Tuesday 7 March 2017

Wildlife Storytelling 1 - The Essence of the Beast

We are, by nature, story-tellers. I don't care what your chosen medium of expression is - a good chunk of people alive today want to tell their story in their own way.

This is also true of wildlife photographers...

But what makes for better wildlife story-telling?
I often conduct workshops to inspire other wildlife photographers to tell better wildlife stories.

This is the first of a series of posts here on my blog where I will delve into some of the principles I discuss during these presentations. My hope is that it will inspire you to look at your own photographic voice and style, and try to steer away from just taking the same photos you've always taken, and the same photos that everyone else is taking.

Let's get started...

1. The Essence of the Beast

We've all got our photographic muse when it comes to wildlife photography. Not everyone is lucky enough to live on the continent of Africa, but some who don't live here are able to travel here on safari frequently. Nevertheless, for some it will be the polar bear, for others the tiger, for some it might even be the carmine bee-eater or the orca. 

It doesn't really matter...what matters is - are you able to convey something about that favourite species of yours through your photography? Are you able to show people not just what they would physically see in the frame of your photo, but also show them what else there might be?

I like to be able to show my viewers something about these fascinating subjects I get to photograph. Something deeper than the merely obvious. I like to show them something about the essence of the subject. The essence of the beast, as it were...

Case in point: the leopard.

Who doesn't love leopards?

While they are certainly my favourite big cat to be able to photograph, they are definitely not the one I most often see. Why? Because of their nature. Because of what leopards are.


You get the point?
But do most photos of leopards in the wild show this?

Sure, it's great getting a chance to photograph a leopard in sweet light, lying prone on an open tree branch or termite mound, fully cooperating with the photographer. You can get plenty of those shots if you go to the right reserve/national park at the right time, and you have some luck on your side.

Yet, after seeing hundreds (if not thousands) of those photos in the photographic communities/forums that I am involved in - it has become rather "meh" to me.

What I am now looking for constantly is that image that shows off the qualities of this predator that I have listed. Or any other quality that's not obvious when doing a simple Google search for leopard photos.

In order to get those shots, you might need to forego your desire to have that golden light, with the cat on an unobstructed perch.

Consider this image. Does it not say infinitely more about the enigmatic leopard than the one I posted higher up in the post?

Nikon D3s  |  Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II  |  f4.0  |  1/250 SS  |  ISO-4000

I will now "drop the mic", and leave you be until the next post...

Morkel Erasmus

Wednesday 22 February 2017

South Africa: Rich in National Parks

During my (relatively short, I might add) lifetime I have had the privilege of visiting the majority of South Africa’s national parks and game reserves. What a wealth of natural heritage we possess! 

When people from abroad look at some of the work in my photographic portfolio, they are amazed at the diversity of wildlife and landscapes that we have 'on our doorstep', so to speak. We need to appreciate it, conserve it and foster a love for this natural heritage among all South Africans from all walks of life.

If we don’t, we might just lose it before our children have the chance to see what we see now. Many iconic species of fauna are already at risk (think rhinos and wild dogs), and the constant threat of mining and industrial development in areas of pristine natural beauty is something that won’t go away soon.

Here are some scenes from a couple of well-known and lesser-known parks and reserves that are both accessible for people who self-drive and self-cater, and reasonably affordable.

Kruger National Park

A herd of buffalo on the Mphongolo River near Punda Maria in the Kruger National Park.

Everybody’s favourite reserve, this park spans a massive 2-million hectares (approximately) and contains beautiful scenery and fauna. The southern region is very popular and therefore can get very crowded. I prefer to visit the quieter and more scenic northern regions - and if you search my blog you will find numerous posts about my forays in to this iconic national park.

A young spotted hyena in the rain in the Kruger National Park.

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park

If you are a keen wildlife photographer there is no better place, in my opinion, than the Kgalagadi. Remote, arid and teeming with life, this is a place where silence and serenity seep into your soul. This park is situated in the Kalahari desert, with wide open spaces and red soil. 

My blog archives have extensive posts and images from this place, as it's a favourite of mine.

A black-maned Kalahari lion strides across the vast expanse of the Kgalagadi.

A cheetah family playing on the red dunes of the Kgalagadi

Golden Gate Highlands National Park

A grand view over the sandstone formations of the Maluti mountains in the Golden Gate Highlands.

The jewel of the Eastern Free State, this park encompasses iconic sandstone formations, the Maluti Mountains, and a wide array of life forms like zebras, black wildebeest, many birds and small mammals, reptiles and insects.

The ungainly secretary bird - this one took off on the slopes of the Maluti mountains in the Golden Gate Highlands.

Mountain Zebra National Park

Cape mountain zebras - endangered but recovering well thanks to the MZNP.

This relatively unknown gem is a wonderful place to experience the Karoo as it once was - recent re-introduction of cheetahs and lions has made for an even bigger drawing card. It's got amazing backdrops and vistas, and the sense of space and solitude that is so typical of the Karoo.

Two blesbuck males duel at dawn on the escarpment of the MZNP.

Addo Elephant National Park

Two young elephant bulls test their strength at a waterhole in Addo.

Sporting the Big 5 (Big 7 if you count the great white shark and the Southern right wale in the ocean section), in a malaria free zone and close to the Port Elizabeth airport, this is a popular destination for people visiting the Cape area and wanting to add a wildlife experience.

Pilanesberg National Park

A pied kingfisher landing on a branch next to the Mankwe dam in Pilanesberg.

Though this park doesn’t fall under the mantle of the South African National Parks, it’s sometimes called a national park and is a very popular destination for nature lovers close to Gauteng.  Besides hosting the Big 5, the Mankwe Dam, with its large bird hide, is popular among birders and bird photographers.


I hope that this quick overview has inspired you to visit more of the well-known and lesser-known wilderness areas left in our country. Get out, explore, photograph, conserve, and communicate!

Morkel Erasmus

Wednesday 15 February 2017

An ode to the Impala

The Impala

Stately and graceful…and plentiful…this third quality I listed probably contributes to its undervaluation as a wildlife sighting or photographic opportunity. 

In areas like the Greater Kruger Park I will give you a surety of 100 to 1 in odds that your first sighting upon entering the park will be impala. They just seem to be there in limitless numbers. Yet these populous antelopes can also provide some interesting moments, if one dares to sit with them a while and observe instead of the customary drive-by. 

I get that many overseas visitors to Africa want to move on to “bigger things” given their often limited time in the reserves…but those that have a passion for watching natural history unfold will do well to spend some time with them next time you are in the field.

Here are some images I have captured of these antelopes over the years...

The last rays of daylight kiss and envelope this stately buck’s profile. 

These two young males show separate stages of horn development. 

A young fawn receives much-needed nourishment from its vigilant mother.
Those who have seen impalas in rut will know that the males can really have at it. The intensity is visible in the eyes here!
An impressive ram in the Mara Triangle (Kenya) against an oncoming storm.

Dwarfed by the immense woodlands of Mana Pools, Zimbabwe.

Close-up study of this graceful antelope in the best kind of light. 

So that is my humble tribute to the Impala in the form of a photo essay.
Which image did you like the most?
Drop me a comment below.

God bless you

Morkel Erasmus

Monday 9 January 2017

The Animalscape

There is a kind of wildlife image that has always spoken to me deeply.
If you have been following my photography for more than a month you would have noticed that I often share these kinds of images.

I like to call it "The Animalscape".
The animal in the landscape.
The landscape with the animal(s) in it.

"Giraffe Sunrise" - Etosha, Namibia
Nikon D3s  |  Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 VR-II @ 70mm  |  f5.6  |  1/320 SS  |  ISO-200

I guess I like it so much on the one hand because it brings together my two preferred photographic genres: wildlife photography and landscape photography.
On the other hand, and I think this is the main reason I like it: I think this kind of image paints a better context and story about the wilderness areas of Africa that are so quickly dwindling.

We cannot preserve the wildlife if we don't preserve the habitat.
And yet it is futile to preserve the habitat while killing off the wildlife.
The two are interconnected, intertwined, inseparable...

"Shake it!" - Mara Triangle, Kenya
Nikon D800  |  Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 VR-II @ 70mm  |  f5.6  |  1/1600 SS  |  ISO-1000

This kind of image is all about telling the bigger story of the the species you are photographing. Where do they roam? Where do they eke out their survival? What other species live around them? What's the weather like?

The biggest mistake you can make is to think the only way you can create an animalscape is to use a wide angle lens. Sure, wider angles work well to show as much of the environment as possible, but you either need a very big subject (think elephant or giraffe) or you need to be super close to the subject. I often use the Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 lens for these shots. You can't go too wide in most cases for fear of losing the subject in the frame.

An example of a wide angle animalscape:

"Cotton Candy Clouds" - Chobe National Park, Botswana
Nikon D800  |  Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 @ 31mm  |  f5.6  |  1/400 SS  |  ISO-180

The wide angle emphasizes the extreme depth of the scene, the immense sky, and the elements of the landscape. The elephant is just big enough to be a key element in the composition.

The mid-range zoom lens can often be used for effective animalscapes. For this purpose my go-to lens is the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 VR-II, as it's tack sharp through the focal range, and super quick to focus.

"Long Line of Leavers" - Mara Triangle, Kenya
Nikon D800  |  Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 VR-II @ 135mm  |  f9.0  |  1/640 SS  |  ISO-220

It doesn't have to stop there, though. I find it amusing that so many wildlife photographers only feel they are using their super telephoto lenses properly if they can use it to fill the frame with a portrait of the animal's face or full body. If a subject is deemed "too far" the possibility of a workable shot being taken is not even considered. The telephoto compression effect can bring a different element to the animalscape. My previous telephoto was the Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II, which I traded last year for the Nikkor 400mm f2.8 VR-II. You obviously won't include as much of the landscape, but that's not the point.

"Cheetah on the Plains" - Mara Triangle, Kenya
Nikon D3s  |  Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II  |  f8.0  |  1/800 SS  |  ISO-900

When it comes to producing compelling photos of this nature, I cannot stress enough how important a sense for good composition is to the photographer. You need to be able to include enough AND exclude enough of the surrounding scene to tell the story and "paint" the tapestry as simplistic yet engaging as possible. Study other photographers' work. Study the works of famous painters. Know what the language of composition entails - it's a language that's often not put into words, but comes across as a philosophical aesthetic.

I hope this post encourages you to try your hand at more of these kinds of photos.
I wish more wildlife photographers would venture for the contextual shot, the animalscape, to show people not just the wonderful wildlife they encounter, but also the amazing landscape in which those animals carve out an existence.

Keep clicking!

Morkel Erasmus

Sunday 1 January 2017

Sixteen Scenes from 2016

Hello my friends! Firstly - I want to wish you a very happy and blessed 2017!

It's that time of year, eh? If you follow a plethora of photographers you will no doubt see many of them put out some sort of "best of 2016" image collection. 

I've outlined in previous posts why I think it's a good idea, why I find value in glancing back over the year's work and journey. So this year I am doing it again...

As with previous years - this is by no means an exhaustive list of my absolute top keeper photos of the year. It's rather a collection of moments captured that captures the year in a kind-of-chronological order.

Remember that all these photos are best viewed by clicking on them (which opens them up at the native posting resolution).

1. "Spot the Cat"

The year of 2016 started off on a hot note - both in terms of photographic opportunity and in terms of real-world temperature. Braving the Kalahari during an immense heat-wave, we were able to experience a couple of key moments. First off was no doubt the leopard that took me 7 years to photograph. This is not a unique photograph, but special to me because of the process and journey to get there. 

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

2. "The Nutcracker Badger"

...and then of course the rascal that put up such a good show on the same safari...
Honey badgers are just awesome.

We found one taking a small leopard tortoise to task in the Kalahari - (full story HERE)...

Nikon D4s  |  Nikkor 400mm f2.8G VR  |  1.4x teleconverter  |  f8.0  |  1/400 SS  |  ISO-2500

3. "Horned"

This image was captured while on a memorable father-and-son photographic safari to Leopard Hills in the Sabi Sand area of South Africa. I could have posted a leopard photo, but I quite liked the abstract nature and the textures of this photo.

Nikon D800  |  Nikkor 400mm f2.8G VR  |  1.4x teleconverter  |  f8.0  |  1/400 SS  |  ISO-2500

4. "Down in the Dust"

Elephants have always formed part of my photography. I am just drawn to them - plus they tend to give me better opportunities than for example big cats! We went on a family camping trip to the far north of the Kruger National Park in the South African winter - and shared some special moments, one of them being this herd of elephants moving down into a dry riverbed, dusting as they go, as the sun set behind them.

Nikon D800  |  Nikkor 400mm f2.8G VR  |  f5.6  |  1/1000 SS  |  ISO-450

5. "Crocodile Crowd"

Another trademark of our winter foray to the Kruger was the number of Nile Crocodiles we saw basking on the banks of the Levhuvhu river in the Pafuri region every day. On this stretch we counted nearly 60 individual crocodiles just on the opposite (visible) bank! It didn't make for an amazing photo, but it was an amazing sight and one that my kids duly remember.

Nikon D800  |  Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 @ 55mm  |  Circular Polariser  |  f8.0  |  1/200 SS  |  ISO-140

6. "Feeding along the Zambezi"

Another elephant! This bull was feeding on the winterthorn trees along the Zambezi riverbank. I was hosting a Wild Eye photographic safari to the wonderful location of Mana Pools, and we were able to really work the scene here on a slightly cloudy morning. If you know my work - you know that I am always on the lookout for a chance to include the landscape in the wildlife photo - this is a prime example.

Nikon D800  |  Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 @ 36mm  |  Circular Polariser  |  f8.0  |  1/500 SS  |  ISO-640

7. "Impala Serenity"

Sticking with Mana Pools - we really spent a lot of time working the light and trying to capture the magic of the forests along the Zambezi floodplains. I am a firm believer that any subject will do if the right mood and light is there...

Nikon D800  |  Nikkor 300mm f2.8 VR-II  |  f22  |  1/500 SS  |  ISO-2500

8. "Bloodsport"

Seeing a big cat kill is high on many a photographer's wishlist. This one was quite unexpected! While watching some mating lions on our Wild Eye Great Migration Safari - the male got up and walked towards a herd of wildebeest in the distance. The herd saw him - except for one individual who was wallowing in the mud. He wallowed a bit too long and the lion was upon him with power before he could escape his quagmire!

Nikon D800  |  Nikkor 400mm f2.8G VR  |  f5.6  |  1/1250 SS  |  ISO-2200

9. "Chaos at the River"

We saw quite a number of dramatic wildebeest crossings during this year's safari to the Mara Triangle. This is but one moment that I liked in terms of framing, light and mood. This is also the first image I processed with the MacPhun Tonality software suite, and I am thoroughly enjoying working with their apps.

Nikon D800  |  Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 VR-II @ 185mm  |  f7.1  |  1/800 SS  |  ISO-160

10. "Giraffe Echo"

These iconic animals have recently been downgraded to "Vulnerable" on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species once it became clear how devastating the drop in their overall numbers really are. I was fortunate to capture a couple of nice image of giraffes on our family safari to Etosha late in 2016.

Nikon D800  |  Nikkor 400mm f2.8G VR  |  f7.1  |  1/1250 SS  |  ISO-400

11. "Lord of the Land"

There were a couple of photos I'd not had the chance to capture on previous visits to Etosha. The one was a chance to get close to the famous "white" elephant bulls, which I was able to (read the blog post HERE). The second was of a male lion against the backdrop of the desolate Etosha pan. Here is one such photo that I was happy with!

Nikon D800  |  Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 VR-II @ 70mm  |  f5.6  |  1/400 SS  |  ISO-720

12. "Fallen Quiver"

Our trip through Namibia took us to many of the iconic destinations I have desperately wanted to photograph since taking up this art. The quiver tree forests near Keetmanshoop provided some interesting compositions to explore. This fallen quiver tree grabbed my attention.

Nikon D800  |  Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8 @ 14mm  |  f22  |  1/15 SS  |  ISO-200

13. "Namib Rand Nightscape"

The place that grabbed my soul the most during the trip through Namibia was the isolated, beautiful Namib Rand Reserve. Over 200,000 hectares of wilderness in an arid land, with more stars than you could ever imagine to fathom. The glory of God was on full display, and the silence seeped into your being. This photo was taken when a storm had passed through one night, with some moonlight still bathing the landscape.

Nikon D800  |  Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8 @ 14mm  |  f2.8  |  25 seconds   |  ISO-3200

14. "Towering Tentacles"

I recently wrote here on my blog about the personal challenge I found it to photograph the infamous Dead Vlei for the first time. I tried to express some compositions that I had not really seen before, but I am as yet unconvinced that I succeeded entirely (which means I will need to go back someday). I did like this one - and felt it could be included in this selection. What do you think?

Nikon D800  |  Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8 @ 15mm  |  f16  |  1/15 SS  |  ISO-200

15. "Camp Craze"

I have stayed in some luxurious lodging in various part of Africa, but nothing beats camping on your own. Having to fend for yourself, exposed to the elements, hearing every sound of the night, and being alone with family and friends in a special piece of wilderness, is a feeling that no luxury lodging can compare to or attain. This is our camp at the famous Spitzkoppe in Namibia.

16. "Sharing the Experience"

I feel very privileged to have been able to take my wife and our children to the wilderness as often as I have. My kids have grown up with an immense love for nature, wildlife and the outdoors as a result of this (they have been to the Kalahari more than they've been to the seaside). This is a family portrait we took in Dead Vlei - and yes my kids hiked it out there and loved every second of it.

There you have it, folks. Like I say upfront on every post of this nature - it's a timeline, memoir if you will, through my year. Yes there may be "better" photos in the archives where I extracted these from, but these caught my eye or have specific significance in terms of memories and moments.

The year 2017 will see me travel a lot less for photography, for reasons I will divulge soon. That does not mean I will put the camera down or not use any opportunity I can to capture more images, though!

I trust you have enjoyed these musings and images.
I also trust that you look forward to your own journey in 2017, and where it may take you.
Thanks so much for following along on mine!

God bless you...

Morkel Erasmus