game from Checkers at the new Kalahari shopping mall in Upington and veggie treats from that corner Engen garage on the way up to the KTP which – ta-da – now has Woolworths’ food. It’s a long way from our early days here, when, camping for two month stretches at a time, we really struggled for fruit and greens.

After dessert, the juiciest spanspek melon courtesy of Bernd, surprise visitors turned up unannounced. As we were chugging our last beers we became aware of a rustling sound. We turned round to see two small-spotted genets eyeing us up from a thorn tree overhanging our deck. Turns out these curious sub-adults were our lodgers, holed up during the day in our roof thatch. In return for their free accommodation they kindly agreed to pose for some pictures.

Best Book

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy where author Alan Root now lives
Lewa Wildlife Conservancy where our ‘Best Book’ author, Alan Root, now lives

We always have destination-appropriate reading matter at hand for the long lulls between game drives and bouts of photography. We carry a special ‘book-bag’ round with us (an old Singapore Airlines shopper we’ve had for ages) crammed with magazines and books. It’s being eased out a bit these days by our iPad, but will never totally be replaced. This trip’s best-thumbed title was ‘Ivory, Apes & Peacocks’ by award-winning, Kenyan-based, wildlife film-maker Alan Root, an old pal of David Attenborough’s. It was published last year by Vintage Books. Anyone on safari, who loves African wildlife, photography or filming, or can simply imagine the long-gone Africa of Joy Adamson’s era will enjoy, marvel and laugh out loud at the well-told tales of his amazing scrapes and animal encounters. A true pioneer of his craft.

Most Perfect Storm

Storm clouds gathering menacingly over the Kgalagadi earlier this year
Storm clouds gathering menacingly over the Kgalagadi earlier this year

Catch a load of this prize-winning African summer storm we viewed from the top of the red dunes one evening after a game drive as it approached Twee Rivieren restcamp in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. The clouds massed like a big black tidal wave dumping much needed rain on us for several hours afterwards. Storms in this part of the world are awesome, operatic in scale, humbling, partly the reason we keep coming back at this time, and never the same twice.

Best Luxury Donkey Boiler

Fantastic drive from Mosetlha, with our guide Justice, turned up this pack of hunting wild dogs
Fantastic drive from Mosetlha, with our guide Justice, turned up these hunting wild dogs

A one-off, special award goes to Mosetlha Bush Camp at Madikwe game reserve in South Africa’s North-west Province. This charming, affordable and popular little bush camp, surrounded by chic five-star luxury lodges, manages to hold it’s own among them with it’s unique brand of rustic-with-frills eco-tourism. The hot water supply from the donkey boiler is constant, even if you do have to fill the bucket for your shower yourself. The camp is unfenced, but the shower block is enclosed so you don’t have to keep looking over your shoulder during your ablutions. Even the basic tents-cum-cabins are en suite – if you’ll allow a small bowl for hand washing and a potty. The latter is a real luxury for lazy campers like me (Ann) who always need the loo in the night, but hate going far in the dark to use the facilities. This is a fun way for first-timers to get a taste of camping wild in the bush, but with ‘stabilisers’.

Best Drama

The cheetahs catch their breath after bringing down a young wildebeest calf
The cheetahs catch their breath after bringing down a young wildebeest calf

Be advised this one doesn’t have a happy ending – neither for the small wildebeest calf nor for us. This baby wildebeest was taken down, extremely efficiently thankfully, by four speedy cheetahs before we had time to register what was going down. Despite being right there when it happened (half the battle with wildlife photography) we still didn’t nail that elusive cheetah-chase action shot. We were parked up at Sitzas waterhole in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park watching four cheetahs half-heartedly stalk some springbok when a lone wildebeest mum and her offspring loped into view. The two stood around for a while, checking if it was safe, then the mother made the move to head off – the wrong way.

Carrying their fresh kill to cover across the dry Auob riverbed
Carrying their fresh kill to cover across the dry Auob riverbed

Oblivious, she walked straight into the path of the resting cheetahs who were up and on the calf before we, or it, knew what was happening. We reversed along the road at some speed and managed to get shots of the drama playing itself out – the cheetah throttling their fresh kill and the four then dragging their meal across the open riverbed into the cover of some trees. Emotionally draining, such high-octane encounters are not the stuff of everyday, but are definitely why this wonderful wilderness reserve is world renowned.

Most Comfortable Hide

Wildlife photo-journalist at work in the African bush
Wildlife photo-journalist at work in the African bush

We’ve had more than our share of stuffy, sweaty, cramped, uncomfy, bat-poo infested, boomslang-inhabited, mosquito-filled and smelly hides to photograph from in the bush in the past. On this trip however we think we found what surely must be one of the most luxurious – complete with four-poster bed and drinks waiter (if required). Hard at work here, lounging in the shade in the hide at Jaci’s Tree Lodge in Madikwe game reserve, we could watch elephant families coming to drink and splashing about in the hot midday sun without leaving the comforts of camp or designer duvet. Now pass me that cocktail…