Tag Archives: wildlife

Top Tips for Perfect Wildlife Portraits

It seems there’s an obsession with action in wildlife photography these days – understandable perhaps given the dynamism of a well-executed example, coupled with the technical ability of today’s top-end digital cameras to seriously increase the overall hit rate. But sometimes this comes at a cost to the ‘humble’ animal or bird portrait,  sadly, and strangely, undervalued and ignored as a result.

The perception seems to be that action shots are tougher to nail and so therefore trump wildlife portraits which are seen as too easy or less interesting to the viewer.  On the surface that might seem a fair assessment, but with modern cameras doing a lot of the work when it comes to fast-action photography you could argue the very best wildlife portraits – those that communicate something more, or something deeper, about the subject  – are not at all easy to pull off and can often be more evocative, emotive and powerful than action photography, while equally as compelling to the audience  – just look at the images that top the portrait categories in the world’s leading photographic competitions for example.

Making better wildlife portraits, like everything, takes practice and time, but there are a few things we’ve  learned over the years that will help give your animal portraiture more punch. The text is a reworking of an article we had published in ‘Australian Photography’ magazine a few years ago that came to mind the other day as we began preparing to head off on another photographic safari. The images are a mix of new and old from our files…

1.Picking the right subjects

Ears and eyes pricked – wait for perfection in animal portraits

The best chefs select the choicest ingredients and simply let them sing. They know for the best results they need the best raw materials. The same goes when shooting wildlife portraits. Be ultra picky and shoot only the finest, most striking subjects. Wild animals are not models, but if you take your role as critical casting agent seriously, searching out the most charismatic critters, you can find  half your work is done. Unless we’re looking to make a photographic point about a wrinkled, old, wounded specimen we pass over poor-condition subjects and those with ‘cosmetic’ flaws, that might niggle and distract a trained viewer. One floppy ear when both should be erect, a torn lip, worn or lifeless fur, missing canine teeth all could mar your results unless you make it absolutely clear to a viewer that’s what you intended. Many wild animals have scars – some photogenic, others less so – hence the need to scrutinise potential subjects vigorously. It’s surprising how easy it is to overlook fine details in the heat of the moment – only noticing them on the computer when it can be too late.

2. Making eyes

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

Check carefully you’re focused on the eyes –the most important part of any portrait. Direct eye contact with the added spark of a twinkling catchlight are the gold standards to aim for here. If not looking straight at you then wide-awake peepers will help wildlife portraits pop. Snoozy-looking subjects just won’t cut it. To give eyes an extra gleam you could try a dab of fill-in flash or make the most of any handy natural reflectors like water, when animals come to drink, bathe or socialise, to bounce extra light into your subject’s eyes for an added twinkle. Careful positioning of a subject’s eyes within the frame will also help enhance their impact. The ‘golden-ratio’ or rule of thirds  works well here. Many animal portraits you make will be in ‘portrait’ format and you’ll find that your image will be more visually appealing and engaging to the viewer if you place your subject’s eyes on or near where an imaginary line bisects the image roughly two thirds up from the bottom. That said rules are to be broken and really extreme close-up portraits cam be very arresting if only a single eye is shown.

3. Sculpting with light

Underexpose in strong side-lighting to emphasise textures

The general advice when shooting animal portraits is to go with bright, slightly cloudy conditions. Light cloud cover acts like a giant diffuser softening harsh shadows and rendering fine fur and skin detail and colour beautifully. On sunnier days make do shooting animal portraits in light shade. All sound stuff, but if it’s a drum-roll and drama you’re looking for you’re going to need more moody lighting. Low-raking bright sunlight works a treat if you want to crank up the atmosphere. We love using strong side-lighting at both ends of the day to help define a subject’s strong features such as horns, wrinkly hide, and so on. Angled-light throws a subject’s face into sharp relief, illuminating some elements more than others, producing a 3D, sculptural effect. If you like the result, experiment with more extreme low-key techniques where even larger areas of your subject are unlit. Shooting subjects against a dark backdrop and underexposing a bit will help, although you can always tweak backgrounds later in post-processing if you’re not confident. Portraits made this way can have a powerful quality so play around until you get it right.

4. Being background savvy

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

Keep backgrounds simple for portraits. Your subject has the lead role – the background plays second fiddle – so steer clear of anything that might steal attention from your subject. Be as colour-wise as a designer too – alert to backgrounds with a palette that complements or contrasts well with your subject. Shoot fairly wide open, where you can, to throw the background out of focus; bearing in mind you’ll need enough depth of field to ensure your subject is pin sharp from the nose-tip to the eye. In long-snouted subjects that can mean stopping down quite a bit so we try to ensure subjects are not positioned too close to the background. It helps here to exploit situations where a subject is sitting out in the open or standing proud of its surroundings. If this isn’t possible, try a low-angle and isolate your subject against a bright blue or pale white sky ( keep a close eye on exposure as you go). By ensuring backgrounds drop away we can stop down as much as we need to make sure our subject’s sharp throughout while being confident the distant background won’t intrude. Always try shifting your viewpoint in relation to your subject to assess the different background options a fresh perspective might give you.

5. Building character

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

The most successful wildlife portraits communicate a strong message about the animals they portray. Consider what you want to emphasise to the viewer most about your chosen subject – the imperiousness of a male lion, the intense concentration of a hunting  heron, the don’t-mess-with-me attitude of a grouchy old buffalo. Because you haven’t the luxury of lots of background context in a portrait shot you’ll be relying on lighting and composition to help you communicate the spirit of the species. Bear in mind that curving, sinuous shapes, blurred edges and soft lighting are better suited to vulnerable, small or elegant subjects. Hard lines, high contrast and strong, directional lighting work best for big, bold, intimidating creatures. Aim to match the mood of the image with the key characteristics of your subject.

6. Getting closer still

Extreme close-ups need careful framing to pull them off

If you find your portraits still don’t pack a punch it could be you’re not getting close enough. Extreme close-ups, with frame-busting facial features, can be hugely effective providing you crop and compose them well. Close cropping needs to look deliberate or it can look like a mistake – as if you misjudged things and accidentally clipped bits at the edges of the frame. So if you’re going to try this, don’t be tentative. Extreme close ups tend to work best with large, or menacing and fearsome creatures and those subjects with really fascinating, ugly or heavily furrowed faces. Be bold.

7. Concealing to reveal

A single-eyed stare seems more powerfully intense

Mystery adds the spice of intrigue to a portrait and one of the simplest ways to add mystique is to take something away. If you want to hold the viewer’s attention – leave something to their imagination. Try photographing just part of a subject’s face and head. Your subject might be partly hidden by a rock or you could crop in so closely that only part of the face, or just one eye, features in your shot. Doing this helps throw attention on the ‘curated’ features you choose to include. This selective cropping can prove useful in conveying a message about your subject too, for example, showing only part of a leopard’s face might communicate the idea that staying hidden is this stealthy predator’s modus operandi.

8. Framing portraits

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

An effective way to emphasise and draw attention to your subject is to frame it. By framing we don’t mean hanging it on the wall in the conventional sense, but creating an inner frame within the confines of your image to pull a viewer further to your focal point. We’re always on the look out for backgrounds that contain a natural frame into which we can place our subject – the curving branch of tree neatly overarching an animal’s head, perhaps, or a ‘window’ in dense foliage. If there’s nothing suitable that suggests itself, try using a shallow depth of field. Photograph wide open, lock focus on your subject and then shoot with your camera very low and very close to the foreground, whether it’s grasses, a bank of sand or tangled undergrowth. The shallow depth of field will mean everything, other than your subject, will be out of focus – framing it softly.

9 Holding up a mirror 

Wide angles work well for characterful and comic portraits

Take a look at successful wildlife portraits and you’ll see many appeal because they’ re anthropomorphic – their content reflects back our own human behaviour and emotions, from tenderness to humour to aggression. Recognising the kind of behaviour, or subject, that will resonate with the viewer in this way is the easy part – capturing the exact character or moment of interest is the hard part. Being there is half the battle. So spend as much time in the field as you can patiently watching and waiting. And when you find promising subjects stick with them for as long as possible. Wait to see what happens next. Something usually does.

10. Ignoring all the above

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

The above tips work routinely for us, but that doesn’t mean you should follow them slavishly or that’s all there is to it. The trick is to evolve your photography and try something different. We’re always looking to take our photography forward and find something fresh whether it’s unusual angles, unconventional framing, creative blur and so on. At the end of the day it’s your call. But whatever you decide there’s one single thing to remember to be sure of success.

Your subjects are the stars.

Hope drying up for the Namib’s wild horses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raining cats? Two spoiled snappers get it all wrong

Sitting in the office in the grey old UK with rain streaking down the windows, we can’t help feeling cheesed off. Rainy weather means there’s no escaping the drudge work of our job. After seven weeks of being fortunate enough to photograph every day in wild places, and almost always in great light, we’ve come down to earth again along with the snow of recent days, the subsequent thaw and now the persistent drizzly rain of a slow-starting British spring.

Secretarybirds striding out, enjoy a Kalahari puddle

We’re working through the mundane and monotonous tasks that always welcome us back  from a trip. The not often talked about stuff that’s as much a part of being professional wildlife photographers as the field work – if not more so. Clearly this side isn’t our favourite part, even if as former journalists we respond like Pavlov’s dogs to a deadline. So we’re busy key-wording and archiving images as fast as possible, so we can put them out to work for us – assigning them to the right places in our portfolio, to various stock agencies and getting them ready for marketing, for preparing upcoming lectures and for promoting our photographic  safaris.  All must be done in the narrow window available between trips. There’s no escaping the fact that wet weather days are admin days. Bor…ing!

A tawny eagle enjoys a rare paddle in the Kalahari

Exactly what type of  office work we’re doing isn’t the issue;  that depends on urgent deadlines, what’s hurtling towards us in the diary and, of course, on what, if any, photographic treasures we’ve managed to dig out on our latest photographic crusades. This time in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (KTP) the big cats, always stars, seemed to emerge as a key theme. So we’re post-processing big cat images all the while and pedaling as fast as we can. The only thing that can stop the treadmill is good weather (or dry stuff at least)  providing us with the excuse to drop the office jobs we’re juggling and get back out there with our cameras…

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

Filling in the requisite data fields on photographs for various agencies which each require the procedure done differently, on a dull, damp weekend afternoon, we’re both missing the warmth, sunshine, reliable light, guaranteed subjects and sheer freedom of photographing in the bush in an African summer…

…Then scrolling through our pictures from the Kalahari section of our recent South Africa/Namibia trip it dawns on us maybe we’ve got it all wrong.  Have we not become a tad spoiled?

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

How could we have forgotten so soon just how dry the KTP was for those first few weeks of our trip, and how desperate and expectant the animals, and the veld, seemed to be for the late rain to arrive?

Going green. The Kalahari and its cats refreshed by rain

When we remove our favourite images, putting to one side those shots we’ve earmarked as priorities for immediate post-processing,  a simple, humble story emerges. Our incidental pictures, grabbed when driving back to camp once the best light had gone, a bunch of odds and sods really, languishing in Lightroom folders labelled ‘miscellany’, are quietly revealing the significant impact the rain finally made on the everyday lives of our KTP subjects when the clouds broke.

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

So we’re enjoying this small selection of images from a few weeks ago in the KTP in which the residents are making the most of something we all take for granted – puddles in the road. Simple shots, nothing loud, exciting, sexy or dramatic – just a handful of regular stock pictures gathered along the way that served to remind two whingeing wildlife snappers to suck up the rain, get on with it and accept that a good downpour isn’t a downer for everyone.

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.

Improve your eye for photography in 2017

We’ve added a new, one-off photographic workshop to our list of events for 2017.  Often there just isn’t the time on our routine photo days to provide all the detailed help and guidance people would like  (everyone’s busy photographing) so we’ve  decided to run a special ‘Shoot Like  a Pro’ masterclass at the start of the spring – just as the days lengthen and the wildlife action starts to hot up – to share our top tips and the lessons we’ve learned about everything that goes into capturing and creating top wildlife and nature photographs.

Whether you’re a skilled photographer looking to develop your creative eye or refresh techniques or a beginner looking to pick up new tips, we’ve got it covered. We’ll include professional tips, advice on selling  images and lots of practical, simple suggestions to  help you capture winning wildlife images and take your work to the next level. Or perhaps you’d simply like to pick our brains about equipment or post processing?  Our varied, accessible and lively programme should have something for everyone and is designed to get you tuned-up up and ready for the 2017 ‘shooting season”.

Our masterclass takes places on April 1 ( yes that’s right and it’s not a joke!). The venue is the famous Rheged convention centre in the Lake District – one of Cumbria’s top tourist attractions – which is conveniently located close to the M6 motorway for ease of access and has interesting photo exhibitions you can browse in the breaks between our sessions.

There’ll be lots of opportunity to learn more about wildlife photography in an informal and friendly setting plus the chance on the day to win a place on our popular raptor photography workshops in 2018.

Topics to be covered include:

  • Where’s the picture? – discovering great compositions in nature
  • The art (and design) of wildlife photography
  • Creative control
  • Top techniques for wildlife
  • Cleaner, sharper shot-making
  • Better backgrounds
  • Working the light – from bad to brilliant
  • Capturing action and behaviour
  • Developing projects
  • An original take – new subjects and approaches
  • Successful editing, post processing and curating
  • Shooting to sell

Our one-day ‘Shoot Like A Pro’ workshop costs just £75 per person, including lunch and all refreshments through the day.  Spaces are limited to 24.  To find out more visit the workshops page of our website. To secure your place contact us on sandatoon@aol.com or book direct via Eventbrite.

Pass the painted dog pinotage this way again

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) regurgitating food for pups, Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, 28 June 2016
Supper anyone? Feeding 13 ravenous wild dog pups is a full-time job

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.

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) chewing old impala horns, Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2016
Capturing a great portrait means getting down and dirty

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.

African wild dog pups (Lycaon pictus) feeding, Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, 28 June 2016
It’s special to photograph a successful breeding pack of these very rare predators

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…

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) pups from pack exploring, Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2016
Fast forward a few months and now the pups were on the move with the adult dogs

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!

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) pups from pack at three to four months old, Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2016
A brief pause for rest during the hunt

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.

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) feeding on warthog (Phacochoerus africanus), Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2016
The Zimanga wild dog pack enjoying a warthog dinner at dusk

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.

African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) confronting spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2016
The curious pups practise stalking a hyena cornered in the riverbed

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.

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus), Kruger national park, South Africa, September 2016
Painted wolf wine did the trick in more ways than one

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.

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) at rest, Kruger national park, South Africa, September 2016
We were lucky to see lots of the Kruger pups too

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.

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) at rest, Kruger national park, South Africa, September 2016
All eyes and Mickey Mouse ears – the Kruger pups wake up in the late afternoon

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.

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) pack member hunting, Zimanga private game reserve, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, September 2016
We’re already looking forward to following the Zimanga wild dog pack again

 

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

Battle of the sexes: Do you take photos too?

Here’s a humorous – but semi-serious – view of wildlife photography and gender from me (Ann) that was first published in Outdoor Photography magazine  back in 2009.  It seemed worth digging out and dusting off  here following a revealing thread on Facebook today on the subject. Posts from leading wildlife photographers such as Suzi Eszterhas and Sandra Bartocha, discussing how they’re sometimes treated as photographers by the opposite sex, certainly chimed with my thoughts then and now. It’s also a bit about what it’s like being  a in a photographing couple…

Girl power! Room for a bit more in wildlife photography?
Girl power! Room for a bit more in wildlife photography

‘Do you take photos too?’ If there’s one question that’s guaranteed to make my blood boil it’s this one. By the time we arrive at the hide I’m seething. Hardly the best frame of mind going into a day of endless waiting, interspersed very occasionally by the odd few seconds of manic photography.  My husband Steve doesn’t help either. He’s got his head in the lunch bag, assessing which bits he can eat now, and, frustratingly, seems to have got his camera gear set up before I’ve even summoned the energy to heave the 3.75kg 500mm lens from the bag. Do I still have any Deep Heat in my toilet bag I ponder? I’ll probably need it by tonight.

I think Steve should be more understanding and supportive when people ask me this question, but he reckons I’m over-reacting. He’s probably right, but I’d never let him think that. A whispered domestic ensues. We are in a hide. ‘You’re going to bang on about that sleeping bag thing any minute,’ Steve hisses, spitting bits of corned beef roll in my direction. This is because I once read an interview with a very well-known wildlife photographer who admitted he liked having his wife accompany him on trips because she was an expert at rolling up sleeping bags. It was most likely an affectionate in-joke, but his remarks underlined the way it felt to me being a girl photographer in a bloke’s world. Just like the saying has it: ‘Women are from Venus…men are from Jessops’ (a UK chain of camera shops if you’re wondering)

Meerkats, Suricatta suricata, Addo Elephant national park, South Africa
The romantic notion of a photographing couple…

The ‘atmosphere’ in the hide gets worse. ‘And another thing…,’ I splutter in the direction of my equipment. I can’t look directly at Steve because he’ll put me off my stride and I can feel myself getting into a flow. ‘I was reading this other magazine recently with a portfolio of wildlife images by a female photographer with an introduction from the editor who suggested her work showed women could compete on equal terms with ‘the men’. ‘Is that patronising or what?’ I’m still directing my anger at the camera, but it’s meant for Steve. In my mind by now he is representing the whole masculine gender. The upshot of this is, of course, that my viewfinder is completely fogged up by my hot breath when the perfect V-shaped skein of geese flies past the hide and I can’t see well enough to compose what would have been my first decent photo opportunity of the day. I barely hear Steve’s grunted reply above the rapid clicking of his shutter.

Meerkats, Suricatta suricata, Addo Elephant national park, South Africa
…The reality is we hardly ever see eye to eye…

At least he got some shots from the fly-past. When all’s said and done, this is perhaps one of the best reasons to suffer working in tandem with your spouse; getting on each others’ nerves 24/7 in extremes of heat, cold, damp, discomfort, midges, mosquitoes, guano, mud, dung, mutual self-doubt, endless games of ‘Travel Scrabble’ (Steve wins, I throw a tantrum), dreaded ‘domestics’, boredom, more arguments to dispel the boredom and not forgetting the escalating ‘BO’. Whether it’s a musty hide, a cramped, hot car or a camping-equipped 4×4 with no room to swing a cable release we’re a double act – even if it is a smelly one at times. Never mind the battle of the sexes, there’s no disputing the fact that two sets of eyes are better than one. If one misses the action, chances are the other will come up trumps. If everything’s happening at once then there’s two cameras working to cover it. Better still there’s the option to get two different ‘takes’ on a single event because we’ll use different lenses and follow where individual inspiration and interests lead. Hence the joint names on all our picture credits. That and the fact that in many cases we can’t actually remember which one of us pressed the trigger.

Meerkats, Suricatta suricata, squabbling, Addo Elephant national park, South Africa
…Sometimes only a downright domestic will settle things!

If that sounds way too harmonious for words bear in mind that to avoid divorce proceedings we now take turns using the ‘best’ camera body and lens for the job. How sad is that! I console myself with a sandwich because comfort eating is the only cure when I get like this. The bread is fluorescent yellow because I’ve picked out one of Steve’s piccalilli ones by mistake and not one of mine which have baby leaf spinach. The people who don’t ask me whether I take pictures too, often ask instead, if, as a female photographer, I bring something different to the table and whether I see things differently or interact differently with subjects etc. Certainly Steve and I approach our photography in different ways and we definitely see things differently or he wouldn’t be forever asking me ‘What are you taking that for?’ But I think it’s more to do with having different (clashing) personalities than it is a question of sex.

Okay so Steve is useless at multi-tasking and can’t compile a shopping list at the same time as composing a picture, but then I wouldn’t choose a camera manual or a technical tome on the intricacies of Adobe Photoshop to read in bed after a hard day in the field like him. Thinking like this makes me smile to myself. I should be looking through my viewfinder or I’m going to miss the picture again and he’ll nail it (did I mention how competitive I am as well as insecure?).

I suddenly start to feel a bit stupid and sheepish for letting the fact that once upon a time wildlife photography probably was much more of a man’s game than it is today get to me. Okay, so some folk still reflect this a bit too much in their thinking and approach, but that’s dying out now surely? I hope so. I certainly hope it isn’t stopping women from pursuing a passion for taking wildlife and nature photos. I shimmy sideways across the wooden bench towards my husband waving a ‘Kit-Kat’ as an olive branch. Fancy a game of ‘Scrabble’? Our heated differences of opinion will no doubt start up all over when we’re back home editing and processing our pictures. Oh well, as that other saying has it: ‘Vive la difference!’

And they all lived and photographed happily ever after
And they all lived and photographed happily ever after.