Love at first (and last) light

That time I fell in love between two river beds….

The first reaction I get from most of the people I told my December holidays were spent visiting the Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park (KTP for further reference) was “Where’s that?”.  My response for ease of reference was “Near Upington, on the border of Botswana and Namibia – that pointy sticking out bit.”  Still most would only recognise it slightly better.  The most common response I got as a follow up was “It’s hot there!” For good reason though.  Most South Africans my age are most likely to recognise Upington, from the daily weather reports our parents forced us to watch growing up, as one of the hottest places in the country almost through all the seasons.  Durban would be setting record highs at 36 degrees Celsius and Upington would be “Hold my beer” at 45 degrees. Upington, Lephalale and Skukuza would always be closer to the sun than the rest of South Africa.  So maybe visiting at the height of summer was madness.  But it was madness I had set in motion 3 years before and has to see through.

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Home is where I lay my hat…

I was reminded of the idiom that says you never know what you have until its gone is one the other day, walking on the Copacabana promenade early one morning with the sun fighting the wispy clouds in trying to come out.  I was grateful that the famous black and white stones on the walkway had been worn smooth by millions of Havaianas walking up and down as they didn’t hurt my bare feet as much.  My shoes had been soaked early when I got caught by a wave I didn’t see coming and I decided to walk back to the hotel some 4km away with them in my hand.  I hadn’t walked anywhere barefoot in ages.  But we used to do it all the time in Durban.  And the main strip in Rio, Copacabana Beach reminded me a lot of the golden mile in Durban.  Only Copacabana is scaled up a little bit and possibly a little more famous.  Durban is however not a 10 and 1/2 flight away.

Continue reading “Home is where I lay my hat…”

Which lens to choose for beginner wildlife and nature?

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?”

Getting more Air time!

So if you read my blog a few months back on the trials and tribulations of setting up the DJI Spark you will know how excited I was for my first foray into droning and drone photography (Spark of insanity ) But almost as much as it excited me the littlest drone in the DJI line up did leave me frustrated for the 4 months or so I did own it.  Flying through a WIFI connection to the phone, the biggest bug bear I had was that the furthest out I could get it before losing signal was just over 100m at the limited height of 120m.  Limited battery life was addressed through multiple batteries and the ease of flying with the remote was actually quite impressive.  And then, in almost an ultimate act of insanity and almost to fulfill the prophecy I laid out in September, on the 30 December, the little spark flew out about 70m over the waves of Nature’s Valley and about 4m high then started to come back in reverse and decided to spit its own battery out and plummet into the knee-deep water of the Southern Indian Ocean.

Continue reading “Getting more Air time!”

I’m making 2018 my year of influence

So full 2 weeks of the New Year have come and gone.  If you are still holding on to your resolutions good on you!  If have already you broke them for whatever reason, well you only 2 weeks in so you can always wake up, shout “Mulligan!” and start over.  If you didn’t make any, you do you as best as you can, because you never know who’s watching and looking up to you!  My resolution for 2018 is actually something along those lines, but before we get there some background.

Continue reading “I’m making 2018 my year of influence”

Getting over the hump…

I get asked quite often these days how long I’ve been so passionate about my photography, quite often I think, with the expectation of the answer being something like all my life.  And when I reply in all seriousness that it has been perhaps only in the last few years that I have really dived right in I get some surprised responses.  Photography, and in particular photographs, have been a part of my life for a long while.  My dad had various cameras, many of which I recently reclaimed and shot many rolls of film of us growing up and growing older.  However I didn’t really pick up a serious camera until about 10 years ago and only got my first DSLR about 6 years ago.  Even still I’ve never taken my photography seriously and probably still don’t because of a few significant reasons.

  1. I’ve never thought myself good enough.  Now this is not to say that I am someone who strives for perfection.  To the contrary, I’ve always been one for trying your best and if your best is not good enough then you can always wipe the slate clean and try again.  But for various reasons I’ve never felt my photography was good enough for me to call myself a serious photographer.  Perhaps it has been the influence of other aspects in my life that say that, yes while I am good, I come off second best more often than not, so why should it be any different with my photography.  And it’s always been the hardest thing to accept a compliment for me.  Like someone would say nice haircut and I would reply with a self deprecating comment about my big head (But seriously I do have a big head). So it’s hard to actually internalise good feedback when I do get it.  But its something I actively work on these days, finding the best way to accept that I may be good by first saying how I captured a shot, then what I like about it and only then saying what I think I could do better.
  2. Putting myself out there opens me up to criticism. Now to even get any good comments you have to learn how to handle the “bad ones”.  And they always seem worse when you are getting them.  But you have to learn how to weed out the good from even the bad.  And be willing to admit mistakes and failure when it happens and be willing to learn.  I’ve said it before on here I think, but no-one ever won anything by playing it small so you will have to put yourself out there as a photographer at some point, just so you can learn to get better.  Even then there will be someone will not like your work.  What has helped a great deal for me is joining a photography club and more recently joining my stock photography site.  That anyone is willing to pay for my photos is great positive affirmation for me that I must be doing something right.
  3. Photography means I have to will have to interact with people. Many photographers I know struggle when it comes to dealing with people.  They may love to take people photographs but the social anxiety of having to deal with people may just be too great and they tend to shy away.  For many, photography is an escape, a way to get out and do what they love for an by themselves.  So having to come back to reality and deal with people may well be a very limiting factor.  I am no shrinking violet when it comes to interacting with people, believing there is always some or other common ground you can strike with someone you have just met.  And I can spend hours talking about my photography.  But, for the two previous reasons I think I have tended to stay away from photographing people.  And many photographers go their whole careers doing just that, mastering other genres but eventually you will have to deal with people, even if it is to sell them your photos or share your photos on social media sites.  So sooner or later as a photographer you have to deal with people so you have to learn how to.  Even if it’s slowly over time.  I have started asking my friends to pose for me and mostly they are more than willing to oblige.  The feedback they will give you is honest and will also help with both previous points.
  4. Comparing myself to others is mostly a bad idea.  This one is a general life rule I think.  For the most part I avoid comparing myself to others in other aspects of my life, knowing that we not all running a giant race against each other but rather in our own lanes finding our way home.  Even when I run in actual races I use the same philosophy, running withing myself more often than not, taking time to enjoy the beauty of the run rather than pushing myself to do better.  I think I ended up last of everyone who did the 10km over the weekend in the local zoo trot.  But when it comes to photography there always seems to be someone better.  Someone who is doing brilliantly with the same kit you have, at the same places you visit.  And this is often the feedback loop to the first point for me.  Again I am learning to get over this, learning to ask questions and sometimes learning to be grateful to have seen something that simply astounds you.

I had to get over these mostly self thought up humps (and some smaller others such as technical know how) before starting to believe in my photography skills.  And like with anything you learn, I progressed through the 4 stages of competency from unconsciously incompetent  before I picked up my first camera to nearly the point of unconscious competence now. Personally I would add a fifth stage to the model – confidently competent.  Where you are good and willing to put yourself out there enough to make the most of your skills, photography or otherwise.  Just don’t jump the gun at the confidently incompetent stage!

P.S.  Why the cover of a Giraffe you may ask? Giraffa Camelopardalis – the leopard spotted camel (who have differing numbers of humps if they are named Sally)

Pivotal Pilanesberg

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!

You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take…

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.

5. Tripod

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.

IMG_1805.jpg
No tripod but wanted a longer exposure so used a pillar to prop myself up against and keep steady…

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.

 

Journey to the iron mountains…

Our guide stopped to allow me to take a picture of the Waterberg Mountains.  While I got my camera settings correct in the dim light of the cloudy morning he explained to the other two guests on the drive that the mountains that surround the Marakele National Park were very rich in iron ore.  The name of the closest town, Thabazimbi, even translates directly to mountains of iron.  And it was because of the high iron ore content in the mountains that the area was know to experience some of the most dramatic electric storms in the country.  Which explained a whole lot because, the evening before, driving through to the town of Thabazimbi I got to experience one of those legendary storms first hand. Continue reading “Journey to the iron mountains…”

The Pluckan easy guide to moving off shooting automatic

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”