It’s been the year for spotted dogs… Back in June we were trying to keep tabs on 13 tearaway pups running rings around their adult wild dog babysitters and ceaselessly pestering returning pack members for food. It was hard to believe, but there we were, with our guests on safari, right by the den of these incredibly scarce predators as the pack conducted its daily meet, greet and eat sessions with the next generation of dogs.
Arriving at the den site late afternoon to share time with the African continent’s second rarest apex predator is one of the highlights of 2016 for us. It’s not every day you get the chance to get off a game-viewing vehicle and lie down to shoot such special subjects up close and at their level. The chance to get into the skin of your subjects and join their world for a while is what makes wildlife photography so rewarding.
The patient, if uncomfortable and mildy-grubby wait, as a tangle of snoozy pups, safe within the confines of their shady den site, slowly re-awoke and ventured out on short exploratory missions to chew branches or play endless games of tug o’ war with shards of old animal bone was a privilege and a joy. And the sudden explosion of noise and energy all around us when the adults returned to regurgitate food for the pups, when everything instantly became a blur of marbled fur, fangs, and frantically wagging tails is an experience we’ll never forget.
One of our favourite species, African wild dogs are among the world’s most endangered mammals with a population currently estimated at around 6,600. Most are to be found in southern Africa. The chance to spend time observing them on Zimanga game reserve as we did this year, in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, where there’s the chance of wonderful photographic access to the breeding pack is truly something special…
Returning to Zimanga last month with our second group of photo safari guests we were obviously keen to catch up with the dogs and check how they’d fared. The news was mixed. The alpha female, and mother of the pups, had been killed by a crocodile, but the puppies were thriving and were as hyperactive as ever. Observing the group dynamics, it probably wasn’t going to be long before another dog from the pack stepped up to take on the role of alpha female, but my how those pups had grown!
They were now regularly accompanying the adult pack members and yearlings on daily hunts; running through the bush, first this way, then that, only momentarily stopping to pose on a small mound of earth or prominent dam wall before haring off again.
One evening we found them making light work of a fresh warthog supper. It was interesting to see how the adult dogs let the pups eat first.
And on one of the morning sessions we caught up with the pack in a dry riverbed in a stand-off with a spotted hyena they’d cornered. The hyena was a bit stuck. Hemmed in by the prowling pack he’d wedged his back against a big rock for protection – fully aware that’s where he would be vulnerable to the chasing pack if he fled. Eventually the dogs lost interest and the hyena took his chance. A step late, the pups raced madly up the steep sides of the bank in pursuit, but the hyena had got enough distance on them and was last seen disappearing over the horizon.
It was with such thrilling sightings in mind that we purchased a bottle of Painted Wolf Pinotage (Painted Wolf being another name for wild dogs, albeit not very accurate) for our first evening in Kruger National Park soon after. The winemaker donates a portion of the price towards wild dog conservation – www.paintedwolfwines.com – if you want to find out more.
We were celebrating the end of a successful safari. A good red was the order of the day because temperatures had taken a sudden and unseasonal nosedive and with such an apt name it was soon safely off the shelves and in our basket. It went down well as we toasted our toes around the braai and looked forward to a few game drives in the Kruger to ‘wind down’.
Our choice of tipple turned out to be a lucky one too because in just a few short days in the reserve we ran into a pack of wild dogs on all but one of our morning and afternoon game drives.
Anyone who has visited Kruger will know wild dogs are not your everyday, common or garden sighting. Running into them at all is a special treat, running into them repeatedly is something else. We certainly hadn’t expected to be photographing wild dogs again this year.
Like the ones on Zimanga the Kruger pack also had this year’s still-cute pups in tow (born around the same time as those in KZN as wild dogs den seasonally in the African winter). And exactly like the pups on Zimanga they huddled together, sitting apart from the adults, fidgeting restlessly and squabbling endlessly – when not running amok of course. We couldn’t get enough of them.
We’re crossing fingers (that’s holding thumbs if you’re in South Africa) that we might run into them again in Kruger in 2017 – as yearlings. We may even buy another bottle of that red to boost our chances. We’re certainly looking forward to going back to Zimanga next year and seeing how the pack there is getting on. There might even be some new puppies around then to terrorise and annoy the older dogs…and to photograph of course.
It’s just a few short weeks to the launch of the much-heralded ‘Remembering Elephants’ coffee table book, so what better excuse is there for taking a ‘scroll’ down memory lane and sharing a few of our favourite elephant images from the files to whet your appetite until the publication date…
This unique project, in association with the Born Free Foundation, has proved a fantastic way to raise funds for elephant conservation at a time when, sadly, ivory poaching is still on the increase. Some 65 leading professional wildlife photographers around the world have donated stunning elephant images for the project under the umbrella of ‘Photographers United’.
We were really chuffed to be approached for one of our own elephant images which will be included in the book – particularly as the initiative chimes well with the awareness-raising work we’ve been trying to do ourselves around the illegal wildlife trade, albeit in a small way, via our Project African Rhino campaign. It’s good to know that wielding a camera can sometimes make a tangible difference for the subjects we’re pasionate about photographing.
The current build-up and promotional support surrounding the launch has certainly got us doing our own bit of ‘elephant remembering’. Hope you enjoy our pachyderm hit parade here.
We’ve had some superb encounters over the last couple of decades and even though we’ve been lucky enough to see several 1,000s in the wild in that time we never grow tired of them. There’s no disputing the fact elephants are one of the most engaging, fascinating, funny, awesome, rewarding, humbling and moving species to watch and photograph.
Let’s hope that the coming together of individual photographers for this important cause, the hard work behind the scenes in bringing a coffee table book like this into being, and the sheer heart for elephants behind the project will help to keep it that way for future generations.
Pre-launch sales and donations have to date raised more than £100,000 for targeted conservation projects to protect and save elephants; with the cost of printing and producing the book successfully covered by a Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign.
You can find out more about the ‘Remembering Elephants’ project, pre-order your copy of the book or purchase tickets for the special launch event on September 22 at the Royal Geographic Society’s HQ in London, at the project website remembering elephants.com.
The launch event will be introduced by Virginia McKenna of Born Free, followed by a talk from renowned wildlife photographer Art Wolfe and there’s even an auction of some of the images.
If you can’t make the launch, but live near London, there’s also a ‘Remembering Elephants’ exhibition taking place at La Galleria in Pall Mall from September 19 to October 1 .
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Wildlife, conservation, photography and ecotourism: the adventures of award-winning photojournalists Ann and Steve Toon