In August 2010 I led a two-week workshop through South Africa, partly along the eastern coast, partly in one of the private wildlife preserves. This is the blog from that trip:
Day 0: Lecture and Shoot
Aug 21—The workshop kicked off this afternoon with my lecture on the compositional side of photography, then some practice in the wharf area, where I went from student to student doing one-on-one practice of the things I teach. Unfortunately, rain terminated our practice shoot a bit earlier than I had hoped, but some of the students are still a bit tired from the trip to get here from the States, so calling it an early night was mostly met with yawns.
Day 1: Wet and Dry
Aug 22--One thing about photo workshops is that you sometimes encounter either not enough weather or too much. Not enough weather refers to the dreaded deadly clear skies. All blue--or all gray in some of the more smoggy and dusty places of the world--makes for a boring topping to almost any scenic. A lot of amateurs think that just pumping up the blue factor, perhaps by pulling out the polarizer and turning it all the way to Max, will fix sky problems, but it doesn't. It just makes it look like you used a polarizer.
Too much weather, of course, means that conditions get past the point beyond which workshop students are comfortable (or prepared for) shooting. Snow, rain, tornado, hurricane, monsoon...well, you get the picture (or don't get the picture).
I try to schedule workshops where we'll have the chance of weather (clouds, dramatic skies, etc.) but also have the likelihood of not too much weather. Today, the first full day of the South Africa workshop I failed. We clearly had too much weather.
Not that we didn't get a fair amount of photography in.
Our first subject this morning was Cape Point, and as we arrived the skies opened up enough that we had time to get everyone working on landscapes and seascapes that interested them. Cape Point itself has quite a bit of variety if you've got the time and energy to explore it. Rock gardens. Rocky shores. Beautiful pocket beaches. Lighthouses. And the ubiquitous "more." I found myself drawn towards images looking straight down:
But it also became clear that we were going to get hit by too much weather.
Often you get waves of storm hitting you here in the cape. We could see individual rain bands as they approached from the Northwest (the usual direction, I'm told by locals). We had been happily shooting for almost two hours when I made a prediction: 15 minutes until complete downpour. I was wrong. It was 12 minutes. So we scampered down the hill back to the van, did the towel-dry-your-equipment-before-yourself thing, and...sure enough, squall number one passed. When the sun popped out briefly we flipped over to the other side of the point and got a few more shots in (see below). And yes, that's squall number two headed our way.
It was time to move on when the second squall got to us, so we suffered through it while driving to our next location, the penguin colony on Boulders Beach. As we got there, the penguins were doing pretty much the same thing as we were: drying out. Not too long into shooting the birds a minor squall (number three) hit us, but most of us kept shooting through it. Or I should say, kept trying to frame something up. Apparently the penguins pretty much would rather hunker down during a squall just like us humans. But after rain comes sun on a day like today, so we quickly returned to shooting wet penguins trying to get dry.
Unfortunately, this was also a day that one student happily shot with no card in his camera. Dang those Nikon defaults. So that student had lots of practice framing, focusing on, and shooting penguins, but not much to remember it by.
After a "let's eat indoors, no it's great outdoors so let's move outdoors, no it's getting wet outdoors so let's move back indoors" start to lunch, we finally got somewhat dry and back to good humor (workshop students get a little grumpy when they get wet ;~). The afternoon plan had been to do some close in work in gardens (it's just hinting at spring here, so we're getting first blooms popping up in lots of places), but squall number five (or was it six, somewhere I lost count) ended that plan. So we went for my backup plan, which was to drop into the Two Oceans Aquarium for a little tank action.
Good aquariums these days are very photographer friendly, and Two Oceans is no exception. I worked with individual students for a while, then as they got exhausted and headed back one by one to our nearby hotel, I started puttering on a few images for myself, while also practicing some slow pan shots. I'm trying to get ready for doing some slow pans on safari. You need to practice slow shutter pans a lot to get them right, so panning with fish in the big tank gave me and the others some much needed practice. Here, for example, is one of Eric's pan shots from his time practicing at the aquarium:
Note how the central fish is reasonably sharp while the rest tend to be blurred. That's because Eric is panning on that central fish. If you look at the other fish, you can see varying degrees of blur, as they are swimming at different speeds than the one Eric panned with. The trick with slow pan blur is getting your pan just right. There's a strong tendency to stop the pan the minute you press the shutter release (and possibly move the camera up/down, too). But since you're using very long shutter speeds (typically 1/15 to 1 second), if you stop the pan at or near the start of the shot, you don't keep your subject correctly framed during the shot and lose the acuity and sharpness on your selected subject. This particular exhibit was great for practicing pans because the fish were in a constant motion going around in circles. There was always a group of them passing by in front of us. When you shoot groups like this, you have to pick one subject to follow, and then hope that the rest of the group around it create some interesting pattern and/or are moving at just enough differential to create interesting blurs. Prepare to have a high failure rate at this type of photography. I'm usually happy with about 1 out of every 50 shots I attempt this way. But the more you practice, the higher your keeper rate will be.
By the time the aquarium pushed me out the door so they could close and go home, I walked out into a mild, but very nice sunset. I looked around to see if any of my students were about shooting it, but didn't see any. Hmm. I didn't wear them out already, did I?
Day 2: South Africa History Day
Aug 23—Today we took a step back in time, visiting sites involved in the Cape Town area's history. It's both a depressing and encouraging story. Depressing in the sense that suppression of any kind--in this case racially motivated--is one of the recurring themes in human history that is, well, not one of our better ideas. Encouraging because progress is being made and the people of this country are aware that it is.
First up on our town history tour was a visit to the first residential area of Cape Town, Bo-Kaap*, where the small brightly colored homes dominate the hill above city center. These days the area is a mostly Muslim neighborhood. And like almost everywhere you go throughout Cape Town, you find mostly friendly, encouraging people. For instance, one of the students was photographing a house and asked a woman who came out of it if she wouldn't mind posing for a picture. Most city and street photographers know that being polite, respectful, and willing to listen to a few stories often pays off with willing subjects, and this time was no different. Not only did she gladly pose, but next thing you know the whole group was being invited into her home for some baked goods she was preparing for her family and friends, which were about to set off on a Haj to Mecca. After politely chatting and thanking her for her hospitality, we made sure to get her name and address so that we could send her a copy of the picture that the student took when we get home.
*Even in South Africa there seems to be some confusion over the actual name, as I've gotten five different spellings and punctuations on this. But after a little more research, we'll go with this one. The area is also known as the Malay Quarter for those of you trying to find it.
I'm not known for people photography, but when the situation arises at a workshop, we try to take advantage of the opportunity rather than let it pass by. I suppose it helps that I'm not particularly trying to collect pictures to publish of people in the places I visit, so generally almost all of my people encounters are friendly and often lead to experiences that there is no other way to get. Obviously, you have to take care when and where you deal with locals, as not every situation might turn out so pleasant, but with a small workshop group like this and a knowledgable local guide moderating where and who we interact with, I'm not afraid to put my friendly side forward and see what happens next. If they say no--heck, if they're not 100% cooperative--I have no compunctions about moving on. I don't need the shot and the potential subjects don't need the grief. But it's those times when you make a new foreign friend that makes travel such an interesting and rewarding experience. So our day started with some of that.
(I should note here that you won't see much in the way of "people pictures" here on the my Web site. I do not like to use images that contain people in them on the Web site because it feels a bit like exploitation. It would be one thing if I were paying modeling fees to someone and getting them to sign releases, but for casual street photography, I do not tend to publish such images, especially when children are involved, so you won't see many people in the images you'll see in this blog. That means not many of the images we took today are going to make it on the blog. Pity, that, as some of the students got some excellent portraits today.)
The big item on our itinerary today was a slightly more risky venture than wandering through friendly city neighborhoods, though. We were headed to one of the cornerstones of understanding the recent South African experience: a township.
When we got to our destination at Khayelitsha I was a bit surprised. Visiting the same multi-block area of the township as I did last year I immediately noticed changes. For the better. Last year, the block we visited consisted of perhaps three or four constructed homes and dozens of more impromptu metal lean-to type shelters (see left side of image, below)--shacks or shanties in local parlance. This year in the same block I'd guess that about half the shacks were gone and replaced by constructed homes (see right side of image). Still modest, of course, but real structures that were built to real construction codes, and which the residents now own (assuming they live in them for seven years). Yes, there are still tin-metal shacks about, but fewer than before. Noticeably fewer.
It's difficult to describe, or even show in pictures, partly because the history of the area is a big part of a backstory you need to know to fully understand what is going on. This is a township of a million or so people in what most of us would consider a modest-sized area for that population. And it all came about in very recent times. When I was born, Khayelitsha didn't exist. It was just an open area 10km from Cape Town. When the legal system here changed after the British handed over rule and Apartheid begin to rear it's ugly head, the story starts as a very sad one.
For instance, in an area in town known as District Six (I believe their were nine districts in town at the time), the government began tearing down the small homes of the colored and blacks that lived there. In a short time, over 60,000 people lost their homes. Mostly because the government wanted the land for potential development for whites. Because "black" and "colored" mean different things in South Africa, the fates of those that lived in District Six were different. But both lost their homes and were moved elsewhere, usually to new townships. The government would take some open land outside of town, construct some minimal infrastructure and move the displaced there. That's how Khayelitsha started.
The townships are both chaotic and organized. Chaos can be seen at any stop light (which generally would only be near the edges of the township as within the township you see few vehicles and there's no need for them): from one signal I counted 18 unauthorized wires connected up to the signal that were drawing power down to nearby shacks. The joke here is that if you've managed to acquire a radio or TV, your channel will be changed every time the signal changes. Seriously, power lines snake all over the place here, with people grabbing power from any source they can find. Dr. Random has arranged the overhead wires in ways that are sometimes amusing and sometimes mind-boggling. On top of this there are people everywhere due to the high population density, and from the edge of the township looking in you see very little regularity, just a lot of incongruent metal, wood, plaster sides and impromptu roofs, all with a teeming mass of people in the midst.
Inside the township you discover something else: there is structure and order. Neighborhood Watch means something much more here than it does where I live. Neighbors look out for one another, watch the children, police for crime, participate in councils that decide what people can build, and much more. Small collectives are present, too. There's a part of the neighborhood that specializes in washing vehicles; somehow certain areas seem to have been designated for business instead of residential. There are day care centers, and in a few places there are small non-profits that have established centers where people can come to learn a craft and sell their work.
Don't get me wrong. This is not nirvana. This is poverty. But here's the thing: these people appear to be mostly happy, there is obvious progress happening in their township (which I've now witnessed), there is pride in ownership of what they do have, and they are generally friendly. More than once I've been spontaneously invited into their homes, such as they are. And when you do take someone up on that, you find that their home may be simple, but there is an obvious pride in what they do have, and things are always remarkably clean, especially considered all the dirt and chaos just outside the door.
With school out due to a teacher's strike, the children were all hanging out and playing around their homes when we got there. Within minutes, our small group of photographers became the new toy in town. No child asked us for anything, no one begged, none made faces at us or gave us anything other than joy and love. One small child just walked over to me, hugged me, and then walked away. I don't know what that was about, but to me it felt like a positive experience. Maybe he just thought I needed a hug today, maybe he does that to all visitors to show that it's friendly here, maybe he's heard a story that boycotts from those overseas people are one of the things that broke Apartheid and he wanted to thank me. I'll never know. All I know is that it was a touching moment.
Most of the children had never seen so many cameras at once, and our group became a giant attraction to them. Especially after we started showing them the pictures we were taking (again, I'm not going to post them here, as I feel that's exploitative). Here's another thing that touched me: at one point I had been taking pictures of a few of people and children when one of the children gently--yes gently--pulled the camera away from me and indicated for me to pose. When through his English-speaking sister I managed to ask him why he thought it important to take a picture of me, the answer I got back was that he was afraid I wasn't going to get any pictures of me in his town.
Hope is a strange thing. It's hard to grow without a real seed. What I saw, both last year when I visited this area during a scouting trip, and again this year, is that there are lots of seeds here. As little as these people have, as much as these people have been through, as far as they still have to go, there are plenty of seeds of hope here.
What I found in almost every encounter with the children of Khayelitsha, both this year and last, is that there is a hunger to be taught, to learn. Learn almost anything. After one child did something I liked, I gave him a high five. He understood that. I tried to follow that with a low five and he was perplexed at first. Guess he hadn't seen the "give me five high, now give it to me low" routine before. But you could just see his eyes light up with the "want to learn this new thing" look, and next thing you know he's teaching it to the next child in the group, and the next, and the next... By the time I left the area, everyone was giving me the high/low and grinning up a storm.
As I've noted several times, I generally don't publish street encounter pictures I take. In fact, I normally don't do anything with them other than keep them for memories. I don't wish to even give even a vague impression that I wish to exploit those that have less than me. But every time I look at the pictures the students and I took today, I'm going to remember the hope, the eagerness to learn, and the welcoming nature. Children here are like children everywhere. They are the future. I'm now going to see what little things I can do to see that their future is a little better than it was before, because today they made my present better than it was before.
Damn. And I thought we were here to photograph. ;~)
Oh, and one other thing: since the children all saw us pressing buttons while taking pictures, every time they got their hands on a camera, they'd press buttons, too. Unfortunately, they pressed buttons randomly. So if you're ever in such a situation, be sure to check to make sure your settings are all still intact afterward. You'd be surprised at what a couple dozen random button presses on a camera can set it up to do.
Day 3: Out of the Cape
Aug 24—Those of you who've been on one of my workshops before or have read about them probably wouldn't recognize today. While we had a fairly long drive to get out of Cape Town and up the Eastern coast, I had a few surprising things up my sleeve photographically.
Would you believe we spent the morning in the cellar of a winery? That's so unThom-like that it might even shock a few people. After all, I don't drink, so a winery isn't exactly a place I typically visit. But I'm also not known as an indoor photographer, either, so down in a wine cellar is a rare place to find me, let alone one of my workshops.
But there's method to my madness: what better place to try teaching multi-flash lighting than someplace that isn't lit? And so I went into my best McNally imitation, though without the frenetic chatter, the jokes, or the blur of activity. (Sorry Joe, but you have to admit that you sometimes look like a speeded up movie when you're talking up a lighting situation. If Joe's movie is running at 12 fps, then I must be at 36 fps ;~).
Let me step you through the multi flash lighting process, Thom-style.
One of the great conceits (of both Nikon and Nikon pros) is that "you just turn on TTL and fire away." One of the things I always teach is to take control of everything. You make hundreds of decisions when you photograph. Hundreds. Or you can let the camera make them for you and get some, perhaps many, of them wrong. Or you can take control and get them all right.
Light is the life of our photographs. Without it, we don't have a photograph. With the right light we have a remarkable photograph. Running light from the pop-up flash or hot shoe flash controlled by the camera is highly likely to be the wrong light, in the wrong place, with the wrong intensity.
To demonstrate this, I arranged with the Vrede en Lust winery to have access to their cellar. Yes, it has some overheads so the workers can see, but with them turned off, the place is nearly lightless. I had brought my "small" location lighting kit, which consists of two flashes and all the accessories to shape and modify the light, plus a few other goodies that are helpful. Here's the short version of what we did:
- Establish the ambient. If you do have ambient light--and we had a small amount--you first figure out where you're going to use that and set your exposure for it. Often times I'll set a slight underexposure for the ambient and run my flash to create pockets of light where I want something above the underexposure (typically the subject and perhaps a few supplemental details in the background). We had almost no ambient in the cellar, so there wasn't much to do here.
- Light the subject. The first flash went off camera at a pleasing angle on the nearest wine barrel and was set as the Master. It's off the camera axis both to establish mood and to allow us to hide shadows out of frame. Our first test shots established the value on this master light (everything else was going to be triggered off it, though I did bring Pocket Wizards so that we could go to the radio if we couldn't get the line of sight the Nikon i-TTL system needs).
- Light the next layer behind the subject. The second layer of barrels needed just a little less light than the front barrel, so obviously we dialed this flash down some from the main flash (This flash is Slave: Group A). We positioned it with a NastyClamp I had brought, which we clamped to a handy nearby rack.
- Light the third layer behind the subject. In this case, it was a wall that had been painted yellow. But we didn't want it yellow, as we didn't think the Canary yellow of the wall gave much contrast or support to the warm colors of the casks. That's the fun thing about doing flash manually: you control everything. So out came my Strobist filter kit and we put red filters over the third flash head (Slave: Group B). Voila, the wall was a reddish color that was more pleasing than the yellow paint. We could have made it blue, green, a different yellow, just about anything we wanted. It's just a matter of finding the right filter. (Remember, if you're putting colored light on a colored wall, you may have some additive color issues to deal with, so the color of the filter you use may not be the final color you seek.)
- Light the background, if necessary. Usually the ambient lights up the background, but we had almost no ambient, so we decided to add another light to the far background at this point (Slave: Group C).
Put another way: we built the light bit by bit, controlling the intensity, direction, and color for everything. I'm sure McNally would have nailed it in 20 minutes, but it took us an hour, partly because I don't talk as fast as McNally and partly because we got to the second light setup and discovered my batteries were fast running down. Of course extra batteries were the one thing I hadn't carried down into the cellar with us, so we had a small delay as someone went back up to the vehicle and retrieved batteries. Note to self: extra batteries should go in the case labeled Flash Accessories. Oh wait, they were. Doh! Darn it if I hadn't thought of that when I built my cases, but somehow I didn't remember that I was anal enough to think of everything, so I didn't actually look for batteries in my lighting case. Too bad we couldn't tap the casks while we were waiting for replacement batteries that I actually had but didn't notice.
Here's me working at setting up the first light:
And here's the shot we were working on (note that the plan was to stick a model behind the first row of barrels, but because of my slowness in getting everything set up, we never quite got to that step):
The wall is a little too red and hot. Next step would be to dial that back a bit. But note the change in the color of the barrels: we've lit them warmer than they are, and intentionally so. Once the wall was dialed down, my next step was to bring in the model and light her, but as I noted, we were running out of time (we still had a scheduled wine tasting and lunch to get to).
Okay, so I didn't think everything out quite as well as I thought I had before heading into the cellar. Still, it was a nice teaching hour, and everyone got a taste of exactly why pros have assistants and spend a lot of time setting up lighting before the models show up.
And yes, we stayed and tasted wine. Well, at least the others did, I just watched and sniffed, as I don't drink. And we had a fabulous lunch. All of which lasted far too long for a photographic workshop, but not long enough to keep us from another unThom-like destination.
Our final destination of the day (our third--I've skipped over one in this blog, otherwise I'd be writing deep into the night) was the monument in downtown Franschhoek. Yep, Thom is photographing human-carved stone for a change. Oh, and flowers again (we had a few hours in a garden late yesterday that I didn't write about). Go figure. Nobody said this workshop was going to be just about animals (that would be the Botswana workshop that follows this one). Indeed I'd long planned this workshop and tour as a real smorgasbord of photographic opportunities. So here we were photographing a local monument. It took a bit for people to warm to the challenge, but eventually I found that everyone deep ended into working a shot that they liked.
One of the interesting things about so many photographers in a constrained space with a constrained subject is that they all still manage to find different shots. The "reference shots" are easy: just stand in front of the thing, frame it all, and fire. But shots that capture the character of the place, the lighting, the accouterments, the environment, or the location take a little thinking and result in seven photographers going different directions. Eric spent a lot of time down low and close to the water to get his shot (above). I ended up behind the monument, because I became more fascinated by the shadows it threw:
So a very unThom-like day, but don't worry, there will be some Thom-like ones showing up soon...
Day 4: The Long Drive
Aug 25—On photo workshops that last longer than a week, there are usually one or two days where you're mostly repositioning the group. Today was one of those days. That doesn't mean that we don't photograph--I try to keep photographic opportunities in mind both in the way and time we re-position. It's just that sometimes you just can't avoid a long drive or a short flight. Today was one of those days.
From Franschhoek we climbed up out of the valley and headed over the pass north into farm country. What we were looking for was a canola field in bloom in sunlight, preferably with something interesting to backdrop it. Unfortunately, we were in fog most of the morning. Bright yellow fields that quickly fade into white fog are pretty boring as a photograph. Every now and then we'd see a few trees poking up out of the fog and that was tempting to stop for, but I took a gamble that we'd manage to find something more photogenic. I say "gamble" because for timing purposes we really could only afford a single one hour stop in the fields. Thus, you have to guess at whether each visual opportunity you come upon is the "best" one. You don't want to drive a group of rabid photographers who've paid you money past the best spot to get to one of lesser quality.
Fortunately, we've got one of South Africa's leading photographers, Lanz von Horsten, as our local guide. He's photographed this area extensively, so he not only knows where all the fields are, but can read the local weather patterns. I trusted his sense here, and it paid off when the last couple of canola fields we were to pass were out in sun. The one we stopped at was a bit tricky photographically, though, as there was no obvious "payoff" that the lines in the canola plants would lead to. A few of the fields we had passed in the fog have some great little features that you can use as visual payoffs (but require light); the field we got in the light we wanted forced us to work the more abstract nature of the patterns in the field. As it turned out, it was a useful teaching exercise, and we spent a little more time working the fields than I'd planned.
Here's where Robert was positioned for his shot:
And here's the shot that I decided I liked (a pano, who would have guessed? ;~):
It was in these fields that we had our first real problem of the workshop. With eight people over two weeks, something is bound to go wrong. You work hard to keep that from happening, but it does. Entropy is a harsh mistress. Worse still, we didn't know we had a problem until late in the afternoon, when one of the students realized they no longer had their iPhone.
One thing I do as we pack up at each location (as does Lanz), is to walk the grounds around the vehicle and where most people were photographing. Lens caps, filters, and many other small things--and sometimes big things like lenses if a student changed them in the field--often get dropped or set on the ground and left behind. The problem with the canola was that a lot of the students had gone into the fields (see Robert, above), and many had been down low or even laying on the ground at times. Thus, short of plowing the fields, there wasn't any easy way to do a full ground search as we packed up. In reconstructing events, it is pretty certain the iPhone is in that field and slipped out of a pocket unnoticed. Unfortunately the phone is turned off, so we can't send Lanz back to visit the field while we do something else and have him ring the phone to find it.
We discovered the missing iPhone as we headed into another area called The Heads for lunch (at 3 pm!). But before lunch, we had stopped at one other popular location, where we got our first view of the Indian Ocean:
Here's my view of the same place, taken during my scouting trip:
Note that I've elected to go ahead and include the train tracks at the bottom rather than try to mask them with the foreground foliage. One thing about landscape photography is that there is no "perfect" composition. Robert's shot looks slightly more wild (this is the town of Wilderness, after all), while mine implies something different (would have liked to have a train in the shot, too, but apparently they don't run very often, and usually at times when they wouldn't be in the right light). One of the things that I teach is that you have to be receptive to the attraction compelling you to photograph. Robert and I had two slightly different attractions, and these produce different compositions naturally, despite us being in the same place.
After lunch, we did a tiny bit of photography at the mouth of the inlet at the Heads, followed by some more driving. We finally made it to The Fernery around sunset, our accommodations for the next few days. Besides being a working fernery (yes, ferns), it also contains a small four star resort (it would be five star if it had televisions and Internet access, but we're in the middle of nowhere here, so four star is as good as you can do). We're not roughing it here: individual cabins with tubs and showers that have a view, big comfy beds, private decks overlooking the small creek that winds down to the Indian Ocean, and a central lodge that is spectacular (and serves spectacular food). There's a pool and hot tubs, not that we'll likely get around to using them, but for being at the end of a long dirt road in the middle of a forest, it's a small oasis that gives us a nice comfy base for our local scenic work.
At the lodge before dinner, I pulled a Thom and played a little photography game. If you've got a bunch of photographers in one place, you can play it, too. Simply take a semi-random shot, pass the camera to someone, and have them explain how they'd "improve it." Then have them reshoot it (or do it yourself the way they asked). Pass the camera on again for another set of comments. Keep doing that until you either decide the shot wasn't worth taking in the first place or you refine it to a high enough level that you're all satisfied with it. You never quite know where the game will end up when you start it. But it's always interesting to hear the differences of opinion and talk through them. (You also usually find out who thinks they're the alpha male of the group ;~). I started our game with a simple, but very awkward shot, and it ended with a decent shot. Here's the original (top) and the shot after six iterations by students (bottom):
You can see that there were a lot of small changes (including, believe it or not, changing the logs on the fire). There's still more to do (the umbrella on the drink is over lit and someone has been drinking our subject ;~), but this should give you an idea of where we started and where we were headed with the image.
Day 5: The Tsitsikamma
Aug 26—We're in the Tsitsikamma. That's a Khoi (local tribe) word meaning "place of abundant or sparkling water." It's also one of the few areas of indigenous and old-growth forest left in South Africa, mostly because those steep ravines of water slashing down to the sea kept the loggers from getting wood out of the area.
The National Park was created in 1964 and still has that 60's US park feel to it, right down to the cabins you can rent in the park (think Yosemite). The park itself is perhaps 40 miles long and only a few miles deep along the ocean, but when it was created it also included the marine reserve, where at various points in the year you'll find dolphins or whales motoring by.
Within the park there are many objects of interest, especially photographically, including the infamous Shooting Rock (water breaks into it and splashes up high in the air basically yards away from the main parking lot). Hikers will find the Otter Trail of interest, and much like the ocean trails in Olympic National Park in the US, Otter Trail runs the length of the park along the ocean.
And it's on Otter Trail that we make our first walk and start really working on scenics. Because there are so many attractions here, we split the group into two, with part of the group following Lanz up to the waterfall a couple of miles up Otter Trail, and me leading those that wanted to work the shoreline. Here's what the waterfall group were working with:
We shorebirds didn't get very far very fast, as we found plenty to work with within a short walk from the bus. As typical with me on a shoreline--my former Hawaii workshop students can all vouch for this--I was soaking wet within minutes. That's because Hans and I decided to try working a small tidal pool that was being fed by the water surge at low tide.
When you look at the photos, you'll think the waves generating the upward lifts must be mammoth. They weren't. In fact, they were the most timid I've seen here, as the seas were relatively calm. I'd say the waves and swell were no more than three or four feet. It's just that the shoreline consists of lines of granite and other material that thrust up nearly perpendicularly to the wave action. So even a four foot wave hitting these features tends to get forced upward into as much as 20 and 30 feet blasts. At low tide and with calm seas, the area we were working gets a lot of vertical water thrust. (At high tide or high seas, the waves break completely over the ridges on the shoreline, which is also impressive, but it doesn't create the "shooting effect" that Hans and I were photographing from up close, and others were shooting from a more respectable distance.
The challenge is to get a photo that feels like the wave is right in your face and overwhelms the horizon line. That means getting close and low. While our position wasn't dangerous--we were in no danger of getting swept to sea other than a massive rogue wave, which we probably would have seen early enough to gain ground behind us--it wasn't without hazard. And that hazard was that every now and again the remnants of the shooting wave would shoot right up to us, or in a few cases, over us (note that the rock in the foreground of my shot is wet). So you have to keep high recognition of what's happening around you and be able to respond quickly. Several times I found myself taking the shot and quickly turning my back to the water while protecting the camera from getting the brunt of the sea water. And so I found myself quickly wet from head to toe. (For those that want to know, I was shooting with the Olympus E-P2 here, and it definitely was sopping wet by the time I was through. It survived, though.)
Usually when I photograph shooting water like this I go for the "fireworks effect": use a longish shutter speed to get streaks of water arching up and out. Today, I decided to work more towards stopping the water and trying to catch the individual drops that form at the front of the motion. With water, I usually tell students that you have to freeze it or flow it. Shutter speeds in the range of 1/30 to 1/250 generally don't produce great images with moving water: the moving water just looks like you missed focus or shook the camera, as the movement in the water is slightly visible but not defined. So, if you work with moving water, remember that you have to freeze it (typically >1/250 shutter speed) or flow it (usually <1/30 shutter speed). The actual speed you need will depend upon the speed of the water, so make sure to experiment. That's one of the joys of the digital era, you can make that experiment and check the results immediately.
So that you get some perspective on the size of things, here's where Hans was (I was far forward and to the left of him most of the time, just at the left edge of the tidal pool—this splash would have gotten me very wet):
The shoreline at Tsitsikamma we were working was so compelling that even when the other group returned from the waterfall, we ended up continuing to work the same basic stretch most of the day. Here's what things looked like later in the afternoon:
We finally got to lunch at 3 pm, which seems to be a pattern we've now established. We also never got to the second location I had planned here in the main part of the park, so we'll try to fit that in tomorrow. Personally, I'm pleased when students find a location so compelling that they aren't willing to leave. Better the scenic in the hand than the two in the bush.
Day 6: The Tsitsikamma
Aug 27—We're still in the Tsitsikamma. There's actually far more to see and shoot here than even our three nights at the Fernery will allow.
Because I wanted to travel to the place we didn't get to yesterday, I decided to change our itinerary a bit today. We were originally scheduled to do more at the North end of the park: some lagoon work, a walk along the end of the Otter Trail, plus some beach work, but I decided to mostly concentrate on the beach work.
We're at the end of the park where the Otter Trail ends. The ocean shore here is more beachy, but still with some minor upthrusts of rock. So our photographic opportunities are less the waves themselves and more the details on the shore that get created by them. I tried to work with each student independently, and gave many of them small assignments to work through so I could see how they were responding to the way I teach (which is a bit different than the usual photographic instruction--much more on that later this year as I finish up my new book). But don't take my word on it, here's what Robert wrote:
While on the beach at Nature's Valley, in noonish light, Thom wanders by and asks if I am up for a challenge. Of course, I said. He gave me this white abalone shell and said "Make your best image containing this shell". Wow. Black rocks all around, sand, noon light, and now this freakin' white spot of shell.
I spent over an hour (I am easily amused) working on shots with this white shell in it. I finally hit a concept I liked. Here the black rock, sand ripples caused by water receding back to the ocean, a shell in it's environment, and the surf line at the top of the image created the best image I knew how to make of a bright white shell at noon on a beach with black granite everywhere.
Here's his picture in two forms (I did a bit of work on it, but mostly just adding contrast):
For the afternoon, we went back to the other end of the park to the place I had wanted to get to yesterday. This involves a bit of a climb up and down a staired boardwalk, plus a walk across a suspension bridge, so part of the fun is just getting there. Once, there, yes, I was back to getting wet.
So what was there? A lot of things, but I'm particularly fascinated by the small boulder beach at the other end of the suspension bridge. But the whole short hike is a great place to work on (mostly) static compositions, so that's what I did. I worked with Russell on a Calla Lilly shot, for example.
I like where Russell finally got the composition, but we needed to work a few more details on this shot to get it perfect, and we just didn't have the time. Like some of the others, the black and white version works very well:
And here's my shot from just across from where his was taken:
Or maybe you like it better in black and white:
I worked again with Robert for awhile on the beach of boulders. I think he must have moved every rock you see here at least three times as we discussed what he was trying to do:
And I did a bit of scrambling onto the rock outcroppings looking for that strange angle and viewpoint that I'm known for with abstract landscapes (something I learned climbing after Galen):
As you might note from the wetness of the rocks I'm on, the bigger waves were breaking into my position, so yes, once again I went home wet. At this point, my trail running shoes are completely sodden, and are going to need a good drying out. Here's another unusual angle on the same beach, just to the left of the position on the last shot:
Despite not having fully cooperative weather (skies too clear), all in all it turned out to be a decent day of landscape photography. Which is good, because tomorrow we tackle yet another type of photography on this smorgasbord of a workshop.
Day 7: Goodbye Landscapes, Hello Animals
Aug 28—Sometimes the best laid plans of mice and men result in...well, chaos. A key part of today seemed a bit like that: logistical chaos.
Our day started with an early morning drive to the airport in George, from which we then flew to Johannesburg. In other words, a non-photography morning. Or, at least, a low key photography morning, as I did note a few students taking some "travel pictures" along the way.
From the Jo-berg airport we immediately hopped on a minivan to our photography destination for the day: the Ann van Dyk Cheetah and Wildlife Center in De Wildt, just outside of Pretoria. This 65 hectare farm has been turned into a research and breeding center for cheetahs, wild dogs, and other endangered African species. Given that perhaps only 700 cheetahs existed in southern Africa when the center was founded in 1971, the fact that they've now bred, raised, and settled in game reserves as many as 500 cheetahs in the ensuing 40 years is an impressive accomplishment.
Unfortunately, getting to the center proved to be our greatest challenge so far. First, the area businesses were holding a special auction event outside the property, which distracted us into stopping, but second our bus driver had the wrong address anyway, which caused us some additional grief. The problem is that the center only does two pre-planned programs at fixed times each day. It's not like a zoo where you can walk in and wander around the exhibits. Thus, our delays in getting there were jeopardizing our ability to have any photographic experience at all.
I should perhaps back up and tell people why we're at a captive animal facility at all. One of the things that I've noticed in doing wildlife workshops and observing others is that at least some--and sometimes a majority--of the students come in with misconceptions or technique issues regarding things like focus (exposure is another area that comes up often). By putting us in a more controlled and predictable environment, it gives me (and my assistant Tony if he's along on a trip) the chance to observe and work with students on some of the basics before we get to the wilds, where anything can and does happen (let's just call that foreshadowing ;~).
Indeed, within minutes at the cheetah center I found that at least two of the students had a significant misconception about Single Point autofocus mode. It is not what Single Area autofocus mode used to be. Single Point does not track focus. Ever. Single Area used to track focus, sometimes. This small difference is enough to produce slightly out of focus shots if you're not aware of it. Having a more fixed relationship between the photographer and animals as we did at the center (more on that in a bit) makes it easier to remove quite a few variables from the equation and makes it simpler for me to discover such problems while we can still do something about them. That's one of the reasons why we're here, and why I almost always schedule something similar at the start of any sport or wildlife workshop.
Unfortunately, logistically, things turned out a mess and I didn't fully recover from that, so the session wasn't as good as it could have been (though still quite useful and fun). The problem was that I had no time to prep the students prior to us joining the De Wildt's packaged program, as I had planned. That's because we had also had to get to the nearby Cheetah Lodge to pick up lunches that had been prepared for us. By the time we got to the center itself, the program was just beginning, so it was a race to get our gear out of the bus and rush into the facility to join the program already in progress.
First up was Baron. Every non-profit ought to have its own Baron:
Who's Baron? Well, he's an ambassador animal. The center brings a cheetah like Baron--who's been acclimated to people--to South African schools as part of a one-hour presentation on the history of the cheetah and why it needs to be preserved. Then, at the end of the presentation, students can come up a few at a time and pet Baron (yeah, try getting away with that liability in the US). At the center, the first bit of business to any tour is this: donate money to the program to bring wildlife education (and Baron) to more South African schools and you, too, will get to meet and pet Baron, and even have your picture taken with him.
Now who can resist that kind of come on? I know I couldn't ;~)
Neither could most of my students. Here's Robert with Baron:
It's interesting to look at all the pictures of the various students with Baron (and me, for that matter): we all have these big silly grins on our faces. Baron—well, as you can tell by the shot, above—he's pretty darned relaxed. You would be, too, if you were getting a hundred massages a day followed by a nice bowl of your favorite food.
The afternoon program at the center starts with a short lecture about the center's history and founder, the Baron-meet-and-greet, and then off into a controlled game drive. Everyone piles into a big open truck and trailer (three or four across each row of seats, which means some people have restricted shooting angles, so get to the truck early if you're shooting and make sure you're at one of the sides). The truck then drives out on a winding path through the various game pens. Early in the tour you get vultures, honey badgers, servals, caracals, and African wild cat, which were good warm-up animals for our group, though a bit tough to photograph due to the enclosures they were in. Here's one you don't see every day, an albino honey badger (yes, he says that the meat he eats tastes just like chicken ;~):
But the highlights of the three-hour program are the African Wild Dogs and cheetahs.
To me, the Wild Dogs were the most interesting, especially since they've trained some of them to essentially hunt the truck. If you've never heard or seen Wild Dogs on the hunt—which involves them running alongside their prey for long distances—then you won't have any idea of what I'm writing about here. But for those of you who haven't had that experience, the chorus of yipping that occurs is unmistakeable and very ominous when you're the one being hunted (even if you are in a truck). Of course, almost all of you reading this have never had the experience of seeing Wild Dogs hunt, so you'll just have to imagine it. Wild Dogs are extremely rare in Africa now, and the likelihood of seeing them in the wild is getting very low and usually in only a handful of places is it possible at all (hint: stick around for the Botswana workshop blog ;~).
We ended our journey through the center with the cheetahs getting their afternoon feeding:
I saw a lot of other great images from the students this afternoon, but I'll leave it to them to show them off on their blogs and image pages (pointers coming at the end of blog). The main thing I wanted to get across here is that today was practice for the real thing, which will begin tomorrow as we head to Kirkman's Kamp, adjacent to Kruger National Park in the Sabi Sands. Hopefully all the students are now a little more ready for the random animals actions we're about to encounter, and fully up to speed with their focusing and exposure techniques.
Day 8: To the Preserves
Aug 29—Today we moved to the grand finale of the South Africa workshop: the Sabi Sands preserves at the edge of Kruger National Park. Sabi Sands and Timbavarti are the names of two larger areas that are adjacent to Kruger, but within each are many individual areas. In Sabi Sands, there are Kirkman's Kamp, Mala Mala, Londolozi, Sabi Sabi, and several other camps. We're headed to Kirkman's Kamp, which I think is best of the bunch, though perhaps not quite as upscale as some, like Londolozi.
These private reserves are a unique wildlife experience. Kruger National Park itself is a huge protected area for wildlife. The private reserves border the entire West edge of Kruger, and as there is no fence between the two, the animals don't know (or care) whether they're in Kruger or a private reserve. There's one difference as far as wildlife photographers are concerned, though: the private reserves provide the some of the best wildlife experience on the planet. As most of you know, I don't often write in superlatives. "Some of the best" is exactly what I mean, though. So I'd better explain.
Several things make the private reserves unique and remarkable for a wildlife photographer:
- The animals. I've already noted that there's no fence between Kruger and the preserves. That makes the entire area (Kruger+preserves) one of the biggest protected ecosystems on the planet. Within the park itself the park service has cracked down on poaching, and within the private reserves, a poacher simply wouldn't have much of a chance. Not to say that there's no pouching, at all, but in the private reserves especially, the owners know that their livelihood is dependent upon the animals, and they are vigilant at levels not matched many other places. So, for instance, you find rhino in the preserves. As you might have noticed when I wrote about the Cheetah Center, they've raised animals and placed them in the preserves, so the other thing that's happened is that the preserves have been active in trying to promote DNA diversity and replacement of animals that were once endangered. But to put it in perspective, there's no other place in Africa where I'd ever guarantee that workshop participants see and photograph the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, rhino). In many of the private preserves, I would.
- The land. Many of the preserves are big. Kirkman's Kamp has 140,000 hectares of their own, and also drives on one adjacent private property with permission (you can also cross into Kruger, but there regulations and permit fees start to intrude; more on that in a moment). The good camps have superb locations, too. In Sabi Sands, most of the great camps are on the Sands River. Remember, animals need water. There aren't a lot of water sources available, so being on or very near the river is an advantage, as you can better predict animal behaviors. And speaking of animal behaviors:
- The knowledge. The guides on the preserves know their preserve. Since they are driving through the same areas daily, and since they're in constant radio contact with all the others driving on the preserve, they quickly learn behavioral patterns of the animals using their land. They know where the dens are, they know the history of pretty much every carnivore you'll see (and some of the others, like elephants and rhino). They know most of the animal's territories. They know when a big cat has eaten and when it hasn't. They know were many of the key animals are at given moment in time.
- The regulations. You're on private land, and the owners set the regulations, not the park service. And as far as I'm concerned, they've set very reasonable ones that are highly favorable to wildlife photographers. First, they drive off-road here. Most national parks in Africa do not allow off-road travel, including Kruger itself. And I truly mean off-road. At times I've been driven through terrain on the preserves I'd be damned if I'd ever want to walk through as it was so thick with brush. This off-roading doesn't come often; it comes opportunistically. And they have a lot of small sub-regulations you probably won't notice, as they're trying not to establish new roads and paths on their land, but instead try to move through the land in ways where the land will simply heal itself. And it does. You'll be hard-pressed to tell where vehicles have been versus where animals have been (animals create paths, too ;~). But just being able to go-off road isn't the only good regulation for photographers. Another that's particularly interesting is the maximum-vehicles-per-siting. First, no vehicles are allowed at newly born animal dens. Early on in a new cat's life an off-duty guide/driver will take a vehicle out to where it is and stay there for a very short period of time without passengers. Once the animal is acclimated to that, a single vehicle will be allowed with clients if the cub's mother or father are present. Past a certain age, they'll allow two vehicles. And for full-grown animals, a maximum of three vehicles per animal sighting are allowed. Thus, you don't get the 24 Land Rover pileups that you do in the Serengeti or other places in Africa, and the animals don't get stressed by the vehicles (sometimes because they're literally surrounded). The preserves have worked out a communication system that "manages" sightings, and this, too, is to the advantage of the wildlife photographer: the radio contact between vehicles means that your guide pretty much knows where everything is being found on a given day, and what's available to go photograph. You might worry that you won't have enough time at a sighting if only three vehicles at a time can be there, but don't. The non-photography safaris tend to come and go pretty fast, even on things like the big cats, so I've never felt rushed or unable to get the photos I've wanted on the preserves. The one possible exception is very young cubs (that one vehicle limit), but even there what usually happens is you go in and photograph for 15-30 minutes (and remember, you're up close).
So: we've got all of the major animals of the other African parks, can drive right up to them even when they're off road, and our guides pretty much know where they are (or should be) much of the time. That's all a wildlife photographer can ask for, isn't it?
But first we have to get to Sabi Sands. And that involves yet another plane flight. Kirkman's is very near the Skukuza airstrip in Kruger National Park, and thus we fly from Jo-berg to Skukuza on a small charter plane. Unfortunately, at the airport we found that the weight limits have changed recently (now 20kg per person, which barely covers most of our camera bags; and yes, they do weigh everything), so when we arrived at our charter, our first problem was negotiating a weight penalty. To which there wasn't much negotiation as it turned out. Here's Lanz and I not negotiating with the Federal Air staff:
For others flying to Kirkman's from Jo-berg, just be aware that if the plane you're on is packed full, you might not get all your gear onto your flight, and because these are charter type flights, they don't always occur multiple times a day--the bag you left behind may fly on another flight (after paying your weight penalty ;~) and might not show up for another day. So, do as I say, not as I did: pack light. Had we known about the change in weight policy, we could have mitigated some of our weight penalty (I'm pretty sure we'd have still have been over). But that's Africa, and I'm a bit used to it. Sometimes you get hit by the weight problem, sometimes you don't. Personally, I just wish that there'd be more continuity and clear policies on overweight costs. If I can plan for something, I can deal with it. If I can't, it just adds to the logistical frustrations of such long and involved trips.
Can you drive to Kirkman's Kamp? Yes, it's about a six hour drive from Jo-berg. The last six miles is dirt road, and the Nelspruit to Kirkman's Kamp part of the trip is a little tricky to navigate, so make sure you understand the directions and are keeping your eye peeled for the key turns. You'll also have to pay a small entrance fee into the preserves at the Shaw's Gate.
But we got everyone and everything onto the plane. Yea! And so at lunch we found ourselves met at the airport by our drivers and trackers for the short drive to camp, where it was almost time for lunch. So we settled into our rooms (see below) and then headed to lunch.
After lunch we had our first game drive. Since we've got several days of game drives ahead of us (several weeks if you include Botswana), I'll be spreading out some of things I'm going to say about game drives over several days' blog entries. The thing you need to know right now is that we've got two vehicles for this particular workshop, with everyone having a row of seating to themselves (mostly; I'm in the front seat with the driver, Vince is on the back seat with the tracker). Everyone stays in the same vehicle for the duration (so that the guides know what people have seen and what they've told them so they don't repeat themselves). Everyone except for Lanz and I, that is, who swap vehicles every day. That's so every student gets an equal share of me and Lanz for instruction during the drives. Today I'm with Tony, Robert, and Vince, with Anton as our driver/guide and Robert as our tracker. Our first request from the students: lions.
Our first stop of the workshop: lions. Yep, we didn't get very far. Basically, we drove down off the hill from the lodge to the river and found the lions along the river sitting on the rocks. Kind of hard to miss. Well, that was easy. One of the Big Five out of the way within a couple of minutes work ;~)
For over an hour we were the only ones with these lions, and we followed their slow progression along the rocks, across the river, and into the reeds. For those of you wondering about the TC-20E III on the 70-200mm, the shot above was taken with it (at 340mm and f/8). Is it sharp? Well:
I'll say. As it turns out, the 70-200mm II + TC-20E III make a relatively low cost, smaller, lighter weight, but slightly slower 200-400mm, without much penalty at all. This is in marked contrast to the old TC-20E I and II, especially with the older 70-200mm. Since I had the 500mm on my other body, I tended to keep the 70-200mm on my other body. Without the TC, that gave me a big gap in my range. With the TC, I felt like I had the range I needed more than covered.
As you might have noticed, I'm at 340mm on a small lion cub and getting him pretty much full frame. Yes, you get close to the animals in Sabi Sands. Indeed, a 200-400mm is all you really need. Anything else starts to force you into cropping the animal in many situations. And the second male walked by so close to the vehicle I had to grab my E-P2 with it's 28-85mm (equivalent) lens. Here's a little father/son action (when lions come back together they usually have some sort of interaction, usually just a gentle nudge like this):
Vince had the best angle of the lions crossing the water (because he was up high enough to get a rather complete and equal reflection); my lower angle wasn't as good and I eventually gave up on the reflections I was getting as the pride crossed the river. Here's Vince's angle on one of the cubs:
And here's my lower angle on mom:
Not a bad start to a safari at all. If I'm remembering correctly, we had two males, three females, and two cubs at one point or another during the afternoon. (For those that want a full animal count by the end of the workshop, I'm probably not going to give you one overall. I'll bet that during the two back-to-back workshops I'll see more than a dozen leopards, several dozen lions, and elephants out the wazzo. I'm just not going to count them all. There. I said it. Live with it. [Okay, I did do one calculation for the two workshops: 15 different leopards].)
Yes, we saw plenty of other wildlife today, but for my vehicle, the lions were the day's highlight, so I'm just going to leave it at that for today. I've got plenty more days of writing about animal sightings, so I'm not going to bog you down today by parading a plethora of photographic participants in front of you. Tomorrow I'll write about something else, I'm sure ;~).
Timeout: Some Useful Information
Aug 30—What, no new day? We're still on the same day? Is this Groundhog Day all over again? (Think about the recursion in that question ;~) Well, yes and no. I decided to separate out a description of our typical day here at Kirkman's Kamp from the animal-by-animal blow-by-blows I'm doing. So, yes, you're getting a second view of the day. We'll return tomorrow to our regularly scheduled programming...
Let's start with the overall description of a typical day at Kirkman's. It goes like this: eat, drive, eat/drink, drive, eat, rest for an hour, drive, eat/drink, drive, drink, drive, eat. Say what? Sometimes I think the high cost of putting on these workshops has to do with all the cooks and bus boys we need.
We're on the British system here, so rather than three huge meals (they're still big), we consume often and throughout the day. Before sunrise, we're up and we find a buffet table awaiting us for breakfast.
Don't worry, there's more than you see on that table. You can order eggs and cooked meat directly in addition to all the fruits, grains, meats, and cheeses at the buffet. And don't forget, we're being British here, so drink some tea. If you happen to miss the morning tea, don't worry, there will be mid-morning tea, mid-day tea, mid-afternoon tea, mid-sunset tea, mid-dinner tea, and mid-sleep tea (yes, there's a teapot and tea bags in our rooms, just in case we didn't get enough during the day).
After the "light breakfast" we're then off for the sunrise portion of our drive. There's usually a good sunrise shot available, and most of the animals are either still active (predators), or starting to get active (prey). You'll be shooting at ISO 3200 and 6400 during this earliest portion of the drive, almost guaranteed, so those D3s bodies shine at the edges of the day. After a bit of morning drive, we stop for tea and a snack (muffins, biscuits, sometimes a cookie or pastry).
Back to driving. By this point in the morning the sun is up high enough that you've brought your ISO down out of the stratosphere, but you still have to watch in the shadowed areas: with the big lenses and moving animals, you want 1/500 or faster shutter speeds most of the time, so you usually only get to base ISO in the sun. Following this part of the drive, you head back to camp and have lunch (or sometimes a safari brunch, shown being cooked and set up in the next picture).
Traditional lunch is usually a nice buffet with plenty of choices, and like everything else on safari, all you can eat. And at Kirkman's Kamp, the chef is good. Gordon Ramsey good. [So how did I lose six pounds on safari? Beats me. I think I may have just gotten too tired to eat ;~] After lunch/brunch, most folks get a bit of a rest. I tried to give my group at least an hour, as there is a lot of battery and card management to do on good safaris, amongst other things. But during this particular workshop, I was also doing image review during this "downtime." So maybe it wasn't downtime at all. It's long been suggested that if you need daytime naps, you probably shouldn't be on one of my workshops, as you're sure to sleep through something.
By 3 pm we're having more tea and another snack (though sometimes we delay this into the drive a bit) before getting back into the vehicles for more driving. Which is interrupted near sunset by the traditional "sundowner." That's when it becomes officially okay to start drinking alcohol. Well, not for me, as I don't drink, but if you're following the traditional British schedule, you'll have your first gin and tonic at this point. Try not to have more than one, as it tends to interfere with your post-sunset shooting. Here's tracker Robert (left) and driver Dalsa (right) with Vince:
And yes, there is usually post-sunset shooting (more on that in a bit), so your ISO is probably back up to 3200 or 6400. We return to camp for, you guessed it: more tea, more gin and tonics, and dinner.
Most camps tend to have special dinner nights, usually the first night when a big new group comes in. It's typically held outdoors in a modern boma (outdoor enclosure; traditional ones have a circular wall made of dense thorny bushes) and tends to be an African variation of open grilling. After the dinner service, members of the camp staff usually come out and do some traditional African songs and dances.
Okay, so that's a typical day. At this point you probably want to know less about the food and more about the drives.
As I noted earlier, Kirkman's has quite a large area of their own. In the following image you can see the GPS plot for our two drives today (orange is the morning drive, blue is the afternoon drive). That orange track is about 19 miles long, the blue 18. The faint white line towards the right is the boundary road with Kruger National Park, the big meandering white/green track is the Sand River. Kirkman's Kamp is towards the lower left (and labeled).
You can see some small detours off road here and there in the tracks, and you can see where we stuck to the road (along the Kruger border, for example). Kirkman's has a maximum capacity of, I think, 36 guests, which under normal circumstances means four or five vehicles are traveling their 80+ miles of road. The likelihood you see another vehicle, therefore, is low unless you're all at the same sighting or passing each other on the roads.
The usual way most camps operate in the preserves is to put three people in each of three rows in the vehicle. That's nine people, plus driver and tracker. For serious photography, that just doesn't work. You can't really orient a vehicle with the animals to the side without one side of the vehicle getting a great view and the other having to see over two other people. The vehicles do use stadium seating, where each row of seating is higher than the one in front, but even that doesn't work well for many sightings. Here's a view of two of the other, non-photography Kirkman's vehicles (with seven guests each) on a lion sighting:
It would be very difficult to wield seven 200-400mm or larger lenses in that situation and have everyone feel like they had great shot opportunities. That's one reason why good African wildlife workshops cost a lot of money: we have to buy extra vehicles (and guides/trackers) to make for a comfortable shooting environment. Here's what that extra money buys you:
As you can see, Robert's got this seat to himself and has his ThinkTank camera bag, three cameras with lenses out, and his monopod hooked into the bar on one side in front of him. The person in the back seat (currently) shares the seat with the tracker, but the tracker isn't trying to shoot and isn't carrying lots of equipment with them. Basically, Lanz or I are in the front seat next to the driver (we're on the left side, as this is British style roadway) and we don't have much room, while each student has a row to themselves behind (except for the last row, as I mentioned). But this allows us to orient the vehicle to one side (typically left, or else I don't have a shot!) with everyone having an unimpeded shot. Monopods work best in these vehicles, though Lanz tends to use his tripod with the legs only slightly split. You can also clamp into the bars (and Really Right Stuff is working on an accessory to do this), but I find that a little constraining, and you'd have to be in a vehicle where people aren't shooting over each other to really take full advantage of that. In a vehicle with nine people in it, even if you're the only one shooting, being locked most of the time to the bar isn't going to work. Again, another reason why you want to be on an African workshop that restricts the number of photographers/guests that are in each vehicle.
A big bean bag works decently on the bars, though only if you have enough room to maneuver on the seat (i.e. aren't sitting with two other people in the row). As it turns out, even with our smallish group, we needed enough "beans" that we ended up essentially stripping the shelves of the local market of everything that resembles a bean. (We gave all the food in our bags afterwards to the drivers and trackers at the end of the trip, making them and their wives very happy).
The gist of what I'm trying to write is this: good photo safaris try to make sure that everyone can shoot pretty much all the time, without much hassle of shooting over or around someone else, and don't try to stuff vehicles with people. But that increases the costs of the tour. And it ups the price of tips for the driver and tracker, as we need to make up for the missing five people in their vehicle.
Now, about that tracker. Kirkman's was convinced by someone a couple of years ago to move the tracker off the front of the vehicle and onto the back seat (another neighboring camp, Mala Mala, just got rid of trackers to save on labor costs, which is silly). Unfortunately, that not only takes up seat space, but it puts the tracker and driver in an awkward position vis-a-vis one another. A tracker should be looking for tracks and should be in close communication with the driver. Here's where the tracker usually goes (and will go back to soon at Kirkman's, I'm told):
Hey, wait a minute, that's not a tracker, that's a student! Since Vince signed the liability waiver (;~), we let him sit in the tracker position for a short bit of one of our night drives to see what that's like. I knew he'd enjoy that, and he did, though I never saw someone clutch that grab handle quite as hard (we're not moving here and he's still clutching it!). Yes, it's very vulnerable out there, and yes, I've seen lions walk close enough to brush up against a tracker. Having a tracker at the front of the vehicle does make the view of the person next to the driver (that would be me) somewhat restricted, but a tracker up there that knows what they're doing sees everything, and I mean everything. I've had trackers stop a vehicle because they saw one faint partial paw print going across the road, get off the vehicle, walk off into the bush and find a lion resting well out of sight of the road. Yes, they're that good, as you'll soon find out (hey, quit that foreshadowing, Thom!).
Hey, wait, did I write "night drive" back there? Yes, I did. Earlier I wrote that Kirkman's allows photographic groups to "buy a vehicle." You can pretty much go out when and where you want (within reason--you don't want the driver driving 24 hours a day). So, armed with a flood lamp, we did a bit of night driving each evening, as you'll soon find out (hey, I said quit that!). Given how much we were out as it was, I didn't schedule a lot of that, as I'm pretty sure the students wanted to be fed and get some sleep in addition to photographing. But still, it's something you can't do in most of the parks in Africa, so it's a bit of a treat and something completely different photographically. Like everything else in the preserves, the camps have come up with rules for night driving, too. Lights are never shined in the eyes of prey (well, you sometimes can't avoid a very brief bit of that when you're identifying things, but you never let the light linger on prey). In fact, the whole night driving subject is a very tricky and interesting subject [which I'll talk about when we get to Botswana--yes, more foreshadowing].
So there you have some of the behind the scenes coverage. Tomorrow, back to the animals.
Day 9: Rhinos? What Rhinos?
Aug 30—While my vehicle was lounging with the lions yesterday, I remember hearing on the radio that the other vehicle managed to find rhinos. Today I switched vehicles to be with the other students, who've already locked up four of the Big Five. Looking at my images from today, I see giraffe, elephant, leopard and the usual array of smaller things (birds, for example). No rhino. But I distinctly remember hearing the other vehicle say they were shooting rhino today! What the heck?
So I'm going to leave some space here for some rhino shots, none of which will be mine ;~):
Looking at the student images, I've even figured out why I don't see any rhinos. They apparently walk back into the woods to hide from me when the other students are done with them:
My day (and thus that of the students in my vehicle) consisted mostly of elephant and leopard. One thing I like to point out in wildlife photography is that everyone gets a little too enamored of the "portrait" shot. After all, you carried all those big lenses into the wild, you want close shots. So everyone tends to shoot leopards like this:
Nothing wrong with that shot (and note that you need to make sure you don't cut off dangling legs and tails), but it's been seen everywhere and really doesn't convey "leopard up in tree" very well in my opinion. It only gives you a small taste of the animal in the environment. The above shot is at 400mm, by the way. Back up to 140mm and you get something very different:
Now you get a better sense of how high up in the tree the leopard is, and how she might have gotten there. In some types of trees (not this particular one), you also start to see how camouflaged the leopard actually is to its prey when they walk by the tree.
Note that impala and many other of the leopard's prey are color blind--they see only black and white. So while we see the leopard in the tree pretty well due to the color mismatch, look what happens when the impala looks at the tree:
Notice how those leopard spots start to look more like the "spots" on the branch. It's actually more insidious than that. On the ground at the edge of the day, a leopard's spots are very hard to distinguish from background specular highlights when all you can see is black and white. (One reader caught the Web posting of recent article by the Economist, which relates to this.)
Tonight I'm going to set up the trap system I brought. It took Tony and I an hour or so during our lunch break to get the thing working right--apparently I had it set to some obscure triggering mode, and the menu system is as geeky and filled with crypticisms as it gets. What I've got is an IR-based system that consists of one transmitter (bottom of image, below), one receiver (line from transmitter points to it), a trigger box that can be set in a number of different ways, all connected to my D3 and SB-900.
The battery-powered IR transmitter and receiver are held in place by Nasty Clamps, the trigger is bungied to the tree, and I'm taking a bit of a chance with my D3 on the tripod like that. Normally I'd be clamping it somewhere where the hyena can't get to it (they'll chew on anything). As you should be able to tell, this particular area has a game trail going right through where the IR beam is, and the game is pretty much restricted to going through that area due to the downed trees. To the right side is one of the sole sources of water in this area, which is why there's a game trail here in the first place. If an animal interrupts the beam, the trigger box is set (after our hour-long trouble-shooting session during lunch break) to immediately fire the camera. I should point out that you can set the trigger in many different ways (on interruption, after interruption, with various delays, firing different items in sequence, and so on), and that you can connect to the camera in many different ways (direct wire as I did here, or Pocket Wizard as I usually do). Likewise, you can get a laser beam version instead of IR. The laser beam is better for large gaps (the IR works to about 6' well), but the animals can also see it quite easily and might avoid it.
So we're off to dinner, but my camera is still working...
Day 10: The Kill
Aug 31—I don't remember the morning game drive.
I don't remember the first half of the afternoon game drive.
I'll never forget the second half of the afternoon game drive.
You can come to Africa many, many times and not see The Kill. Indeed, you can live in Africa and work in the wilds and not see The Kill. Our driver, Anton, says during the entire time he's worked in the Sabi Sands, which is considerable, he's seen a total of seven kills.
As you might guess, the second half of the afternoon game drive was about a kill.
But it wasn't just any old kill.
The whole thing started as we were headed towards an area that Anton thought might finally net me a rhino on this trip (everyone else in the workshop had plenty of rhino sightings and photos by now, but because I kept alternating vehicles, it seems that I always missed the rhino sightings; that means that Lanz, who's switching vehicles with me, had rhinos on every drive!). But Jerry, our tracker, stopped us from our rhino quest as we were driving down the edge of the river.
He pointed towards the top of one of the biggest trees we'd seen. So we all thought "bird," because Jerry was pointing straight up to the top of the tree. Nope, leopard. At the very top of the tree, which seemed beyond strange. We were pointing our cameras straight up to shoot it. But no more than a minute after we stopped the leopardess was in a full alert position. Interesting.
Not the best of pictures here, as I really wasn't set up for a fast moving leopard. She's already moved halfway down the tree at this point and her gaze is fixed on something behind our vehicle, so I knew something was up. I was just shooting at this point, trying to catch my settings up to what was happening. This image is 1/80 of a second, for example, which is far too slow to be dealing with a fast moving animal, but I hadn't yet bumped my ISO up for the low light in the tree. This is an age old problem. I always tell students to be ready for what might happen next and to be ready before you get there. What I wanted to happen next was a rhino out in the sun by the river, so that's what I was set up for: sun exposure, lowish ISO, a bit of depth of field. But suddenly I'm pointing my lens pretty much straight up into a dense tree for a moving leopard. So the question becomes: do you take the time to change settings or do you shoot? You shoot first, change as you get chances to (in lulls). Unfortunately, this gal didn't give us much lull. From the time we stopped to the moment she killed was probably only two or three minutes, and she was in constant motion until the very end of the process (by which time I notice that I had changed settings enough to get 1/200--still needed more, though).
She worked her way down from the top of the tree, very rapidly, but absolutely silently. She crossed the road and entered the reeds along the river.
So did we.
For a few minutes we played hide and seek with our leopard. The reeds are incredibly dense along the river, so you have only slight gaps here and there that you can peak through, but we managed to keep within a few yards of our targets. Yes, targets. Because through one of those gaps I saw a lone bushbuck walking slowly, and with a distinctive limp. When I first got a good look at the prey, the leopard was already within 10 meters of it. Obviously she had seen it from the tree. Now the leopard was in full stalking mode. When we moved our position to what we hoped was a better spot, the leopardess used that opportunity to close the distance to something less than three meters. Moments later, I saw the classic full crouch, followed by an amazing acceleration into the reeds and the sound of something hitting the reeds. There was no chase, no yelp, no nothing. The leopardess closed that last gap in about a second and hit the prey's neck perfectly. By the time we got the vehicle forward so that we had a clearer view, it was pretty much over. Leopard gripping bushbuck neck and slowly choking it to death:
No, I didn't have any clear shots during the sequence (the front seat is low and has restricted views, especially when you're in reeds higher than the vehicle's hood). Both the tree and the reeds were so thick and tough to get a good angle through that much of the action was just witnessed, not photographed. Do I care that I didn't get the full sequence of shots? Not really. Kill shots aren't salable. Even the little bit of blood you'll see in these blogs would provoke someone to write and complain to a magazine that ran the picture.
But kills are the story of the Veldt told in miniature. Everything needs to eat. There are no safe places.
The story repeats itself constantly, but is rarely seen. Part of that is that many of the predators are more successful in dark, or at least near dark. Part of it is that landscape we're in is immense and the human presence so small. And part of it is the denseness of the bush. The story repeats and repeats, but we mostly just see the remnants of it.
Our leopardess ends the day happy. I end the day happy. Or perhaps with a bit schadenfreude. After many trips to Africa over the years I've finally seen the full story in miniature, and it's as amazing and powerful in real life as it is in the tales of the great African storytellers over the years. Our ancestors lived with this happening all around them every day. That they persevered tells you who the real king of the jungle was. But a lot of those kings suffered the same fate as the bushbuck.
The only bummer: only half my workshop students saw it. Oh well, there's always next trip.
More of Day 9 tomorrow... [looking at images back home I can now figure out what happened the rest of the day ;~]
Bonus Day: All Safari, All the Time
Aug/Sept ??—Hmm, I seem to be out of sync with the real date. Long trips have a way of doing that to you. I thought I was writing blog entries every day, but I couldn't even tell you what day of the week it is today. And I promised you more yesterday, so we'll just call this a bonus day and try to get everything back in sync when I actually check the calendar again tomorrow ;~) [Why would I check the calendar tomorrow? Because the South Africa workshop is winding up and I need to double check my connections out of here and up to Botswana for the second workshop.]
You may remember the IR trap system I set up and want to know what happened, so let's get that out of the way first. Upon arrival back at the setup (a bit less than a mile from camp) I looked down at the animal path as I walked up to the rig and there was one clear track in the path: duiker (small form of antelope). As I walked through the trap, the camera and flash fired (as it had when I walked out last night). Cool, everything is still working.
Examining the camera, it was a bit moist from dew, but otherwise untouched. So I press the Playback button and, yes, there's the picture it just took of me entering the trap, press back and...there's the picture of me exiting the trap last night! What, no duiker? I went back over to look at the tracks. Literally six inches from the beam there's a duiker print in the middle of the path. It does appear that the duiker was running, not walking, judging by the separation of the individual hoof prints and the way they're formed (some slight kicked up dirt behind them).
Somehow Mr. Duiker managed to go through the IR trap but with his legs up high enough that he didn't trigger the beam. For those of you thinking about doing this sort of photography, there is an answer to this problem. I just didn't bring it to Africa with me: use multiple IR triggers. The Stop Shot system I use can support multiple beam triggers and trigger on one or multiple beams being triggered (and again, at beam break, at beam restoration, and with a host of other variables). When you're not sure from which direction an animal might enter and/or leave your target area—hummingbirds or bees are a good example—multiple triggers are often necessary to get the shots you want. Same thing when you're dealing with animals of multiple heights. But my whole goal here was to force the animal to walk through a narrow area, so I didn't think I needed the extra IR beam. Well, I guess I need to think again.
With this blog entry I'm going to try to catch up with some of the images I've seen in image reviews so far and bring you up to date. [I made some notes here during the trip, but much of what I write during the rest of today's entry will be post mortem, i.e. after-the-trip commentary imposed on during-trip writing. I've been doing a bit of that here and there through the blog so far, but what follows is mostly post mortem writing, just so you know.]
One of the recurring problems we've been discussing is the animal-at-sunrise/sunset problem. Here in South Africa, the brush and trees are dense, so you never get those clear views that allow you to silhouette an animal against the sky. It seems that elephants are the easiest animal for us to catch first thing in the morning, and they pose some particular problems, as you'll see from the next few shots:
Tony and Hans went different ways here in the early morning light. Tony has chosen to try to hold the sky and then deal with bringing the elephant tonal values up to something decent in post processing, but note how the elephant's eyes seem to disappear. Hans has picked an exposure that's good for the skin of the dark elephant, but now the sky is lost, as is part of the tusk. There's really no perfect answer. You can't usually do HDR in these situations reliably, because the animal and perhaps your platform are moving. Even if you did HDR or had a camera that could capture the dynamic range of these morning shots, you'd still have the problem of trying to properly place the tonal values. Dark is dark and bright is bright. You can't go too far in changing either of those before it starts to look wrong to us.
One possible solution is to watch the direction of the light. Eric is shooting away from the sunrise, so that the front of the elephants are lit by the early morning sun. Yes, this loses the orange sky, but you can still tell this is edge of day from the warmth in the lighting. [Note: I'm not dictating or doing anything about how the students post processed. Thus, you'll see some differences in opinion in color balance and other choices. That's an entirely different workshop ;~); here we're mostly worried about acquisition of images.]
Tony happens to be my assistant on my long workshops, but on this particular workshop he's a student. One thing we haven't yet discussed so far in this blog is birds, and Tony's particular interest is in bird photography. It's where he acquired most of his training, and it shows:
But I want to throw in one particular bird, because it will come up big time in the Botswana workshop (and was a moderate diversion in the South African one): the lilac-breasted roller. These things are ubiquitous in Southern Africa, they are knock-your-socks-off colorful, and they're, well, shall we say very difficult to photograph other than as bird-on-a-stick, like the bird above. I want to include one of Tony's South Africa workshop shots here because he caught the reason why it has its name (roller):
Note how the legs have rolled up to one side of the body. The roller does this, back and forth, from side to side, as a courtship ritual. But here's the diversion: try photographing a roller in flight. Any flight. They are gorgeous in flight as well as sitting in the sun, but if you look up lilac-breasted roller on the Internet, you're going to find one heck of a lot of bird-on-a-stick images, and very few in-flight images. With Tony along on the trips, I knew that it was only a matter of time before getting flying rollers was going to be one of the challenges everyone was going to try at some point. First, because Tony will usually stop his vehicle at every bird he sees, and that's a considerable lot of stopping in South Africa. Second, because the minute you see the colors in this bird, you want to photograph it. Third, because when you fail at getting it flying off, you ask the workshop instructor what you're doing wrong ;~). (Maybe nothing; they're hard to photograph, but we'll deal with that in Botswana).
But there's another teaching point here, too. Amateurs tend to go to Africa to shoot animals. Professional photographers go to Africa to shoot animal behavior. To do the latter, you have to really know the animals, which means you usually spend time researching them before the trip (see next paragraph ;~). Indeed, on safaris, amateurs need to learn to listen to the guides, drivers, trackers, and yes, photo instructors. If they listen well, they'll hear about these animal behaviors as they're seen. It's better, of course, if you know about them before you come so you can think about how (and when) you'll capture them. But second best is to ask questions and keep your ears open when the people you've hired are talking about the animals. I'll often state out loud what I think an animal is about to do, and I'll often ask my driver/tracker about their expectations. You have to be a good listener if you want to pick up these small tidbits. You also need a good memory to be able to file them away and then retrieve them next time you encounter that same animal.
Our final stop on our bonus day is a little giraffe fact (and another animal behavior) that I didn't know of before this trip. Giraffes eat bones. What?!?! Yes, giraffes eat bones. They'll find an old carcass, usually with some smaller bones, and then spend a lot of time chewing on the bone to get calcium. Here's what that looks like in action:
They don't do this often, but you'll know when they do, as it takes them a long time to break down the bone and swallow the small bits. You'll hear the crunching, and you'll see this sort of neck action as they try to get some of the bone down the neck. Normal giraffe eating (of vegetation) is side to side with the head parallel to the ground:
Finally, some more foreshadowing (prepare to cry tomorrow). This little fellow has proven to be quite a handful and a constant story going on behind the scenes of our trip. Hans (and a few others) caught one of those odd-but-interesting moments, as he brought a stick up to his parents:
Final Full Day: Cubs
Sept 1—Last night the vehicle I'm with today voted to make an extremely early start. The goal was to try to find a leopard mother and her cub. She's got four dens she rotates between, and if she's not with the cub not only will it be hard to figure out where the cub is, but the protocol here in the Sabi is that you can't do sightings on a lone baby animal.
As I've noted, the protocols here are respectful and well thought out. When a cub is born into one of the known predator prides or families, someone on staff will drive a single, tourist-free vehicle to the site and sit for no more than 30 minutes. Once the cub is of a certain age, only one tourist vehicle is allowed at the site at a time. As the cub gets older, the maximum vehicle restriction is moved to two. And finally, when you're dealing with adults or non-predators, the maximum number of vehicles eventually tops out at three.
Site management is done by radio. First on a sighting each day manages the site. When that first vehicle leaves a sighting, they pass management to the next vehicle, and so on until all the vehicles that wanted in on that sighting have passed through. Generally, there's no down time in the way Sabi Sands handles this. There are plenty of animals around, and if you're held off a particularly popular sighting you drive the nearby roads looking for other things, and usually find them.
The system is there to keep pressure off the animals and not over stress them. And it works extremely well.
Here at Kirkman's, they now have some additional policies that are photographer friendly. Working photographers who are here for longer periods of time and reserve vehicles in advance (warning: extra costs) can essentially run at any time of day and as long as they want, though they're still expected to follow the other site protocols. For regular guests, game drives are three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon.
So, before anyone else was up for breakfast, my vehicle was off on the road trying to track the leopard mother and hopefully find tracks on the ground that led to one of the dens.
Bingo. They did.
And that's when the payoff comes. Here we were in first direct light of the morning with the mom and cub playing at the top of a rock overlooking the landscape near the den. We worked the scene for 45 minutes before we even heard another vehicle on the radio start to request our location and the possibility of coming into the sighting after us. So, our early-morning risers got pretty much all the mom/cub interactions, though not always in perfect positions. But often enough in perfect positions with perfect light to make for one of the best starts to a morning I've ever had on safari.
When we finally had to hand the sighting off to another vehicle, the cameras were starting to go a little quiet, a sure sign that the photographers were getting sated. So I wasn't too worried about leaving the site. Besides, the next vehicle in line was the other group of workshop students with Lanz's vehicle.
Meanwhile, other things were happening nearby. The lion cub you saw in yesterday's image and that kept getting lost apparently got lost by the pride again last night. Unfortunately, this time the pride didn't manage to reacquire the cub quick enough: a leopard managed to take it. When the pride finally got to the area, they fought the leopard off the kill. But here's the odd thing: they then started eating the kill themselves. Thus, the lion mother was consuming her dead cub.
Lions don't have a sense of taste. Most anything tastes the same to them. With the leopard scent and blood scent dominating the scene, it's possible that the lions didn't recognize that the kill was one of their own. Thus, the cannibalism.
Africa has lots of stories. Yesterday some of us saw the eat or be eaten story, while today we saw the renewal story (leopardess playing with cub) and the end of a tragic death story (wayward lion cub being taken by leopard). Such things seem only fitting for the last full drive of the workshop. We'll all leave Kirkman's with a lot of images, but also a lot of stories. To the local guides, trackers, and drivers, the bush is their daytime television soap opera. Every day a series of story lines continue to play themselves out in ways that eventually hook you in to the point where you want to know how things turn out. Four days at Kirkman's was enough to get hooked to the soap opera, but not enough to see all the stories resolve.
As the old African saying goes, the bug that bites worst in Africa is the safari bug. Once bitten, you will return.
Wrap-up 1: The Soap Opera Continues
Sept 5—In the final day's blog I mentioned that the drivers and trackers witness a continuous soap opera from the stories the animals provide. Today I got an email from Anton, one of the drivers: one of the male leopards that we photographed at the South Africa workshop (during our night drive, amongst other times) has died. We all had noticed that it had a badly damaged ear and other small wounds, and I speculated that I thought I could see infection, though the guides were unsure. As it turns out, this leopard, the Tjellahanga Male, was the one that apparently took the lion cub. This was the second time that had happened and the lions weren't happy. When they found the leopard with their second dead cub, a fight ensued, and the lions won (see below). This leopard died from his wounds about week after we photographed it, and was soon consumed by hyena. From the Kirkman's staff: "Never again will the following be heard on the radio: 'Stations, I've located...the Tjellahanga Male.' Tjellahanga, I salute you and thank you for the many hours I had the privilege of spending in your company. Your offspring will haunt the riverine forests around the San River for decades and your legacy will continue forever. You will be missed, but never forgotten."
That's 170mm, ISO 6400 in case you're wondering.
Not the best picture, I'll admit, but it's the only one where I've got a full on shot of the damaged ear.
The young leopard cub that we photographed on the last day is now in danger. The other nearby male leopard is most likely going to try to kill it so as to bring the female back into estrous. He might have tried that earlier, but the male that died—and who fathered the cub—would have protected the territory and den from such an intrusion.
Life in the wild is harsh and sometimes cruel. The soap opera of daily life in the veldt often has tragic stories in it.
I mention these things for a reason: the private reserves in South Africa are indeed wild. They form an extension to Kruger National Park that differs only in ownership and how visitation is handled. The camps in Sabi Sands and Timbavarti do nothing to interfere with Mother Nature. At the same time, a lodge like Kirkman's Kamp knows the animals in its territory extremely well, and can thus tell you the full history of any given animal. Should our much-photographed cub survive, I'm sure that the guides at Kirkman's will be telling its story and how it managed to escape genetic destruction from the nearby male. Check back with me in a couple of years, when I return to Kirkman's and see what's new (or come yourself by signing up for my 2012 South Africa workshop).
Those of us who photograph in the wild learn to appreciate the wild. Every day there are many stories being told in the wild. The lucky photographer manages to capture a few of them for posterity (or at least a bit of the story). Hopefully, I helped my workshop students do just that.
Next up, another wildlife workshop and more students, this time in Botswana. And more stories. Many more stories. But first we'll have one more "between workshops" day, where I go over equipment.
Wrap-up 2: Equipment
Sept 3—As many of you know, I tend to shoot DX in Africa. As many of you have figured out, I was shooting FX this time in Africa. So what happened for me to make that change?
Prior to workshops my private workshop Web site generally is quite active in the "what should I bring" type of question. One of the things I discovered is that two of the students coming to the workshop didn't have an adequate backup body plan. Simply put, you don't go on such expensive trips without backup plans. Two, maybe three camera bodies. A way to get to a long telephoto focal length if your big lens fails. Extra cards, extra batteries, extra everything. Indeed, I personally had backup plans to backup plans for many things. I took two projectors and had a backup plan in case both of those failed (and that happened briefly in South Africa, as the small backup LCD projector was stolen and the larger one balked at vibrations in the heat until I disassembled it, tightened some connections, and put it back together).
So I offered to let two people borrow some of my cameras, and they were shooting DX, so that's what I leant them. Two of the bodies I probably would have taken, therefore, were now spoken for. I still could have figured out a three DX body kit I could work with, but then another thing happened: the 500mm f/4 I'd had on order forever suddenly showed up two weeks before I was to leave for the workshop. I really wanted to shoot with that lens and get some more field experience with it, but I felt it would probably be a bit long for the South Africa part of the workshop on DX bodies. I considered bringing a D700 along with two DX bodies that use the same batteries, but I really don't like mixing DX and FX if I can help it. If you depend upon the FX body for low light and it fails, you'll go dramatically backwards. If you depend upon the DX body for reach and it fails, you'll going backwards. Yes, you can add things to your kit to try to put in place more backups to backups, but at some point mixing and matching formats just starts adding complexity, and usually weight.
Thus, I switched to my D3 and D3x bodies at the last minute. My backup to my backup plan, therefore, became bringing two m4/3 bodies (complete with a Nikkor to m4/3 adapter, just in case). The m4/3 bodies add minimal weight, and sub out for the compact cameras I would usually be carrying.
I didn't like all the extra weight and gear I was now carrying, and I have no solar option for charging EN-EL4 batteries (which meant carrying extra batteries, just in case), so going FX+m4/3 wouldn't have been my first choice for a trip of my own. On the flip side, the D3 (and D3s) excels at low light, and the D3x's 24mp on wildlife yields detail I don't have in some of my file pictures. This is the photographer's conundrum: every decision you make tends to be a compromise decision. We balance many variables in just choosing equipment: weight, size, quality, flexibility, robustness, and much more.
For me the choices were complicated by two additional factors: (1) I was going to be in Africa for almost seven weeks, and much of that in very remote places where the only backups were going to be what I brought; and (2) I was teaching. The first dictated that I try to bring solid, weather-sealed bodies (which leaves out some of my DX bodies). That second bit dictates a few choices on its own, as I tend to bring additional gear when I'm teaching. You never know what the students might want to see or do. Since this meant things like bringing the Snap Shot IR trigger system and that meant leaving a camera out exposed all night, I decided upon the D3 instead of my D3s, for example. If a hyena is going to eat or an elephant stomp one of my D3-family cameras, it's not going to be my treasured D3s or D3x! Some of you may remember that I was trying to sell my D3 during my spring cleaning sale. I decided not to, even though I had several people wanting it. This trip was one of the reasons why I didn't. I might sell it now, but I'll have to provide a "never been in a hyena's mouth" guarantee, I suppose.
So we have two chores here: I need to tell you what I did bring, and I should tell you what I would have brought if I had my druthers and wasn't teaching.
Here's the gist of the photo gear I brought:
ThinkTank Airport Ultralight Case
- D3, D3x bodies
- 500mm f/4
- 70-200mm f/2.8 II
- TC-20E III
- 16mm f/2.8 fisheye
- 16-35mm f/4
- 58mm f/1.2 NOCT (for night shots)
- 4 EN-EL4a batteries
- 160GB CompactFlash cards
Packed away in various places:
- E-P2 and E-PL1 bodies
- Olympus 9-18mm
- Olympus 14-42mm
- Panasonic 45-200mm
- Nikkor-to-m4/3 adapter
- 2 SB-900 Speedlights
- Full light modification kit (heads, snouts, filters, reflectors, etc.)
- SnapShot kit (fits in lunch box) + 2 Nasty Clamps
- Gitzo 2540 tripod
- Gitzo monopod (model number not handy at moment)
- RRS BH-40 head
- RRS monopod head
- Wimberley Sidekick
- Various clamps and plate systems, including RRS pano gear
Had I done it my way for a trip completely on my own, for my main gear I would have brought:
- D300, D300s bodies
- 200-400mm f/4 or 400mm f/2.8 (latter gives me back a stop in low light)
- 70-200mm f/2.8 II
- TC-20E III
- Canon S90
- Canon G11
(Note, this trip was done in 2010, so cameras such as the S95, G12, G1x, P7100, D7000, and D800 weren't available when I left for this trip.)
Basically, the major tradeoff you see in the two choices is weight versus low light capability. Even if I stripped my FX kit down to what I would have brought for a trip of my own (no students, not seven weeks), the equivalent DX and FX kits would have been probably at least five or six pounds different in weight, which is significant when you're dealing with lots of logistics and many weight restrictions. The problem, of course, is that a D3 is more than a stop better than a D300 in really low light (think ISO 3200 and 6400). You can recover some of that by using an f/2.8 lens instead of an f/4 one (e.g. 300mm f/2.8 or 400mm f/2.8, depending upon how much reach you need; the 300mm probably would have been fine in South Africa, but a bit short in Botswana).
I'm not sure I made the optimal choices for this trip, but as I said, I made a last minute decision to switch from what I had packed (yes, it was already packed) so as to provide some backup options for students.
As for the students, we had DX and FX shooters, with slightly more FX than DX. The DX shooters sometimes--but not often--fought low light issues. The FX shooters sometimes--but not often--fought focal length reach issues. As I noted, one choice isn't necessarily better than the other, as you're balancing variables against each other. Why do I prefer optimizing for size/weight, then? Well, if you've ever dragged a 40 pound pack around with you for weeks on end and been in cramped vehicles (not all African tours are going to give you plenty of room in a vehicle to yourself) and had to struggle meeting tough airline weight restrictions, you'd know why. As I get older, the preference for smaller and lighter also grows, as I don't recover as fast from those days when I've pulled a muscle from man-handling all that weight from place to place.
In terms of long lenses, a majority of the students had a 200-400mm (many rented). Three of us had 500mm lenses. Two had 600mm lenses.
Aside: Some people get their priorities wrong, and exotic telephotos are one of those places. Everyone wants to own one, sure. But how much real shooting do you do in a year that really requires one? Right, that three-week workshop in Africa is about it. So, you could buy a new 200-400mm f/4 I for US$5700, or you could rent one for US$800 for four weeks (give yourself a week for testing) and apply the remaining US$4900 to the cost of the workshop. Sure, if wildlife is your primary hobby and you're shooting in the wilds eight weeks a year or more it may make perfect sense to buy the lens. But if the lens is sitting on your shelf 50 weeks a year, it'll take a lot of years to pay back its cost over renting it.