Thursday, 29 January 2015

Swimming with Elephants


Its not that I don't like them, quite the opposite actually. Its just that to the camera, especially with its limited ability to record dynamic range, an elephant is most often just a large grey blob. Yet, anyone who has ever spent any time with an elephant knows that they are creatures that have soul. As an African wildlife photographer one of the most difficult tasks has been to try and capture the enigmatic and intrinsic beauty of an elephant (read more about previous attempts here). Recently I had another opportunity to try and capture the essence of elephants...


This big boy had swum out into the middle of the Zambezi River where he was enjoying the cool water and the lush green grass growing on an island. It was November and the hottest time of year in the Zambezi Valley. I longed to jump in with the bull and celebrate life the way he was. I even asked my guide if I could but he was quick to point out the danger of crocodiles. He was of course right. All I could do was lie down and watch in fascination as the largest land mammal on earth frolicked in the water. As the sun set, the watery foreground turned into an orange swirl. Light rays refracted, reflected and bounced onto the face of my subject. Our eyes locked and I immediately recognized that I could potentially capture a photograph that conveyed the beauty and mystery of one of God's greatest creatures. Moments like this are what make me feel so incredibly privileged to do what I do and I am so grateful that the camera allows me to share them with you.
The end.
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Friday, 23 January 2015

The Snake, the mound and the elephant..


This image depicts a snake poking its head out from inside a termite mound, one which had a tree growing out of it also. In the background is an elephant bull feeding on fallen seedpods from the same tree. Close your eyes and picture the scene playing out in the dry bush country of Zimbabwe and on the banks of the Zambezi River. Now take a second with me to ponder the miracle of this photograph and indeed the very miracle of still-life photography…



It all began hundreds of years ago when a termite queen started laying over 20 000 eggs per day. She started a colony of termites so vast that they numbered millions, all related - each a brother or sister to the next. These termites needed to eat so venturing out, only at night, to avoid being burnt by the sun (for they have no pigment in their skin), they collected dead grass. They collected more grass than is eaten by all the animals combined, working tirelessly for 365 days of the year, year in and year out. They then used this fermenting grass as a fertilizer on which to grow mushrooms. To house these mushrooms they built a vast mound with secret gardens deep within. They built their clay castle, one single grain of sand at a time, until it stood taller than a person.

This mound they kept at a constant temperature through the skillful use of air vents. The environment inside the mound was therefore perfect for growth; it stayed the same temperature throughout summer and winter, year in and year out. The termites tunneled their way all the way to the water table below where they fetched water to irrigate their mushrooms. This termite mound is in fact the oldest form of an organized community on our planet.

One fine day a seedpod was blown from a neighbouring tree by a hot fierce gust of wind, moving ahead of the approaching rainy season. One tiny seed fell down one of the termite mound’s cooling shafts. The stable micro-climate allowed this seed, much smaller than the nail of your pinkie finger, to germinate. Slowly it sent out a small root and then a stem. This stem shot upwards towards the distant light at the end of the tunnel and the seedling grew into a massive tree, 30 feet tall and 50 feet wide. This tree outlived the termites and a Green-spotted Bush-snake now lives in the disused mound, where it whiles away its time hunting geckos.

Pocking its head out of a hole in the mound at the exact time that we happened to be driving past on a safari drive, I jumped out, and not believing our great fortune, began photographing. While I was clicking away, seedpods were falling all around me; the same ancient winds that began the process of germination were again blowing on cue, in mid November. An elephant bull walked past and using his dexterous trunk, he picked up the fallen seedpods, which to him are like Christmas pudding. These pods were from the same tree growing out of the same mound. I waited for the bull to fit neatly into the background of my frame before tripping my camera’s shutter.

This photograph is just one tiny example of the miracle of life that unfolds in countless ways everyday in the African bush and the above description is a very brief summary of just some of the many factors that must have come into play for this moment to ever come into existence. There are simply too many miracles involved, linked in a series of unfathomable events, to describe adequately using only words. You see, this is where photography becomes a language all of its own, one where a single fraction of a second can reflect upon the mysterious tapestry that contains the very essence of life…

The end.


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Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Shadow and Soul


Is wild Africa a myth? Does it still exist? My answer to both these questions is a resounding "Yes".  Recently I found a campsite so wild that lions, leopards, elephants and large herds of buffalo walk right past you without even so much as taking a moment's notice. It is a place where wild animals rule the night and lions are savage hunters. The dusk and dawn however belong to the fleet-footed wild dog...




Camping in a remote part of Zimbabwe, we had just returned to our campsite after the sun had set, when a wild dog caught an impala in the dry riverbed in which we were camped. The frenzy of activity was incredible as the rest of the pack arrived and started devouring their prey. There was hardly any daylight remaining but diving into the sand for an eye level perspective the scene really came to life when a guide in the neighbouring campsite flicked his torch in our direction, to investigate the commotion. The African Wild Dog is highly endangered and affectionately known as the ‘painted wolf of Africa’. As the torch beam illuminated the scene from behind the dogs resembled a pack of wolves while the low angle and dust, kicked up during the killing frenzy, added to the atmosphere. This ranks as one of the greatest wildlife experiences of my life.
The end.
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Velvet and Stealth


The African leopard is not as much a visual part of our lives as other iconic African creatures are, like lions and cheetah for example. As a result, people all over the world do not have a connection with them like they do with other animals. I would like to help change this because when you think about it, people are inclined to protect the things that they know and value. The goal of this portfolio is to use the medium of photography, and especially the recent advances in low-light digital photography, to make the African subspecies of leopard more known, valued and appreciated. Even here in Africa, most people live alongside leopards but never get to see them. My home country of South Africa is one of the best places in the world to photograph leopards and so it was that I undertook a personal assignment to not only find leopards but to spend as much time with them as possible. I wanted to get to know them and to assemble a collection of images that can be used to reveal both their enigmatic beauty and mystery.

Delicate yet Powerful

To date I have spent a total of over 1000 hours tracking and photographing leopards (over the duration of the last 6 years). It is easy to spot a lion or an elephant but a leopard is seldom seen and the old adage of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ can apply, which is worrying from a conservation point of view. The Snow Leopard has received excellent coverage and is now widely known and loved. It is my hope that we do not need to wait until the African leopard is critically endangered before we give it the same degree of publicity. It is widely accepted that leopard numbers are on the decline worldwide and the African subspecies is currently classified as Near Threatened (since 2008) on the IUCN Red Data List and is an appendix 1 species. If this decline continues the leopard will soon qualify as Vulnerable (one step away from endangered). Leopards have, to date, disappeared from about 36% of their global range.



A Young Hunter

This is one of my personal favourite images. Here you see a mother leopard taking her cub along on a hunt for the first time. I have watched this cub since he was born and I have especially enjoyed watching his rambunctious nature taking in its stride, the trials and tribulations of life in the African bush. I once watched him run to the very top of a tree to escape a hyena and I have also watched him stalking and pouncing on almost anything that moves, including of course his ever-patient mother. He is now 9 months old and is fast becoming a supreme predator. I already dread the day when he will leave the area to find a territory of his own.




Circle of Life

Unlike lions, which view hunting as a major chore, leopards view hunting as a perpetual game and one that they are rather partial too. Also differing to lion, their diet is far more catholic and comfortably includes items as small as a mouse and as large as an impala antelope. As such, the African bush offers them a plethora of hunting opportunities and like overgrown pussycats; they revel in a perpetual game of the proverbial cat and mouse. Of all the big African cats, leopards are by far the most patient hunters. They will stare at a rustle in the grass or stalk a herd of antelope for hours, waiting for just the right time to pounce. On this particular morning we spotted a leopard patiently lying in the grass next to a herd of impala. She never moved or flinched for an hour until a gust of wind spooked the herd of impala. Seizing her opportunity, she grabbed her prey with precision! Captured in this frame is a fleeting glimpse of the impala’s last moment alive. A serene look of acceptance on the antelope’s face reminds me that life and death is a familiar cycle in the African bush and that it is neither dark nor sinister, but rather just a circle of life.




Eye to Eye

I have spent more time with sleeping leopards than with awake ones. This is the life of a wildlife photographer and if you do not simply enjoy spending time with your subject, then it is my guess that you will either go mad trying or quit altogether. I need to constantly remind myself that wildlife photography is about more than just getting a photograph. It is about respecting, studying, appreciating, understanding and admiring your subject and its environment. If you are patient enough, sooner or later it will pay off, but this is almost certainly going to be later. On this day, after patiently waiting, this sleeping leopard opened one glassy eye and stared into my lens.


A Cub’s Bath Time


Leopards make excellent mothers, moving their cubs between dens every few days, to avoid them being detected by other predators and scavengers. Trying to keep track of where the cubs are hidden is like playing hide and seek with a ghost. If one is lucky enough to locate a den site, getting the shy cubs out in the open is an entirely different and seemingly impossible challenge. On this particular afternoon however, this leopard mother finally realized that I have meant her family no harm, and she brought her two cubs out into the open. I had never before managed to get an image of a mother grooming her cub and on this day I was more than pleased, in fact I was quite emotional, at having captured this intimate portrait. Leopards are incredibly clean creatures licking themselves and their young constantly. This young boy cub stopped his whining protest of meows to inquisitively stare at my lens.




Phantom of the Bush

Trying to photograph a leopard on the move is not easy. They stride through the bush effortlessly and being typical inquisitive cats, they often double back on themselves to investigate a sight, sound or smell. It is therefore difficult to predict their erratic movements but one of my goals for my leopard project has been to capture a frame that shows the ease at which leopards cut through the think African bush, like a warm knife through butter. I desperately wanted to capture an image that portrays the effortless ghost-like movements of one of Africa’s most elusive predators but three years into the project, I was still searching for a frame to illustrate this aspect of there daily lives. I first began experimenting with slow shutter speeds but I was not achieving the desired effect; the results were too one-dimensional. I then changed my strategy and began experimenting with radial blur to try and convey my message. Adopting this technique from the way BMX riders are often photographed, I zoomed out as I took this image, while still panning with my moving subject.




Shadow and Sigh

This small antelope is called a Duiker and the kill had just taken place. I watched in awe as this female leopard dragged her quarry through the bush, looking for a suitable tree in which to cache her prey. Leopards are the only large African predator to drag their prey up trees and they are capable of dragging more than their own body weight straight up a vertical tree trunk. In this image, the warm orange reflection in the leopard’s eye is metaphorically juxtaposed against the cold blue reflection in the dead antelope’s, symbolizing the familiar life and death cycle that makes Africa’s ecosystems tick. I never get used to seeing a kill but I have learnt to photograph in the moment and to philosophize about it later.




Rosettes in Autumn

The sun had already set when we heard the rasping roar from a leopard. Frantically searching for the leopard while some light still remained, I was elated to find this leopardess elegantly draped over a granite boulder. The seasons are not very pronounced in Africa and seeing a bush willow tree in its autumn dress, I desperately wanted to make the most of the opportunity and include the bright orange leaves in my composition. I asked my expert driver guide to reposition and after some skillful 4x4 maneuvering, I managed to get as many leaves as was possible in the foreground of my frame. The evening sky had turned a royal blue and this, offset against the bright orange leaves had left me feeling that possibly for the first time during this project, I would be able to capture a frame that illustrates the immense beauty of the African leopard. A burst from my flash brought the scene to life.




Luscious Leopardess

This beautiful specimen of an African leopard had made a kill in the night, but her cubs had clumsily knocked the antelope carcass out of the tree. She now needed to re-hoist it and I knew there would be a brief moment when she would gaze back up at the tree, to plot her route up. As soon as her beautiful pale blue eyes glanced skyward, I hastily tripped my shutter button. Since then, I keep coming back to this image to study the form and beauty of what has to be Africa’s most striking predator. At the time of taking this photo, I never noticed her pink nose or her exceptionally long whiskers and eyelashes. I also never noticed the way that the spots on her forequarters gradually give way to rosettes. Every leopard also has a string of spots running across their throat, affectionately known as the pearl necklace. This will allow me to identify this leopard again in the future.




Night Stalker

Leopards are largely nocturnal and my intention for this project has been to harness the latest advancements in digital cameras (specifically in the area of high ISO performance), to document the nightly forays of leopards. This extreme lowlight photography has been nothing short of invigorating as not only is it is very technical, but every situation is different, having required me to come up with my own recipe of manual settings that need constant tweaking. The one image I had desperately been searching for was one that captured the leopard in its nocturnal environment. I wanted an image that illustrates how the leopard carries out a single solitary existence cloaked in an environment of utter blackness. Finally getting my chance on this evening, I chose to include as much of the night around my subject as possible. Naturalist Maitland Edey described it best when he said ‘He is an animal of darkness and even in the dark he travels alone.’

The end.

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The Great Crossing

No matter how many documentaries you have watched, nothing can prepare you for seeing the migration crossing the river in real life. I recently witnessed a crossing so immense that I am calling it 'The Great Crossing'...




There are few places left in the world where large mammal migrations occur but Kenya’s Masai Mara Game Reserve, where these images were taken, is one such place. The River Mara is the only perennial water source in the ecosystem and as the great herds search for greener pastures, they make multiple crossings. I have been photographing the wildebeest migration for more than 10 consecutive years now and never before have I witnessed a crossing of such biblical proportions as on this day. A northerly wind was sweeping up dust and as the herds gathered on the opposite bank the atmosphere was electric. When they did finally cross, they did so in three flowing veins. The only way to try and do scene justice was to zoom out as far as I could and to then convert the image to black and white to give it a quality of timeless wonder and a sense of nostalgia, for times past, when great migrations existed all over the world.


The end.
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Night of the Pelicans


I am very pleased to report that I was successful in both the mammal and bird categories of the 2014 Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards. This was the 50th year of the competition and the gala dinner in London was incredible with Sir David Attenborough handing out the awards and the Duchess Kate, being the guest of honour. This post is about my image titled 'Night of the Pelicans" which was one of only 6 finalists in the bird category of the competition (you can read more about the mammal entry here).
Click here to see the other photographs that made it all the way...

An excerpt from my journal describes this image: 'I am camping alone on the floor of Kenya’s rift valley and my 1976 Nissan Patrol has finally had enough. This evening it managed to get me to the lake’s edge but this appears to be where it wants to stay forever as she refuses to start-up again. Being stuck and stranded is not all that bad if you are a photographer and lying on the edge of the lake, watching day turn to night, has offered a fascinating array of photo opportunities. The pelicans have come in to roost and are busily preening. A burst from my flash is just powerful enough to make out one of the last stragglers and the smallest amount of ambient light reflects off the rift valley wall, in the background...'
The truth be told, I really love pelicans and I just cannot resist this opportunity to share with you another of my favourite pelican images. This one I call 'Pelicans in the Mist':

I awoke early in the morning to find Lake Nakuru in Kenya, covered in a thick mist. I have been to the lake many times before, but I had never before seen such a beautiful and blue mist. Bouncing along in my decidedly uncomfortable 4x4, I desperately wanted to get to the shoreline before the sun rose in order to capture the cold blue mist, which I knew would soon dissipate in the presence of the equatorial rays. The angst and excitement that I was feeling on this particular morning, made the journey to the lake shore feel extra long! When I however, did finally arrive, I was met with a beautiful and surreal scene. There were Great White Pelicans preening in the foreground, while the mist and the rift valley wall had blended into a deep blue and white background. Without giving it a second thought, I waded into the water and crouched on my haunches. I was quite simply mesmerized by the beautiful scene before me and I desperately wanted to translate what I was seeing into my camera. Trying to choose when to trip my shutter proved especially challenging as the grooming pelicans made for a difficult composition? Finally, I spotted a pelican flying towards the flock but from the back. As a wildlife photographer, I knew that this would be the moment I needed to capture...

This is another of my favourite pelican shots. I know, I know, "Enough with the pelicans already"! but this last one (and it is the last one) carries the title 'David and Goliath':



Pelicans are quite simply MASSIVE. As a photographer, I am essentially a storyteller and my biggest challenge as that my audience is never present at the time of the taking of the photograph. I therefore need to find ways or in this instance, a prop, to help tell my stories. Here, I was faced with the challenge of trying to communicate the enormous size of a pelican? I figured that the best way to do this was to place the pelican in a frame with another bird. A Black-winged Stilt kindly volunteered its services and I waited for the outstretched wings of the pelican to exaggerate the bird’s size. This gave me the ‘David and Goliath’ perspective that I was looking for. But, for an image to be really special, you need that extra 'cherry on top' (as I like to call it). As hard as I may try, these ‘cherries’ cannot be manufactured, they can only be harvested. The dynamic ‘cherry’ in this particular frame, came in the form of water droplets looking like snow falling around the stilt. A black and white conversion has been used to accentuate this element.

The end.

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Two in One

Having lived in Africa my whole life and not having seen, let alone photograph, two of Africa's creatures was driving me in insane (especially since my profession involves photographing wildlife duh!). From the age of 10 years old I have been a keen bird watcher and Southern Africa has only one Owl that fishes. I had been searching for the Pel's Fishing Owl for over twenty years and when I finally found it, was worth the weight (keep reading below). Then, even more frustrating than the elusive Pel's, I have endured years of torment at the hands of a mystical creature called a Pangolin (and at the hands of anyone else who had in fact seen one). This creature (more of a phantom really) is a nocturnal denizen of the bush and even though I moved to the bush at the age of 18 years, it took me another 18 to find my own Pangolin...

'My' Pel's
I was preparing for my trip to the Okavango Delta and checking the moon calendar; I could hardly contain my excitement when I realised that my trip was coinciding not just with a full moon, but a rare 'super moon'. 'August is far into the dry season and the bush fires would be in full swing', I thought. This meant that the super moon might also be a 'blood moon' due to all the smoke in the air. I knew that the camp that I was staying in had a resident pair of Pel's Fishing Owls that hung around camp. I knew this because I had searched in this same camp for them before, and I had come up with the same result as the previous 20 years - absolutely nada! Lying in the pilot's tent the evening prior, I knew that the next morning would be my best chance to get a photo as the moon would be setting at around 5am in the west and that the sun would only be rising much later. I set my alarm clock for 4am and it seemed a little odd that although I was pursuing an avian subject, I was waking up long before the birds. You see, the Pel's fishing owl is nocturnal and it is more importantly (or more frustratingly) the rarest owl in Southern Africa. An interesting side note is that it is also the only large owl that makes a noise when it flies. All our other owls have a frayed leading edge to their wing that allows for perfectly silent flight so that they can swoop down on their prey. But, since fishes don't have ears, the Pel's swoops down like a Boeing with the air roaring over its wings. By the way, Boeing jets stay in the air the same way birds do, but that is an entirely different conversation for another time. Climbing off the deck of my tent and into the marsh below was not all that pleasant but scanning the tree branches above me I noticed two large silhouettes. I had been fooled, numerous times, by silhouettes of large owls which had disappointed me in being only eagle owls (not that they aren't wonderful but you know what I mean). I gingerly switched my torch on and shone up at the grey shapes. My torch's beam revealed two distinctly tawny blobs and my heart skipped a beat. Memories flooded in of the numerous occasions in my life where I developed a crick in my neck looking for what was now sitting right above me. The moment of elation was however short lived as I now need to get an image of my subjects with the setting moon. I moved around ever so slowly and got into position. Strapping my torch to my lens's hood and adjusting my flash setting, I took about 1000 frames (not that I was counting). Just as my buffer was about to blow up in my hands, one of the owl's swooped down to catch a fish and returned to a different and even better perch. It so rarely works out for a wildlife photographer as we have zero control over almost everything (including birds and moons) so this shot was a rare and personal victory. When my guide greeted me standing around the morning fire with a coffee in my hand, he must have spotted the big grin on my face in the light of the flickering flames as he asked why I looked so happy? "Naa, just love coffee", I said, not yet able to put my feelings into words.

Curiosity and the Cat

 I am an African by birth and I have been visiting the bush on holidays since before I could walk. What’s more, I had spent the last 18 years working in the safari industry, and I had never ever seen a pangolin (not a single #%^ one). As far as I was concerned the pangolin was a mythical beast that existed only in the minds of my safari guide colleagues, who seemed to always magically spot one after sun-downers. 'Maybe one too many sun-downers' was my standard retort. That was until one evening, when we approached a pride of lion who were just starting to wake. All, that is, except this young cub who was already very awake, seemingly preoccupied with a rock? Lifting my binoculars to my face, I noticed that the rock had scales! Hardly able to control my excitement I grabbed my camera and began photographing frantically, while yelling at the top of my voice "It has scales, that rock has SCALES"! I had the mystical beast in my sights, it DID in fact exist and the look of curiosity on my face was similar to this young male lion's. I know it is said that curiosity killed the cat but in this case it appeared as if the pangolin was the one in the proverbial hot water. As witnessed by the adult lions of the same pride, that completely ignored the pangolin, the young cub’s inquisitive nature was simply getting the better of him, as the pangolin remained impenetrable. So now, I need to set my sites on another even rarer creature but which one? I have heard rumours of a tree pangolin residing in the impenetrable jungles of West Africa? Am I a sucker for torture or what!

The end.
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