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?”

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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!”

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)

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”

The photography resolutions we should all make in 2017…

Happy New Year!  Hopefully you aren’t like me and haven’t broken your freshly made resolutions yet.  Damn that leftover cake! If you have however or if you did not have any to start with , maybe I can suggest a few replacement resolutions to make for your photography in 2017.  And this is by no means me claiming to know it all already as most of these resolutions are things I will strive to do myself in the months ahead. Continue reading “The photography resolutions we should all make in 2017…”

Pelican low key

My guide to capturing low key nature photographs

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”