Wednesday 24 December 2014

Christmas in the Mountains

Good morning friends!

I just wanted to write a short post wishing you all a blessed Christmas time, wherever you find yourself in this festive season. May God abundantly bless you and bring you safely to your loved ones so you can spend valuable time together.

My family and I will be camping in the Maluti mountains (Golden Gate Highlands National Park) this weekend with my extended family, so I am looking forward to some downtime and family fun. I might just get round to capturing some landscape images like the one below which was taken at this exact location back in 2011...

See you all on the flipside - take care!

Morkel Erasmus

Thursday 27 November 2014

Madikwe: May 2010 (Part 2)

If you missed out on the previous episode of this trip report, click HERE.

Day 2

We headed straight for the sighting of African Wild Dogs that was called in on the radio. When we found them they had moved from the side of the road and were staring intently at something deeper in the bushes - would we see them hunt?

They soon lost interest in whatever was back there, and proceeded to move about and socialise with each other. The surrounding bush was quite dense so the images aren't that great - but this was my first proper Painted Dog sighting in years (I don't have much luck with them in the Kruger National Park) and I thoroughly enjoyed spending a good deal of time with them in close proximity, watching the pack interact with each other.

When the dogs decided to lie down, we took our cue to return to the lodge, have a hearty brunch, and relax around the pool watching the wildlife come and go to the small waterhole in front of the lodge. We also met up with Grant Marcus and Gavin Tonkinson, two of the local Madikwe guides involved at the time with Tuningi Safari Lodge. They were keen to join us on our afternoon drive as they didn't have guests to attend to at the time.

Later that afternoon we decided to head to a range of kopjes for a sunset shoot - obviously looking for some wildlife sightings on the way. All these great plans were interrupted when this little lady shot across the road right in front of us!!

Back then, Madikwe wasn't really known for quality leopard sightings. The cats that were there were known to be skittish around vehicles. That's all changed now and the reserve produces some great leopard sightings consistently now. We decided to stick with this young leopardess and see what she does. She ended up providing us with a real quality sighting. Initially, after she scoped us out properly from behind a bush, she sauntered back across the road, and after earning her trust we gently followed her trail off the main road.

She was skulking through the long grass, peering ahead. Was she on the hunt?

She stopped at a nearby tree - not your typical tree preferred by leopards (this one was densely covered in branches and looked like a tough one to get high up in) - peered up, and before we even realised it she jumped into the tree and climbed to the top, where it seemed she had a kill stashed. She was just about to tuck in, when a lone male Impala strolled by. She immediately went into hunting mode - tail swishing to and fro, waiting for the impala to walk past right under her position...

There was silence in our vehicle as we held our breath - would we see her jump down on this ignorant antelope right in front of us???

The wind shifted, and just before her quarry was close enough for a pounce, he caught wind of her and bolted in the other direction. She relented and carried on feeding on her existing prey. What a close call! The sun had now set (there goes our sunset shoot on the kopje, but we didn't mind) and we used a spotlight to grab one or two images of her feeding, then left the sighting as other lodge vehicles started to arrive.

Driving leisurely back to the lodge with the spotlight at the ready, we came across some "African Unicorns" as well (you can figure that one out by yourself), and stopped to photograph some of the iconic dead leadwood trees under the stars as well.

I still had a lot to learn about nightscape photography at this stage, but it was fun and that is what matters in the end!

We had a jolly dinner around the fire recounting the day's exciting turn of events. What would our last morning in Madikwe hold?

Morkel Erasmus

Wednesday 19 November 2014

Shake it Off

All is quiet, except for the sound of doves and guinea fowl in the distance.
The sky is bright blue on a winter's morning.
I am sitting in an underground research bunker in +Etosha National Park in Namibia.
He approaches from the southeast, ambling like they usually do. His footfalls are quiet, eerily quiet, like they usually are for these giants.

I see the secretion from his temples and down the inside of his hind legs - he is in musth, an aggravated hormonal state which makes elephant bulls particularly agitated.

The bunker provides protection but you still feel small and powerless when an African Elephant bull gets this close. As he approaches the waterhole he inevitably passes by our bunker.

He sees us, smells us, whatever but he notices us.
An indignant shake of the head, and the dust puffs off him.
A deliberate trip of my shutter.
I have my image.

By the way, I chose the title of this photo long before Taylor Swift had a hit song with that name...

Nikon D800
Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 @ 36mm
Kenko PRO Circular Polariser
f11  |  1/200 SS  |  ISO-900

This photo is Copyrighted © Morkel Erasmus.  
click on the photo to view at proper resolution and sharpness

I hope you have a fabulous day!

Morkel Erasmus

Sunday 9 November 2014

Madikwe: May 2010 (Part 1)

Hey everyone! I am carrying on my huge backlog of trip reports as and when I find the time to do so - so herewith the start of another belated adventure for you to enjoy.

Back in May 2010 my wife and I were fortunate to be invited by my friend Gerry van der Walt to spend some time in the Madikwe Game Reserve, situated in the North West province of South Africa. This was the first time we visited this interesting reserve, situated in the "Marico" bushveld of Herman Charles Bosman's lore. The entire area is malaria free and the history of the development of the reserve is quite fascinating. 

We arrived late in the afternoon, and after clearing the gate permit we drove to our home for the next few days, Nkurru Lodge. En route we encountered an elephant road block (these guys were a bit feisty and held us up for a while), a brown hyaena and a lone lion (albeit these last two were found in near-darkness walking next to the road).

Day 1
The following morning, Gerry had me up early to scout for one of the local packs of African Painted Dogs with him - this park is known for its success with these endangered predators. The prime goal of this morning's venture was to collar one of the dogs for research, a personal conservation project driven by Jono Buffey, who was also visiting Nkurru and was heading out later that day. Unbeknownst to me at the time was that a few years later I would be involved in photographic safaris with Gerry and Jono, in the form of Wild Eye!

We didn't find the dogs that morning, but we had a lovely drive and I got to see the beauty of Madikwe properly...

Later that day, we were joined by Kerry de Bruyn as well, and we set off on our afternoon drive.

A large elephant bull was our first compliant subject for the afternoon...

We spent the better part of the afternoon tracking mating lions in thick bush, we had some visual but no real photographic opportunity, and we also spent some time at the famous Tlou dam and doing some bird photography.

Day 2
The following morning we set off VERY early, heading out to an area called Madikwe Plains. I wrote a comprehensive post about this morning's events back in 2010, and you can read all about it HERE.

Following our surprise encounter with the old guy in the post above, we also found his brother (by following the answered roars in the distance) - he had a drink in front of us and then passed out like a proper lazy male lion should...

We were also treated to some springbuk rams sparring. Madikwe is one of the few places where you can see springbok and impala in the same biosphere, since it's a transition zone between bushveld and Kalahari...

A lone elephant bull and a breeding herd of elephants also provided ample entertainment on this particular drive.

A young calf in particular was chock full of attitude...

The next moment the radio crackled to life and we were notified of a sighting of the elusive Painted Dogs!! We were off, hoping they would stick around for us...

You'll have to stick around for the next episode...

Morkel Erasmus

Monday 3 November 2014

Sleepy Eyes

I just love discovering a gem in my archives. Unlike what many people may think, I am not on safari for the better part of the year - I actually have 3-5 opportunities to go to the bush for periods of between 3 and 8 days every year, depending on leave roster at work, my Wild Eye schedule etc. So the majority of photos I put out on my blog and social media channels may actually have been taken some time ago. I'm actually just lazy in deleting excess images, so I have to inevitably go back into my archives to clean up some space. In doing so, I actually come across photos I'd forgotten I'd taken. They may not have grabbed enough of my attention in my initial processing binge after returning from that particular trip, but for whatever reason I didn't delete them initially as there was some sort of moment caught there.

Case in point, this image...

Nikon D3s
Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II
f4.0  |  1/500 SS  |  ISO-200

click on the photo to display at best resolution and sharpness
We came across this Verraux's Eagle Owl asleep in a mopani tree along the Mphongolo loop north of Shingwedzi camp in the Kruger National Park. The scene was cluttered and the bird was asleep, but something about the moment spoke to me, and I snapped it.

Fast forward to last week, when I was looking for a "fresh" photo to process for the popular "black and white challenge" that is viral among photographers on Facebook. I scrolled over this one again, and immediately saw the moment that spoke to me initially when tripping the shutter, and knew that it was a good candidate for monochrome...

After some tweaking in Photoshop and Nik Silver Efex I was happy.
The result??

click on the photo to display at best resolution and sharpness
Quite a different feel, mood and effect, right?
It's actually about more than the owl - and that's what I like.
It's not about what it evidently is - it's also about what else it is...
Photography should evoke more than it describes, if it's to be seen as an art-form...
I hope these statements above resonate with you?

Now, go dig up those gems in your own archive!
Until I write again...

Morkel Erasmus

Wednesday 29 October 2014

Lying down with a Cheetah

I often extol the virtues of being able to photograph wildlife subjects at eye level.

There are a couple of ways to achieve this, and the most obvious question that comes up is what to do about cases where you are in reserves or national parks that restrict you to being in a vehicle at all times...

Through careful vehicle positioning, reading the lay of the land and predicting the positioning of the animal relative to that can go a long way to achieving that high-impact eye-level image. Good use of telephoto lenses and their compression factor can also aid you here (parking a bit further so the relative perspective to your subject appears lower).

The use of special underground bunkers are also a recent development that have ensured that photographers are able to get close to their subjects and shoot from a ground-level perspective.

The most special and electrifying way to do this, though, in my humble opinion, is to be on foot with the animals. There are a couple of places that allow you to be out and about, and with the right guide present you can have a magnificent wildlife experience (regardless of the photos you bring home). You've seen me post photos from Mana Pools in Zimbabwe, where walking safaris is a big drawing card...but there's a reserve that recently opened up in South Africa that boasts painted dogs and cheetahs that are quite habituated to humans on foot, and they are still fully wild and hunt for themselves. This place is called Zimanga Private Game Reserve, and the owner, Charl Senekal, has gone to great lengths over a long period of time to habituate his wild born free ranging predators to human movement and presence.

I captured this photo of one of the male cheetahs of Zimanga late one afternoon earlier this year. I was lying flat on my belly in the bush, a mere 15 meters from him. He was totally relaxed - until an elephant bull stumbled upon us, smelled him, and chased him up (as Charl and I made a careful retreat back to the vehicle, haha). These experiences always mean so much more to me than the actual photos.

Nikon D3s
Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II
f4.0  |  1/320 SS  |  ISO-800

click on the photo to view at optimal resolution and sharpness

Here's a photo Charl took of me in action...

Those of you who are attending the PHOTO & FILM EXPO at the Dome in Northgate, Johannesburg this coming weekend, be sure to check out my talk at 16h00 on Friday afternoon (31 October 2014) where I will discuss the concept of context and creativity in wildlife photography. Come say hello!

Morkel Erasmus

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Waterbuck Wink

I was trawling through my archives tonight, making space for new files by deleting files that are now 2+ years old that I haven't touched yet, when I came across this photo.

The species depicted is a Common Waterbuck, found throughout much of Southern Africa. The photo was taken in the Kruger National Park late one afternoon in March 2012 - a few minutes after sunset.

There are two things I want to point out here. The first is obviously the pose - I had a couple that just showed this female's facial portrait outline. They were deleted. This one, a crucial moment in this sighting, is something quirky and I kept it. She was merely trying to ward a fly off by batting her one eyelid, but the photo takes on a whole new implied meaning with this expression, don't you think?

click on the photo to view at proper resolution and sharpness
The other thing of note - is the ISO setting. The light was pretty much gone, and to get sufficient depth-of-field I needed to stop down the aperture. For some reason I had a high shutter speed too, so this necessitated the ISO setting.

Nikon D3s
Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II
1.4x teleconverter
f8.0  |  1/1250 SS  |  ISO-9000

I love being able to make images at these ISO settings, images that are actually usable! Just recently a photo of mine was accepted by Gallo Images, a high profile stock library in South Africa that's affiliated with Getty Images in the USA, which was taken at ISO-7200! The low light capability of the Nikon FX sensor enables me to really push the limits when it comes to photographing in the dusk hours of the day.

Some of you may be thinking that it looks better because it's a downsized and processed photo. There's some truth to that, as downsizing reduces apparent noise and I did run some selective noise reduction on the background - but the clincher for me is not whether there is noise/grain, but what amount of fine detail, contrast and dynamic range is captured at these settings and in these conditions. Here is a 100% crop of the eye, meaning it was cropped down to this resolution of just below 800px wide, no downsizing done and zero other processing done except for my RAW exposure adjustments in Lightroom.

click on the photo to view at proper resolution

Yes, there is noise present, but there's also oodles of detail for me to work with.
Folks - trust your cameras! Trust the technology that went into making the sensor and the electronics that convert the light captured into a usable image. Push yourself to make images at times that you previously put the camera down because of "lack of light".

Until next time!

Morkel Erasmus

Sunday 12 October 2014

The Handshake

Secret societies have it. 
Mob bosses have it. 
Elephants have it. 
Secret Handshakes...

My time spent in this research bunker at a very remote waterhole in +Etosha National Park will always bring back fond memories of really seeing and experiencing the daily lives of elephants up close and personal. 

Elephants are highly social creatures, and even though many of the bulls frequenting this waterhole arrived and left on their own, they never failed to interact with the other bulls around the waterhole, often spending long periods just standing close to others, making contact and rumbling off their tummies or drinking water. 

These two bulls were greeting each other and gently touching trunks. The giraffes across on the other side of the waterhole caught my eye and I tried to work them into the composition by shooting vertically. I just love the perspective here.

Nikon D3s
Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 VR-II @ 200mm
f11  |  1/800 SS  |  ISO-640

click on the photo to view at best resolution and sharpness

I wanted to share this image today as the day of announcing the winners of the BBC Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2014 draws closer. This photo of mine was a finalist in the "Black and White" category, and I had high hopes for it. Alas, it was not included in the final selection of winning images. It was a good year for me as far as the "final round" of the BBC WPY goes as I had 3 single images and a portfolio of 6 images through to the final round (none of which made it to the awarded images, unfortunately). I am looking forward to seeing the actual awarded images and seeing who walks away with the big honours this year after my friend and countryman, the legend Greg du Toit scooped up the grand title last year. I will try again next year, as it's always fun to enter images into this most prestigious competition in nature photography.

Thanks for viewing! What do YOU think of this photo? Let me know in the comments section below.

Morkel Erasmus

Tuesday 7 October 2014

Dawn of the Striped Ones

It's early on a summer morning in Namibia's +Etosha National Park.
The first summer rains have just started to fall - so everything looks and smells fresh.
There's still a lot of cloud cover overhead from last night's deluge...but there's a gap for the sun to rise into on the Eastern horizon.

As I drive out of the gate of the Okaukuejo camp with my wife and kids in the back of the SUV (kids still dozing), I head East towards the nearest waterhole, which is called Nebrownii

As the sun starts peeping over the horizon and through the break in the clouds, I find my first willing subjects - a small group of Plains Zebra.

Stop the car.
Fiddle to grab the nearest camera. Lens too long (500mm).
Switch to the other camera - this one has a better focal length (70-200mm).
Start snapping.
Check exposure.
Make adjustments.
Snap again.
Check exposure.
More adjustments.

Framing a rising sun and plenty of sky with wildlife at the bottom makes for a tricky exposure. This is where using your exposure lock function helps, as well as back-button focus to be able to focus and reframe.

Finally satisfied with my exposure on the D800 and 70-200mm combo, I contemplate swopping the 500mm on the D3s for a shorter lens, but realise the sun will rise behind the clouds in a few moments. So I grab my instamatic wide angle that is always with me (that would be the Apple iPhone 5, folks), switch on the HDR function, and snap a few images that way.

Here's the DSLR photo...

Nikon D800  |  Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 VR-II @ 70mm  |  f4.0  |  1/250 SS  |  ISO-800

And here is the photo taken with my iPhone...

Which do you prefer?

Sure, the iPhone version doesn't have the same high resolution quality, and it came out a bit over-the-top when it comes to the HDR effect, but it does make it look quite surreal. The perspective is definitely better for me at this wider focal length. Perhaps I should have switched lenses right away when I got there...but I will have to take that lesson into my next safari.

What's the old adage? The best camera is the one you have with you...

Morkel Erasmus

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Lions of the Red Dunes

I have just gotten back from hosting a Wild Eye Great Migration Photographic Safari, with a mountain of new images to catalogue and process. I am already looking forward to my next safari, though, and this one will be to one of my favourite wilderness areas - the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park - with my favourite person: my lovely wife Nicole!

This park is known for its harsh landscape, its heat, and its amazing wildlife encounters - notably the black-maned male lions that call the Kalahari home.

Over the past 5 years I've been back many times, always looking for that elusive and iconic photo of a lion on or in front of the red dunes that line the Auob and Nossob riverbanks (these are fossil rivers that very occasionally in a century).

Here are 3 of my best attempts to date of capturing this scene...of course you can only capture what you are presented with, so it helps being at the right time and the right place. By now you know that I love adding context to my wildlife photos, and these kinds of photos leave you in no doubt as to where they were taken. As usual, clicking on the photos reveals the best display resolution and sharpness...

Nikon D3s  |  Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II  |  1.4x teleconverter  |  f5.6  |  1/500 SS  |  ISO-800

Nikon D3s  |  Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II  |  f5.6  |  1/400 SS  |  ISO-1600

Nikon D800  |  Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 VR-II  |  f5.6  |  1/640 SS  |  ISO-100

Nikon D3s  |  Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II  |  f4.0  |  1/200 SS  |  ISO-3600

Nikon D800  |  Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 VR-II  |  f11  |  1/250 SS  |  ISO-800

Let me know which of these is your favourite! I will undoubtedly try to return with a better one in December. Your best photo is the one you will take tomorrow, is it not?

Until I write again, keep clicking!

Morkel Erasmus

Monday 15 September 2014

Floodplains of Fantasy

You've heard me rant and rave about Mana Pools a couple of times. Words fail to describe the wonder and ethereal beauty of the place...but somehow so do the majority of photos taken there. Why is that?

Is it because photos are 2D, and the Mana Pools experience is immersive, holistic and overpowers all the dimensions you perceive and the senses you use to perceive them??

Is it because you feel so insignificant in this wilderness, that you actually feel that God made it too beautiful to capture perfectly on camera, so that you feel you have to return regularly to drink the beauty and the wilderness in??

I believe that these statements above are true...

On my previous visits, I refrained from trying my hand at wide-angle landscapes, mostly because I felt part of the beauty and allure lies in the trees, and to get a real sense of the forests on the Zambezi floodplains you typically need a longer focal length to add compression to the scene. Something like this...

Nikon Df  |  Nikkor 80-400mm VR-II @ 175mm  |  f11  |  1/500 SS  |  ISO-1100

The other problem is that I actually visit this place for the wonderful wildlife encounters you can have here, as well as the total disconnect from modern life and the rat race. The best time to do this is the dry season - meaning (like in most of Southern Africa) that the skies will be cloudless most of the time. This year, I hosted a Wild Eye photo safari to Mana Pools in early September, a little later than my previous visits...for one thing there was a LOT of haze during the first 2 days due to incessant fires on both the Zimbabwean and Zambian side of the Zambezi river. Luckily, a constant wind on our 3rd day blew all the haze to someplace far away, and we had 2 more days of nice clear skies. Our final afternoon, though, was a real treat for the landscape photographer that's hidden beneath all this wildlife bravado...high clouds.

Those of you who photograph sunrises and sunsets regularly know that high clouds are often an indicator of a wonderful sunset. The problem in Mana is that the sun sets behind the mountains on the Zambian escarpment, so you have no idea whether there are clouds on the distant horizon that will block those last magical rays of red sunlight that inflame high clouds like a rampant viral outbreak.

During our last drinks stop, some of my guests wanted to photograph the lovely trees on a certain stretch of the river close to the Trichilia campsite with wide angle lenses, and I was only too happy to join them. Like it so often does, the light on the high clouds looked to pop, then fizzled...and just as I was beginning to pack up the tripod - the sunset exploded!

Now, like I said earlier, I'd never really been able to get a composition that did the trees and all the elements of the landscape justice. For me, a landscape photo taken in Mana Pools needs to convey a real sense of the place...the massive trees (and I do mean massive), the barren earth with its termite mounds sparsely spread between those trees, an elephant (okay for a wide angle landscape shot this would be a long shot), the sparkle of the broad waters of the Zambezi river, and the rising escarpment in Zambia...the ideal Mana Pools landscape photo needs to take you there, especially people who have been there. It doesn't matter if you went once as a child 80 years ago or if you fervently make a near-religious pilgrimage to Mana, once you've been there, an ideal Mana Pools photo should transport you there in an instant.

During this particular sunset, I found a couple of compositions that I feel does this. This photo is the result of manually blending 3 different exposures to get the look and feel that I was after. I wanted it to convey the detail my eye saw in the tree trunks and the distant landscape, while still capturing that magical sunset colour and light. By using the main tree as a frame for the image, I think I have conveyed something of the size of these trees: like Ents of Middle-Earth the rise up and watch over the floodplains. These trees are called Faidherbia Albida, or Winterthorn, or Ana trees...and the pods that lie on the ground are a staple food in the dry months for all the herbivores that roam these floodplains.

Here are the settings, and please do yourself a favour and CLICK on the photo so you can view it against a DARK background (this way it really comes to life), and also so you can view it at a slightly higher resolution. It's worth it...

Nikon D800
Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8 @ 14mm
f8.0  |  ISO-200

What do you think? This spot is incidentally close to where I photographed THIS elephant 2 days prior...

I think I will probably have to return and get a better one...well, I am using that as an excuse as I really will return. Every year, I will return, as long as I am able to do so...and I will try and share the wonder of this place with as many people as I can, as long as I am able to do so.

Thank you for reading my ramblings. Have a blessed day, friends!

Morkel Erasmus

Sunday 14 September 2014

Sabi Sands: February 2010 (Part 4)

Let's carry on with this trip report, shall we? If you need to get up to speed, check out the previous chapters here:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

We were awoken in the early hours of the morning by the persistent (and close-by) roaring of male lions. I knew we were in the general territory of the infamous Mapogo male coalition, and a hope was ignited to perhaps see them on our morning drive. Our wake-up call came, and with a quick coffee in our bellies we set out and our tracker picked up the lion spoor just outside of the lodge. It wasn't long before we came around a bend in the road to be greeted by this sight...

They were being pretty useless, but it was awesome nonetheless to spend time with them.

Have you ever been THIS lazy?? Check out this badboy just peeing over himself, too lazy to get up and do it properly!

We drove around them for another view...but it was more of the same...

We decided to move on - and wisely so. First off we found a lone impala standing in the middle of a dam/waterhole of some sorts. Our first thought was that Painted Dogs or Spotted Hyaenas had chased it in there, but after sitting with it for more than 30 minutes with no pursuer appearing, we decided to go and search for leopards...which we found!

The leopardess Mambirri was moving along a drainage line with her yearling cub, and we headed to a suitable point to "intercept" (PS: Mambirri has since passed on, and you can read a lovely tribute with great images by my friend Rudi Hulshof on his blog HERE).

We found a great spot thanks to Marius Coetzee's knowledge of the leopard routines of the area...and we were able to enjoy a quality sighting on our last morning in the Sabi Sands.

The cub was curious and as they sauntered down the road into the drainage line she checked out some scents she picked up...

They moved into the drainage line and across some large riverine boulders...

They then disappeared into a thicket. We circled around, again based on Marius' knowledge/hunch of where they were headed...and after waiting a little while they popped up where he said they would.

We were hoping they would come and play on a very photogenic hardwood stump in front of us, but for some reason they turned around and headed back the same way they came...

We stayed with them until Mambirri left her cub in a thicket to go off and hunt...although we were primarily behind them for the rest of this sighting, so photographs are few and far between. We headed back to the lodge for our last lunch before departing - it was a wonderful time, and I am grateful for having had this experience. We latched a couple of days in the Kruger National Park on the back of this trip, but I will leave that for another report.

We are busy ironing out the details of a return visit to Leopard Hills Private Game Reserve - and I can't wait to see how the big cat dynamics have changed in the Western Sabi Sands in these 4 years!

Thanks for following along.

Morkel Erasmus