Wednesday 27 January 2016

The leopard photo that was 7 years in the making

Leopards and I have a funny relationship.
I've had to exert quite some patience to obtain photos of them - like on THIS occasion in the Kruger National Park.

But this post is not about a Kruger leopard.

Ever since visiting the Kalahari for the first time in 14 years back in 2009, I had a strong desire to see and photograph the elusive leopards living in this harsh environment.

For some people, these leopard sightings in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park come like flies to see them posting trip reports on forums or sightings photos on social media and it's just leopards left, right and centre...but not for me.

It took me 8 trips in 6 years to even SEE my first leopard. And that was a very fleeting sighting of a male leopard drinking from the camp waterhole at Urikaruus under the floodlight in December 2014. We narrowly missed a good sighting of a mother and cub the following day (arriving at that specific waterhole literally 5 minutes too late).

So you can imagine that it became quite the photographic obsession for me.

On our recent safari to the Kalahari, the "streak" was firmly broken as we had 4 good leopard sightings. The photos were not spectacular, but being able to at least spend time with the felines that had eluded me successfully over 9 separate trips to this place (in 7 years), was very satisfying and fulfilling in the end.

This was the first one - the one that broke the drought for me.
I had seen that a leopard sighting was pinned on the sightings board at Twee Rivieren rest camp, quite some distance up the Auob river. We decided to go scan that area for our afternoon drive. Seeing as the temperature was upwards of 50 degrees Celcius, leaving early on an afternoon drive to take advantage of the vehicle air-conditioning needed no motivation within my family...

Don't believe me on the temperature?

Check this out (note the time on the clock!):

Getting back to the story...

We drove up towards the Montrose waterhole where the leopard had been spotted in the morning. We hadn't spoken to anyone who'd physically seen it so we just looked into every nook and cranny of the calcrete ridge on the left and in the trees and riverbed on the right.

Suddenly, as we drove into a small loop road there she was! She scuttled out of a small shrub (where I would have never thought to look as it was so dense and thorny) as my vehicle came around the shrub.

Nikon D4s  |  Nikkor 400mm f2.8G VR  |  f4.5  |  1/1250 SS  |  ISO-640

I was able to create a few frames as she lay down in the shade of the tree, before crossing the road and climbing up to the calcrete ridges.

Once she lay down among the calcrete, the camouflage was amazing. If you are ambling along on a game drive, even at a low speed of say 20km/h, would you spot her here??

Even when she started walking along against the backdrop of this rocky ridge - she was pretty well camouflaged! How many people have driven right past leopards on these ridges so distinct to the Kalahari? Many, and I'm sure I have on my past trips as well. Even while we were sitting watching the leopard (with only her head visible), another vehicle came past us, gave a quick look, and drove off before we could tell them that there was a leopard!

What's the take-home message for all you avid nature photographers?

Everyone's got that one elusive shot or species that haunts you - your Achilles' heel.
The only way to get the monkey off your back - is to go back time and time again to the place where you have the highest probability of getting the sighting and/or the shot, and have patience to sit it out when you're there, and the fortitude of mind to resolve yourself to the next time if it doesn't work out at that particular time. Don't give up!!

This leopard photo was 7 years in the making!

Until next time...

Morkel Erasmus

Friday 1 January 2016

My 2015 in imperfect hindsight

As is customary for many photographers of all genres during this time of year, I started glancing over my portfolio of work captured during the year in hopes of posting a "best of" collection. I have done so since 2010, and you can see my post from 2014 HERE.

Last year I took a very specific approach, only showing photos taken at a focal length of less than 100mm, to showcase my desire for including the greater environment in my photography (particularly when it comes to wildlife photography).

That being said, 2015 was a different year for me in terms of travel and photography. I had some great experiences out in the field, but not all great sightings resulted in great photography. I also took far fewer photos on the whole compared to the previous years. My total amount of photos "kept" up to this date compare more with the final result from years like 2009, 2010 and 2011 when I was more trigger-happy than I am now, but after extensive culling and weeding out of images I was not pleased with.

I think my collection below will be more reflective of specific memorable moments I enjoyed in nature, as opposed to groundbreaking new approaches to my photography and even a veritable "best of" selection. Nevertheless, I do hope you enjoy it. I want it to be an honest reflection of my year's photography, and an even more honest reflection of the memories built up. 

Every year it just dawns on me more and more that these moments in unspoilt nature are getting rarer and rarer as wild places and natural habitat wanes and falters before the onslaught of the greed of man. I can only hope that my children will still be able to enjoy the places and species I am introducing them to now long after I am gone from this planet and they have to share it with their offspring...

Without further tear-jerking musings, here we go. Photos are posted in chronological order (date taken) and not according to personal favouritism.

As usual, clicking on the photos shows them at best resolution and against a dark background!

1. Painted Dog Silhouette
I seemed to spend a lot of time in the Kruger National Park and surrounding reserves (like the Sabi Sand) this year, indeed much more than in the previous couple of years. One thing that struck me about this moment, captured in January 2015 near Pretoriuskop in the Kruger, was that I've seen very few distinct silhouettes of the African Wild Dog (Painted Dog). The size and stature of the animal and their tendency to keep to the bush and grasslands probably add to's hard to get to a vantage point lower than they are at the best of times. This image was the result of a long period of waiting - as with many of my predator images - for the subjects to become active towards the end of the day.

Nikon D3s  |  Nikkor 500mm f4 VR  |  f4.0  |  1/640 SS  |  ISO-200

2. Starstruck Windmill
We spent a week over Easter with our family in East London (a city on the South African Wild Coast). We made a road trip of it, visiting the sheep farm of my friend Rob Southey in the Karoo desert on the way down. The Karoo is famous for its extreme weather and starry skies, and it didn't disappoint! A hot flask of coffee and good company made getting these shots a real treat...

Nikon D800  |  Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8  |  f2.8  |  30 seconds  |  ISO-6400

3. Nahoon on the Rocks
Our time in East London was primarily spent with family and having fun on the beach, but I did get the opportunity to link up with some old-time online friends for the first time in real life and enjoy a sunset shoot on the rocks at the beautiful Nahoon reef. The light did not peak as I expected it to, but I do have a distinct lack of seascapes in my portfolio and it was fun adding to them nonetheless.

Nikon D800  |  Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8  |  f16  |  2 seconds  |  ISO-50

4. Mare and Foal
The aforementioned road trip ended with a 3-night stay at the Mountain Zebra National Park, a real little gem in the crown of the South African National Parks portfolio. I hadn't been there since 2011, so this was a good opportunity to spend some time soaking in the scenic views and getting re-acquainted with the interesting diversity of wildlife it offers. The park is named after the endangered Cape Mountain Zebra, and has been a huge factor in the recovery of this species from the brink of extinction. Here a mother tenderly nudges her young foal as the sun sets behind the Karoo dust.

Nikon D3s  |  Nikkor 500mm f4 VR  |  f5.6  |  1/1000 SS  |  ISO-720

5. Gaze of Defeat
I posted about this specific moment in detail on my blog earlier in the year (read HERE). It just remained with me, a very poignant gaze and a privileged view on the end of a life well lived in the bush.

Nikon D3s  |  Nikkor 500mm f4 VR  |  f5.0  |  1/500 SS  |  ISO-1100

6. Stalker
I'll let this one simply speak for itself. A moment between Africa's most adaptable and stealthy predator and me...with nothing separating us.

Nikon D3s  |  Nikkor 500mm f4 VR  |  f5.6  |  1/1000 SS  |  ISO-720

7. acroBATics
In June, the Wild Eye team hosted the inaugural Wildlife Photography Seminar at Sabi Sabi in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve. Early one morning we came across an African Harrier Hawk (Gymnogene) acrobatically hunting for prey in the bark of a dead leadwood tree. It was a fascinating sighting, the bird really put on a display hanging upside down from its talons at times to break off pieces of bark. It was quite overcast but some soft light hit the clouds behind the bird for some colour in the sky. Eventually, when reviewing the images later, I realised the intended prey was a colony of bats nesting in the dead tree. In this frame there's one in its beak. Join us again next year for this inspiring event!

Nikon D3s  |  Nikkor 500mm f4 VR  |  f5.6  |  1/1000 SS  |  ISO-3600

8. Painted Pups
One of the definite highlights of my year was being able to witness how the Ngala pack of Painted Dogs (African Wild Dogs) brought their 17 new puppies out of the den for the very first time. My wife and I were spending time with the EWT researcher Grant Beverly who monitors all the movements and dynamics of this species in the greater Kruger area, and perchance we happened to be at the den at the right time to witness the special moment when the pack called the pups out and regurgitated food for them and allowed them to explore and play around for about 45 minutes before nudging them back into the old termite mound they'd chosen as a den site.

Nikon D3s  |  Nikkor 500mm f4 VR  |  f6.3  |  1/640 SS  |  ISO-1600

9. Dust and Mayhem
A photo simply cannot convey the sensory overload and general madness that is a large dusty Mara river crossing. We had quite a couple of insane crossings during the Wild Eye Great Migration photo safari that I hosted in September with my friend Andrew Beck. This particular one started after sunset at a crossing point close to our camp, so slow shutter speeds and high ISO settings were at the order of the day. After a couple of minutes the light was too bad for photography and we could put down the cameras and just soak it all in as the herd kept crossing, a leopard snuck past our vehicle to try and grab a youngster, and the smell of wildebeest adrenaline mixed with dust hung in the air. I will be hosting another trip in August 2016, so make sure you check out the details HERE if you want to experience this bucket-list safari for yourself!

Nikon D3s  |  Nikkor 70-200mm f42.8 VR-II  |  f2.8  |  1/25 SS  |  ISO-4500

10. Graceful Grazing
This scene happened in my mind's eye at least 15 minutes before the shutter tripped. I saw the giraffe ambling along to our right, noticed the iconic scenery with Balanite trees on our left, and instructed our Wild Eye East Africa guide to cut the engine of our Land Cruiser and wait. I told my guests what I thought would happen and what kinds of images I was hoping they could achieve - and it played out exactly like I planned. This is the wide open space of the Mara Triangle, folks!

Nikon D3s  |  Nikkor 70-200mm f42.8 VR-II  |  f7.1  |  1/800 SS  |  ISO-1400

There you have it, my friends.

Thanks so much for reading along. I think I have had more "wow" images in previous years, certainly, but I like that I was really able to distill this selection down to key moments - in the end the moments and memories are what matter, not how creative you got and how much you pushed the photographic envelope. 

Perhaps in 2016 I can do more of the latter. For now, I am getting ready to head back to the Kalahari, one of my favourite self-drive safari destinations. Look out for more images upon my return!

I wish you all the very best for the coming year! May God richly bless you in your coming and going, and in your life's journey with those you love most.

Morkel Erasmus