Sunday, 31 May 2009

Leopard Portrait, June Essay, 2009

Its funny how things work out. I’ve always ascertained that the large cats are over photographed. In that vein, for my personal work, I try to keep away from them and focus on the smaller things.
Fortunately though, I do come across the big cats relatively often and have had the pleasure to witness and photograph some spectacular interactions. These are wonderful to photograph and see, but it is one part of the wildlife world where I know “everything has been covered”. There is no denying that these large cats, and the leopard in particular, are very special creatures, and have a special charisma about them. It is also no wonder that they have dedicated followers, with safari goers and photographers alike stalking them out from behind every bush.

Indeed, if a reserve or lodge has good, relaxed leopard or lion sightings, the “value” of the lodge increases greatly! The demand to see these cats reaches such a fever pitch that there is a term coined when people get leopards into their heads. Its called “spotted cat fever”, and I have a seen a few instances where people actually start hyperventilating whilst stalking a leopard in thick bush. I’ve also seen photographers trying to put their flash on backwards, so much was their excitement that they could not even perform a simple function in the anticipation of this spotted denizen of the forest!

Due to the fact that there are so many people out photographing these big cats, I do tend to give them the slip. That is unless they are actually doing something and are photographable… if not, I would rather be photographing insects backlit. Far more challenging and rewarding!

There are however the exceptions. I was privileged enough to be at one of the best leopard setups and sightings recently. I was leading a photo workshop up at Mashatu, in Botswana. We had come across this young male leopard on the first night and knew he was very relaxed around vehicles. On the second evening, we heard that this same leopard had been discovered by the other photography vehicle, led by Isak Pretorius (our other photo guide). Luckily we were only a couple of minutes away and as we headed around a corner of the dry river bed, the scene opened up in front of us, just as it has before in all my dreams of the perfect set up.
The river ran east-west. The leopard was sleeping on top of a dead log, washed down by the recent floods, in the middle of the river. It was facing west, into the setting sun, the bank behind it was already in shadow, making it stand out and glow in the evening sunlight. There were no branches or other distractions to the scene. It was simple, clean, and by golly, damn beautiful. It is at these times that you take a breath, take a step back and just enjoy the pure beauty of such a scene. All the ideals of not taking pictures of large cats go out the window and the camera started working. This is a studio set up in the bush. Things could not get more beautiful or better set up! We all had spotted cat fever trying to get the best images. I actually realised how hard it was to do the scene justice, as it was so well set up.

It was then that the real action started. A porcupine walked into the scene… (I wont deal with that here- you can read more about on my blog.) But we had just witnessed such a stunning set up and it’s in times like these that you realise why there is never the “perfect shot” of any species of animal.
A leopard sighting like that one was a very refreshing slap in the face. Im all for the different animals and shots, but when a scene comes along like that, it makes you feel like a beginner again, shaky, excited and damn happy to be a part of such beauty!
Exposure information
Nikon D3 - 200-400mm lens
Exposure – f 4 Shutter Speed: 1/20sec
Exp. Comp. -0.3. EV
ISO - 1000
Flash - none
Exposure mode– Aperture priority, Metering Mode– Matrix
File type– NEF (RAW)
Focal length: 400mm
Beanbag support

Let me know what you think about these great cats.
See all this and all the other essays on in the archives, or on the shemimages site.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Living like Lions in our own dying environment

As humans, we enjoy dominion over all animals on earth. We have conquered environments, climates and evaded animal attacks to develop places of rest and work. In doing so, we have by-passed the primal notions of basic survival and have developed cultures and societies alien from the natural world. We are the species that dominate almost all aspects on earth, and in our current position, we humans are quite happy to live the life of excess- throwing away what we don’t need, purchasing extravagantly wrapped goods and not thinking where tomorrows food may come from, because it’s always there. To us, the preservation of the human race is far less important than our daily business of living life.

A fascinating project I worked on involved lions and the prides they live in. It concerned itself around the fact that a single lion, living alone can have a greater hunting success than that of a pride. The question immediately begs then, why are lions the only sociable cats, living in large prides? What makes them assimilate into prides when they could all be out on their own, and conceivably feeding more successfully with less competition from other pride members? The immediate answer to this seems safety, and can be of great benefit. Lions on their own do have natural enemies, and the risk they run by being alone is far greater then the security of a pride to help defend them from potential dangers.

Before we get to an end result, though we need to delve more into the process of natural selection. Darwin suggested the theory of natural selection more than a century ago. He proposed that all animals are ultimately designed to “pass their genes through the system”. The theory uses examples of how animals require only food and a good living environment for the animal to become “sexually fit”. Each animal is designed to ultimately pass its genes through the system- and if this is done, then its time on earth is deemed a success.

Of course this is a simplified description and there are many different breeding strategies and dispersal methods that makes the process more complicated. However, the point is that all species are designed to pass their genes into the system- thus making them a success. Back to those large cats and why they live in prides and perhaps a bit more genetic foresight is needed here. It is well documented that lion cub mortality rates are quite high within the dynamics of a pride. Consider then what mortality rates would be if a lioness was alone for the whole duration of her cub’s upbringing? By living within the pride, a cub is guaranteed a greater amount of security from the protective instinct of other lionesses. Again we hear the word security resounding. However, the main consideration is the fact that the cubs will enjoy a greater chance of growing to adulthood and thus having a better opportunity of passing their own, and their mother’s genes, into the system. The lion cannot control the environment, but they can control how successful they are within the environment and they do this by forming prides: so that their genes aren’t just reproduced once only- they pass on into and through the system. They use the pride system to ensure that their genes stay alive and pass down the line into further generations of lions.

What is important here is that ecological success is not necessarily determined by reproduction and the numbers of offspring produced; but rather, it is a compromise of food intake in relation to the overall well being of the species, via its genes.
By living in a pride, a lion compromises on hunting success for the benefit of having security for her cubs and thus the increased chance of them living to adulthood and then passing her and their genes further into the system. That is real ecological success, which is effective over time.
As humans, we somehow tend not to see the simple logic of such a strategy. There is no denying that we, as humans are contributing negatively to our environment. Various combinations of pollutants, toxins, carbon emissions and over-population are just some of the negative causes that are causing serious detriment to the earth and our environment. Currently, most of us look at this and shrug; factoring that it won’t affect us. But what if we are degrading our own environment to the point that it cannot sustain the survival of our own species? Humans, unlike lions, do have control over our environment. We expel enough emissions and pollution to affect our environment negatively. That is fact.

The question thus begs: why are we not looking after our own species to ensure our ecological success? It should be a no-brainer. We have the power to determine the outcome of our species. Will we breed and forget about the future success of our species, potentially allowing future generations to die out due to an unfit living environment, or will we ensure that the environment our offspring are brought up in is one that is conducive to them living healthily, gaining sexual fitness and furthering our genes into the system? It may be a simple analogy to use natural selection, but the simple choices we make are going to affect the success of humans as a species on this planet.

We may not be able to affect the large-scale heavy metal pollutants and carbon emissions. But we can change our daily ways to consume less and output less. Simple recycling techniques, receiving bank statements online and using cotton bags for shopping are three quick and easy ways to make a difference. Humans per year consume 500 billion to a trillion plastic bags. By using a cloth bag, you will save 6 plastic bags a week. If 20% of all people use cloth bags, a whopping 1,3 trillion bags will be saved over the course of a lifetime (no that was not a typo). Likewise, if you have a few accounts and receive your mail in the post, you quickly realise how much paper is excess to what you file away. The marketing material and the envelope form 60% of your statement- totally useless material that results in direct emissions into the atmosphere. By cutting out such simple things like bank statements, you are having a direct positive affect on the environment. It’s as simple as that.

The governments, under pressure from media and large environmental organisations will be charged with solving the problems of mass, large-scale pollution. But we have the power to influence our environment with simple, yet very effective methods. The power of the individual cannot be underestimated. The consequence of our daily actions is in direct correlation to the ecological success of our species as a whole in future generations. If it takes a simple lesson from lions to push the point home, then so be it, because so far, we have been quite simple in our destruction of it.

Probably my longest post so far, but one that I needed to get off my mind. No images in this Blog- the words are more important this time.
Thanks to John Power for his comments on the lions- my brain isn't as sharp as what it used to be...
hope this entry made you think. Keen to hear your comments.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Seeing in Infrared

Some places are just conducive to good photography. Tonglen farm, near Dullstoom, which lies high up on the highveld is just one of those places. This is a place where the wind whips through your hair, fresh and cool and stimulating. Due to the high altitude, the light stays crisp and sharp, making you work at your scenes to ensure that you capture it in the correct way. It’s a rocky environs, as the farm lies above the tree line, so you concentrate on the cracked rocks, waving grass and lichens to bring out the beauty of the place.

This is a harsh environment, with wind and cold conditions as the main climatic factors and I find that the main objective of my photography when there. So I walk around scanning and planning what I want to work on, playing with compositions and zooming in and out of scenes, stumbling about really, just waiting for inspiration to jump out at me.

I think it was just as I was lying down in the grass sizing up a scene, I noticed the grass whipping around me. I also noticed that a serious cold front was arriving, with the cirrus clouds whipping through the stratosphere. It then dawned upon me that I should be lying down here with infrared camera. So back it is to the house to fetch the Infrared filter and the good old, battered D70. This camera has been through it all- A season of -20 to -30 deg in Switzerland was its start in life, then the Kalahari desert, and finally, its last swansong was bouncing around in an open vehicle in the Savuti in 40deg October heat attached to a 70-200 wrapped in a towel. Oh how well I treat my kit.

It was then retired to IR work, which meant tripod and more “relaxed” treatment. However, it also meant getting washed in seawater, buffeted by gale force winds on open desert plains and getting dragged through Namibian sands all in the name of Infrared. Its rubber is gone and the body screws are corroded by salt… but it still works- and with infrared, it works exceptionally well.
So I grabbed the camera, scratched out the filter and put on my Infrared glasses. In such a place and with such a beautiful sky, the grass was waving and weaving through my exposures. I felt the wind whipping through my hair, fresh and cool and stimulating.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Taking Your Time With Film

You may have read on “the tao of film and its delectable hold on me” about how much I enjoyed putting a roll of film through my good old FM2. Well, the wait is over and the film was developed. I can tell you, there is nothing like holding a roll of velvia 50 to the light table! The saturation and crispness of the colours are something to behold.

So I sent a few off to be scanned at the lab and have now received them back, almost a month after actually taking the images! How would the digital techno handle this kind of delay?!
The scans were beautiful and the star trail I did was about 500mb in size! Detail right into the deepest, dark corner- and not a dot of noise… In this aspect, film still beats digital. Think about it, taking a long exposure on a digital camera, you open the shutter for 30 minutes. For the whole duration of those 30 min, the sensor is receiving an electric current to each and every pixel, which in turn is trying to record a specific light intensity.

So I tend to forgive the digital cameras somewhat when the resulting image looks like a grainy speckled scene that looks like it was hammered with the charcoal filter in Photoshop!

Saying that, I did use the D3 for a 30 min star trail this last weekend and the resulting image was one that really impressed me, so I am holding thumbs for the future. But for now, film at night is a beautiful thing!
So here are a few images that were all taken with the old, fully manual, dinosaur of a camera. Straight scans, with a slight tweak to lighten them a bit. Not bad for a medium that is considered obsolete by most camera people in this world. I for one wont be putting the film camera away right now.

The fig tree was taken on film and the yellow sky rock is with the Nikon D3. Not bad either way you look at it. I look forward to more!

Monday, 18 May 2009

The Beauty of Wind

Mountains are always a magical place for me. I had the opportunity to head to a nice mountainous region of South Africa this weekend and again found it a very stimulating place for good photography. I was actually going for some relaxation, but also decided to take a camera along (Are 5 cameras considered “a camera?”)…

The farm is called Tonglen (Tong-len), and lies at round 2000m above sea level, is on the top of a hill/mountain and is the highest point for about 20km. There is no electricity, you live with fire and gas and water is really “that” cold! It’s a beautiful place to relax with like-minded friends and just do what you want to do- something I’m quite good at. The problem though, was that Esther had given me Susan Sontag’s fabulous book “On photography”. It’s an intellectual’s look at the medium of photography in our world and how they effect, drive and influence society. It is fascinating reading for one, but also makes you get that real excited feeling in your stomach to get out with camera in hand and produce something worthwhile!!! In a place like Tonglen that is quite easy to do and exactly what I did.

The beauty was that I could just wonder and experiment. This resulted in a weekend of different mediums and genres all from one expedition. It stated with infrared imagery, mixed in with a few portraits due to the stunning light, a couple of still life’s and a night time star trail so that the night wasn’t forgotten.

Each type of image had its right over the course of the weekend. The constant wind blowing through the grass and the cold front clouds scudding along the skyline were perfect for infrared, whilst the soft light filtering in through the opaque skylight windows made for some stunning indoor portrait light. If this was not enough, the craggy rocs made for conventional landscapes of normality. But the best was to come, for it was when I was supposed to be warm next to the fire and drinking wine in the dark of the evening that I was out in the pitch blackness lying on cold grass with the very cold wind blowing through me waiting for a 20 minute star trail to complete.

The simple beauty of lying looking at the stars as dots against the sky was exacerbated by the fact that I was capturing them in my own expressive manner with a camera. It is that creative expression which gives the heart content and makes the body wait happily on cold grass whilst waiting for the exposure to finish. For while the stars are beautiful, I was hoping to show them even more beautifully- I was hoping to create- start with a canvas and turn it into something special. As an artist, this is what makes the pursuit so worthwhile, you are creating. And if you do that well, then cold wind becomes something beautiful to life. Adding to the canvas and the beauty.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Giving Something Back

As you might know, I believe that as wildlife photographers we need to give something back to what gives us so much pleasure. Taking images for pure financial gain or just for pleasure is taking much from the beautiful areas we visit without putting anything back.

I fervently believe there is a difference between taking great photographs that are used in conservation initiatives and those that are used for straight financial gain- or to coin a phrase that is doing its rounds at the moment- Green washing.

It was for these reasons that I started my own initiative called “Mutual Benefit”, where I supply images for use in conservation projects, research, academia and community work for no charge at all. Other than the newsletter that went out, I also sent out e-mails to many contacts in the research and academic world. The response has been very positive- I have sent photos of the less likely species such as horned adders, guttural toads and namaqua rock rats around the world for use in conservation initiatives. Not only is the Mutual Benefit concept being well used, but it is also a resource for researchers to find images that are not commonly available. This is due to the huge diversity of species that I photograph, one of my main strong points when it comes to my library.

For most parts, the images are used in documents that never see the public eye. However, sometimes they do- and in this case, I supported a community magazine where the whole March essay was reprinted as a feature article along with some of the skimmer images. This will highlight conservation initiatives to a much wider audience, creating greater awareness. I also subsequently discovered that the publishers of the magazine are also involved with the Honorary Rangers Society, an excellent non-profit organisation that raises a lot of money for South Africa’s National Parks. That’s what you get for working with good people- now the initiative and benefit can go even further.
I love it when a plan comes together!

Here is the article:

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Taking Your Chances

Excitement hardly describes my feelings after I had witnessed one of my top wildlife sightings ever. This was one that was filled with tension, suspense, pain, torment and eventually relief; for the animals involved and for us visitors who watch from the sidelines.

The only way to describe it is to detail the events that played out in front of us.

I was hosting a photo workshop through my company C4 Images and Safaris and we were up at Mashatu in Botswana happily photographing away for 4 days in the wilderness.
On our second night there, I was spending time at a white fronted bee-eater colony in the golden hours of the sun set. We got a call on the radio that our other vehicle had found a “leopard lying inside a dead log” I enquired if it was the leopard or the log that was dead and the reply was positively floral, so we headed on towards the leopard expecting to see a leopard sleeping inside a hardly visible log.

How wrong we all were! Firstly we were only about 4 minutes away and as we rounded the riverbed, we saw this feline regally posed on top of a dead Leadwood stump that had been washed down in the floods. It was a nature photographer’s perfect set up. The leopard was lying about 2 m up on the log- perfect eye level for us, the log was in the middle of a wide, dry river bed, meaning there were no distractions or leaves. Even the bank was about 20m away, providing the perfect backdrop. You could not have asked for more… or so we thought. Everyone on the vehicle said it was the best leopard set up they had ever seen and had waited all their life for such an opportunity. Of course, we all used the opportunity well!

We started getting our images and were planning all our different positions that we were to work from when I saw behind the vehicle a porcupine walking across the riverbed and start to nibble on some protruding roots in the bank. It wasn’t 10 seconds later that the leopard had also seen the porcupine and he went from highly relaxed, to highly alert! He got up, stared and began his stalk with serious intent.

From there it was full adrenaline. The leopard is a 2 year old male and hence still young and curious. His play/hunt with the porcupine was a 25-minute battle of the leopard touching and trying to get to the porcupine; whilst the rodent would always push his quills towards the cat and every now and then rattle his quills in a very frightening manner. Every time the porcupine did this, the leopard would jump up in fright! It was really humorous. We saw all manner of behaviour; the leopard tried various techniques to get under the porcupine. He even rolled upside down, almost trying to induce play!

Technically it was very difficult to photograph. The sun had set and it was quite dark in the riverbed. Luckily Nikon had lent me the excellent D3 and I had the opportunity to really test its high iso performance. Most of the images here were all taken at iso 2500. I have only done a quick basic edit on them. No layers, or noise reduction. I was really impressed with the results and made a very marginal photographic sighting something quite workable for me. A few years ago this scene would not have been possible to photograph effectively- now I even had creative latitude to experiment in such marginal conditions- A stament to technology and to Nikon.

Eventually the leopard gave up and lay down. The porcupine would not leave the scene- remember the rule of the bush ”whatever you do, don’t run, as only the food runs”. Well this happened here and the leopard eventually walked to a pool drank some water and continued his wanderings, while the porcupine I think re-gathered some of his wits!

I have never seen such an excited group of people as ours in the aftermath of the sighting. I needed a gin and tonic just to calm the nerves! What a pleasure to be able to witness such interaction.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Leopard and Porcupine hunt

Lions, Elephant and Research

Perhaps I should admit it now; I’m actually a closet researcher…
Walking through the bush with my school friends, as we were wont to do, we would all inspect and observe all manner of interesting sights and sounds. These were school trips where we would walk for 10 hours a day with only an apple as sustenance was where we learnt of our love for “the bush” and gained our core knowledge in African natural history.

The difference though was that many of my friends were more interested in the facts and stats and were discussing about the inter relatedness of species whilst I was observing the subtle little beauties and changes in feather pattern and other creative desires.
Of course I didn’t know it then, but that was the beginning of where I am today. Thus today, many of those same school friends are still involved in conservation and involved in all manner of conservation research. I on the other hand, contribute to conservation in a more creative way- through my photography.

Of course, I am still very good friends with those self same school friends, and together with one of them, John Power, we were involved in filming the lions of the Savuti hunting elephants for the BBC production Plant Earth.

Form our side, the interactions were just too unique to leave unattended, and thus, working together, we have had a scientific paper published in the April edition of African Zoology.

The paper discussed our observations of hunting attempts and success and more interestingly how it relates to prehistoric and Pleistocene times when lion prides were thought to be much larger than they are today and actually had a top down affect on the elephant population; Interesting food for thought in the context of southern Africa, which has a burgeoning elephant population at present.

You can download the pdf here for further reading.

Wild Dog Ghost -Mashatu Game Reserve, Botswana

This may be the shortest essay yet, as this months image is one that “just occurred” through a bit of playful experimentation- even if the sighting was pure bliss.

I was hosting a photo workshop at Mashatu through my company C4 Images and Safaris and we had just spent the last hours of the day photographing a pack of African wild dogs in glorious sunlight. The scene was perfect, with the dogs awake, alert and at times very curious, walking to within a few feet of our vehicle- perhaps attracted to the sound of the clicking shutters, as all of us composed and photographed away.

After the sun had set, we watched the dog’s disappear into the mopane bush setting off on a fast trot. We drove off, content and happy and ready for a sundowner. It was here where we were chatting excitedly away about how stunning these dogs were to photograph when we noticed behind us, in an open plain some movement.

It was about 30 minutes after sun set, so the dusk was quite full, yet through it we saw 16 wild dogs trotting silently not 10 meters from us. They totally ignored us and trotted alertly past as we stood, stunned by the silence and the proximity of these charismatic creatures. I picked up my camera, aimed the lens and fired one frame. Being so dark, I knew the exposure would be long, so I just panned with the movement of the dog as it ran along.

This is the result. Probably not to everyone’s taste, but it brought back to me the same feeling as when I was there and the feeling of elation in seeing them so close and on foot. These ghosts of the dusk hour, shadowing through the bush portray to me a beautiful sense of movement and also reflect their conservation status, as they are critically endangered. To me it seemed a fitting metaphor.

It goes to show what playing around with a camera can produce- never a dull moment when you are prepared to push the boundaries and add another element to a scene.

Exposure information
Nikon D300 - 200-400mm
Exposure – f 4 Shutter Speed: 2 seconds
Exp. Comp. 0
ISO - 800
Flash - none
Exposure mode– Aperture priority, Metering Mode– Matrix
File type– NEF (RAW)
Focal length: 400mm