Tuesday 27 January 2015

Elephant in the Mara

Hello everyone. I've been a bit flooded of late so blog posts have been sparse.

In the beginning of the month, I published a collection of images from my 2014 "photographic year". Though I always do this and view it as a useful way to assess my growth and artistic voice, I purposefully posted only images taken at 100mm focal length or less. You can read the entire post HERE.

The image I am sharing today NEARLY made the cut in that post.
During our +Wild Eye photographic safari to experience the Great Migration in the Mara Triangle in September 2014, we spent some time with a gentle yet impressive African Elephant bull who was leisurely grazing on the long red oat grass along the Mara river. He was right next to our vehicle so I was able to inspire my guests to really work the scene with their wide angle lenses. I am a sucker for an "animalscape" and having a circular polariser in front of my lens helped bring out more detail in the sky and tame some of the harsh late morning light.

Nikon D800
Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 @ 24mm
Kenko Pro Circular Polariser
f4.0  |  1/400 SS  |  ISO-100

Do you enjoy seeing photos like this? Or do you prefer the animal to be larger in the frame?
Let me know - drop me a comment on this post and let's discuss...

Morkel Erasmus

Sunday 4 January 2015

10 below 100 - my reflection on 2014

Good day folks! I bet the title of this blog post has you perplexed...

Since January 2010 I have made it a habit of posting a collection of my personal best moments in nature photography on my blog. I know some people scoff at this trend (obviously because many photographers seem to be doing it to get attention), but for me it really is a great way to take stock at the end of another calendar year and its accompanying travels/adventures, and also to assess where my personal expression in terms of photography is going. 

Am I growing as an artist? 
Am I changing the style and feel of my images subtly and subconsciously or boldly and consciously?
Am I putting out bland images and stagnating in my creativity?
Am I still enjoying what I do?
Do I primarily find joy and fulfillment in the work that I put out there?

These questions are constantly at the back of many artists' minds and doing these posts is a good way for me to try and answer them. The last one is paramount - we should primarily focus on producing a body of work that satisfies ourselves, if other people enjoy it then it should be a bonus. You can never cater for the majority of tastes out there, so it's prudent to first satisfy your own notions and tastes in the art that you produce...

Anyway - so this year has seen me really making a point of putting down the longer telephoto lens more often when doing wildlife photography. I have always immensely enjoyed landscape photography, and my previous years' reflective posts have included some outright landscape entries. I have also always had a knack for composing wildlife photos to include more of the environment and the scene in which the subject finds itself. We often harp about conserving the African wildlife, but in order to do that effectively we also need to place an emphasis on conserving the habitat, the ecosystems in which these species thrive. Habitat fragmentation is a big threat to most of the African biodiversity and it's a bigger problem year after year. 

This year I tried to create even more of these "animalscape" kind of images, and with shorter lenses too. Which brings me to the title of this post...

Instead of opting for another "best 20 shots of the year" divided into landscape, birds and wildlife (my 3 main subjects), I am going to post only 10 photos, all taken at focal lengths of 100mm or less. Yes, 10 photos of wildlife or landscapes or birds, all captured at focal lengths ranging between 14mm and 100mm. The short side of things. I hope this inspires you to reach for your shorter lenses more often - it's so easy to rely on the big guns to bring us tack sharp nicely isolated portraits of our wildlife subjects (in fact, if the winning images of this year's Natures Best competition are anything to go by, these kinds of tight portraits are probably coming back into fashion). 

So, like so many other wildlife photographers putting out their best work from 2014, I could have shown you frame-filling shots like these, showcasing how I used my super telephoto lens for the purpose it was built for:

While I do capture these kinds of portraits, and while they do look beautiful in many cases, I find that they also don't give context - they don't always scream "AFRICA!" to me - it's just where my personal taste has been going and growing in the past few years. The images I picked here were all taken by me, either hand-held or using a tripod (in the case of some landscape shots), using no fancy tools like remote control buggies and drones and selfie-sticks - just plain old photographer looking through the viewfinder...

So, without further a due, here are my 10 selections, with some back-story and technical info thrown into the mix. They are posted chronologically based on date of capture. To view the images at best resolution and sharpness - please do click on them...

1. "Chobe Crocscape"
During the Wild Eye Chobe Photo Safari I hosted in March, we came across a young Nile Crocodile basking in the morning sun on the banks of the Chobe river. We were able to position our photographic boat in such a way so as to make nice low angle close-up photos possible. I whipped out the 24-70mm lens with a polariser attached and made some "crocscape" images.

Nikon D800  |  Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8  @ 24mm  |  f5.6  |  1/500 SS  |  ISO-200  |  Kenko Pro Circular Polariser

2. "On Another Level"
On the same Chobe safari as above, we have a massive storm move through one afternoon, after which the air was crisp and clear and fresh. We spotted a herd of elephants moving down to the river to goof around, and set our photographic boat in that direction. We were able to coax the boat in gently quite close to where the young bulls were being boisterous in the water. I'm a sucker for low angle shots of wildlife, and if it can be low angle and wide angle, even more so. This is one frame from many we captured during that afternoon's session - my guests being inspired to also whip out their shorter lenses and make this moment count.

Nikon D800  |  Ni'kkor 24-70mm f2.8  @ 62mm  |  f5.6  |  1/320 SS  |  ISO-560  |  Kenko Pro Circular Polariser

3. "Wild Coast Rocks"
Seascapes is another genre that has eluded my lens (based on the travels I've been preferring) over the past 2 years. This year we made a family pilgrimage over Easter to my brother-in-law who lives in Gonubie, a small town on the outskirts of East London in South Africa's Eastern Cape province, and which lies on the start of what is called the "Wild Coast of South Africa". I was only able to work in one afternoon's shooting due to the nature of the trip (family time a priority), and quite liked how this one came out. Another sunset which looked promising, but fizzled out - monochrome was a nice alternative.

Nikon D800  |  Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8 @ 14mm  |  f10  |  3 sec SS  |  ISO-50  |  RedGed Tripod

4. "Hazy Zambezi Daze"
If you have been following my work for a while, you will know how enamored I am with the beautiful wilderness of Mana Pools in Zimbabwe. I was notably excited to return this year hosting another +Wild Eye safari, and I made a point of shooting with wider lenses here as well, to try and capture the essence of this haunting landscape. This moment stood out for me - there was a constant haze from fires on the Zambian escarpment across the river for the first couple of days, which gave off an eerie kind of light and mood. Standing on an embankment looking down over the floodplains, I was able to capture this scene - the fallen albida tree a stark reminder of the cycle of life and death in this place, and the elephants meandering between the trees like they always do.

Nikon D800  |  Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 @ 62mm  |  f7.1  |  1/500 SS  |  ISO-2500  |  Kenko Pro Circular Polariser

5. "Big Vic"
Here's another image from our Mana Pools photographic safari. For me, a photograph is more than just what it is, it's also about what it evokes. Firstly, it should evoke something in the viewer, but it should also evoke the memory of the moment for myself - I should link back to an exciting or ethereal moment in nature, and remember it as if I was still standing there. This moment is one such a moment - it's certainly not an award-winning photo, but my clients and I will never forget this morning when we were sitting on a fallen log and one of Mana's gentlemen, Big Vic, sauntered over to us and started feeding on a tree right in front of us. And I do mean right in front of us - he was a mere 5 meters away from us here (the wide angle distortion makes it seem further, though).

Nikon D800  |  Nikkor 24-70mm f2,8 @ 29mm  |  f5.6  |  1/320 SS  |  ISO-400

6. "Floodplains of Fantasy"
Staying in Mana Pools, I wrote extensively about the story behind this photo in THIS BLOG POST (would love for you to check it out). Suffice to say that capturing a true wide angle landscape image of this unique area was somewhat of a challenge for me on my previous trips, and it came together with this shot.

Nikon D800  |  Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8 @ 14mm  |  f8.0  |  ISO-200  |  Blend of 3 exposures

7. "Into the Storm"
Invariably, trying to do wide angle wildlife photography without the use of a remote controlled buggy or drone predicates that the better images will be of the slightly bigger animals - hence this is the 4th image in this post that contains elephants! This is just one of those images that evokes so many possible responses linked to conservation, family, life's hardships, etc. Wouldn't you agree? I captured this moment on the first afternoon of our +Wild Eye Great Migration photo safari to Kenya in September.

Nikon D3s  |  Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 @ 24mm  |  f4.0  |  1/125 SS  |  ISO-640  |  Kenko Pro Circular Polariser

8. "Quintessential Migration Sunset"
Those of you who have been in East Africa to witness and photograph the Great Migration will know how hard it is to capture the encompassing grandeur of this natural spectacle in a 2D photo. I tried last year and I tried again this year - I found that true wide angles don't really do the trick, the 50mm to 100mm range seems to work better. It's something I will keep plugging at until I get a better shot!

Nikon D4s  |  Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 @ 70mm  |  f4.5  |  1/160 SS  |  ISO-2000

9. "Kalahari Dune Storm"
During our trip to our beloved Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, my wife and I were privy to see some immense storm activity as the summer rains arrived to this arid land in full force. Our first evening in the park was spent at the KielieKrankie Wilderness Camp, set aloft on one of the highest dunes in the park. Having driven in under a blanket of building cumulus clouds the afternoon, the storms that rolled in were dramatic, intense and awe-inspiring. The wind was so strong that using a tripod was moot, and I had to resort to hand-holding my camera and trying my best to time my shutter finger with the lightning strikes that occurred frequently. This is one of the better results...

Nikon D810  |  Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8 @ 14mm  |  f8.0  |  1/60 SS  |  ISO-1250  |  Handheld!

10. "Love Bites"
I noted above that many of my attempts at wide angle wildlife photography invariably ends up being spent on larger animals as it's easier to fill a significant part of your frame with them. Sometimes, however, things do work out in your favour with other species. We found this mating pair of lions early one morning at the 13th Borehole waterhole in the Auob riverbed of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, and they proceeded to have their honeymoon ritual right next to our vehicle. Naturally, I whipped out the 24-70mm and worked the scene. This is one of the frames that I am happiest with...

Nikon D3s  |  Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 @ 42mm  |  f5.6  |  1/400 SS  |  ISO-800  |  Kenko Pro Circular Polariser

That's about it, folks. I hope you enjoyed this selection, if only for the fact that I tried to veer away from my usual format in this "year in review" post.

Are these my absolute favourite images from 2014?
Not all of them, no.

But I did set out with a specific photographic goal in mind for 2014 - to do more of these kinds of shots, and more of them that are worthy to add to my portfolio, no less. I think I succeeded in some ways. I shall probably carry on doing that. 

I doubt that I will ever find myself using remote buggies and drones to photograph wildlife. I do enjoy the fresh perspective that those methods bring - and perhaps it's only because I'm a bit of a cheapskate and don't really see myself splurging on those toys yet. There are also unanswered questions in my mind as to the effect these things have on the wildlife that you approach with them - not so much the single dude who does it here and there, but more on the effect it will have when every 2nd photographer rocks up at a sighting with a drone flying and a remote buggy driving closer...this debate is lively and ongoing - let's see where it ends. For now, I still hugely enjoy being behind the viewfinder, grabbing different cameras and lens combinations as the situation changes, and forcing myself to be creative right there where I am in the sighting. Each to their own, right?

I entered the big photo competitions in 2014 as well. Despite having 3 single images and a portfolio of 6 images in the final round of the "big one" (BBC), none of them placed in the awarded images. I shall probably try again in 2015, if only to take a shot at it. I know there are so many high quality images entered every year and the standards keep lifting - but I like the process of deciding which ones to take a chance with and entering them. 

As a side-note, one of my images that was shortlisted for the finals in both the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition and the Natures Best Windland Smith Rice awards was also a wide angle image (taken in 2013 from a research bunker in Etosha). I remains one of my personal favourites in my portfolio, regardless of whether it rakes in any accolades:

I hope you all have a fabulous 2015 - and that you will be challenged to shoot a variety of scenes and focal lengths when you are out spending time in nature.

God bless you all, and thanks for reading!

Morkel Erasmus