South Africa Workshop Blog (Week Two)

The daily report from my South Africa Workshop

Note: while I wrote this blog contemporaneously during the workshop, what you're seeing here is on "tape delay." I'm playing back one day at a time so that you get the same day-by-day experience those of us in South Africa had. Newest entry is at the top. In some cases I'm using student images instead of my own so that you get their view of a day, too. Thank you to all the students who've agreed to let some of their images be used in this blog. One comment, though, as the question came up in emails: yes, my images look different than the students in terms of post processing. I'm just taking what they give me and not trying to touch it up or change it in any way. I suspect some of the differences you see is simply not optimizing for small size. When I process for the Web, I have an optimization action that tries to preserve small detail.

For Week One of the Workshop, click here

Wrapup 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
  • TC-14E
  • 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-14E
  • TC-20E III
  • 10-24mm
  • 16-85mm
  • Canon S90
  • Canon G11

(Note, cameras such as the S95, G12, P7000, and D7000 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.

How did all the equipment fare during the trip? Well, we'll deal with that in a separate report at the end of the delayed blogs (after all, I don't know how it all fared at the moment!).

Wrapup 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."

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan
That's 170mm, ISO 6400 in case you're wondering.

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan
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.

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.

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

Copyright 2010 Hans Giersberg

Copyright 2010 Robert von Mayr

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 reaquire 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.

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:

Copyright 2010 Anthony Medici

Copyright 2010 Hans Giersberg

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 reliabily, 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.

Copyright 2010 Eric Schoch

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:

Copyright 2010 Anthony Medici

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):

Copyright 2010 Anthony Medici

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:

Copyright 2010 Eric Schoch

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:

Copyright 2010 Hans Giersberg

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:

Copyright 2010 Hans Giersberg

Day 9: 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.

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

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:

Copyright 2010 Hans Giersberg

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 will provoke someone to write and complain.

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.

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

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 ;~]

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.

Copyright 2010 Eric Schoch

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).

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

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).

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

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:

Copyright 2010 Robert von Mayr

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.

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

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 offroad 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:

Copyright 2010 Hans Giersberg

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:

Copyright 2010 Robert von Mayr

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):

Copyright 2010 Robert von Mayr

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 floodlamp, 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 ;~):

Copyright 2010 Eric Schoch

Copyright 2010 Anthony Medici

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:

Copyright 2010 Russell Jacobs


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:

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

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:

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

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 camoulflaged 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:

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

Notice how those leopard spots start to look more like the "spots" on the branch. It's actually more insiduous 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.

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

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 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:

Copyright 2010 Eric Schoch

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.

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

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.

Copyright 2010 Anthony Medici

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 ;~)

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

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:

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

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):

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

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

Copyright 2010 Vince Hemingson

And here's my lower angle on mom:

Copyright 2010 Thom Hogan

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 ;~). | Nikon | Gadgets | Writing | imho | Travel | Privacy statement | contact Thom at

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