Ask me when did I get into wildlife photography and I would struggle to answer. Before getting my first DSLR I had been to the Kruger a total of 1 times in my life, late in 2005 I think it was. My progression was first into landscape photography, documenting the places I had been travelling to and I started of shooting wide. The transition to long lenses I think only started late in 2011 when I got a 70-300mm USM and even then the next step up did not come for a long while. So I will run you through some of the lenses I have owned and used and still use in some instances and hopefully guide your own journey. Continue reading “Which lens to choose for beginner wildlife and nature?”
It is amazing that most of us can look back and pin-point the turning points in our lives that may have lead us to where we are now, yet at the time we didn’t realise that we were on the cusp of something amazing. I was reminded the other day on exactly one such moment by facebook and it got me thinking about all that it has lead to since. In August 2015 I decided on a whim to make a drive to the Pilanesberg National Park. I can’t remember the exact reasoning but it was around the public holiday long weekend and for whatever reason I had not gone down to Durban so it must have been pure whim that made me drive the 180km to get there.
It was my first visit to the park and I had no idea what to expect or what to do and to be honest I cannot for the life of me remember how much of the day went. What I do remember is stopping in the late afternoon at Mankwe dam to walk out to the bird hide to see what all the fuss was about. And after sitting around for a few minutes there was a little bit of commotion as a pied kingfisher came up to a dead tree right in front of the hide and proudly sat down with his catch. Not being big into birds at the time I did not know what happens next, but the seasoned photographers and birders did and quickly turned their attention to the kingfisher. The bird then started beating the fish about quite rapidly and violently to descale and tenderise the fresh catch before tossing the little meal around to position it and swallow it whole.
I was shooting with my 550D and 70-300mm Ultrasonic lens, which to that point had served me extremely well. But on that afternoon I found myself struggling. The 550D’s frame rate is about 5 frames per second which was decent enough to catch some of the action but missed half of it. The afternoon sunlight was rather harsh and I think even today I would struggle to deal with it. But the combination conditions and equipment limitations (at least in my head anyway) left me wanting to get better. And I think this is where my transformative journey in nature and in particular birding began.
I went back to the park in December 2015 with a new 7D mkii camera body and a second hand 300mmF4LIS lens that I purchased in September and October respectively. And that was my first introduction to some of the beautiful bird species to be seen in the park, including the white fronted bee-eaters and lesser striped swallows. The photography improved and I also got one of my favourite pictures in the park shot from the Rathlogo hide of 4 zebras having a drink. I also went with Tannie Wilma and Oom Hans which in itself was a great experience and possibly the inspiration to do the big year of birding I attempted in the course of 2016.
Through 2016 I did not make many a turn past the Pilanesberg. The park, which played a big role in inspiring the big year of birding as well as the Sanparks challenge I am currently completing, unfortunately took a back seat as I went trekking through the rest of our beautiful country. However I did manage one visit if I recall correctly and spent a nice afternoon at Mankwe dam again shooting a very young baby elephant and it’s protective family.
This year I have been to the park 4 times and each one was special in it’s own rights. The first trip in march for my birthday yielded a pair of cheetah walking through the long grass after the good summer rains. I was actually shooting a ruffous-naped lark when a couple saw me and directed me to follow them as they had been following the cheetahs for a while and they would come of the grass soon. And sure enough, no sooner than I had turned around, the cheetahs emerged casually walking through the long late summer’s grass. I don’t think I made the most of the opportunity but I chalked that down to excitement more than anything else.
I then decided in early June to join Heinrich Neumeyer, the leopard whisperer of the Pilanesberg to try to track at least one leopard down. In the end we did see a leopard on the safari, late in the afternoon when the light was too bad for decent photographs. But we also saw the big five in one day, elephants, rhinos, lions and buffalos to-ing and fro-ing in the early morning light and the late leopard.
I hired a lens to shoot with on the day and fortunately, as it turns out, left my 1.4x extender on the back of it. Heinrich and Gerrie tracked extender down for me so just to make sure I got it back safely I went back to the park a month later, the first weekend of July and went for my second tour with Heinrich. This time around we got got to see not one leopard but 5 and they were all in full daylight, offering some superb opportunities to photograph the notoriously elusive cats. Before the trip in early July I had seen a total of 3 leopards. Two in the dark and one briefly on safari in 2013 when I visited Kapama with Maja. So to see 5 in a day was extraordinary to say the least! I still managed to mess it up though and cut of the tail of one of the leopards crossing the road. Heinrich has promised to find me more leopards the next trip though because he owes me one…
The latest in the string of Pilanesberg adventures was on Women’s day last week. I decided to make a day trip because the holiday being a Wednesday was ideal for a one day sojourn. And I decided to invite a few friends along so we had a full car of photographers. I lead the expedition, given my love for the park, so this was the inaugural Pluckan Pilanesberg Tour (PPT). And while we didn’t get to see any of the big cats and the elephants somehow managed to elude us, it was all in all a great day. Well I think anyway. I did manage to seen two new bird species and photograph one (secretary bird below) and got some half decent rhino shots. Oh and we also saw a brown hyena which is the only hyena species in the park but were cut off just at the most inopportune time. As I said, Heinrich owes me one! I think the last trip made me realise that sharing the experience can bring its own rewards. So the park keeps inspiring me in different ways, mostly to get better with each return trip. And I shall be back sooner than I know it (possibly even by the end of this month) so the next edition of PPT is coming soon!
I sometimes wonder, if my life were movie, what the bloopers real would look like. You know, as the credits roll up, the shots of all the out takes that went wrong in the making of the movie. More often than not it is the funniest part of the movie so I would think, given the chance, mine would be simultaneously hilarious and unbearably painful to watch. It really is unfortunate that in real life you seldom have do-overs. You do however get to sit back sometimes and wonder what you were thinking. If you really lucky you catch yourself slowly realising that perhaps, just perhaps, I should not have done this, while still in the midst of doing it. I have learnt that the best thing to do when you have messed up is to admit it, take the lessons that you needed to discover by making that particular mistake and move on. After all one should never be ashamed to admit he was wrong because it says he’s a wiser man today than he was when he made the mistake. This of course only holds true the first time you make that particular mistake because every time you repeat it, it becomes a choice. Then that same man is a fool!
I can safely say that a large portion of what I have learnt in the past years of photography has been in trying to correct things I have managed to mess up. And trust me I have messed up a lot. If learning from your own mistakes is wise, then learning from the mistakes of others is another level of genius. So here’s a go at some of the most common mistakes I’ve made and my suggestions to correct them. For the most part they may sound trivial, until of course you find yourself making them. But at least I’ll be able to say I told you so!
1. Dead batteries
Not being able to turn your camera on when you are meant to be taking photographs is probably the single most frustrating situation to be faced with. If you are like me and think you have planned ahead and carry a spare battery only to find it is also dead there is no hope for you. Ok maybe don’t give up the first time that happens though. I have always had at least 2 batteries for my cameras. When both are charged you can shoot for longer and I’ve often shot out a full battery in the bush so they come in handy. I recently purchased a second camera body that shares the same battery as my first camera. So now I have 4 batteries between the 2 camera bodies. If you use flash units that require AA batteries make sure you have at least 2 full sets on hand. I keep a set of rechargeable and a normal set these days just to be sure.
2. Lens cap
To be honest shooting with the lens cap on is something I still do quite often. A few full black shots in and I usually figure it out. Of course taking the lens cap off the front of the lens may not be the end of your lens cap woes. Because once it is off the question becomes where do you keep it and not misplace it. I have misplaced a couple and still remember dropping one while standing on bridge and watching it slowly sink in the clear stream below. Like watching the balrog pull Gandalf into the abyss, I almost expected a “Fly you fools!”
3. Front of lens filters
Once the lens cap is of it is important to first remember what lens filter you have on the front of your lens and then to use it correctly. I almost always have by circular polariser on my wide angle and sometimes forget that I have it on and then wonder why my photos don’t come out they way they should. The second thing to remember is how to correctly use the lens filter that you may have on. If the only filter you use is a UV filter then you should not have a problem but if you shoot with a circular polariser or neutral density filter I would suggest making sure you are comfortable using them (see my previous post for more: Making the most of lens filters).
Perhaps more important is to know when to keep the filters on and when to have them off. I recently learned this the hard way when I woke up at 4 am to shoot the milky way in the Karoo and came up all blanks. I went back to sleep and woke up to realise I had been shooting with my circular polariser still on.
4. Using the wrong settings to start with
Picking up your camera after a while means that you will be shooting with the last settings. If you are like me and go from shooting long exposure landscapes followed by fast birds you will more often then not result in over exposed photos. The same happens when you transition between shooting indoors, possibly with low light and therefore high ISO to outdoors with brighter light. Checking your settings before shooting is therefore imperative. The other thing I have learned to do is return my camera settings to more neutral settings after shooting with extremes. So after a session of long exposures I will reduce the shutter speed back down to hand held speeds and if I for some reason pushed the ISO up I reduce it before turning the camera off.
I have learned more than one lesson with tripods. Like don’t leave it at home if you intend to use slow shutter speeds. And having the tripod and not the mounting plate on your camera doesn’t help. And that if you are using a light aluminium framed tripod, don’t leave it standing in the waves because chances are that it can be carried off by the current. Invest in a good and sturdy tripod. Unlike your camera it has the potential serve you for decades so don’t skimp on the cost of a good tripod with a sturdy 3-way head. I use a Manfroto 190 series but there are many other brands such as Slik and Vangaurd that also make good pro range tripods. Then, if you have multiple camera bodies, get a mounting plate for each and keep in on the body at all time so that whenever you need to your camera is ready. I also have a monopod for when I shoot with my longer lenses and again keep a mounting plate on each lens to avoid the issue of trying to find where the mounting plate got to. Lastly if you do find yourself needing to shoot without a tripod you can improvise by finding a steady surface to balance your camera on to stabilise the camera. There are also ways to make yourself steadier and sometimes you can get down to as much as 1/8s shutter speed without the tripod.
6. Lens Stabilisation (IS)
Following on from tripod use, one of the things to remember when you are shooting on a tripod is to switch of the image stabilisation on your lens. Some camera makes do their stabilisation in the camera body but Canon (which I shoot with) relies on lens stabilsation. Usually this allows you to shoot at much longer shutter speeds than just hand held (usually measured in stops – 3 stops of stabilisation would equate to being able to shoot 3 stops “slower” hand held than with an unstabilised identical lens) which is particularly handy on longer lenses. However once you put the lens on a tripod and start shooting longer exposures that very same stabilisation that was assisting you starts working against you. The micro-movements of the lens motor can then lead to your images not being as sharp as they should be. The cover image for this post is of the Cape Town city bowl as the fog rolls in from over the Atlantic. I used my 70-200mm which I don’t usually use to do landscapes and forgot to switch the stabilisation of. Looking through my pictures on the large screen I began to realise that none of them were as sharp as I expected them be and only then linked it to possible movement due to stabilisation. The simple solution to this is to remember to turn the image stabilisation off, or, like I do with my 16-35mm lens, switch it off and put a piece of tape over it so that it is never turned on again.
8. Take, review, retake if necessary
In the age of the digital camera not taking more shots is almost a sin. In writing this blog my dad looked in over my shoulder and saw the title and said son yes that’s good but it is obvious isn’t it. But is it really? Most modern DSLRs are rated for well over 100 000 shutter actuations but most photographers don’t get close. 4 years and your camera body is generally old technology so that means to get anywhere close you need to be taking 25000 photos a year at the every least. So the mistake to avoid is not taking the picture. Even if you don’t get the shot you were wishing to, you will hopefully be able to figure out what to do next time. The other thing that a digital camera will give you is immediate feedback of how the picture looks on the back screen. So when you are shooting get into the habit of checking the first couple pictures to ensure your settings are correct then carry on shooting. And if they are not and you have made some of the previous mistakes you can correct immediately. Don’t take 250 pictures with the review function off and then only realise later that they are all unusable. Do be weary though that you are not checking each and every shot (known in photography circles as chimping), especially if you are shooting wildlife and fast action because taking too much time to review your pictures could mean that you are missing shots you could have been taking!
9&10. Share your pictures and be open to criticism
The last two lessons go hand in hand. For the longest time I would take photos and save them to my computer and they would stay there, besides a few that I posted to social media. Oh and your own social media is not sharing! I then joined a photoclub and learned that maybe they weren’t as good as they thought they were almost right from the start. Every second week is a chance to display 5 pictures and get feedback on how they can be improved. One quickly learns technical and compositional lessons from photos that would have been good to your own eyes. And the club I joined is for the most part photographers that have been shooting for decades so the insight you get is generally on point. So you have to be open to receive what is being said. If there are no clubs near you the next best thing to do is perhaps join photography groups on social media and seek their advise and criticism. Fair warning though, the internet can be cruel so you almost need a thicker skin for that. You will eventually learn how to be critical of your own work but until that time you will need guidance on how to tear it apart.
The most important lesson is to keep shooting though. Don’t give up early on if you want to learn and improve, you are not going to be perfect from the start. And understand that you will get lucky and get a few perfect shots right from the start. The trick is to learn from the unlucky shots and increase the percentage of perfect shots. Shifting the hit rate from 1 in 10 to even 3 in 10 could still mean you taking a lot of bad shots, but you will be 3 times better at it.
Zig Ziglar is quoted as saying you don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great. So when a budding photographer recently asked me how they move from shooting pictures using the full automatic mode to shooting using the manual mode on their recently purchased DSLR my immediate response was almost to say turn the dial until it is pointing to the big M and then take it from there. Of course there is more to it than that and for many photographers it can actually be quite a daunting prospect moving to the Manual mode on their camera. Why would you want to move off the automatic mode if the camera manufacturer was kind enough to add in a mode to allow photos to be taken almost as soon as you get the camera? Photos which are perfectly fine 80 or maybe even 90% of the time. All at the risk of completely spoiling photos that you may not get the opportunity to shoot again. Because, of course, if you never start, if you don’t move that dial, then you will find it very hard to learn. Continue reading “The Pluckan easy guide to moving off shooting automatic”
I recently made a trip down to Durban and had some time on a Saturday morning to get out to the Botanic Gardens, one of my favourite places to visit when I am in Durban (see the previous post on the other places to see when in Durban: I’m coming home…part 2 of 2). It was a clear, sunny morning, creating light that lend itself perfectly to shooting, unlike most of my previous visits that were mostly cloudy and on one occasion raining. The large patches of shade on the small pond created by the trees that surround it and shooting indoors in the orchid nursery allowed me to try my hand at some low key shots of the birds on the pond and some of the orchids, resulting in some of the pictures in this post. I got a number of questions on how I achieved these dramatic shots and so I will try to explain some of the technique behind the photos. Continue reading “My guide to capturing low key nature photographs”
My how to guide on capturing the moon
I have always held a fascination with the moon…in fact mankind has been captivated by the moon for probably as long as we have existed. Our closest celestial companion, waxing and waning to a precise rhythm to mark the passing of time. A love affair that ebbs and flows like the very tides that arise from the captivating dance around the sun. Perhaps it is the very fact that we are ourselves 70% water inexplicably draws us to it increasing as the moon itself magically grows larger in sky. Perhaps millennia of evolution have led us to await the full moon for the best night time hunting and look around during the new moon with fear in our diurnal eyes. Continue reading “Shoot for the moon…”