Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Why Wildlife Photography is addictive

My favourite question to ask fellow photographers is whether their photography is an addiction or an obsession? I usually get a sheepish smile back, affirming that the answer is closer to the later than to the former. The question though is 'Why?'. Why is nature photography so darn addictive? If I look at my own life, I spend every waking minute thinking about photography or pursuing that single rare fleeting frame of fabulousness. Ok, its not literally every single minute of the day, so I am not a hopeless addict, just an addict, OK! I do stop to drink coffee and spend time with my wife and dog. In the earlier part of my career I spent all my salary on photography without batting an eyelid. Hek, I once sold a car just to buy film and filters! If photography were a white powdery substance, my family would have had to stage an intervention.

So what is it about nature photographer that attracts people from all walks of life, people with different personalities, people with different interests and passions. People who swear by Canon or Nikon, people who use Lightroom or Photoshop (or worse, they use both). People who live in Poffadder and Los Angeles. People who drive Toyota Land Cruisers and Land Rovers. People who like blue cheese but hate mushy peas. Its safe to say that people of all ages and from all walks of life are drawn to nature photography like moths to a flame. Undoubtedly it is the beauty, intricacy, complexity, mystery and power of nature that fascinates the human creature, boggling our minds and filling our memory cards. But what makes a camera, specifically, such an addictive way to relish nature?

The origins, I believe, go as far back as the invention of the word 'serendipity' back in 1974, when Horace Walpole coined it for the first time. Serendipity means to make a discovery by chance in a happy or beneficial sort of way. This word I believe lies at the heart of why wildlife photography is so addictive. Take the above image for example, we were on a safari drive on one of my predator workshops in Botswana and we had seen nothing for what seemed like hours (although in Africa the word 'nothing' can never be used as we are blessed with an incredible diversity of life). Ok, so let's just say 'nothing' big and hairy had been seen for quite some time. I was growing impatient when we rounded a corner and suddenly there before us was a Martial Eagle killing a bird called a guineafowl (or was it perhaps a guineafool?) The three photographers I was with (I always only have three photographers on these workshops) plus myself, all began frantically fumbling for long lenses and converters. The eagle flew to a nearby perch and then alighted again. Swinging my Nikon 600mm lens in the general direction of the bird I let my shutter quite literally flutter and gazing down at my LCD I could not believe my eyes. Almost as surprised as the guineafowl was of the unsuspecting eagle, I was surprised to have a neat little frame depicting the action.

Driving back to camp I felt the familiar excitement and adrenaline of having captured a moment so brief in time that it only lasted 1/8000th of a second. Driving out of camp earlier that day I could never have imagined capturing a photograph like this. I could never have even dreamt up a moment so splendiferous. In nature, truth is stranger, more bizarre and wonderful even, than fiction! As photographers we just never know where (or when) our next big shot will come from, so we stay out there as much as we can and we buy cameras and lenses that we cannot even afford; we obsess about post production software and we debate all sorts of things as we wait patiently for nature to toss us the proverbial bone. And this my dear friends is what makes wildlife photography so utterly addictive; a great wildlife photographic opportunity is fleeting, its totally out of our hands. We are trying to predict the unpredictable. We are trying to use a combination of ISO, shutter speed and apertures to control the uncontrollable. These moments are rare, intoxicatingly so, and they are fleeting, yet to arrest such a moment, to suspend it in mid-air, to record it for all to see, is... well, let's just say, its utterly addictive.

The end.
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Monday, 25 May 2015

A Beautiful Beast

As an African based wildlife photographer, I have taken it upon myself to share with the rest of the world the bounty of wildlife that inhabits my splendid continent. I have, since a young age, sought out the wildest parts of Africa and it has therefore been a natural progression that I photograph mainly large mammals and predators. You see, you find these creatures in abundance in places where man is absent and its in these places, that I like to spend my time. My job as a wildlife photographer is multifaceted but I am most often trying to portray my beautiful subjects in beautiful ways. If I do this effectively I awake within my audience an appreciation for not just the individual creature, but for its entire species. If large mammals and carnivores are protected then basically entire ecosystems are too! As wildlife photographers these seeds of appreciation that we plant are in a very real way seeds of conservation and preservation. But, what do you do when you fall in love with a wild animal, that well, how does one say, um, is just NOT very pretty...

The leopard you see above goes by the name of the Airstrip Male. Sure, that is not a glamorous name but he is a wild leopard carrying out a free and wild existence in one of Africa's largest ecosystems. So, instead of calling him Borris or Dexter, he has been named after the area in which he set up his home and that was close to a safari airstrip. At first he looks like just any other leopard but when you look more closely you will notice that he has lost sight in his left eye. Over the years I have gotten to know this leopard well, having spent many hours with him and the joke has always been in trying to wait until 'you get his good side'. He lost his eye in a brawl a few years ago with another leopard, and although he is not the biggest male leopard around, he is a fighter. In his quest for survival he has fought males bigger than himself and he has won. He has also mated with seven different female leopard and for a guy who is not that pretty, it says a lot about his prowess. His territory has grown much much larger than the area of the airstrip and his big heart has won me over too. He is my favourite tomcat in the world! As such I have been waiting for an opportunity to take a portrait of him that does him justice and I am happy to report that I recently succeeded. But, before I share with you the portrait I took of this beautiful beast let me share a very interesting story about him, one so bizarre that it has never before been recorded in the natural world (or at least we don't think it has):

He was born into a litter of two cubs and his sibling was also a male. But one day they were feeding at an impala carcass when hyenas burst onto the scene and the two little cubs were separated from their mother. His mother only managed to locate his brother and the poor little Airstrip Male was left to fend for himself. But, in a bazaar twist of fate, his grandmother happened to be in the area and she had lost a cub of her own so she was calling gently for her cub. The Airstrip Male heard her and responded, and was subsequently adopted and raised by his grandmother. You see, he has been a fighter from the very beginning!

I call this one 'Steam and Dust' and it is a portrait of the Airstrip Male.

The end.

To meet the Airstrip Male join me on a predator workshop here...
Purchase a print here...
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Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Caught in the Act

Leopards are very different to Africa's other big cats: Besides being arguably the most beautiful, they are also the ultimate recluses. They are introverts of note, note needing company of any kind, not even from their own kind! Living solitary lives they are also unique in that they stalk to within a yard of their prey before pouncing on it. Lions and cheetahs will chase prey but for a leopard it is all about stealth and agility. Leopards, for me, are just like overgrown pussycats and always reveling in the proverbial game of cat and mouse. Unlike lions and cheetah, hunting for a leopard is pure fun, it is not a chore. It is an obsession! As a result they spend their lives involved in a never ending game of chess with almost every creature, whether big or small. Leopards will eat anything from a dung beetle to a baby giraffe...

Recently on safari, it was our very last morning that our guide thankfully spotted a leopard in an African Ebony tree. We were busy positioning the safari truck when we noticed a herd of impala walking in the direction of the tree. Knowing that the impala would possibly walk below the tree to feed on the fallen fruit, the game was potentially on. The leopard was very high in the tree though but knowing how crazy these cats can be, my heart beat started to quicken. As often happens when a potentially big moment is about to occur, I started speaking to myself, having a conversation in my head to reason as to where we should position the vehicle. Adding to the pressure, the light was good!
Deciding to give a wide berth around the impala, so as not to spook them, we parked so that we would have side light, a clean background and enough distance to make sure we would be able to capture the mad action, if it happened. The next hour was quite plainly - agonizing! Watching the impala mingle beneath the tree with the leopard watching them mingling from above, was for a wildlife photographer, like an alcoholic sitting at a bar in happy hour but knowing you were just biding the time before your AA meeting. Watching her every move through my Nikon 600mm lens I knew that once she hit the deck, I would have too much glass. It was all about her leaping out the tree! Tweaking my camera settings constantly to try and avoid the sky being horribly over exposed, should she leap through it, and continually assessing her body language for the faint nuances that would signal a leap, I was feeling the pressure. Yes, wildlife photographers do have stress, insane stress, sometimes!

I noticed her shuffle her back feet ever so slightly, like a sprinter in the blocks. This was it, the moment a wildlife photographer lives for. Its all about the moment! A photograph is just that, a singular moment, arrested and suspended. A leopard suspended perhaps?  Pressing my shutter button as deep as possible without actually taking a photo, I poised over my camera. The leopard poised over the impala. The next couple of seconds were going to be a blur in my mind. At a shutter speed of 1/8000th of a second I was hoping the blur would only be in my mind though.

The leopardess flew out the tree in a literal heartbeat. Only now, looking at the photograph I captured can I see her steely, fixed gaze. Her calmness. Her superb athletic ability. The soft side light, highlighting the graceful arch of her leap. Her tail balancing the pull of gravity. Her perfection. Her poetry in motion. Her outstretched front paws. Her long whiskers. Her steep vertical descent. And gazing at her perfection I am not nearly as impressed by my photograph as I am with her.

She lands amidst a cloud of dust. She lands amidst a herd of impala. The antelope react with lighting speed reflexes and although I had too much glass the 11 frames per second from my Nikon D4s were now very much needed. The leopard's outstretched tail adds an appropriate degree of tension!

I have been fortunate enough to watch leopards hunt impala before and on both occasions the leopardesses seemed to single out an individual amongst the herd. Here you see her, with her gaze fixed squarely on the impala she has selected, which is to your left and out of the frame. The impala in this frame is not the one being hunted.

At this point the leopard continues running down the termite mound in pursuit of her quarry.

She catches up with the impala and the antelope turns the wrong way. Or so it seems? She actually, although turning towards the leopard, makes the correct choice because to the leopard's left there is a log. There is an obstacle in her way.

The impala gets away. All the impala get away. The leopard lies down in the dirt and debris. She is not in the least bit angered or frustrated. She is just doing what cats do!

The end.

Join me on a Botswana and South Africa predator workshop here...

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Tuesday, 24 March 2015

There be Dragons here


Its a small stream in my favourite part of the Masai Mara. I especially like driving along its banks in the afternoons as you never see another vehicle. There is a beautiful Sausage tree along its banks and I have many times dreamt about building a bush house there, fantasizing about living on that little narrow stream in the middle of the great grass plains...

This particular afternoon was no different and we were winding our way along the stream blissfully adrift on the open veld. There is a point where the road crosses the stream and I have forged this crossing at least one hundred times in the last 10 years. I had never before seen a crocodile there though, it really is a narrow and small piece of water. A zebra herd was drinking peacefully and we stopped to take some photographs. Just then I thought I saw something, a flash of scales maybe? Could it be that one of the large crocodiles had swum up from the Mara River? The wildebeest migration had long since left and the crocs were hungry. What's more is that I myself have learnt, first hand, that old wise crocodiles know how to walk miles and miles to unsuspecting waters, where they can ambush prey. This I learnt while bobbing down a remote sand river on a tractor tube in Ruaha, but that's another story for another time.

Jumping out of the car I inched my way to the water's edge and lying down facing the water head on, it is a familiar position for me, and one that always makes me feel vulnerable as if a croc grabbed me it would be head first - game over. This thought bounced through my mind while I trained my lens on the still, calm water. The water remained flat for some time before erupting - mere inches in front of the zebra's nose.

The behemoth surfaced with a flying flash of furry right in front of the zebra. The dragon of the deep breathed not fire but rather thousands of small water droplets, ejected from its dragon-like nostrils in two foul spurts. He has translucent membranes that allows him to see under water and although he is a literal living dinosaur, he has special hemoglobin in his blood that allows him to remain submerged for over an hour. This master of the murky had waited for the zebra to drink peacefully, to walk deep into the tranquil pool to quench its long thirst, before launching his attack.

The zebra jerked its head back and for a split second the scene froze. The water slid off the crocodile. The water droplets were suspended in midair. The zebra's head high and still in utter disbelief.

As reality dawned on the zebra, its heart beat quickened. So did mine. The zebra turned. The crocodile turned. Their eyes met. 'You at 5.6, just track that crocodile's eye' was all I heard playing over and over in my mind. I have learnt to photograph the moment and to philosophize about it later. Only in hindsight have I noticed that the the croc's head was longer than the zebra's, this was indeed an 18ft monster.

The zebra turned to flee and within the blink of an eye the crocodile had spun around in what looked like nothing more than a churning frothing wall of white water. When the water subsided the crocodile had the hind leg of the zebra in its vice-like grip and had snapped it in two! Crocodiles have the strongest bit ever measured in the animal kingdom, slamming their jaws shut with 5000 pounds per square inch, that's five times more than a hyena. The croc's teeth were covered in algae, he really was an ancient relic of the deep.

The waters fell silent again. I could here the birds calling again. The tranquil scene belied the horror beneath the water. Life seemed to be flowing out of the zebra with every passing minute; its eyes sank deeper into its skull. I looked away from my viewfinder. The water an ineffective veneer. I had seen too much.

Driving back to camp, we passed the the same zebra herd that had been drinking. The sun set and I chose to blur my subject in remembrance of the zebra whose death I had just documented. A visual metaphor if you like and a reminder that all life vanishes.

The end.

Join me photographing predators in the Masai Mara here...
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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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