The basic map of key points we hit during the workshop (thanks Murali):
- Royal Tree Lodge
- Moremi Mobile Camp
- Camp Okavango
- Lopez Island
- Savute Mobile Camp
- Chobe Mobile Camp
- Chobe River cruise (from Kasane)
- Botswana Passport control
- Zambia Passport control
- The Royal Livingston
I'll be rolling out the blog on a day-by-day basis on tape delay, so that you get more of the feel and pace of what we were up to.
Workshop Prep Time
I know, you want to see photos. Okay, here's one:
Now, let's deal with the dull stuff for a moment.
Getting ready for a big photo trip, let alone teaching a workshop of 12 students while on the trip, isn't something you enter into lightly. I deal with a lot of this in Big Trip Planning 101, so if you're thinking about one of these big multi week trips, you might want to go and read that article.
But as workshop leader, I've got a few additional things I have to get done in addition to what I write about there.
First, I have to figure out how to project in the middle of nowhere, and how to have backups for that should we have a failure of some kind. That means light, but effective portable projectors, portable screens, AC power, and making sure we have cables so we can project from either my machine or my assistant's. As I've described in various safari articles, backups are important. Something will fail on this trip. But if I've anticipated that and have an answer I can get by if I have a single failure of anything.
Our main projection solution this time is again a light, but high end Optoma projector. Mine broke last workshop (after accumulating nearly 200,000 air miles and who knows how many bumpy road miles), so we're using my assistant's this time. I've got a smaller, not-as-bright nor state-of-the-art HP projector with me. I found a great 3M portable screen to use, but when we went to get a backup for that, it turns out that 3M has already stopped making it. Yuck. Okay, Plan B: our tour guide Adam Hedges has a screen he's bringing.
And would you believe that I'm up to my eyeballs in raw foods? Say what?
Well, you don't bring your beanbag filled on this trip. The big bags might weigh as much as 10 pounds filled, and you've got to fit that into International 44-pound baggage limits to get to Africa. So everyone brings empty bags that need filling. Filling with what? Well, whatever we can find in quantity in Maun, Botswana that meets some basic requirements. When I land in Maun several days ahead of my students, Adam will be meeting me with some samples based upon what we talked about. So the very first thing I have to do on the ground when I get to Botswana is look at corn, beans, and maybe rice and approve a bulk purchase.
Another thing you might not think about is labeling. I spent most of an afternoon putting small labels with my name on all my gear and batteries. Why? Well, imagine what happens when you have 40 EN-EL15 batteries from various folk that need charging and everyone's scrambling for one of the sockets off the generator at lunch. Generally, my assistant Tony manages that process and is very good at keeping everything sorted out, but it helps a lot to be able to identify our gear directly. I've got a couple of batteries getting up in Age value now, I wouldn't want someone else to pick one of those up off the charger thinking it's their brand new battery.
I also give each student a thumb drive so we can get images from their systems to mine for image review each day. 12 thumb drives to keep track of. Yep, they've been relabeled for the students so we can sort them through quickly.
One other thing that I did in the last week (after some regular communication with students about what I was doing and what I thought they needed to think about [which resulted in this article on safari prep]), was to do one last minute check of cameras and lenses students were bringing. Both Tony and I looked over the student lists and made some final suggests for tuning the gear they were bringing where necessary. We found a couple of folk who were overloaded with certain options, lacking others. Thing is, on a long trip like this, you do want backups, but you also want flexibility for the things other than animals that we can and will photograph along the way.
I'll have a full listing of gear at some point in this workshop blog, but I can tell you we're heavy on D800, D7100, V1, and V2 cameras. The 200-400mm seems to be the long lens of choice (and is what I'm using on my D800E). We've got some Canon and m4/3 shooters on this trip, too. Last Botswana workshop it seemed like everyone had D3's and 500mm's, so this workshop will be a little different in what it produces photographically, I think. Then again, maybe not. We all get so hung up on gear these days that we sometimes can't see the pride from the lion.
I'll bet that most of you won't be able to tell which image came from which camera and lens when we get to the meat of the blog (and if you want to test yourself, just go back and look at the Botswana 2010 or South Africa 2010 workshop blogs). I believe it's more important to have equipment you know well and can use optimally rather than whatever produces the latest and greatest buzz. I'll write more about that once we start shooting. I can tell you this, though: the odds that the best photograph of the workshop will be taken by the most expensive, most buzz-worthy gear are not all that high.
Don't get me wrong. Almost no pro on the planet going on safari would pick lesser gear over better gear without a very specific requirement behind that choice. We bring what we think are our best cameras, our best lenses. Since I don't tend to take bursts of shots and I don't need any more up-the-nose shots of lions, my "best camera and lens" is not an D4 and a 800mm f/5.6. I tend to prefer animal-in-environment shots, which is why the D800 and 70-200 and 200-400mm is a better choice for me.
And I can't tell you how many times I packed and repacked gear, weighing each combination. When an airline says that they have an 18 pound limit, you'd better have a method for getting to 18 pounds, just in case. As it turns out, for one of my bags it's all the batteries I'm carrying that are the killer. You can't put loose lithium batteries in your checked bags (legally), so I've got a bag-a-batteries in my carry-on. Turns out that those batteries are what really put me overweight for my carry-on, so I've come up with a system that just allows me to easily transfer them out of the bag and into my jacket.
Workshop prep is all about the Boy Scout motto: be prepared. For just about anything. The better prepared you are, the easier the execution is, the easier it is to manage disruption or change that's thrown at you.
So if it seemed like this last week before I began traveling I wasn't posting quite as much as usual, it's because I was deep into prep mode.
We're almost ready to get to the meat of the workshop blog, so consider this just some prep for you, too. Before we begin, ask yourself this: what is it you'd pick to carry with you on safari? What do you think you'd be trying to shoot? What would you expect to be your most successful types of shots? When we're done with the workshop blog, ask yourself those same questions once again and see if your answer has changed.
Time to get on a plane to Africa.
See 'ya in Botswana.
Pre Workshop Scout
Tony and I have arrived in Botswana a couple of days ahead of the students, and immediately headed into Moremi to a primitive camp to do some pre-safari safari-ing.
One reason to arrive early is to simply make sure we're there when the students begin arriving. Tony's flight from Newark to Washington, DC, for example, was so late that he would have missed the flight to Jo-berg. Thus, he had to immediately get re-routed and fly to Africa through Europe, arriving 14 hours later than I did. When you travel long distances with multiple airlines like this, the potential for disruption is high, and even for my students I tend to suggest that they build in an extra travel day up front for cases just this.
Case in point: the airport in Nairobi had a major fire in it recently, and much of the airport is no longer truly functional (some say it never was). This is leading to everyone having real issues with schedules if they fly through Nairobi, and that will probably continue for some time.
More important, though, is just getting back into the speed of Africa and into safari mode. Even amongst experienced wildlife photographers it sometimes takes a day or two to get fully dialed in and, after having to pack tight for travel, get everything reorganized the way you'll use it in the field. One of my cameras is in a different bag than the lens I use on it for travel weight purposes, and my camera batteries were all in my laptop bag to keep my pack weight from being too heavy. So getting everything back sorted where I want it for the actual safari is one of the things these extra days are for.
Some assembly is required, too. Likewise, I had heads in one bag, monopod and window pod in another, and I need to put the Wimberley Sidekick on the head and the head onto the window pod. It's one thing to travel by car to a location, where you can usually use more bags and keep things pretty much ready to go. But getting to a distant locale with 23kg checked bag and 18kg carry-on bag limitations really requires packing tight and efficiently, and often separating things that should be together just to keep everything airline acceptable.
So here I am typing this at Camp 9 in Moremi. And here's Tony doing whatever he's doing at the other end of the table:
Driving in from Maun was pretty uneventful, except for our first interesting animal sighting: a very big Honey Badger. These guys are one of the toughest animals to photograph in the wild here, as they tend to bolt straight for their den hole, which is exactly what our badger did. Still, even just seeing a Honey Badger is a bit unusual, so it was nice to see one, even if he was moving lickety-split fast away from us.
Adam Hedges, owner of Capricorn Safaris, the local outfit I use, kept telling me that we'd have only a primitive camp on our pre-safari. I'm going to have to talk to him about what the word "primitive" means. Tony and I both have separate 10x10 tents, we have a bath tent and a shower tent. We have a three-person camp crew (including a cook) looking after things, and we of course we have our Land Cruiser and guide/driver, Betta. We've got ice boxes full of food and drink, tables, chairs, wash basins galore, and I haven't even gone over to see what's in the other truck and trailer.
We were met in camp by two large lion roars, so the predators can't be far away. That said, after a nice dinner and some casual chat, it was time to catch up on some much needed sleep, as sleep during the upcoming days could be short-lived and intermittent.
The next morning, our safari-ing started in earnest, as we were up before sunrise, had some hot porridge for breakfast and headed off into the wilds near Xakanaka.
Which brings me to my other point. While it didn't take me long to start getting some decent shots, it did take me a couple of stops before I felt I had the camera and support system completely dialed in the way I like it. It took Tony a bit longer, as he's fiddling with a new camera, but that's part of the reason why we're here. We want to be at full speed and ready for anything once the students join us. We can't be still adjusting our cameras and gear and getting back into the flow of the daily shooting when we really need to be helping the students do that.
While the morning brought no real predators (another honey badger and some jackal), we did have plenty of elephant action, camp buffalo, monkey, and even some hippo with jaws wide open.
One thing that I was working on this morning was trying to dial back into "birds taking off." You get a lot of that in Africa (birds taking off, that is). Getting the timing right while still nailing focus is tough, even for veterans. Thus, I like to get a head start on my students, making sure I've got that dialed in so I can help them get there, too.
This is where I have to admit to a mistake. One of the cameras I brought with me was a Nikon V2 with the FT1 and a 70-300mm lens, one of the better hand-held wildlife combos available. I guess I picked up the wrong V2 in the office, though. After trying to get those bird lifting on shots with it, I discovered that I didn't have the latest firmware installed, and that's necessary to get continuous autofocus with the FT1 on the camera. Ah, so that's why my focus is off. Like this:
Timing right, focus wrong.
Fortunately, I had asked Tony to bring all the Nikon firmware updates with us just in case any student turned out to not have the latest and greatest. Turns out, I'm the first victim.
This, by the way, is one reason why I so strongly suggest you not be on the constant upgrade path. I have to be, partly because my Web presence requires it, partly because my teaching requires that I be up to speed on everything. Were I just making my living off of images, there's a good chance that I'd still be using a D3s and D3x on this trip. Photographers don't want to keep adjusting things, keep learning new controls, keep testing to see what the limits of something is. They just want to take photos! While they do worry that maybe another pro is getting more pixels on the animals than them (i.e. able to print bigger), that's a minor worry that you should deal with slowly, not something you fret about every six weeks when a new camera is announced. At least that's the way it should be.
We get so gear obsessed because technology does move on and give us better image quality, better focusing, better handling, better capacity, and more, more, more. But we often let that feature and performance parade get too demanding of our attention, and we stop focusing on the pictures and too much on the gear.
Let me give you an example. If I told you that I could give you a camera that shoots as well as a D200, but does 60 fps and comes with a hand-holdable 810mm f/5.6 lens, you'd jump at that, wouldn't you? What if I told you that that camera is a Nikon 1 V2? In actuality, the V2 might actually be better in image quality at ISO 400 or 800, and we're talking about 14mp instead of 10mp. Yet so many people poo-poo the Nikon 1 cameras because it has a small sensor. Pardon my French, but who gives a rats posterior how big the sensor is or isn't? In the end, it's the images you take that are important.
Sure, I could buy a Nikon D4 and a Nikkor 800mm f/5.6 lens and get cleaner high ISO results and be able to shoot inside a coal mine at night, but are the photographs better? Maybe, maybe not. I can't handhold the 800mm f/5.6 lens, so that's going to limit where I can take the combo and use it.
So, one of the following images was taken with a D800 and the 70-200mm versus the V2 and the 200-400mm. Can you tell which one is which?
Yeah, I've intentionally made it difficult here. The images were taken on different days, in slightly different light, and in different areas of Botswana. Still, hard to tell, isn't it? Even if I were to give you the post processed full-sized images stripped of EXIF data, most of you wouldn't be able to tell. (Answer, top one is a D800E with 70-200mm, bottom one is a V2 with 200-400mm.)
So before you get too into the "oh, Thom was using state-of-the-art gear for everything and I need that too" type of thinking, realize that we had a pretty wide range of gear on this trip, and I took decent shots with cameras you might not consider anything close to state-of-the-art. Consider:
Gotta be the V2 with a long lens again, right? Nope. This is a JPEG taken with a Sony HX50 compact camera. The giveaway is the sky, which simply can't be held by the 8-bit JPEG from a small sensor when the animal is exposed properly. Just not enough dynamic range in the sensor, especially after the data set is reduced to 8 bits by the camera's heavy-handed processing.
Back to safari-ing.
Our first full afternoon drive turned out to be one of those highlight reel drives.
First, more honey badgers. Only this time, we were able to sneak up on them when they digging for food, and position ourselves in a place that we hoped they would move toward when they finished. Our choice proved to be correct:
We were four shooting hours into the safari, had seen plenty of cat tracks, heard them roaring, but hadn't yet seen any. Sometimes when that happens, you just continue to skunk out. Any one of the cats can move many kilometers in very short periods, so sometimes it's like you're following them but never quite catching them. Today, however, we caught them. Bang. Bang.
First the leopard. Our driver Betta had spotted movement in a distant tree, and rather than more monkeys, this time it turned out to be an illusive leopard. I say illusive, because the other guides in the area had told Betta that they hadn't seen one in days, yet had seen tracks and other evidence.
Our leopard was skittish, however (we'll get to why in a moment). So we had a bit of trouble getting close to him at first. He came down from the first tree and slinked into the reeds. We caught him coming out a clump of reeds upstream and then he started into what looked like a hunt mode. That means he was moving deliberately, but quickly. Up a termite mount. Spot. Down and up another tree.
It was in the second tree that we were finally able to get a good shot of him. Can you see the leopard in the tree?
Scroll down for the answer.
Here's where you should be looking:
And here's our leopard getting over to that position:
Word got out fast that we had found the leopard; some of the tours at the local permanent camps were ending this evening and hadn't yet seen leopard, so guide tips were on the line. When the third vehicle showed up we started to move out and look for the lions, as one of the vehicles had shared information about where they were last spotted.
And that's why the leopard was skittish. The place we found the lions was only hundreds of yards away, just across the water (I hesitate to say river, as the river is split into so many small streams at this point that it is threading across many dozens of miles). The lions we were looking for were the two dominant males, which roam the pride's territory and try to rid it of competitors such as the leopard. If the lions got wind of the leopard, there surely would be a chase and/or a fight. Our leopard was skittish almost certainly because being downwind he knew where the lions were and we were approaching from the opposite side of that. So if he wanted to get away from us and hunt quietly, he had to do so even closer to the lions than he was.
The lions were deep in the reeds. With their heads down, you wouldn't see them. The reeds are so high here that even tail swishing—one of the ways you often spot them when they're lying down—wouldn't have been seen. Even after they got up to move you could still barely see them:
I have no photos for what happened the last night in camp, as it happened once we were bedded down in our tents. But we found ourselves in chaos central.
Just outside our camp is a fairly recent elephant carcass. Elephants are very respectful of their dead. Hyenas aren't. A pack of hyenas decided that the carcass still had some scraps they wanted to munch on. I was awakened by a massive elephant trumpet. Then another. And another. Not just a trumpet, but a clearly distressed trumpet, and very, very close. For three hours the camp was abuzz with elephants sounding off trying to chase away hyena, hyenas trying to call their pack, and eventually, the elephants pulling down trees and throwing them at hyena. Literally. One of the elephants tore off part of the tree just behind my tent and threw it at the hyena: too dark to take a picture of that, but I could clearly see it with my eyes. Darn it, I had considered bringing the night-IR camera and light, now I already had a reason why I should have.
The fracas started near one end of the camp and ended up just behind our tent, close enough that we were easily feeling the elephant's footsteps as they stomped around. Meanwhile, the hyena were letting out howls from time to time, again starting at one end of camp and ending up behind our tent. If that weren't enough, I heard alarm calls from seven different species around camp, including baboon, impala, kudu, and even one of the birds.
For three hours this cacophony of sounds went on before eventually the hyena gave up and moved off, with the elephants in tow. The last sounds I heard were jackal yips, but apparently the elephant weren't mad at them as there were no more trumpets.
It's just a reminder that safaris aren't just about images, but the entire experience, including the smells and sounds. And remember when I wrote that sleep might be intermittent in the coming days? ;~)
Tony and I had one additional day of pre-safari safari. Here are a few images from that time:
Yes, that's a black mamba. Yes, I'm still alive. And yes, I took this photo (cropped top and bottom only) with my longest lens.
Day One and Two — Royal Tree Lodge
August 17 & 18
Today's mostly a snapshot day. Tony and I have come out of the park and back to Maun to meet our students. We have a full house, as usual, with 12 students rambling into the Royal Tree Lodge today. Okay, not quite. A couple of students got here yesterday while we were still in the field, and one had a flight into Jo-berg that missed the connecting flight to Maun, so he won't arrive until tomorrow. Still, it's workshop time, and we've got a lot of work to do before we head back out into the park.
First up was doing as much of my usual teaching presentation as possible. Let's just say that triangles are involved (former workshop students will know what I mean, the rest of you will have to wait a bit to know what that's about). I try to get everyone thinking about the photographic decisions they'll be making in a useful and interesting way, and both Tony and I will follow up on this on Day Two with presentations on how to apply that to safari shooting.
It seems, however, that every time I do this presentation, it gets longer ;~). It originally started as a two-hour presentation, and these days it's difficult for me to get it all done in four. No, I'm not slowing down; I'm adding more detail and emphasis on the points I make. And, no, I didn't make everyone sit for four hours listening to me bloviate: we went for a bit less than two hours mostly centered on composition.
It turns out that we have some interesting students, too. When I got to a section where I talk about eye movement, it turns out we have someone who studies brains and knows the research behind what I was talking about. So I'm pretty sure we're going to have some interesting discussions at camps during the next weeks.
After everyone fell asleep listening to me we had a nice dinner.
I'm always happy when I get to Royal Tree Lodge. First of all, it means that all the plane trips are done (for awhile). But more importantly, it's a very pleasant little oasis just far enough away from dusty, chaotic Maun, and the staff is not just friendly, but really do seem to want you to enjoy yourself. The accommodations are nice (as long as you remember to keep your Monkey Lock on the door latched), and the food is plentiful and good.
After a nice welcome dinner we had one of the first surprises of the workshop (for the students, that is). Royal Tree Lodge is also home to a family of genets (Carnivora/Feliformia/Viverridae/Viverrinae, if that helps). Every night after dinner they come down into the big tree on the deck of Royal Tree Lodge and hunt for scraps.
This is always an interesting point in the workshop for me. Some number of students will always get excited by the First Night Genet and if they don't already have their camera handy, will go retrieve it. A few will be trying to relax (after all, this is their first night away from work and airplanes). Almost none will have ever seen a genet in the "wild" before (Royal Tree Lodge is a fenced Game Reserve, thus the quotes), so it's helpful to me to see how excited they are, what questions they ask, and to also see how they go about taking pictures of it in what are decidedly poor conditions.
In these first two days, I'm definitely in full teaching mode: observe, listen, respond, prod, encourage, lecture, test, help.
This all goes into full Turbo Thom mode on Day Two.
Consider this image:
Yes, that's me. But what am I doing behind those branches?
Well, this is part of some autofocus practice sessions. Tony and I split the students up so we can see how they're handling their cameras and focusing on moving objects (note I was actually looking to see what someone else was doing, not this shooter). Moving objects that constantly dart behind trees and trigs and grass and termite mounds. Ah, so that's why I'm behind the branch. But I didn't last long there. A few seconds later I was running across the lawn to some other location, doing my best frightened impala imitation (I think I may have even let out a warning snort).
It doesn't take long in doing this to observe who's got good habits and who has habits that need to fixing. Also, I keep chimping everyone's LCDs to make sure the pictures they are getting are actually in focus. No? Then we need to figure out why focus was missed. It's actually amazing how fast you can start dialing people in with just a little bit of play like this. Besides, I need the exercise from all that running around.
After dealing with some basic handling and focus scenarios with everyone, we again split the group, with Tony working on trying to AF Fine Tune everyone's camera/lens combos while I started working with individuals on specific things I had noticed and giving them little tests to make sure they were ready for the spontaneous things that'll happen once we're on safari.
Unfortunately, the beta software I had brought to "auto" tune cameras didn't work, so we ended up doing a lot of manual tuning, which meant I had to come over and look at the computer monitor a fair number of times and make judgment calls. As usual, some camera/lens combos didn't need anything, a few needed a lot of tuning, and some just needed some tweaking. There really doesn't seem to be any rhyme nor reason to what I see with large bunches of Nikon gear: there's no nice bell curve that everything tends to bunch up in. We had four D800 plus 200-400mm combos that were basically all over the map. Ditto all the D7100's and 500's and 70-200's and 80-400's. Overall, there were only a few camera/lens combos that didn't need something in the AF Fine Tune value, which is the same result I see at every workshop.
Let's see, what else?
Well, we had the ritual bean bag filling, of course. Three huge boxes with bags of corn were quickly swallowed up by the Gura Gear and other bean bags that people had brought. As it turned out, my calculations were right on: we filled the last bean bag with the last bags of corn. I think this was just luck, not any skill in estimating on my part. Adam was ready to head back to town and buy more, if need be.
Think we're done? Not even close.
Tony had his presentation on the animals we'll be dealing with, what we're looking to photograph, and the problems that will come up in trying to do that. Every animal poses a different set of problems you have to deal with. Then there was my presentation on how to incorporate the compositional things I talked about the previous night when it comes to the problems the animals present you. Remember, we can't always move our position relative to an animal and you might be using a fixed focal length 500mm lens, so you definitely get compositional challenges that have no perfectly clear answer. I like to start talking about that before we encounter them in the field.
And it's now time for lunch…wait, you thought we were near the end of the day? Nope. I told you it'd be packed and I'd be in Turbo mode.
After lunch we've got two new goals to reach. First, I want to work with every student one-on-one for at least a short period of time in order to walk them through compositional decisions, even if it's on still life subjects around the lodge.
That backlit green leaf provoked a lot of attention during this assignment, but there were a lot of other things around the lodge that attracted our students and led to the type of compositional decision making dialog that I was trying to provoke and step through. The object of this exercise isn't to take great pictures around the lodge (though that's possible), it's to get everyone thinking about composition in a more structured, practical approach that's repeatable. What I find with most amateurs (and even some pros), is that their compositional development is completely spontaneous and unstructured. There's nothing wrong with being spontaneous, but the unstructured part means you have no repeatability in what you do. Some of your compositions will be good, others mediocre, still others bad. There's little chance that you can develop a "style." More often than not, mimicry—trying to get the same image that they've seen from someone else—is the only clear repeatable thing that is done in composing. But as I point out in my lectures and teaching, if all you ever do is mimic others and use rule of thirds as your only compositional guideline, there's only a limited number of pictures that can be taken in the real world, and they've already been taken by others.
Most of the family and friends of the students (and even Tony and I) will never travel to Botswana. You could bring back pictures they could see elsewhere (e.g. Frans Lanting's book), or you could bring back something they couldn't ever see elsewhere because it's unique to you. Which is preferable?
The other thing we needed to do this afternoon was get everyone ready to shoot from the vehicles.
We had two of the Land Cruisers available to us (technically, I could have asked for all of them, but there's only Tony and I to split between vehicles and help people, so two time-shared vehicles makes more sense). Remember, Royal Tree Lodge is actually a fenced animal preserve, complete with a set of roads snaking through it, and a reasonably healthy population of various antelope, zebra, giraffe, and a few other of the non-carnivores (obviously, you don't want a carnivore in a fenced in area, otherwise you'd end up with no non-carnivores eventually ;~). In the image above, I'm talking through some of the particulars about what you can do when standing in the vehicle and using a monopod with two of the students. After quickly demonstrating the options—and there are a lot of options in shooting from these vehicles—Tony and I each took three students at a time through the preserve to simulate what would happen on the main safari and work with each student to get optimal steadiness from each of the possibilities for shooting. Fortunately, the animals cooperated this time (last workshop they were all hiding somewhere on the property away from the roads), so we were able to quickly get people dialed into better habits for shooting.
I'll take this moment to point out something that both Tony and I observed throughout the workshop: while everyone was doing the right things after we stopped, the students seemed reluctant to heed one other bit of advice, which is that you really have to be ready to shoot before the vehicle stops. This is a tricky thing, and one that's tough to put into practice.
Let's say that you're driving along and you see a honey badger up ahead digging in the dirt. If you wait until the vehicle stops before getting into shooting position and bringing your camera up with you, this is the first shot you'll get:
The animal is already running away from you and disappearing into a protected area. The classic butt shot, at best. Sure, you might get lucky and find a more cooperative animal that stays put, but basically you want to be ready to with your finger at the shutter release and the camera aimed the moment the vehicle has stopped (and sometimes even before it has, though this is really, really tough to get steady). If you wait until the vehicle is stopped to then pick up your camera, then move your body and camera into a shooting position, then try to figure out your settings and finally acquire a focus, you've given the animal many seconds to decide to move away. Many animals tolerate you driving by just fine, but they get a little paranoid when you stop.
Of course, there's a danger with getting ready early, which is why a lot of non-pros don't attempt it: your equipment and body are at risk. I often come back from these trips with a few bruises where a last minute jolt as we stopped banged me against the frame of the roof opening, and it's very easy to bump your gear against the metal parts of the vehicle. Still, it's worth finding ways to minimize those risks and maximize your shooting potential. Rarely does anything stand still in the wild for long. Thus, at a minimum, you should know that you've already got a good exposure set, the right ISO set, your focus settings where you want them, your camera in your hands ready to bring up to the eye, and anything else you can do to minimize the time from stop to shoot.
Since I tend to use a window mount from my low front seat position (avoids me standing up into a student's shot), I've usually already made sure that the gimbal is on the right side, the clamp is open, and my camera is oriented with the lens toward the window and the body angled so that it will just slip right into the mount. I'm fairly quick at getting everything up and locked down, and if the road isn't too bumpy or we aren't going too fast, I sometimes am already trying to mount the camera before we stop. If we've been crawling around trying to find a good angle to something, my camera probably didn't come off the window mount at all.
As I noted, we got a fair amount of safari practice at Royal Tree Lodge in the Land Cruisers, and by the time we were done I was comfortable that everyone knew what their options were in the vehicle for shooting and how to take advantage of them. Heck, there was even one antelope at Royal Tree Lodge that we photographed during our practice that we never saw in the wild.
Everyone's back to their cabins early tonight: tomorrow we start the exciting part of the safari, and we want to get an early start.
Day Three — Into Moremi: the Lost Elephant
The early part of the day was hurry up and wait. Waiting for bags to get collected and moved to the front of the lodge, waiting for bags to be put into the trailer, waiting for everything to get sorted out before we had four Land Cruisers loaded with all students, teachers, and our gear. Still, we were headed out of Tree Lodge by 9:30 am and on the long 150km worth of road that would take us to camp and the animals.
No, no wild dogs on the road before Moremi this time. In fact, we had a predator-less day.
That doesn't mean it was a bad day. Not at all. We had cooperative giraffe, birds of all sort, and best of all lots and lots of elephant. Elephant in the trees, elephants walking, elephants at the water, the whole elephant experience.
Let's start with the giraffe. You know you've got a bad case of the fleas when you have an entire colony of Ox Peckers lined up on you (see image at right).
I immediately followed this image up with a challenge to my students: so how much giraffe and how many Ox Peckers do you actually need to get across what's happening here? I immediately framed up a different shot to show them what I meant (unfortunately, giraffe and birds were all moving constantly, so by the time I managed to take it I personally found my demonstration shot sub-optimal, but I include it here to show you what I was talking about with the students in the vehicle):
As you can see, the light and the bird positions changed on me, but I think you get the idea: you don't need much giraffe to get across which animal these birds are riding on.
All of which leads us to our first image review (the next day), when I got this image from Mark:
Here Mark is using the same thing I was talking to him and the others about: how much of something do you need to get a point across? The natural thing to do would be to show the entire adult giraffe, but by cropping this way Mark basically makes his point much more obvious: the baby is rump high. (It's always all about the baby, isn't it? ;~)
The temptation on safari is to just take two types of photos: full animal, or animal face. Since much of the time the animals are just standing around or doing some common activity (eating usually), if you just use those two framings—full animal and head shot—you'll come back from safari with a lot of images that look the same. In fact, they'll look the same as the reference photos you'd find in an animal encyclopedia or field guide. BORE-ing.
It's better to look for the stories. The details. The relationships. The action. And to frame those things so that you make an obvious statement, as Mark did with his baby giraffe.
The highlight of the day was having multiple families of elephants walking down to the water later in the afternoon. Here's Murali's shot of the group coming out of the forest and down to the water:
Of course, waterhole activity is just part of an elephant's day, so as the dominate males and females decided it was time to walk back and destroy some more forest, all the other family members set off after them. One group of elephants crossed the water, making nice, loud sloshing sounds, sounds that almost overrode the sounds of shutters clicking.
Wait, what's that? One of the elephants is turning around and going back across the water again in a frenzy! The last male doing the crossing with him gave our splasher a bronx cheer: turns out we had an elephant that followed the wrong family! Sure enough, our teen elephant frantically splashed back across the water and ran to join the correct elephant family:
Well, that's a new one I hadn't seen before. Apparently even elephants get lost at the water park.
We had so much good shooting during our drive in, we didn't get into camp until just before dark, so we didn't have much of a camp orientation in daylight. No biggie. Everyone was happy with our first day of shooting. Time for a shower, a meal, and a nice campfire chat.
Day Four — First Lion
You always remember your first lion in the wild. Here are just three of the shots from students of the male that was our first lion sighting on this trip:
These images bring up an entirely different issue. I'm not messing with anyone's processing here: I'm just presenting the JPEGs as I get them from students. Orkis' image at the top has classic Adobe OverOrange syndrome. More often than not if you let the Adobe converters do their own thing with a Nikon NEF image, you'll get an abundance of "orange" in the image, which also often shows up as yellow as well as orange, and leans a lot of the colors towards green, too. A problem with Adobe's white balance choices plays into this, but there's much more to it than that. Christian's shot (second one) is closer to reality, though I think it tilts slightly towards magenta.
I asked for Orkis for the original NEF so that I could run it through my workflow. I picked a slightly different crop, but here's the way I see the processing:
In particular, look at the white below the lion's mouth and especially in his whiskers. It should be white. There should be a hint of green in the reeds (it was coming on spring in Botswana), but not in the lion. The eyes should have orange in them, but not yellow. And yes, this conversion was done using the Adobe converter. But to get to this rendering required intervention on my part, as is often the case with Adobe and NEFs.
I'm going to make one post processing change to the last lion photo, too. See if you can spot it:
Go ahead, scroll back up and down and see if you can see the change. It's small, but, it's important.
Give up? I lightened the eyes a touch. Normally with animals in the field like this you might consider using fill flash to do something similar, especially since this lion is walking from sun into shade. But we're really on the first full day of the workshop. It's a little too soon to start fiddling with flash on top of everything else I'm throwing at the students. Moreover, you can't always be prepared to do that. Try this instead: duplicate the layer, create a layer mask filled with black on the duplicate layer, select a white brush and paint the mask only at the eyes, now switch the blend mode for the layer to Screen. Adjust the Fill level as desired. With more time, I'd make different masks for each of this lion's eyes, as they need slightly different levels of enhancement. But it took me all of 60 seconds to do, and I think it makes for a more engaging image.
We don't actually spend a lot of time talking about post processing on safari (we have sub-optimal viewing conditions during our non-safari time each day, projectors aren't the best way to demonstrate subtleties, and keeping laptops color profiled in the field is notoriously problematic, amongst other problems). We did do some talk about processing during our review sessions, and I demonstrated the "eye trick" at one point, but I'm starting to realize that perhaps having a full image processing session at the right facility at the end of a workshop with a calibrated projection system and screen might be useful to everyone.
This particular lion also had to cross over some water to get where he could watch the buffalo herd he wanted to hunt:
Lions hate water (other than to drink), so once he decided to head across, he did so quickly. So quickly that my vehicle had no good shot of him exiting the water, only entering:
Probably the big discussion topic for the day was the "None of These Things is Just Like the Other" situation we found at one tree:
Why these three birds decided to meet in a tree, I have no idea. Even on the ground you don't often see these three particular species in this kind of close proximity. But this grouping did allow me to talk about a lot of things compositionally. First, note the beaks. If the spoonbill isn't at least partly facing you, you don't see the spoon. But the fellow on the right also has an interesting beak, but you only see that if he's side on to you. One of the things I'm looking for in situations like this is what the sub-text is. In the above shot, the birds are all looking towards the center, as if they're actually "meeting." But what about this variation:
Now they're all pointing their beaks the same direction, so it appears that they're all looking at the same mysterious off-screen thing. I have a number of variations on a theme in my files here, with two birds before the third arrived, and two birds after the third left. Each of the variations tells a slightly different story. My actual composition doesn't change much between them, though it's clear that as the birds moved a bit on the branch I did move the vehicle position slightly to get a better angle. What does change in every shot is the "timing" at which I pressed the shutter release, always coinciding with some alignment I was seeing amongst the birds.
I like simple situations like this when teaching. The birds were pretty cooperative and tolerated our close presence well (I'm at 300mm FX here). Thus, I was able to spend some time describing to the students in at least two vehicles what it was I saw, what I was trying to do about it, and why I was pressing the shutter release when I was. This is also one of those rare situations where I went up out the top of the vehicle. Why? To try to get closer to eye level with the birds. (For more, see the October 2013 Teaching Point.)
Day Five — Baby Ele and The Two-Minute Leopard
It's our last day at Camp 9, so maybe it's a good time to talk about the camp. Our camp faces out onto a small pond, and conveniently faces the sunrise (and moonrise):
As always, we have big tents with comfortable beds in them and a private bath out back (pit toilet and hanging shower, along with a table and wash basin). Every tent has a dedicated camp steward, who cleans your tent every day, does any laundry you need washed, fills your wash basin and shower with hot water, and wakes you each morning when re-filling your water basin.
At the ends of the 10 participant tents we put individual tends for the guides/drivers so that they are in position to deal with any animals that decide to come through (spoiler alert: that's foreshadowing).
The mess tent is big enough to seat everyone, and one end has the power plugs from the generator (you can just see it poking in the left of the following photo), while the back side has a bar and cold drinks. You can see one of the ubiquitous wash basins just to the right of the hanging lantern in this photo:
Directly out from the mess tent we have our nightly campfire (also active when we come for breakfast):
This photo must have been taken the first night, because as the workshop progressed, we started doing more and more night "activities" (more foreshadowing).
Basically, we try to make the mobile camp experience about as good a true camping experience as you can have.
Our day breaks down like this: rise before sunrise to a quick light breakfast and head out into the park as it opens. Which brings me to one of my complaints about most African parks: they have fixed hours, and how well those hours work depends a lot upon time of year. Moremi does change their hours slightly for half the year, but April through September there's no driving allowed from 6:30pm until 6am. Personally, I believe they ought to set hours around official sunrise/sunset times (e.g. half hour before, half hour after). In late August, we're using able to get sunrise photos with the park hours as they are, but not sunsets (we'd never get back to camp in time for the driving curfew). I'm all for letting the animals have the night to themselves; heck, I wouldn't complain if they had weeks or months where the park was off limits to visitors in order to allow the animals to be a little more "wild." But it's slightly counterproductive to have hours that don't facilitate human enjoyment. (There are private areas within Botswana that do not have the same time curfews; this only applies to the big National Parks.)
Our morning drive thus starts about sunrise and continues through the morning. We usually say we'll be back in camp by 10am, but in multiple times of doing this, we never have been ;~). There's just so much to see and photograph, after all. We usually get back to camp some time around 11am, sometimes a little later, and have our mid-day meal immediately upon our return. After lunch, I often do image review, but I try to make sure we all have at least 45 minutes worth of down time before Tea Time is called (3pm) and we start back out on another drive. Obviously, we are back at camp by 6:30pm—within a couple of minutes the entire trip—after which it is shower and some down time before dinner.
I'll talk more about things that happen around camp in a later post, but right now you're thinking: you went on two long drives today, Thom, what the heck did you see?
We seem to be having a wonderful time with elephants. Lots of them, and plenty of interesting groups and actions. Today's elephant highlight for most folk were the babies:
Babe is gray going to the water (Mark's photo at top), but near black after being in the water (note the water line on the mom's legs in my photo ;~). We had plenty of water action with the elephants, but I wanted to pull out these two photos to make a point about mimicry. Note the leg positions. I've long found that similar leg positions (and trunk positions, too) look far more interesting than random mixed leg positions. Likewise, a leg lifted better indicates movement than all legs flat on the ground. I call it "heel lift." If you don't have it, you're not suggesting motion.
Okay, I know you're all thinking: Thom, you're stalling, what's a two-minute leopard?
Well, remember those park hours I mentioned before? Sometimes you don't stumble upon an animal until late in the day, and when that happens, you don't have much time before you need to pack up and head back to camp. Couple that with the fact that any predator will immediately attract every vehicle in the area, and sometimes you end up with subjects like the two-minute leopard.
This leopard has killed an impala and brought it up into a tree. Only problem: the only opening to where you could see this leopard is facing away from the road, which is one of the reasons why it took so long to find him. You can often tell that there's a leopard around (more foreshadowing), but not where it is. They're masters of disappearing in plain sight.
Technically, we're restricted to roads within Moremi, though this is generally interpreted to "established vehicle paths." In this case, there was turnaround area that almost reached where the leopard was visible, and every vehicle then extended that a bit so that their passengers could see the leopard and its kill. The only problem is that there were seven vehicles (four of them ours), and only one vehicle at a time could really fit into the space that showed the leopard clearly. Moreover, it was getting mighty close to the time where we'd need to truck back to camp.
So in the end, each vehicle pretty much got only two minutes with our leopard. There's virtually no light here (completely shaded area with the sun near the horizon behind another group of trees). In other words: worst possible scenario for taking pictures. No time, no light, no great angle (best position was standing on the vehicle), and others wanting the same opportunity.
And thus we have the two-minute leopard:
Day Six — Ten Spots in a Tree; Onto the Boats
Today as we broke camp we started with a quick hunt for the two-minute leopard hoping to add a few minutes to our tally. Even our best guide was amazed that we found him.
First, we looked where we had last seen him: in the tree with the kill. No leopard. Okay, he couldn't have wandered too far, so the four vehicles all set out in different directions from that tree. For the longest time we had no evidence of the leopard at all. No tracks, even. Then Adam and I both heard an impala alert and I had him drive to it. This was followed by two more impala going on alert, and we quickly did a triangulation and drove into the spot the impala were alerting to. The birds in the area were quite a bit more talkative than usual, too. As Adam put it: "somewhere within 50 meters there's a leopard." But for the longest time all we saw were trees and bushes.
Up top on the back of the vehicle Joe spotted him first, me almost instantly afterward: in the tree above us, almost completely hidden from sight. All either of us saw were a handful of spots because the foliage was so dense here (see photo, below). The leopard was trying to get some much-deserved rest, and had worked himself into a spot that was virtually invisible. Unfortunately, all we ever got was a few spots on what we could see of his side, and every now and then a foot or an ear.
The impala were still surrounding us and still sounding alerts. They couldn't figure out where the leopard was, that's how well hidden he was. They didn't dare try to run when they didn't know where the predator was, but they quite obviously wanted to get away. That little incident was probably the longest I've ever seen impala be on alert in one place, and it was all due to an invisible leopard. Eventually the smell of leopard overcame their fear of running without knowing where it was, and the impala quickly moved out of danger. But they were never in danger in the first place: this was one full leopard who just wanted to digest his meal in piece.
From the ten spots in a tree we quickly headed over to the boats that would take us to Camp Okavango, or Camp O as it is often called.
While the as-the-fish-eagle flies distance from Xakanaxa to Camp O is probably 35km, the on-water distance through the ever-weaving channels is far, far longer. Here's the overall tracking for the complete trip (thanks to Daryl for supplying the GPS track data):
Here's a zoom of the center area, where we were shooting nesting birds and then went over to a nearby shore to have lunch (bottom of track):
And finally, here's the last bit of track coming into Camp Okavango:
We left Xakanaka a bit after 10am and made it to Camp O about 3:30pm, really only stopping for a picnic lunch and a few minutes at the Mirabou rookery, which hadn't yet gotten very active (this workshop is a few weeks earlier than the last, so we were seeing the very start of the nesting).
Along the way we briefly stopped for elephants, crocodiles, and birds of all kinds, but most of the day was a nice cruise up the threads of the delta waters. Ironically, you're much less likely to get sick riding the boats. The current is low and the waters mostly dead calm, so the boat ride is smooth and doesn't rock at all. That's not at all like the Land Cruisers, which bounce and rock through the sandy double-tracks enough so that you feel like a bobble head at the end of the day.
Here are some of the day's images:
I mentioned the Mirabou rookery, and here's Mark's shot of one of our feathered friends bringing in a load of materials for the nest:
One thing that should be obvious, but I'll just point it out specifically: sometimes we can get very close to the animals. Too close:
But most of our day was an enjoyable boat ride:
Oh, and that lunch, here's Adam and I preparing it, followed by what the first student saw:
There's a bit more on a side table, including fruit and dessert. Plus your drink of choice if you didn't want champagne. Bon appetite.
If you're interested in a possible 2014 or 2015 Botswana Photo Workshop similar to the one described in this blog, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org that includes your full contact info (name, address, phone, email).
Day Seven — Warthogs and Rest
I didn't say much about Camp O in yesterday's entry, so I need to make up for that today. It's a very pleasant oasis in the middle of the delta that has a motto:
The camp itself has an open lodge area, a covered eating area, a pool, an elevated viewing platform, and less than a dozen very nicely appointed tent cabins scattered in the woods.
Thus, it didn't take long for a change to come over the participants. I made the mistake last night of telling the students that if they needed any "chill" time, Camp O was probably the best place to do it. An endless bar, beautiful grounds, attentive staff, lots of birds should you actually want to get out your camera. Seems like most have taken me up on it, so much so that this afternoon's image review has been cancelled and postponed until tomorrow.
So here I sit by the pool by myself trying to catch up with the proceedings.
Most of the group went out this morning on a walk. After breakfast we took the boats out to a nearby island, and went for a leisurely on-the-ground walk. Adam did his best imitation of a biologist/naturalist/historian lecturer, running through everything from tracks and what they told us to the various types of dung we saw and why they were different (and important). Trees, animals, terrain, the ecology of termite mounds (see below); it doesn't matter, as Adam seems to have an endless store of knowledge, and plenty of colorful stories to go with it.
Generally when you're on the ground it's difficult to get close to animals. Indeed, it's often difficult to even see them because they'll move off the moment they catch wind of you, and you're down at ground level so are trying to see everything through the bush. Humans have been hunting animals for a long time in Africa, after all, so detecting a band of 12 or so human sorts coming at you is a good time to put some distance between them and you if you're prey.
The first impala we saw were like that. One sight of us and they were off on a run to put more ground between us, to the point where they disappeared into the grass where we couldn't even see them. But as our walk progressed, we eventually came to see elephant at not too far a distance, and then found some warthog that wanted to continue rooting in the soft grassy shade they'd found than run away from us. Other than some warthog that have been domesticated, these were the most cooperative I've encountered. At one point, some of us were using 70-200mm lenses as the animals continued digging for whatever it was they had found.
Even the impala started to cooperate and tolerate us after a while. They seemed more fearful of something they smelled up wind than us, so atypically, most students eventually got shots of the impala on the walk, too.
But the real star of any walk around Africa is the surroundings. The long open grass plains. The Baobab trees. The termite mounds. The way the terrain quickly moves from reed-filled waterways to marshland to hard ground to forest. The ubiquitous animal trails and signs of their passing. And here deep in the delta, the marvelous cacophony of bird calls as the sole sound other than the wind rattling through the trees. Oh yes, and the clicking of shutters.
As usual, I like to mix things up a bit. Would you believe that, out the middle of a field, in the middle of the Okavango delta, with beautiful baobab trees at our feet and animals all around, I started into a quick lesson in posing people? No? Well, here's me working with Ken working to try to get a purely African shot of our local guides:
Notice the fellow on the right. What we're trying to get away from is the "everyone standing straight up and down, legs together, arms at their sides" pose. At this point in the process, I've gotten the legs apart, and a couple of the guides out of those awful looking poses everyone gets in this kind of shot and I'm asking Ken if he likes that better than what he originally had. We continued to work through this until we had something far better than what we started out with. Here's what Ken was seeing through the viewfinder as Joe took the above shot:
Not stiff at all, but I believe we eventually got some better poses once all the guides figured out just how far I wanted them to go. That's one thing about great poses: to the poser they feel very, very wrong. To the two-dimensional camera capture, they look very right. It's very difficult to over exaggerate a pose and not have it work.
Here's another example from our impromptu posing session, this time using Adam:
The point wasn't so much to create the perfect shot, but to teach everyone to break the habit of "can I get you to stand in front of this tree" type of thinking. Heck with in front of the tree. How about "in" the tree?
Too often you get into these scenarios and you just accept what you get. You ask someone to be in a picture. They do only what they've seen everyone else do, get in front of something and stand there like straight-up-and-down mannequins who are afraid to show any personality. Instead of interacting with them and trying to get "more," or something different, or something that captures personality, the photographer just accepts the pose the person gives them and they get the same shot as everyone else.
Well, that ain't the way the great photographers do it in the studio, so why should be any different outside? You have to interact with your subjects, relax them, get them into more natural poses (or artificial poses they wouldn't have considered), and make them part of the scene rather than just some folk you lined up as if you were doing a mug shot. Joe's shot of Adam is actually pretty good in one respect: it captures the essence of Adam, which is that he is relaxed and comfortable in the African wilds, yet always watching out in the grass for what's going on.
Anyhow, that was the morning. I already said that the afternoon was pretty chill for a lot of people. But not everyone.
A couple of folk went out in the canoes:
They were rewarded with swimming with elephants:
Meanwhile, at lunch Adam decided he wanted another walk, so he offered to take anyone that wanted to join him to another island. Now, I know Adam. I really, really, really wanted to go on that walk, but I had already offered to stay at the lodge and be available to students who decided to chill. Adam has this sly way about him. When he tells you that we're going to do something, that's normal and it'll be good. When he suggests that you could do something with him, he's usually got something up his sleeve and it'll be great. Short version: any time that Adam Hedges gives you the option of doing something off schedule with him, take it. Don't hesitate. Just grab your camera and say yes.
Which is what Mark did. And only Mark.
So he, Adam, and the boat driver/guide from Camp O took off for another island. An island that they knew had a lion on it. Have you ever walked with lions? Didn't think so. Well, Mark can now say he has. But it was even more interesting than that. As it turns out, the female lion had a kill, and not too far from where the landed the boat. In fact, to get into position to see the kill, they had to wade along shore to get a better angle. And that got Mark this shot:
400mm FX. On foot. Nothing between you and the lion. Standing in a couple feet of water. Does that get your adrenaline running? Ask Mark.
The "chill" folk actually weren't all that chill, either. Lambert was like a three-year old in a toy store, flitting from one end of camp to the other, back, and back a few more times.
He shot weavers:
He shot birds on tables:
He even got the only shot of the 14th species of antelope we encountered (bonus extra credit for anyone that can identify it):
All in all, a great day at Camp O. But what am I thinking: every day at Camp O is great.
Bonus Day — Of Antelope and Birds on Sticks
Yesterday I ended by challenging folk with an antelope identification. There are about 70 species of antelope in Africa which have full-grown sizes from about 16 pounds to a half ton. Our guide Adam believes that about 35 of those species can be found in various parts of Botswana, though not all of those in the park we spent most of our time in. Still, on this trip we saw and photographed at least 13 types:
Impala, lechwe, kudu, oryx, sable, bushbuck, waterbuck, eland, roan, klipspringer, springbok, steenbok, and yesterday's puzzle, the sitatunga.
Some of the antelope are so ubiquitous—I'm talking about you, impala—that after the first day we often just drive past them. Everyone is so fixated on the predators and the elephants and the exotic that things that just look like a differently decorated deer just don't seem to rise to the point where many folk take the time to try to get good shots of them.
So, to keep the antelope from getting a case of low self esteem, here are a few shots to show that we actually were looking at them:
Okay, now that I've made my peace with the ungulates, it's time to move onto animals that are just as ubiquitous, but seem to always get lots of attention.
Now some of this has to due with my teaching assistant, Tony. He'll actually start physically shaking if we drive past a bird that could be photographed. If I'm in another vehicle driving along and I see one of our other Land Cruisers stopped but can't see what it is they might be photographing, I'm pretty sure that Tony must be in the vehicle and there's a bird on a stick somewhere nearby. More often than not, the bird in question is the lilac breasted roller:
See? Bird. On stick.
There are other variations. Bird on ground, for instance:
Or maybe bird on termite mount:
And rollers aren't the only pretty birds on sticks you'll see in Botswana:
I could go on, and on, and on with variations of this. Birds may be the second most photographed thing at these workshops after elephants.
Now obviously these are pretty birds, so everyone is going to take bird on a stick photographs. If they can get them.
Many of these are small birds. Moreover, I've grouped them together with the antelope for a reason: they share a common trait. Basically, you drive up to them while they are posing very nicely. For about three seconds, they'll hold that pose. Just for the heck of it sometimes I'll start counting out loud when we stop for antelope and birds: thousand one, thousand two, thousand three, off they go. I rarely get beyond five unless we're fairly distant from the animal/bird. The problem with these attractive birds is that they're small, so stopping at a distance would mean a 1000mm+ lens. Most of these shots are 400mm and 500mm, and cropped a bit at that.
This is one of the reasons why I mentioned earlier about being ready before the vehicle stops. You don't have a lot of time. You certainly don't have time to check your settings, change lenses, replace a battery, or anything that takes more than three seconds. I want to be ready to shoot within a second of the actual stop. Why is that? Because:
Birds on a stick quickly turn into birds in the air (the last one, above, started as bird on sandy beach). And if these birds are interesting just sitting there, they are almost always even better looking in the air (by the way, have you figured out how the "roller" part of the name got attached to those lilac breasted birdies?).
As I wrote in a previous Botswana workshop blog, I don't shoot continuous frame on these bird takeoff and flight images. I've noticed that Tony has started taking my advice and backed off a bit from the full on spray-and-pray technique, too. Especially with rollers you need to do two things: frame loosely, and time the roll. The first is because, unlike big birds such as the eagles, a roller can pretty much take off in any direction and it can change direction immediately. The tighter you are in composition, the more likely you start your pan with the bird but it changes directions faster than you can. Second, those rolls come fast and with bird in flight shots it is all about wing position. An "almost" position simply never wins over the "perfect" position. At 1/1000 of a second shutter speed, 8 fps means you missed 992/1000ths of the second. How likely is it the perfect wing position was in that rather than the 8/1000ths you captured?
But that 8 fps has other tolls: focus and framing. The two interact, especially with the busy backgrounds we have in Botswana. If—and that's a mighty big if—you can keep the bird precisely framed in your pan at 8 fps, the focus system has a chance. The more the bird varies in framing point during your pan, the less chance it has, especially if you haven't set the Focus Tracking with Lock-On value to Long (or at least away from Short or Off). Conspiring against you is the viewfinder blackout time.
The D3 and D4 have very short blackout times, around 75ms. Some of the prosumer bodies go as high as 110ms, and the consumer bodies can be considerably more. By "blackout" that means that no view of the framing area can be seen and the focus system isn't getting information.
So let's add things up. 8 fps x 75ms = 3/5ths of a second. That's right, for 3/5ths of a second the focus system isn't getting information and you're not seeing anything. And those rollers? They roll. I've seen them change directions two or three times in a second. How are you going to follow that? How is the system going to be able to focus on that?
I shoot one shot only. I see the frame 5/5ths of a second as does the focus system, at least until I press the shutter release. The likelihood that I follow the direction and roll, especially backed off a little bit in terms of tightness, is high.
That's not to say that you can't use continuous shooting methods with higher frame rates, only that my expectation is going to be that you have a lot of missed shots when you do. You're gambling on the law of averages, not controlling the situation. Personally, I'm not much of a gambler. The odds are usually stacked against you. I prefer stacking them in my favor.
And no matter which choice you make—spray-and-pray or targeted release—the only way to get to Carnegie Bird Hall is practice, practice, practice.
Day Eight — To Savute
Today's another of those "moving" days. This time we take a short walk behind the Camp O lodge to the airstrip, where we have three small planes waiting for us to take us to Savute (sah-VOOT-tay). One of the great things about flying over the delta is that you get a very different appreciation for the terrain that the animals are wandering through. Note at the top of this next image we have that dry, partially forested terrain you've been seeing in a lot of the shots. There's a doubletrack dirt road up near the top, there, too, just in front of the big group of trees. But look at what happens as you move from the dryer area into the wetter area: those are all animal tracks, and you'll notice that they tend to go from "high point" (a tree) to high point.
Humans leave far less of a mark on the Chobe park than the animals do, by far. But it also tells you a bit about how challenging that terrain is the for the animals. We're in the flood season right now, with the waters still expanding out a bit, which is why all those trails near the top look like canals: the water's moving up into them. But in the dryer times those are just paths, often muddy ones, that lead to the water that's much further away from the animal's usual grazing, breading, and sleeping ground.
What you see above is just a very small patch of the delta. I mean really small compared to the overall delta. We flew for 15 minutes of this type of terrain before getting to more dryer terrain, to eventually get to the flooded Savute itself:
No, your eyes don't deceive you. Those little black dots are hundreds of buffalo moving from the dryer Savannah to the wetter grounds of the marsh. Here's a 100% view of a piece of the above image:
Now the interesting thing is that waterway known as the Savute channel is pretty small. Where it runs into the top of that marsh, it's a stream that I can ford across and easily throw a rock across (actually a large rock; it isn't very wide). But that water is pushing down into a broad open area where it just spreads and creates this wonderful creature attraction. Before we get to those, let's get down on the ground, shall we?
Don't ever say that the Botswanans don't have a sense of humor.
Oh wait, why was that top image so greenish? Cessna syndrome. Those little Cessna's have tinted windows. Obnoxiously-tinted windows. So much so that I also make sure to position Tony outside the planes with a reference so that people can later post process to a known color:
If you ever shoot from small planes, take a close look at the windows. With the small Cessna's, you'll almost always have this puke green tint to deal with (a 30M filter sometimes works fine to counteract it). But a lot of other brands of planes have tints, too. Bring a reference and have someone hold it outside while you take a shot from inside. Process that reference image to get correct color, then apply that processing to all the images you shoot from the plane. That's really easy to do with Aperture and Lightroom, but it's not all that difficult with Photoshop, either, especially if you know how to use Bridge.
Okay, we've landed and gone back to the Land Cruisers, which took us to camp for lunch. In a sand storm. Followed by image review. In a sand storm. So much so that my MacBook had a coating of sand on it by the time I finished.
Our camp isn't far from the channel, but it's further from the marsh, so it's sandy. As in:
That's where we parked at camp for lunch. Unfortunately, this led to Adam trying to get his Cruiser out with all of us in it, and I got a lap full of sand in the attempt. Unfortunately, my 200-400mm was sitting in my lap. Oh well, it needed to go back for its biannual servicing anyway, now I just have an excuse (I actually partially disassembled it to get some of the sand out of the focus ring).
Eventually, we needed a pull to get out:
See that big blast of sand at the front wheels? That's what landed in my lap the first time.
Once freed from our sandy confines, it was back to animals.
These elephants at the marsh were moving in so close to us that I was almost all the way zoomed out on the 200-400mm and having a hard time finding good framing spots. They were basically oblivious to us and let us get plenty of nice shots once I moved the vehicle back a bit.
We got our leopard-in-the-tree shots, too, though sleeping leopards in trees no longer really interest me much. Actually, I used the word "we" in the last sentence, and that's not quite right. In Savute, more than anywhere else, we start spreading the four vehicles far and wide. Right now, there are interesting things happening all over the Savute. Because of the channel and the marsh, once you commit to an area, it will take you a long time to navigate over to something else. So while we call in sightings over the radio to one another, often times it's just not worth it to respond and go see what another vehicle is shooting, because it'll be a long trip and what you've got in front of you is just as interesting. So during our wanderings here, we don't often see one another, though we do see other vehicles:
And yes, we drive through the marsh a lot. In some places, it's the only way to get from point A to point B.
Even the animals sometimes are doing the same thing. This is a grab shot with my pocket camera. This mongoose was coming across the channel to check out whether there was anything interesting in the tree stumps sticking up (remember, the channel had been dry for over a decade, and even in wet years it is dry much of the year).
I think I'm going to leave things there for today. We only had an afternoon drive today, and I suspect that we're going to have a big day tomorrow.
Day Nine — Wild Dogs at Sundown
The Savute channel didn't start running this year until late. Thus, the flooding that creates the marsh is relatively recent to our arrival. That has a number of impacts. First, suddenly animals can't get from where they were to where they used to go. Remember that line of buffalo in yesterday's aerial shot? If it floods much more, they won't be able to easily make that cross.
But beyond cutting the area in half, all that water is attracting animals, too. If you've got several hundred buffalo all together, lions can't be far behind. And sure enough, in the morning we had 3 male lion on a kill and two female lion, as well. But first we had some Rhone to deal with, and yes, more elephants. There are fish eagles everywhere, including one that needs the most grooming attention I've ever seen:
Just for a change of pace, I'm going to apply the byThom Dirty Africa filter to an image we took this morning:
Let's see what some of the others came up with while crisscrossing the Savute today:
All in all a very productive day.
But the real fun didn't happen until we were almost back at camp for sunset.
Wild dog. Need I say more?
Earlier in the day, one of our driver/guides, Stanley, said he thought that he knew where a dog den was. Generally when one of the driver/guides say something like that, they aren't bluffing. The question, of course, is whether or not the animals are at or near the den when you visit. Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren't.
Before the rest of us had started heading back to camp, apparently Stanley decided to go take a quick look around the area, and sure enough, not only had he found them, but he found them very near the last little stretch of road to camp. When our vehicles first started pulling up, the cubs and mom were mostly hiding under a tree. It was tough to get a usable shot, but every now and again a snout would poke out.
Eventually the two adults moved out into the last of the setting sun, and the four pups moved away from the tree and more into the open. Shutters started blazing away as the action slowly picked up:
Of course, the sun was finally set, we were in pretty low light, and it we were pretty much at the the time where we finally needed to get into camp. I decided to take a final stab with a slow shutter speed of the dogs:
This brings up the age old tale (pardon the pun): it's really difficult to be in the position where animals are facing you. When they run, they rarely run towards you, but often angled away, as in this shot. The same shot with the heads angled at me instead of the tails would have been far better. If you're going to go for action photos you want to get around to at least parallel with moving animals. Unfortunately, we couldn't position our vehicles that way, so we had to make do with what we got.
Still, everyone was smiling at dinner.
If you're interested in a possible 2014 Botswana Photo Workshop similar to the one described in this blog, send an email to email@example.com that includes your full contact info (name, address, phone, email).
Day Ten — The Lion Buffalo Standoff
It's another great day in Savute, with lots of action all over the savannah and marsh. Every vehicle went its own way this morning, with one heading out to try to find the elusive cheetah, me looking for more honey badgers (my count is up to 10 sightings now, which is 10 more than my last trip here), the others off doing their own things. From the radio chatter, that is including everything from the ubiquitous buffalo and antelope to some giraffe off in the tree line.
It's always the other vehicle that gets the shots, though. Good thing we have radios.
I was caught between honey badger and some sleeping lions when I spotted a vehicle in the distance going at a speed it shouldn't be. That always arouses my interest. Then I saw another one. I decided that we were going to go see what that was all about.
Turns out, one of those vehicles first to the scene was ours, and this is what they saw:
What's going on here, you ask?
The pride of lions had just taken down a calf from the huge herd of cape buffalo, and the buffalo are trying to figure out if they can get the calf back. To put things into perspective, one of those lions could have easily jumped the gap in the top picture in less than a second. Lions are the fastest accelerators from stopped to their full speed, which is one of the reasons why you sometimes see one crouching in tall grass with the rest of the pride trying to push a herd into the hidden lion's position. Very difficult to defend against something that big and close that moves that fast when you can't get up to full speed faster than it. Under normal circumstances you'd never see a buffalo approach lions like that. While the cape are a strong fighter, isolated like that they're no match for four full-grown male lions.
The more interesting thing is something I don't really have a shot of (would you believe coming upon this was the moment when my cards filled in my main camera?). When buffalo are attacked by a big pride of lions like this, they have a reaction: they group together in a very tight circular herd with the calves and moms in the middle and with the males around the edge of the circle all facing outward. When I say tight, I mean tight. There must have been over 300 hundred buffalo crowded into the space of something no bigger than a basketball court when we got there, all in defensive position. It literally was buffalo packed tighter than a popular nightclub's dance floor. Cheek to jowl to jowl to cheek to...
As time wore on, the number of buffalo trying to get the lions attention away from the kill dwindled, and the herd started moving, still fairly tightly packed, down the savannah and away from the dangerous lions. Within 45 minutes, I couldn't make out individual animals any more, just a small black blob raising dust on the horizon.
Meanwhile, the pride was getting its fill:
Four males, two lionesses, and at I think four cubs, in total. It was also surprising how cooperative they all were at the kill. Typically the females get chased off quickly by the males, and that many males together tend to play dominance games with the kill itself. But we even saw some of the cubs get into the tussle with the king of the jungle over the meat, with nothing more than a casual batting from one of the dominant males the only real action we saw. These lions looked well fed, so I suspect that this kill came before they had gotten to the "must hunt" stage. Either that or they're the most polite meat-eaters I've ever seen.
I would have loved to arrived at the scene 20 minutes earlier, as it's likely we would have seen at least the end of the fight for the kill itself, but that's the luck of the draw in Africa. It's a big place, and the odds that you'd be in sight of the actual takedown are fairly low. I've seen it twice in 20 years of going to Africa, though I've almost been quickly on the scene many other times, enough to hear the final bleating of an animal and shoot pictures that I can never sell.
Still, this was a big highlight for everyone, and three of our four vehicles made it over to see.
Wait. What was the fourth one doing?
They were way over on the other side of the marsh and doing some hunting of their own:
As it turned out, they were the one vehicle (all trip) that got to see a cheetah. Running, even. It's somewhat rare to see the cheetah in Botswana, but Savute is one of the most likely places you'll find them. Hmm, whose vehicle was that? Again, Stanley was the driver/guide. He seems to have a knack for finding those elusive animals. Maybe I should spend tomorrow in his vehicle ;~).
I'm going to leave things there for today. We had our usual rest-of-the-species kind of day, but it's hard to top the buffalo/lion standoff.
Well, okay, one more shot from today, which will segue us nicely into tomorrow's topic:
Bonus Day — The Night
I've been holding out on you.
Way back in Moremi each evening I tended to introduce a new aspect of shooting at night to the students. Instead of sitting by the campfire telling each other stories—though we did a lot of that, too—I usually came back from my post safari shower with some night fun up my sleeve.
Back in Camp 9, I noticed some people trying to do some basic early night sky shooting. The moon phase wasn't quite right for that, so most people were attempting camp shots (such as Christian's shot of us eating dinner, below) or doing things like trying to light paint the trees in front of the lagoon or catch some of the sky at dusk.
But I had other things up my sleeve (literally at one point). I brought all kinds of odds and ends from my "light" bin back at the office, some of which we never got to. First up was glow sticks and balancing that against a slow sync flash at the end of the shot. I started demonstrating what we could do with just varying the use of the stick during the long exposure. For instance, I decided to give Murali a glowing cape:
Then I tried something different in terms of swinging the sticks, and gave Adam wings of fire:
Next up, was spelling the letters for Tony behind Tony in various positions. Here's the O:
I should note that I'm not manning the camera here. This is Joe's camera sitting on the end of a table (why no one ran back and got a tripod I don't know; my goal was simply to show some of the things we could do with light, not take any pictures). I won't bore you with all the other things we tried and played with, but suffice it to say my tent had landing lights, I had lit LED fiber strands in my hair, and things got worse from there…if you've been to Burning Man you might have an idea of how absurd parts of our camp sometimes looked at night. At the end of the trip when I dumped my goodie bag of tricks off at Adam's tent for him to hold onto, he just looked into the bag and shook his head.
Almost no one had done a true night sky shot before, so when we got to Savute with moon-free skies, we started working on that:
Here we are setting up cameras with a classic Botswana mopane in the foreground. Some people went for the sky with tree type shots, others went for just a straight Milky Way. Tony even managed to capture shooting stars:
But the award for night shooting this trip goes to Mark. I remember looking off to the side and seeing two of the camp staff walking away with a couple of my light sticks. I couldn't figure out what they were doing with them at first, as they started tossing them into the sky. Then I saw that they were working with Mark:
There you go: all four things in one shot: a night sky, a bit of camp, some light painting, and glow sticks used to create unusual colored streaks.
What the animals thought of our night-time antics, I have no idea.
One hyena to another: "Hey, did you see that green streak in the sky over there?"
Second hyena: "Yep. Looks like Thom's back in the area with a photo workshop. Don't worry, the craziness goes away after a few days."
Day 11 — Wake-Up Lion; Savute to Chobe
When you've been in tent camps in Africa as much as I have over the years, you grow accustomed to the morning rhythm. Water has to be heated for your wash bins, the fire has to be started, the morning meal prep starts, and on a move day like today you can usually hear some things being broken down and packed up. This morning, however, the sounds weren't quite right.
Okay, it was almost time for me to get up anyway, so I unzipped my back tent door and headed into the privacy area behind it for my morning constitutional. It was about the time that I was peeing and looking over the privacy flap that I heard Adam yell "Everyone stay in their tents!" and saw two female lionesses so close that all they had to do was leap. There were also three males on the other side of my tent, but I didn't know that yet. (Calm down mom, I'm not in any real danger.)
Obviously, I wasn't in my tent. So what do you do? Simple: don't panic, don't run, don't move. Even the small bit of cloth between me and the lionesses was highly likely to keep them from further approaching, and I could clearly see they weren't looking at me and were focused on moving forward, which would immediately take them out of camp, as mine was the last tent.
Predators and other dangerous animals such as Elephant and Hippo are relatively common walking through or around camp. We're squatting in their home, after all. Many animals are curious about the new sights and sounds that suddenly pop up in their territory, others just want to get from point A to point B and find that there's something in between that wasn't there before. Based upon behavior, I'd put our wake-up lions in the latter category. The females looked to be heading, slowly, towards the road that curved around in back of my tent and away from camp to the short-cut to the marsh; many animals take to the roads for travel because it's simply easier than walking through forest. Obviously, we put camp next to a road so we can get to the wilds directly, too.
So how does one deal with lions in camp? It's somewhat rare for that to happen when people are up and about as some of the crew were this morning. If it happens during the middle of the night, you just let them walk through. If it happens during the parts of the day when we're off shooting, we'll usually hear from the camp manager about it over the radio and he'll protect the rest of his crew by putting them into the trucks or tents, and then chase them out. But we had people waking up and starting into their morning rituals, so Adam took approach #2: he got into his Land Cruiser and chased them out of camp with that. That's actually how I figured out there were more lions, because his first parry with the vehicle was not at the lions I was looking at, but between my tent and Lambert's. Oh, yeah. More lions.
The lions got the message and quickly scrambled down the road. With the lions in retreat, the camp came alive with the more normal morning sounds.
Judging from the tracks, the five lions had passed Tony's tent on the other side of camp just as they had mine, but Tony had been unaware of them until we told him what was going on. Richard was also out of his tent, like me, but he was much further from the lions than I. But there really wasn't much danger here unless someone was out of their tent and then panicked by running. Humans don't smell like prey, and lions are savvy enough to avoid doing things that antagonize humans. So I just stood still and enjoyed my wake-up lions while Adam chased them off.
Animals in camp are one of the reasons why we have dedicated bath areas with privacy flaps behind each tent: we don't want people wandering around in the dark by themselves in the middle of the night. From the time the crew first rouses in the morning—and one of the things they do is look around to see if there are animals about—to the time the crew shuts down the fire after all the guests are off in their tents, there's little danger, and plenty of savvy folk around to instruct you on what to do and help divert anything that needs diverting. It's the middle of the night that's dangerous, and one reason why we tell people to stay in their tents until the crew comes by for the wake up call.
With the morning commotion out of the way, It's move time again, with today's goal of seeing a few remaining things we've kept in our back pocket for the morning, then a longish but mostly pleasant drive up to Chobe, our last tent camp for this trip. The road to the last village along the river has now been fully paved, so we really only have the dusty road out of Savute itself to navigate. Still, that's a good almost two hours of the usual sandy passage. We don't make such trips without a big payoff at the other end, though.
Every time we make the big camp move, a few other interesting things happen. The tent over the mess area disappears overnight, for instance:
By the end of breakfast, huge piles of gear start to appear, brought to central loading areas by our camp staff:
But first, we have some Savute cleanup to do. While you haven't seen them yet in this blog, Savute is known for more than its channel: it's also one of the few areas of rock uprisings in the delta, and where there are rocks, there are other interesting things to see.
Like a new antelope:
Believe it or not, this little guy just lives only in the territory defined by the small set of rocks in this area.
Or like rock paintings:
A closer look:
This is usually the point where Uncle Adam winds up his storytelling machine and paints his own picture of the way things happened in this area. It's a long story. Fortunately Adam's a good story teller and I never tire of hearing it. Here's Adam resting, post story:
I've included this shot for a reason. All that flat area out there beyond the rocks is what we've been driving in for the last few days. You can see the Savute Channel itself down between the trees, and that's about as big as it gets: any more water and it's spilling over its banks and creating a larger marsh in this huge flat area. Most of us would call the Savute Channel a creek. By comparison, at it's peak the channel is about as much water as is moving through the Little Lehigh River in my back yard (note the "Little" in the name ;~). Unfortunately, the channel isn't at its peak for more than a few weeks; sometimes it's just dry.
You might get the idea that we're stalling for time. We are, in a way. We want to make sure that the camp trucks are ahead of us before we hit the main road, so we're taking our time exploring some of the parts of the Savute area we haven't seen yet. As it turns out, the wild dogs we saw earlier are, too:
Want to know what it looks like to photograph wild dogs? Well, here are Richard, Mark, and Daryl at work:
In this case they've all gone up top because most of the time the dogs were on their sides (or back in the one instance shown above) and there's a lot of low scrub around. Note the downed tree in my shot. There's actually another dog behind it, but I can't see it from my low angle.
Meanwhile, we still have folk shooting our friend the roller:
This shot might actually have been taken while we were sitting watching the dogs. I know I've got a few bird shots from that period, too.
What we're waiting for is for the big Man to go by and get ahead of us:
Once the camp is in front of us, we'll start moseying on up the road after them, stopping for opportunistic shooting and a leisurely lunch up near the Chobe River.
Since we had such an eventful morning, I think I'm going to shut down the blog today for lunch, but I can't help but throw one more only-in-Africa moment of the day in:
Sure enough, if you walk up a few yards, you'll see a trail of Elephant biscuits leading down to the water on the left and up into the trees on the right. Apparently the elephants read the road signs, too. If you don't know what an elephant biscuit is, Lambert was photographing them this afternoon:
I'll catch up on the late afternoon in Chobe tomorrow, as I'm going to split the rest of today and tomorrow morning into our drives around Chobe. That way I can deal with the Chobe River cruise in a separate blog entry. Warning: our last couple of days are going to fly by with lots happening. I hope ;~).
Day 12 — Driving Chobe
Water is life in the wild. So where there's lots of permanent water, there's lots of wildlife.
The Chobe River is one of those big permanent water sources, and the heart of Chobe National Park sits adjacent to it.
Botswana doesn't have much of what you can call migrations, but elephants, for example, do move large distances across the country as the water supply allows them. They really want to be in the mopane forests and better food sources in the middle of the country hundreds of kilometers away, but as water supplies dry up there after the wet season ends, they work there way back to the permanent water sources. Water is life.
Our main path in this part of the park is a double track right along the edge of the flood margins on the river. You pretty much find everything in this area, so let's just let the pictures do the talking:
To say that we had a good drive in Chobe is an understatement. I saw a lot of great shots from the students, and everyone was pretty much shooting away at this point. Chatter between the vehicles was even pretty quiet, as everyone was pretty much satisfied with what they had in their viewfinder.
Chobe is a great place to end our wildlife drives. Water is life. And life is great shooting.
But we're not quite done with Chobe and the water yet. We've got one more twist scheduled for this afternoon, which I'll get to in the next blog post.
Bonus Afternoon — On the Chobe River
One of the great things to do in Chobe is to get on a boat and head up the river. Because this is the primary water source in the area, pretty much everything comes down to the river. Here's our map for the day (thanks again to Darryl for the GPS data):
But first we have to get to the dock, and virtually everyone commented about the dialing signs as we turned out of the park into town (Kasane):
Yep. Tourism and the Prison are in the same place here ;~)
Here's Joe waiting for the boats to arrive with some of the gear we brought with us.
And here's one of the boats we're using (we have two identical boats, with Tony and one of our guides on one, me and Adam on the other. The guides are there to help identify things, mainly all the birds that we'll encounter, as there are some we haven't seen before.
So what do you see from the river with a boat as your blind? Let's start with some birds:
I'm actually a little proud of that last one. Wait, I didn't take it! True. But it's a shot Tony wouldn't have attempted before working with me. Look at the shot just above it of the same bird. When you isolate into the bird, you definitely get a bird shot, and often you see nice definition and positions in the wings, but does that shot tell you anything about what environment the bird inhabits? No. You have to take the environmental shots, too, not just a lot of portraits of birds in flight. Tony's progressed to doing that, and it shows in his other shots, too, as he is backing off from being so tight on the bird all the time that he's now getting some variety and other story into his shots.
I believe I wrote that about lions, earlier, too. But it applies to any subject, really. Back when I taught filmmaking, one of the things you have to get across to students is that they can't take every shot the same (e.g. two people in scene, so a shot from over there is a two shot, shot from over there is a two shot, shot from the center is a two shot). You can't cut together the same shot for the length of a movie (close up, close up, close up, close up, close up…). So one of the first things about scene composition is: take an establishing (wide) shot, take individual shots, take group shots, take detail shots, take cutaway shots. Now you can go from wide to group to an individual to a detail to an individual to a cutaway and back to the group shot and not bore the audience to death (let alone worry as much about what's known as jump cuts).
The same thing is true of slide shows, portfolios, presentations, anywhere that you're going to put a group of photos together. You need different types of shots. Not lion head, lion head, lion head. But savannah, herd of buffalo, lion stalking buffalo, lion head, running feet…well, you get the idea. The nice thing about two weeks in a place like Botswana is that even the ones who came for the lion head, lion head, lion head, cheetah head, leopard head, more lion head shots even start to look for something different ;~). This is the perfect time to start pushing them harder at collecting a sequence of shots that tell a story together. So let's try a little bit of that as we start to wrap up the day.
One thing you see a lot of on a boat ride up the Chobe in late afternoon is elephants.
As you near them you start to see behaviors and other interesting things:
You even discover that elephants, like humans, sometimes need to grab onto something solid to get out of the water:
That wasn't so hard now, was it? A little variety in the shots goes a long way when you present your images to others. So always ask yourself when you're shooting: am I getting any variety?
Of course, no river cruise is complete with a croc or two:
And you can't end the day without a sunset (or two ;~):
As usual, Chobe made for a nice wildlife finish for the Botswana part of our trip. Next up, crossing the river into Zambia and a day at Victoria Falls.
Day 13 — Livingston Falls, I Presume?
We're nearing the end. Today we break camp one final time and make the multi-vehicle move to Livingston, Zambia, where Victoria Falls happens to be. When I say multi-vehicle, I mean multi-vehicle:
- Land Cruisers from camp to Kasane township
- Bus from Kasane to the Botswana customs station on the river
- Ferry across the river
- Bus from the Zambian customs station to our hotel at the falls
But before we leave camp, we have a couple of things we have to do, like unload the bean bags:
The camp crew was abuzz about all this corn. They hadn't seen us load our bean bags, and they really hadn't made the connection that those bags we kept dragging to the vehicles might be filled with something they recognized. As often happens in Africa, this was all put into perspective using cows: "I could feed a cow for a week with all that corn" was something I heard one of the tent stewards saying to another.
Time for a quick photo of everyone: students, camp crew, and guides. You can see how this is a big operation to pull off. I'm always amazed at how well Adam manages it and how smoothly it all goes, but then he's been doing it for over 30 years now.
And then it was off to our panoply of vehicles. I won't bore you with all the gory details of moving from point A to point B, but here we are getting our bags ready to load onto the passenger ferry:
And here's part of the chaos you find on both sides of the river (there's no bridge, so everything has to go by ferry):
On either side you find about a week or two worth of vehicles sitting waiting for their turn. This, despite the fact that there are now four operating ferries that can load one of these big rigs onto them now (last time I was here it was two). There's been talk of building a bridge, but that's a three-country negotiation, and of course there's the small matter of who will pay for it. In the meantime, as the economy in the area grows, you get these miles-long parking lots of big rigs sitting by the road waiting to cross a few hundred yards of water.
When we got to the Royal Livingston in Zambia, we found they weren't quite ready for us. Usually it's a quick drink at the bar (below), grab your keys and go, but it seems that we're coming in on the tail end of the UNWTO (United Nations World Tourism Organization) conference being hosted by Zambia at the Royal Livingston. Believe it or not, we had to go through metal detectors (no one knew how to deal with dozens of camera bags full of things that set them off ;~) and pat downs (uh, that's a camera you're feeling…).
But the plus side was that those that still had any energy could run and grab shots of some of the displays and demonstrations going on all around the hotel:
Later in the afternoon, we all collected for a walk over to the falls themselves:
A couple of folk opted for a flight over the falls:
But for the most part, it was a pleasant walk out to the gorge and lots of photography.
At one point, I even had time to see what Tony was up to and give him some advice on his composition:
You'll remember that I wrote earlier that water is life, and life comes to the water. So it seems appropriate to end the day looking at the water itself:
It seems I have a few photos supplied to me that didn't make it into the daily blog postings or came to me after I'd already posted a day, so I'm going to put those here with a bit of commentary.
AF Fine Tuning Time. Tony's over there on the right doing the shooting while I'm eyeballing the results to get camera/lens combinations set accurately. The target is off screen to the left. I've been having quite a running commentary to the providers of test software for AF Fine Tune lately. What I see working in the field is not the values that most people are setting via software programs at home. Perhaps when I get time I'll try to cover the full set of technical issues that are causing people to have problems with getting their camera/lens combinations dialed in. I will say this, though: don't do your tuning in artificial light unless that's what you shoot under, and be prepared to have real issues with teleconverters due to the extra mount tolerances that come into play. For wildlife shooting, we often are putting three or four values into the camera (70-200mm at 200mm, long lens at max focal length, long lens with TC). Those values aren't predictable. In other words, if your 70-200mm needs +2, your 200-400mm might need -5, and your 200-400mm with TC might need +20. There are no shortcuts that I know of for doing this work. It takes a lot of care and discipline to do right, and it takes a lot of time, too.
One thing a lot of folk are getting wrong is focusing on a target in the center, and trying to read the value with a ruler or objects to the side. Field curvature and other things can really hurt you here. I've worked with more than one person who was getting false results because they were "reading" the focus point from information too far from center, which is where the focus system was focused. For example, if you're using a LensAlign target, I now suggest that you slide it over so the ruler is centered in the frame after you acquire focus from the center point. That, unfortunately, isn't easy to do and keep alignment absolutely perfect, as the chart wasn't designed for that (hint: use a tripod for the chart and mount the chart using a sliding bar; but you'll have to spend time to make sure the bar is parallel to the sensor).
I see so many other vehicles in Africa doing the wrong thing. They find an animal, speed over to it (first mistake), let everyone take their photos, then speed off looking for something else. I've even seen photo workshops where the instructor should know better do this. I noticed that both the vehicle Tony was in and the one I was in tended to stay in one place more often than the other two. Part of that is guide/drivers. They're tuned towards providing instant and constant gratification. Left on their own, they'll give you a few minutes with an animal, then head off to find something else. This is the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence problem. The next animal will be awesome, let's go find it.
That's especially true when the animal just seems to be sitting there. That was true of this monkey for instance. Totally boring. Sitting there watching me watch it for the longest time. In fact, I bored him so much he eventually had to yawn. Click.
Wildlife photography is all about behaviors. You want to capture something other than a head shot of the animal. Give me a behavior, please! But here's the thing: the common behavior of wild animals if you drive up to them fast and stop is that they look at you for a moment, then move away. A few animals—lions come to mind—are exceptions to that, but even elephant can be skittish if you are following the common drive up, shoot, drive away practices I see all the time.
You have to be patient. Eventually, all animals will do something ;~). Indeed, the more they're comfortable with you, the more likely they just go about their business. That's one reason why I try to keep my wildlife workshops away from the worst of the day-trips and non photo tours: almost certainly if you're spotted sitting somewhere, those other vehicles will drive over to see what you're doing. Of course, most of the time those folk aren't rewarded with anything when they drive over to see what I'm doing, because I'm just waiting. No kill? No predator? No animal-on-animal action? Boring. And off the other vehicle goes…Meanwhile, I sit and wait and every now and then you'll here a shutter click.
Funny thing is, that leopard shot I took at the pre-workshop? When we got there only one other vehicle was there. At one point there were six vehicles. By the time I took my best shot, we were the only one there. Moral of the story is: make sure you're going to these exotic places with a group that will take its time and do it right. I can recommend Andy Biggs and Chaz Glatzer, for instance, because I know both of them know and follow what I've written just above. But not all photo instructors do. Even for things like landscape photography.
I tell a story about a Yosemite workshop where we ate dinner early and then headed out to what I thought would be a great sunset location. It was going to be, but when we pulled up there was another photo workshop of 30 people (!) scattered in the positions my little group of 5 would have wanted. My mind was scrambling to figure out another spot we could get to quickly that was as good when I heard the instructor for that workshop yell out "Okay gang, time to pack up and head to dinner." Call me gobsmacked. What the? Sure enough, the 30 photographers abandoned their positions 20 minutes before best light and my little group was able to get great shots.
While we sometimes have schedules we need to meet in Africa (e.g. on moving days), Adam has learned that I'll push us off that schedule if something great is happening (or about to happen). He's fine with that. Indeed, I think he enjoys that, both because we're taking in Africa the right way and because it just gives him another logistical problem to solve ;~).
Not a particularly great shot, mostly because it was taken with a cheap compact camera, but we've been glossing over a number of things that you typically see on a two-week trip like this. This mongoose made an elaborate dance to get over to this stump in the water, because things like to live in those holes in the sides of stumps. Someone, I forget who, got some great mongoose in termite mound shots in Chobe. You really have to treat every living thing equally. They all have behaviors that make for interesting shots. You just have to be looking for them and patient.
Some pictures have stories. I believe the story behind this one is that this is the buffalo that charged one of our Land Cruisers (note the dust kicked up behind the buffalo). I don't know the story, so didn't stick this image into the daily blog. But I'm sure Christian is telling the story when he shows everyone this photo. Corollary: if there's a story brewing, take photos!
And speaking of stories, I wanted to save this image for discussion outside the daily blog. It's actually a very nice shot of a Kingfisher fishing. I have a couple of similar ones in my files. But here's the thing about stories: does this photo actually tell the story by itself? Well, it might if you were an ornithologist: you'd know exactly what's going on here. But my mom might not know the story.
This is one of the toughest things to do in the wild: get the full story in the picture. What's missing here? The pond that has the fish in it! Everyone tries to shoot this as a horizontal shot (wings are out, after all). But it's actually a vertical shot! We want to see the bird hovering at the top of the frame and what he's hovering over at the bottom. Then the bird's head position starts to make some sense to the casual viewer.
Great wildlife photographers will tell you that it's always about context: get the environmental context into the shot as well as the animal. Now, I'm not picking on Christian here. As I noted, I've got the same shot in my files from this trip. Succeeding at getting the contextual shot is difficult. Very difficult. I haven't yet succeeded at it, though I've certainly tried. So I'll take the reference shot of the bird if that's all I'm in position to do, but I'm still looking for the perfect contextual shot.
On the other hand, there is some context here, though you might not notice it at first. This bird is extremely well colored for the environment it walks in. It's basically camouflaged. I've been in vehicles telling people "there's a secretary bird to shoot" and had the response back "where, I don't see a bird"). Christian has done very well here. He's down low with the bird, so that we appear to be in the environment with the bird. He's kept a narrow plane of focus so that the bird pops off the same colored background. The leg positions are good. About the only problem I could point out is that we can't see the feet (a common problem when you come down to ground level, and often unavoidable). I would have liked to have seen other variations of the DOF just to make sure that this is the "best" one, but I think Christian has pretty much nailed this shot.
We had a long discussion about this photo at image review. I think everyone immediately loved the thing Ken was trying to do here. Isolation of detail of an animal is often very productive, and given how much time we spend with a lot of these animals, you usually have plenty of time to explore that.
I believe that at one point in the image review session I said "but how many stripes and how much tail do you need to know what this is?" Consider this crop, for instance:
Did we lose anything from Ken's choice? Probably not. Plus we don't have so many potential distractions, such as the strange "fold" in the upper left of the original that disrupts a couple of the stripes. I actually have a mantra statement I make when I teach about situations like this, but it won't make any sense to you readers unless you know my full teaching method (don't worry, I'll eventually get around to revealing it). I really like what Ken did here, but I think my final comment to him was that I'm not sure he got the perfect capture of it. I often say that about my own pictures, too. That's one of the tough things: you spend all that time in the field and you try your best, but you fail to see some small thing that would have made the shot better until you pull it up on your monitor at home and really look at it. The very best pros are really good about doing that while looking through the viewfinder. I can name a few pros that do it better than I do, though I think I'm getting closer.
Probably a little difficult to see the expression of the left-hand waterbuck, but any time animals come together I'm looking for this type of shot. As I've mentioned, lions will always touch heads when the come back together after being apart, but a lot of animals in the wild will do similar things. There's always a good shot there when it happens. So one of the things I say often on workshops like this is: watch for animal interactions.
Hey, wait, didn't I already write about that?
Lambert—yes, he's that Lambert Orkis, a very world-renknowned pianist—loves birds. Put him and Tony in the same vehicle and you were outvoted: you're going to shoot birds today. Lambert already had a good eye when I got hold of him. I think he improved visibly on the trip as he started to put my teaching to good use.
One of the things about Lambert was that he was getting different photos from a lot of the other students. I try to teach in a way that pulls that out of the students, but Lambert was getting there faster and more often than the others. I think that's because he was using the same thing that drives him as a musician. The Brahms Sonatas for piano and violin that are one of his specialties, for instance, are a bunch of notes that don't change on the paper. It's the interpretation of those notes and how you style and relate them that makes an Orkis recording different than Vogt's, for instance. What I found Lambert trying to do with his camera is the same thing: interpret the world in front of him. Obviously my symphony background and Lambert's meshed quickly and we were able to use a completely different vocabulary (musical) to talk about photography during the trip. So let's just listen to Orkis for a moment:
I did notice that Orkis took a lot of shots of birds with their beaks open ;~). I think he thinks they're singing to him.
Finally, I couldn't resist this last Orkis shot, but not because of anything Orkis did: it's the look on Jono's face as he drives through the water:
It's funny: virtually every shot I've seen of him driving through the water he has this very self-satisfied look on his face. In case you can't see it in the image above:
If he Australian, I could just imagine him thinking to himself: "Water? You call that water?"
Again, is there a story here? Sure, as a matter of fact, you can even make one up as a viewer. Will he stick the landing? The judges are watching carefully.
Here are some more images I don't know the story behind, so they ended up here instead of in my narrative:
Some Tony Shots
We're winding down now, but Tony provided me with a bunch of shots, and I wanted to make a few final points (or repeat a few) using them.
I mentioned it before, but it's worth repeating: the variety of wildlife you can shoot in the best places in Africa is astonishing. The above three shots were all taken during the pre-workshop scout, I think. Without students, there's no pressure on Tony and I to find another lion or leopard or wild dog. So if we come across just about anything, we'll stop and take the time to see what we might manage to get from it. Now these three critters are tough. The jackal tends to not like vehicles, and will just wander very far away from you unless there's something of great interest to them. The weasels and small prey don't sit still very much or stay put long enough to shoot them most of the time, so when they do, you want to take advantage of that.
I have a funny story about that. I was following a pack of wolves in Denali once, and I knew they were heading back to the rendezvous point (if you didn't know that wolves have rendezvous points, you need to do some more homework before heading out to photograph them). So I raced ahead of them to try to find a great position to photograph them from. There was one little rise I was thinking of, so I moved ahead and set up there. And I followed the wolves as they came over the rise, ran in front of me right to left. I was clicking away on the alpha male when I became aware of a commotion behind him. When I chimped my sequence of shots, here's what I saw: wolves coming over the rise, wolves coming down the rise but there's a squirrel standing on its hind end looking on in terror at the left of my frame, then the male alpha passes the squirrel without even seeing it, but in the next frame the second male grabs the squirrel just at the far right edge of my frame as I'm still following the alpha.
The moral of the story is this: if Africa is giving you prey sitting around posing for you, there's a chance that a predator will take advantage of that.
I've included this photo for a reason. I'm in the right front of that vehicle. I don't have a shot (at least not without shooting through the windshield). One reason why I love Adam's vehicle so much is that the windshield folds down. Basically any time I'm with Adam, the windshield is down. He's so used to it now he just lowers it the minute I get in the vehicle, even if we have to drive through sand for awhile to get to anything. It's just another in those "be prepared" things you have to do. You don't want to get to a scene you want to photograph and have to wait for the windshield to be lowered.
Now, if I were in one of the other vehicles by myself, I'd probably be in the second row and out the top and sides for shooting. I've been known to just sit up top (not possible in all places due to regulations, and you need the right pads and position to do it at all). Obviously, I'm usually only up there when we're crawling along, but when we're night shooting and I'm manning the light, I'll often find a way to buckle in up there (all the vehicles have seat-like areas up top in three places). Being up high with the light is absolutely necessary at night.
I wrote earlier that this was the honey badger workshop. Boy did we see a lot of honey badgers. I hit 10, and I think Tony topped that:
See that pile of sand to the right of the badger? Tony was in another vehicle that came up after the digging started, so I don't think he saw it, but there was no sand there when the badger started digging. I'm still trying to figure this problem out: when the badger is digging, all you can see is just a huge dust cloud of sand. I tried several times, but you can't see the badger through the sand! So I have a shot I can envision, but haven't achieved yet. I'll be looking for that shot in 2014 when I return to Botswana.
Along those lines: when an animal has a name that translates to "cliff springer," then you probably ought to be looking to see if you can photograph him springing on a cliff. Adjectives and verbs and adverbs are always good when you're thinking about a shot. Too many photographers think "antelope." In other words, noun. This is an antelope that springs from rock to rock in a very small area. In other words, verb. Verbs are always better than nouns when you're photographing. What's the verb you're shooting?
Let's try another example from Tony's files:
Scratchin' an itch. Actually, this zebra was more interesting when he was scratching his tummy with the termite mound. The only problem is that there was another zebra just behind him most of the time while he was doing that. Tony and I sat here on this and a couple of other zebra for quite some time. The zebras were "verbing" for us, so we stayed put.
Adjectives are good, too. What adjectives do you get out of these photos?
Tony gave me the next shot not to show off, but to help show you one of the things you often deal with in Africa (and which is causing the faintness on the right side of the above photo): lots of brush that obstructs the thing you want to take a picture of. Note also how some of the branches look like leopard's tail, complete with spots. When leopards want to disappear, they do so pretty darned well. But even when we find them, it's rare that we don't have more work to do. When confronted with the scene in this image, I have two things to figure out: where is the leopard likely to be going, if anywhere, and how can I get the vehicle positioned so that there's a good chance of getting a clean shot through an opening? That's one of those real time, multidimensional, constantly changing calculations. I've gotten better and better though the years at coming up with the solution, though.
I can't leave Tony's shooting on that note, so let me show you one of the things that Tony does quite well: working birds. If you come to one of my future workshops and both Tony and birds are around, spend some time with him and you'll find out how to do things like this:
That's a tough sequence to pull off. Very tough.
The Measure of a Safari
- 12 students
- 2 photo instructors
- 4 drivers/guides
- 14 camp staff, cooks, supply truck drivers
- (not pictured) 6 boat drivers, 3 pilots, and more
It's not easy to run a mobile safari workshop. Remember, we spent no more than 3 nights in any one place, which meant that there were 10 large guest tents with bathrooms and one massive mess tent to move every few days, tents for the drivers/guides and crew, plus we also needed to relocate our generator, mobile kitchen, and more.
Cameras? We had a few. Heck, even two of the driver/guides had theirs with them. Final tally was something like this:
- D3s 1
- D800 13
- D7100 6
- D7000 2
- D300 2
- D700 2
- D100 1
- V1 4
- V2 2
- X-E1 1
- OM-D 1
- numerous compacts
For big lenses I counted:
- 70-200mm 7
- 70-300mm 2
- 80-400mm 4
- 200-400mm 5
- 300mm 2
- 500mm 2
- 90-250mm (4/3) — 1
Most folk brought laptops, and a few also had iPads. We had both a regular projector and a backup projector with us to do image reviews with. The generator station looked like a warren of cables trying to mate every day.
- D800 broken top LCD: dropped off dash (what was it doing on the dash?)
- D800 broken lens mount: dropped with big lens
- MacBook Pro Retina (mine): sand in the fan (noisy, but still worked; repaired by Apple for free in an hour). Because I was using my laptop in the open mess tent mid-day to do image review and there sometimes was a lot of blowing sand mid-day, I actually had to use a brush to remove sand from the keyboard while doing image review.
- Lost RRS monopod head: literally disappeared in the sand in camp somewhere. Was being carried in a pocket at night while we were doing night shooting and must have fallen out. Couldn't locate next morning (remember, this region of Botswana is several hundred meters deep in sand).
- One GPS 10-pin connector (repaired in field, though the repair isn't likely to last long).
I need to repeat something I've written elsewhere about D800's: don't drop them. Ever. The number of "beyond repair" D800's I know about continues to grow every week. Personally, I regard this a design fault—especially on a camera regarded as "pro" by its maker. What happens is this: if the camera falls and any strong pressure is put on the lens mount, the rear of the metal alloy frame breaks just in front of the rear LCD. The frame can apparently also crack if impact stress is put on it from the back or edges of the camera. Unfortunately, this cracking of the chassis then makes "alignment" impossible. The frame would have to be replaced, and to replace a frame means complete (and I mean complete) disassembly and reassembly, which Nikon won't undertake because it is not financially viable. You're better off buying a new camera when that happens to you.
All you folk that think that "metal frames" or "full frames" or any other sort of construction is preferred over another need to do a rethink. You can make polycarbonate cameras that survive nasty falls and you can make metal cameras that fail almost all the time after a fall. The actual composition of the parts isn't the determinant, it's how well the camera was designed. If you look at the following image, the part that is cracking is at the back of the frame (just under the white area open for the rear LCD):
Frankly, the D800 is turning out to be a camera that can't be mishandled as much as other Nikon pro cameras. So coddle your D800's a bit. Be extremely careful when it might be possible to drop the camera to a hard surface below. True, you shouldn't be dropping your cameras at all, but what I'm saying here is that you have a higher risk of loss instead of repair with a D800 versus a D4, for example.