If you've been following trends in landscape photography, then you would know what "Dead Vlei" means. If you're unfamiliar with the place, it's basically a very photogenic dried up lake near Sossusvlei in the Namib-Naukluft National Park in Namibia. In the midst of this dried up lake stand a bunch of dead camelthorn trees. Despite having been to Sossusvlei in 1995, we didn't actually knew about Dead Vlei back then. So, upon our recent road-trip through Namibia, we just had to make a plan to visit this iconic spot. The problem with visiting a place of which you can see legions of photos over the course of a year is that it has the risk of not feeling new when you step into it for the first time. That's what happened to me. The place is haunting and special, make no mistake. I just think I'd seen so many photos of it that it didn't take my breath away in real life. I guess that is one of the problems of the modern photographic explosion. I also found it ironic that you need to travel around 300km of gravel road from any direction to get to the entrance gate, but then you have a lovely 57km stretch of asphalt to take you to within 5km of Dead Vlei and Sossusvlei...the impact of modern tourism demands I guess. Be that as it may - the other challenge is that it's pretty hard to capture unique and "fresh" photos of this place by now. But then again, I think often us photographers get so caught up in wanting to capture a location in our own unique way that just being in the moment and enjoying the privilege of being in a splendid spot of nature can pass us by. So here are a couple of photos I was able to grab on the one morning we spent there. I hope you enjoy them...
To kick off this post, I have to apologise to the band "The Killers", whose song title made a perfect title for this photo and its resulting blog post. As you may know, we recently returned from an amazing family safari-camping-roadtrip through some of the most iconic places in Namibia. One of the destinations was the famous Etosha National Park. Though it was not my first visit to Etosha, this was definitely my longest to date. We stayed a total of 12 days in the park, to ensure we made the most of each of the main camps and its surrounding regions. One of the photographic opportunities that has eluded me on my trips to Etosha prior to this one, has been to see and photograph the iconic elephant bulls caked in the white calcium-rich mud of this particular arid ecosystem. In my presentations and workshops, I always make mention of the fact that understanding animal behaviour is key to obtaining good wildlife photos. This particular photo is also the result of such understanding, and a bit of luck...
We first saw these elephant bulls when we transferred from Namutoni camp to Halali camp. They were moving across the pan towards the mudholes at the Springbokfontein waterhole. Because we were busy moving camp and had our big trailers hitched, we could not maximise the sighting for us photographically. It was also in the heat of midday, which meant the heat haze affected the quality of our photos.
During our stay at Halali, I was tempted to see if these bulls perhaps frequent this particular waterhole. I made a late morning run to this waterhole (a 32km trip one way) - and lo and behold, they were there, albeit further from the road than what is ideal. I knew now that these boys were the locals, this was their pub, and they would probably be found here most days until the rains come. We decided to return in that direction the next morning - and although they weren't there when we first arrived, they had made their way to the same spot far from the road by the time we got back from our brunch stop (we made delicious jaffels on the edge of the Etosha Pan, yum)...this time there were a total of 9 elephant bulls in the immediate area! The 4 we'd seen previously, and another 5. Photos were, again, hampered by the heart haze (it was upwards of 45 degrees Celcius by this time).
That hatched a plan for me. The next day we would be moving from Halali to Okaukuejo, and although the potential is there for the "white ghosts of Etosha" to be photographed around that area as well, I really wanted another crack at getting bankable photos of these boys. So we decided to scoot out to Springbokfontein one last time that afternoon, in hope that they would still be around the waterhole and possibly even close enough for decent photos. Man, were we right!! Some of them had moved off way into the bush, but 2 of the bulls were feeding right next to the road, and they were super relaxed...meaning we could work some really nice closeups and even wide angle shots of them. The golden afternoon light and some puffy clouds made for a very enjoyable afternoon of photography.
Are these photos unique - will they win me awards? Nope. Does it matter? Nope. Did my friend and I enjoy the culmination of my quest to photograph these white boys? Immensely. Go out there, and enjoy your photography! Morkel Erasmus
For someone who feasibly lives merely a day's hard drive from the glorious expanse that is Namibia, I visit very seldom. I suppose that's the way it is - life gets in the way, other destinations beckon...but that will change soon. We will be embarking on a 24-day camping adventure, with families in tow, across a vast portion of Namibia. That's something we South Africans love to do - overland camping, lugging everything along from a freezer to a portable shower to a mini-kitchen, "spending a fortune to live like a hobo", as the meme goes. We were originally only going to go to Etosha for 2 weeks, but then we got thinking - we will be there already, why not add another week? So here is a quick rundown of our trip:
Etosha National Park
Namib Rand Reserve
Quiver Tree Forest
Fish River Canyon
As you can see, it's a veritable bucket list of destinations.
We hiked the Fish River Canyon in 2009, and visited Etosha last in 2013, but I haven't been to the Namib desert regions since 1995!
To say we are excited is an understatement...
Camping with those you love under the immense stars in the wide spaces of Namibia for 3 weeks, cut off from social media and the political turmoil and all the drama in the world...eating good food, drinking good wine, taking some photos, reflecting on how God has blessed us...what more could you want?
Today I bring you some more behind-the-scenes stuff from my time filming a series of short tutorial YouTube videos with Nikon Asia in Hong Kong back in 2015. You can't visit Hong Kong and not go and brave the crowds (woah!) to see sunset and the city catch alight with nightlife from Victoria Peak gardens. Here is a photo I captured on this evening (I was even able to capture some photos to be used in the video as stills too):
Certainly not my preferred way of shooting a landscape (I prefer little to no hand-of-man elements), but it did come out nicely with the moving clouds in my opinion. Here's a photo of me and my lovely wife on top of the viewing tower:
The video I am linking to this post covers the various metering modes used in Nikon's DSLR camera line-up.
When Nikon in South Africa approached me in September 2015 to test out the Nikon D810 and the new lightweight Nikkor 400mm f2.8E FL VR lens I was relishing the opportunity - you see, I was heading to the Mara Triangle in Kenya (part of the Maasai Mara ecosystem) to host a photographic safari in the Maasai Mara for the Great Migration for Wild Eye.
I was looking forward to putting this camera–and–lens combo through its paces in an environment where anything can happen at any distance from the vehicle. The in-camera crop factor (Image Area option) of the Nikon professional FX series provides a great option to extend the effective focal length of the lens.
f8.0 | 1/2000 SS | ISO-280 | EV -1
First off - the D810 is an amazing camera. I was blown away by its dynamic range and amazing image resolving capabilities. The D810 was improved. Dynamic range and low light image quality (high ISO in other words), while offering a higher frame-rate for on demand shooting with an increased buffer capacity. The quiet shutter, intuitive feels and excellent build quality of the D810 makes it a joy to use.
f4.0 | 1/500 SS | ISO-2000 | EV +0.3
Now for the lens! I have just traded in my Nikkor 500mm f/4 for the previous version of the 400mm 2.8 - so knowing what that beast weighs, the first time I picked up the new 400mm f/2.8 from its case which also looks quite different than previous Nikkor super telephoto lens cases, I was flabbergasted by just how light it really is. At first touch, it feels only slightly heavier than a 300mm f/4 would feel. It is as sharp as you can imagine and the focus acquisition is snappy and responsive, making the lens a real pleasure to work with in the field.
f18 | 1/10 SS | ISO-500 | EV 0
Coupling them and knowing how and when to use the aforementioned in-camera crop modes ("Image Area") you can really utilise this combo for a great range of scenarios. If you leave the 400mm f/2.8 on the camera without adding a physical teleconverter, you can achieve the effective focal length of 480mm f/2.8 at 25 megapixels on the 1.2x crop setting. If you go to the DX crop setting you can get an effective 600mm f/12.8 at roughly +- 15.4 megapixels. Some folks will say they'd rather crop in processing and you can - but what makes it a tempting option is that your continuous frame rate for action sequences increases from 5fps to 6fps in these crop modes. If you use the MB-D12 battery grip (also compatible with the D800/D800E), you gain another boost to 7fps in the crop modes.
f4.0 | 1/1000 SS | ISO-1250 | EV 0
I always shoot my Nikon cameras in manual mode with auto ISO enabled. This allows me to select the shutter speed and aperture that I feel would contribute to the kind of image I am looking to create, while allowing the camera to select the ISO automatically (hinged to my selected exposure bias). I know I can implicitly trust my cameras to perform up to very high ISO and the D810 was no exception. Of course, having the option to go to an aperture of 2.8 when using varying shutter speeds helps! Read more on my preferred setup using auto ISO in THIS blog post.
f4.0 | 1/1250 SS | ISO-360 | EV -0.7
I would highly recommend this combination to wildlife and sports photographers. Given the fact that the D810 is the perfect landscape and portrait camera already, the added benefits of using it like I did for wildlife, pretty much makes it one of the best all-round combinations I have ever had the pleasure to use. The lens is a dream. If the older 400mm f/2.8 always felt a tad heavy to you and that was the only thing holding you back – you need to get this lens in your hand and feel the weight difference. It is a strong selling point!
If you've been around decent caliber wildlife photographers for any length of time, you will no doubt have heard one of them admonish someone else to always watch their histogram. It's the final litmus test for ensuring our images come out as we intend in-the-field, right? Yes.
The important thing to remember is that you need to look at the HISTOGRAM specifically. The actual graph plotted for the data contained in your actual image. DON'T trust the version of the image you see on the LCD screen, though. The back-of-camera LCD is far from a calibrated monitor on which to decide whether the colour or even apparent exposure of the image looks correct. It's easy to fall back on pure image review and forget to rely on data interpretation. Yes, of course the content of the image is important if you are reviewing or double-checking your composition - what I am referring to is exposure checking, especially in tricky and challenging lighting conditions. Consider this image - RAW, straight conversion, no processing applied.
If, at first glance, you thought that I had way underexposed this photo, you were correct. Yet, I had done it on purpose! The setting was a glorious misty sunrise on the last morning of the +Wild Eye Mana Pools photo safari I hosted in July (read the TRIP REPORT). When the sun rose behind the trees as a muted fiery ball, I knew that I wanted a photo with everything decently exposed (even the sun). So I purposely underexposed enough to protect the highlights and shadows from excessive clipping, knowing from experience what I would be able to pull back and rescue in processing. I shoot Nikon, and the specific settings might not correlate with how you would need to expose with other cameras, but I used these settings: Nikon D800 with Nikkor 300mm f2.8 VR-IIAperture: f5.6 Shutter Speed: 1/1000 ISO: 250 Exposure bias: -2/3 In this case, I specifically remember that I couldn't really see jack squat on my LCD in terms of composition or image content, the photo was simply too dark. I needed to trust my framing in the viewfinder and also my exposure based on histogram. The resultant histogram:
Again you might think this is creeping up too much on the shadows and highlights ends of the histogram - and yet I posit to you that this is where knowing your gear comes in and knowing how much you can recover from certain tonal areas that may seem blown out at first. A couple of delicate processing steps later:
In processing these photos I always try and go for a look & feel that would seem natural - if you were standing there looking into a hazy sunrise you would see detail, soft light and the scene would be oozing with mood. The original frame doesn't have that at face value, and we need to tease that out of the photo in processing. Remember that the human eye can process an equivalent of about 32 f-stops in one view, so a camera can never just capture the precise way in which we perceive a moody, high dynamic range scene like this. It's easy to overcook this as well and make it look garishly unrealistic! The histogram now:
The brightest spots of the sun can be blown out - it's the sun after all. The darkest shadows are not preventing me from enjoying the image for what is ought to be - a moody dawn in the forest. The lesson? Know your gear well enough to shoot on instinct. Know well enough what you want to capture to shoot on instinct. If necessary, read the histogram and interpret what you need to change to bring you as close as possible to a USABLE image. I hope this post has been of help to you. Morkel Erasmus
The sun has just risen, and we spent its rising with a lioness close to the Rooiputs waterhole in the Kalahari desert, more specifically, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park that straddles the borders of South Africa and Botswana.
South Africa is experiencing a heat wave of sweaty proportions - normal summer temperatures here average around 45C, and this week it's been up to 54C most days...in the shade. As we drove out of camp it was already 26C, pre-dawn.
Suddenly I spot a dark shape moving purposefully along the dry Nossob riverbed.
Honey Badger!! If you don't know what honey badgers are, they are pretty much the roughest, toughest buggers in the African bush.
Anyhow, finding a honey badger on a trip to the Kalahari is a special treat, and this early in the morning! We follow him as he scrounges around, digging for grub in the loose Kalahari sand.
"How about here? I smell something!"
Promptly the badger dug up a small leopard tortoise! Right next to our vehicle (and we were the only people there).
The prey in itself brought its own set of challenges - how to break through the shell?
A tough nut to crack...
What followed is a lengthy process of the dexterous badger working his prey until he was able to pierce the shell of the tortoise, and get to the good stuff inside. Yes, it's sad for the tortoise, but it's the circle of life and it was fascinating to get to watch this "nutcracker" at work.
Suffice to say that the badger eventually got through the carapace of the tortoise.
That wasn't the end of the morning's activity, though! As we are watching the badger feeding, my wife notices that there are two lionesses and two lion cubs walking by behind the badger...talk about a Kalahari double whammy!
Let's leave the lions for another day - as they kept us busy for the rest of the morning. I hope you enjoyed seeing these photos! We have some video too - might edit and release it soon. Keep well... Morkel Erasmus
Last year, my wife and I had an incredible privilege: we witnessed the moment a massive litter of 17 highly endangered African Wild Dog (Painted Dog) puppies came out of their den for the very first time.
We were in the Lowveld on a family holiday, and got the chance to head out with Grant Beverley for the day. Grant heads up the EWT(Endangered Wildlife Trust) Wild Dog research and monitoring for the Greater Kruger area of South Africa. We visited two separate packs of the enigmatic "painted wolf". The first one was situated in the Zandspruit Aero Estate, in the town of Hoedspruit. To see these animals adapting and denning with puppies in a residential eco-estate where people were developing holiday homes was quite something!
We only caught fleeting glimpses of the alpha female of this pack, and decided to head out to the Ngala Private Game Reserve bordering the Orpen gate of the Kruger National Park.
Last year, the alpha female of this pack gave birth to a whopping 17 puppies! They had, at that point, never ventured out of the den. Grant was hoping that the pack would possibly call them out for the first time (he visited this den nearly every day, was in contact with the Ngala guides, and had camera traps installed at all his monitored den sites).
(note: all images shot in this post were captured with a Nikon D3s and Nikkor 500mm f4 VR lens)
When we arrived, the pack adults were lazing about, and I was able to capture some portraits of them. It was evident that they had recently made a kill, as their faces were covered in fresh blood.
It looked like we were in for a long wait that would possibly not result in any visual of the pups. Suddenly, one of the adults moved towards the den (seemingly an abandoned warthog burrow).
More of the adults moved towards the den entrance, with some starting to vocalise with yelps and chirps...and then two little faces appeared from the abyss!
Followed by a couple more!
What followed was just one of the most special moments I've ever witnessed in the bush - the pack proceeded to regurgitate some of their meat of the day's kill for the youngsters. It might seem gross to some people, but this is a piece of behaviour few people have had the privilege to witness as intimately as we were doing at that moment...
Here's a short video clip of what we saw!
We also sat and watched as the pups explored around their den for the first time, how some of the adults haphazardly handled the roughed up the runts of the litter, and how they all eventually were signaled by the alpha female that it was time to get back to the safety of the den.
I hope that you are not bored by now with these images!
Before it was all over, I did get a chance to capture the pups all lined up at the den entrance for one last glance at the weird people in the Land Rover with the pointy thing that keeps clicking...
It is very rare for a single female to have this many puppies. They survived much longer than anyone could have dreamed, as the pack cared well for them and protected them. In the meantime, the pack has split and regrouped with other dogs many times, so it's hard to determine exactly how many of the 17 pups have seen their first "birthday".
The work that Grant and the EWT are doing is immensely important in ensuring the viability and genetic diversity of the South African population of this rare predator. Their territories are vast, and as human encroachment keeps fragmenting the amount of land under dedicated conservation, the pressure on them will mount. Your donations can keep this team focused on monitoring and managing the greater Kruger meta-population with long-term survival and sustainability in mind. Please consider making a donation!
In my previous post of this series, I shared some behind-the-scenes photos and info on the video shoot I did with Nikon Asia in Hong Kong last year. The weather in Hong Kong was quite gloomy most days - and the smog was evident. It was a new environment for me to be shooting in, I do quite prefer being out in nature!
This week's video is about the distinction between prime and zoom lenses, I hope you find it insightful!
I had an amazing crew to work with on these shoots. Working in the extreme humidity of Hong Kong all day was quite a challenge, but it worked out well!
Stay tuned for more videos and behind-the-scenes photos and stories! Morkel Erasmus
I'd rather sleep under this 5 billion star sky than in any 5 star establishment in the world... Many folks who see these images want to know how they are captured. Here is a quick run-down of the process used to capture this photo.
Get to a place where there is minimal light pollution. Nearby towns and settlements exude enough light to feasibly affect your shot and the amount of stars visible.
Scout around for decent compositions during daylight, bearing in mind your main compass directions and suitable compositional elements.
Use a sturdy tripod.
Use a wide-angle lens with a large maximum aperture (think 1.4 or 2.8).
Make sure what time the moon rises and sets, and what phase it is in - this will also affect star visibility.
If you want more stars - wait for there to be no moon or new moon.
If you want more landscape illumination, shoot with a subtle moon at a low position in the sky.
Use your torch and camera "live view" to pre-focus on a clear object at least 10 meters in front of you, or manually set your lens to the hyperfocal distance.
Set your ISO to something between 1600 and 6400, depending on your camera's low light capability and your expected ambient light.
Set your exposure time to somewhere between 20 and 30 seconds (anything more will start to induce "star trails" as the earth rotates around its axis.
Use a strong torch to "paint" the foreground during the exposure. I find it works best to bounce the light source off your hand and use your hand to direct the light (your hand also diffuses the light and adds some warmth to colder/blue light sources).
Check the resulting shot and make adjustments to composition, focus point or settings as you deem necessary.
The settings for this image?
Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8 (focal length 14mm)
20 seconds shutter release
The Mountain Zebra National Park in the Karoo desert, South Africa.
Some of you might remember that my wife and I flew out to Hong Kong last year directly after I hosted a Wild Eye safari in the Mara Triangle. The purpose of the visit was not to be divulged at the time, but the cat is now firmly out of the bag... I was selected as the video host of the newest "Nikon Unveiled" series of short tutorial YouTube videos released by Nikon Asia. This series is aimed at enthusiasts who want to delve into the DSLR genre but are unsure of what to consider and how to make the most of their new camera gear. In this series of posts I will be pairing the tutorials I presented with some behind-the-scenes photos from our trip.
Behind the scenes shooting the video shown below, at Victoria Peak Gardens in Hong Kong
I'd love for you to have a look and let me know what you think? This first video is an introductory overview of the camera-and-lens combinations you can consider when switching from your smaller camera to the Nikon DSLR system.
You can see the entire range of videos in playlist format HERE (all shorter than 3 minutes per video). It was my fist visit to a proper "skyscraper-city" and the sights just about gave me vertigo!
Nikon D800 | Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 @ 24mm | Kenko Pro Circular Polariser | f5.6 | 1/640 SS | ISO-220
Every now and again, you find yourself having a day on safari that seems hard to top. The 11th of December, 2014, was one such a day. My wife and I were on a quick safari to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park that straddles South Africa and Botswana. If you've been following my photography for a while, you'd know it's a destination that's on my travel list most years. After having a fairly quiet trip thus far when it came to big cat sightings (yet a trip to the Kalahari is always special and unique in its own right), we struck gold that day. It was all lions for us on this day. It started with us being roared from our sleep at 3am in the morning while staying in the Urikaruus Wilderness Camp, and seeing those same lions drink from the camp waterhole later as the sun rose (see the photo HERE).
When it looked like this pride of 8 lions was going to flop down for the rest of the day like lions do, we headed north to the 13th Borehole waterhole to see what was going on there. There then found a gorgeous-looking male lion and a lioness, having just drunk their fill from the waterhole, mating right next to our vehicle! To see images of that sighting, and that particular male, check out THIS POST. This post, however, is about the other members of this particular pride. When the male and female had mated for another round, and their throws of passion died out, I looked across the Auob riverbed and saw this bunch approaching!
This lioness was guarding a creche of 7 cubs of varying ages (we later saw that she was the mother of the eldest bunch of cubs), and she was marching them to the water at a pace!
The cubs spent quite some time drinking and playing around the waterhole...
After about 15 minutes the whole bunch moved across the road where we were parked and up into the dunes. We decided to proceed north to Mata Mata as we needed to refuel.
Seeing as we needed to return to Urikaruus anyway, we decided to check up on whether the lions had returned to the waterhole at 13th Borehole when we came back down at around 11am. Sure enough, the whole creche was lying up under a bush right by the waterhole again!
They were going to be there for a while, given the heat and the proximity of water, so we headed back to our camp (about 10km from there) to have some lunch and a quick rest. The plan was to get back to this spot by around 14h00 and see what they would do for the afternoon. Upon our return they were still lazing about - but the incoming storm caused the temperatures to drop and the light to go nice and soft, which turned out great from a photographic point of view.
...filling their bellies with life-giving water...
The lioness then moved back across the Auob. Seeing that they seemed to have come down from the dunes on the Namibian side I concluded that they would head back there (their place of shelter) when the storm came in. The cubs played around for a few more moments, and then followed after her.
As they moved away, we reflected on the special time we had with these 7 cubs and the lioness that took care of them. For the most part of the day, except for the morning session which was shared by about 10 vehicles, we had them all to ourselves because we stuck it out in the heat and spent time with them when everyone else was trying to relax in the uncomfortable hours of the afternoon. It's worth putting the time in with wildlife photography! I always say - keep what you have. Too often people see an animal, decide that it's too static for them, and move on in search of the next sighting...when much can be achieved by simply sitting, observing, waiting, and merely enjoying it for what it is - a privilege! Morkel Erasmus