Wildlife photography and FOMO
Yes, you can take that pic
You’ve always wanted to take that spectacular, awe-inspiring photo that people put in their online galleries, show their friends and confidently enter in wildlife photography competitions. Can you imagine how proud you must be to have taken a photograph like the one above?
The picture at the top of this newsletter is one of an extraordinary series taken by Antionette Morkel. Yes, it is cruel. Hyenas have no mercy and that poor kudu suffered a terrible death. Two hyenas ripped chunks of flesh out of him while he was still desperately trying to swim away.
Antionette posted the some pictures from her series on social media, but warned that they are not for the faint hearted. And she is correct, the photos are not for the squeamish, although photographers are almost by definition more than a little voyeuristic. Not all of us want to capture nature at its most savage, but we cannot deny that the drama of a raw battle for survival has a powerful impact on the viewer.
We will return to the kudu and the two hyenas later in this newsletter.
You’ve seen astonishing TV footage of crocodiles chomping on zebras as they try to cross a river; giraffes cantering in the morning sun and lions gaining ground on fleeing hyenas. Those images are amazing examples of why wildlife photography is such an exciting hobby.
So can you take photos like those? Is it true that digital photography has made it possible for just about anyone to be an ace wildlife photographer?
The short answer is “No! – but then … why not?” In more modern terminology, “Yes, but … it’s complicated”.
Let’s leave these not very helpful answers behind and explore what you need to know if you intend taking superb photos on your next Real Safari.
Although this newsletter sometimes covers topics relevant to high-end, guided safaris, we focus mainly on self-drive expeditions where you are your own travel agent, your own guide, your own cook and the master of where you want to go, and when you want to do it.
What you need to take good wildlife photographs
You want to drive yourself on safari and take many high quality pictures that you can put on social media and impress your friends.
Here is what you need to take those incredible photos on safari:
1. Luck – and plenty of it
2. Patience – you might have to wait for hours at a single spot
3. Knowledge – what to look for and when to look for it
4. Skill – with your equipment.
5. Equipment – photographers always want better cameras and lenses
Luck is that indefinable something that made a buffalo cross the dirt-road just as you came around the curve. If you had been there five seconds earlier, he would have spooked and stayed in the bush. Thirty seconds later and he would have crossed already and disappeared among the thorns and leaves.
They say you make your own luck, but how would you know when a warthog piglet was going to walk straight into the path of a hungry lioness?
Patience is the defining quality that separates good photographers from chronic victims of FOMO – the Fear of Missing Out. Imagine you are waiting near a water hole and a herd of impalas has spread along the shoreline. They appear to be relaxed and do not show any signs of anxiety. They do not know that two lionesses are sleeping under a tree barely a hundred metres away. You know they are there because you spotted the tawny blur with your binoculars, but impalas rarely use binoculars.
The lionesses do not seem to be the least bit interested in the impalas. Perhaps they were still full from a recent kill and intended sleeping for the rest of the day. Perhaps they wanted to wait until afternoon cools down before they think about dinner.
On the other hand, someone at the rest camp said that two elephant bulls had been fighting a little further down the road. What should we do?
Should we stay and see if the lionesses get up, or rush off to see the battling elephants. A classic FOMO quandary that might, or might not be resolved by patience and some luck.
Knowledge about the habits wild animals is vital in the quest for an outstanding photo. You will know that if its midday and the sun is beating down on the savannah, the lionesses are unlikely to get up and go on a hunt. On the other hand, if it is very hot, the elephants will probably go for a swim in a nearby river or dam.
You will know that if you see a rhinoceros in the distance, but can’t discern whether it is a white or a black rhino, and it is eating grass in a fairly open setting then it is a white rhino. If it is eating leaves off a bush, then it is probably a black rhino.
Knowledge will also spare you the trouble of searching for giraffe or cheetah in the Addo Elephant Park (AEP) because you know that neither of these animals is present in the park. This might be confusing because as you drive to the AEP you could spot cheetahs or giraffes in some of the adjoining private reserves.
Skill is what you need to use your camera equipment properly. Modern digital cameras are fantastic pieces of technology but they are actually quite hard to use effectively. Practise with your camera to understand what settings are optimal under a variety of conditions if you expect quality results.
Practise a lot. Taking a few snaps over the weekend won’t cut it.
Can you imagine how disappointed you’d be if your brilliant pics of an elephant crashing through the bush are all over-exposed and burnt out?
Finally, we look at the equipment. This is a critical topic that depends on how serious you are about your photography and how deep are your pockets. Camera equipment, at least the really good stuff, is horrendously expensive especially for us South Africans who have a relatively weak currency.
Most cars driving around our game reserves today are filled with tourists hanging out of windows with their smartphones. These devices in the hands of an expert can take excellent photos provided the subject is not too far away. The main function of smartphone photography is to take duck-face selfies and not herds of antelope at any great distance.
A long lens and a gimbal
This brings us back to the incredible photo at the top of this newsletter. What did it take to get such an amazing series? I wrote to the photographer and I asked her about her camera/lens set up and it was clear from her response, and from other comments posted on social media; that it was a combination of all of the above.
Antionette’s response was: “Nikon D500 with 600mm lens. It was early morning, so could not use fast shutter speed which is needed for action. I have Gimpro with gimbal head mounted on my door, which helps to get sharper pictures even with lower shutter speeds!”
She took the series at Gwarrie Pan, a small waterhole in the AEP that has been drying up for a while as a persistent drought has been desiccating the area. This means that there is good visibility but the action occurs quite a long way from the viewing area – at least a hundred metres away.
Antionette probably knew that hyenas hunt in the area in the early morning so it was a good time to be there. She had top-notch equipment – I am told that the Nikon D500 is an excellent camera and a 600mm lens is fabulous for wildlife photography.
The fact that Antionette had a gimbal on her car door was a winner, but the clincher was that she knew how to use that equipment under low light conditions. Nothing beats expert camera skills and she has the pictures to prove it.
A gimbal is a device made up of clamps and arms that fit on to your car door to help stabilise your camera – it’s sort of like a tripod that uses the car door instead of three legs for stability. It is essential to have a door mount or similar device if you are using a long lens. It is impossible to keep a 600mm lens still without some kind of support.
The problem is that most of these gimbals are sophisticated handcrafted pieces of equipment and often cost over a thousand dollars.
A more cost-effective solution (maybe not quite as effective) is to place a beanbag on the sill of the car door window. You have to then balance your camera or lens on the bag of beans. No, it doesn’t look very professional, but you can move it quickly from one window to another if your subject is running from the left side of the road to the right.
Advice about shutter speeds and apertures is beyond my field of expertise, besides there are innumerable web sites and videos that teach these valuable skills. If you are not sure how to use these options on your camera, it is worth taking the time to read the tutorials and practise, practise, practise.
Thank-you for reading this edition of Real Safari and don’t forget to read realsafari.substack.com next week for a discussion on the conflict of interests between wind-farms and game reserves.
· Antionette Morkel Photography: http://www.amorkelphotography.co.za
· GimPro: http://www.gimprogear.com/