North of the Levuvhu River and South of the Limpopo comprises a remarkable area of approximately 240 square kilometres. While only 1% of the area of the Kruger National Park, the land contains 75% of the park's total diversity. This region belongs to the Makuleke tribe, and the Makuleke community regained the land in 1998 after a restitution of land rights process. The area is commonly referred to as the Pafuri triangle. The triangle is a wedge of land created by the confluence of the Limpopo and Luvuvhu Rivers at Crook's Corner, which forms a border with Zimbabwe along the Limpopo River. The area has been declared a Ramsar site – a wetland of international importance. Suffice to say, it’s one of the natural wonders of South Africa. Over the next few weeks we’ll be exploring Pafuri and the mindboggling life found within it.
Photographing leopards is always a demanding exercise. Very often, these cats are skittish or simply well-concealed, and often more relaxed in the darkness, where lighting then needs to be artificial. The challenge is to frame the picture interestingly – to do justice to both the context and the animal. This shot was taken in 2011 in the Sabi Sands using only the spotlight from the vehicle. F2.8, ISO 1600 and at 1/200 sec at a focal length of 200mm. The subject was about 15m away.
This well-known denizen of our precious African waterways never fails to impress with its power, grace and magnificent chilling cry. This photo was taken in 2010 in Lake Kariba, Zimbabwe at f5.6, 1/2000 sec on ISO-400 at a focal length of 400mm.
King Protea - Silvermine
Here’s a relatively simple idea of how you can coerce your camera to see what you see. When shooting nature in low light conditions, you have two choices: (1) shoot with a low shutter speed, or (2) shoot with a flash. Low shutter speeds can work nicely if nothing is moving. A flash will make your subject sharp and well-lit, but typically it will render the background dark as the exposure is too short for the sensor to collect much ambient light. Here we use a technique called Slow Sync Flash – where the camera only fires the flash at the end of (here) an intentionally lengthened exposure. The camera is focussed on the King Protea, but the moonlight trickles through the distant foliage before the side flash triggers. The exposure is stepped down to remove intermittent scatter.
Leopards are readily identified by their unique facial markings. The ‘Selati’ male (pictured here) was born in April 2010 and was still under his mother’s guidance and watch when we found him in the darkness of pre-dawn in the Sabi Sand reserve in mid-2011. He led us patiently to a fresh impala kill that had been hoisted into a low branch of a large tree. As the dawn broke, he climbed the tree and started to feed. The picture was taken with a 300mm FF f2.8 lens at 1/200 sec, f3.2 at ISO 400 with EV stepped up +0.3. Visitors to the wonderful Sabi Sabi reserve are still treated with a viewing of the spectacular Selati male, now a fully-grown adult, from time to time.
The Martial eagle is one of the largest African eagles, known to weigh as much at 6.5 kgs, with a wingspan of over 8 foot. This powerful and striking eagle may be confused with the smaller Blackbreasted Snake Eagle. However the Martial has fully feathered legs, spots on the white underparts and in flight shows a dark underwing. They feed on birds such as gamebirds, waterfowl, storks and owls; mammals such as mongoose, goats, hares and dassies; and reptiles such as monitor lizards. The eagle frequently hunts by concealing itself in a well-foliated tree near open ground ahead of approaching prey in order surprise they prey as it emerges from cover. They have been known to catch prey as large as antelope by swooping down to grasp prey with their powerful talons, sometimes killing on impact. The Martial eagle’s nest is typically a large basin of thick sticks up to 2m diameter and 2m deep in the fork of large tree. The mom lays one egg and incubation is by the female only. Food is provided mainly by the male. The baby chick continues to depend on the parents for 3-8 months after its first flight. This photo was taken in Tanzania, just east of Lake Manyara. ISO 400, 1/1250 sec with a 300mm lens at F8.
Here’s another shot from the popular Lake Panic bird hide near Skukuza in the Kruger Park. Capturing birds in flight requires a lot of luck (or patience - in photography the two are for the most part equivalent), a prime lens (which relates inextricably to fast shutter speed and sharpness) and a respectable autofocus function. Most decent bodies, regardless of make, offer some autofocus configuration, although mirrorless cameras continue to lag some way behind SLR’s in this respect. This shot was taken at 1/2000 sec at F3.5 with a wide-angle lens. The grey heron had circled once before coming in to land, giving us a little forewarning as to where she would appear again in the skyline.
Why do avid photographers skulk around like overburdened mules? Napoleon Bonaparte knew the answer to this when he said that ability is nothing without opportunity. The same theme holds in photography, albeit with a caveat or two. Basic competence is quickly learned, but without opportunity, ability is mute. Now, both competence as well as opportunity will be entirely wasted without the right equipment. I’ll talk about equipment in later posts, since this seems to be a common question from this forum. For now, imagine driving up to a large boulder at an impressive sunset where a pride of lion rests out of view. A young lion detaches himself from the pride, walks to the edge, sits and stares pensively into the distance. You’ve been shooting landscapes and trees that afternoon around the corner. You don’t really want to be changing lenses in the 5 seconds you have to capture the moment. That’s why many photographers carry multiple camera bodies around with different lenses. We understand the French military leader’s words and don’t pack lightly for our campaigns.
The Overberg in the Western Cape provides many alluring tourist destinations. Where the Botrivier (Bot River) meets the Atlantic Ocean just after Kleinmond and before Hermanus, there is a large estuary where life abounds both under the water, as well as on top of it. This photograph was taken while on a morning walk around the lagoon. We used a 300mm FF F2.8 lens, and ISO 400, 1/1250 sec exposure and f/8 to capture a seagull taking off and the ensuing ripples behind it. Both the estuary mouth and peninsula heads are luckily captured in the background.
Traditionally speaking, the golden light of post-dawn and pre-dusk makes for the best wildlife photography. The promise of gilded illumination does not always materialize, but photographic opportunities may present themselves in other ways and under more drab circumstances. We were doing an early morning walk from Berg-en-Dal camp in the Kruger Park. The weather was overcast and grey. Marabou storks - those perpetual carrion feeders - are frequently around campsites, scavenging off whatever scraps they can source. They are not the most charismatic of birds (I often wonder what they think of us), but they do often perch on bare trees tops – and that can be useful.
This picture was taken directly into the rising sun, with the focal point being the boulders on the nearby koppie (hill) and the depth of field wide enough to encompass the ominous looking clouds behind. The silhouette of the stork, being relatively close, was rendered intentionally out of focus. I used ISO 400, f11 and 1/800sec to get this shot. The result is quite unusual and atmospheric and has been a surprisingly popular seller.
Kingfishers are undoubtedly our favourite birds. There are 10 species found in South Africa are most are easily discernible in terms of both their colouration and vocalizations. These are birds brimming with personality and attitude, and they are always very busy. Interestingly, many Kingfishers are insectivorous rather than fish eaters. Snapping the slightly more sedentary species – the Giant Kingfisher and the Pied Kingfisher - is always fun and rewarding for photographers. A notoriously difficult species to photograph adeptly is the second smallest but extraordinarily hyperactive Malachite Kingfisher. The Malachite Kingfisher is tiny (up to 13cm) and resplendent with its blue and black crest, rufous chest and cinnabar bill. Most challengingly, this species does not sit still.
This shot was taken at the Lake Panic bird hide in the Kruger in May at 1/1600 sec, ISO 800, f7.1 with a 300mm f2.8 fixed-focal lens. The subject had taunted us for some time from a secure distance, flittering and zigzagging on the lake’s edge. Then in a blinding streak of blue and gold, it unexpectedly flew straight towards us and aligned fleetingly behind the hide, but just out of easy reach of the telephoto lenses. Three photographers almost went for an uncomfortable swim extending to get a shot. The fourth photographer, thinking ahead, trained his lens on the nearby water where crocodile eyes were staring vacantly at the scene, and waited for the splash. After blinking once, the Kingfisher had disappeared.
Rhinos, along with the Nile crocodile perhaps, are arguably the most primordial of our African animals. Their prehistoric forms have remained untouched and unchanged over a few hundred million years. The white rhinoceros consists of two African sub-species with the northern white as good as extinct in the Sudan. In Southern Africa we are familiar with the southern white rhinoceros only. The oldest complete fossils of rhino are from Cape Town interestingly, with fossilized teeth being recovered from the Limpopo province.
If you ever find yourself at a dinner table with a palaeontologist short on conversation and long on time, rhino ancestry is a literal Pandora’s box of a topic to crash blindly into. Much debate surrounds whether these fossils correspond to different species, or belong to a common ancestor of both or only one the current two species (black and white). One theory is that the ancestor of both the black and the white rhinos was a mixed feeder, with the two lineages then diverging as they specialized in browsing and grazing, respectively – with the white rhino evolving along with shorter-grasses (associated with a drier African climate). While our white rhino male is solitary, males do enter into territorial disputes over mating rights to females. Our photograph is of one such an altercation. This picture was taken at an ISO of 320, f5 and at 1/1250 sec with a focal length of 200mm trained on the subjects, some 40m away.
The Cape dwarf chameleon is endemic to the Western Cape, and is a common resident in the leafy suburbs of Cape Town. Its vibrant colours, beard, scaly backbones and strict adherence to the slow-movement bring frequent delight to adults, children as well as (unfortunately) domestic cats. Here are some facts you may not be aware of. These chameleons are ovoviparous (their young are retained in eggs in the mother’s body), and they only drink water collected on leaves. And while adults differ in colouration, saturation and patterning, the young perfectly resemble miniature versions of the adults. Hence, the paternity test is not necessary for distrustful fathers (or inquisitive uninhibited mothers). Each mom is capable of 2-3 clutches per year, with 5-15 little dwarf babies per clutch. This photo was taken in Kenilworth, Cape Town, with a 60mm macro-lens at ISO 800, f16 at 1/320 sec.
The Serengeti is vast. “Just how vast?” you ask. Vast enough to lose 800,000 wildebeest. Seriously? Seriously. They were briefly in and around camp the day before we arrived, just South of Seronera. Then they disappeared – the entire lot of them. They passed through fairly rapidly, in a wave of grunts and hooves and headed northwards and were gone. At the break of dawn, we headed north too. And we found them, but not easily, and it took 8 hours of driving around looking for signs of their passing. And around the last corner, we transected close to a million wildebeest heading towards Grumeti. Most were loosely peppered around the landscape. We came across one plain where there was some more obvious patterning – a clean zig-zag through the grass. The sun was setting and the pace frenetic. The photograph shows an ordered line of wildebeest through a fish-eye perspective. ISO400, F9.5, 1/500 sec.
Did you know that the giraffe is most frequently rated as Africa’s most iconic animal? Surprising - but true. The collective noun used to describe a grouping of giraffe ranges from ‘herd’ to ‘journey’ with ‘kaleidoscope’ being our particular favourite. We were doing the Bushman’s trail in the southern Kruger Park. The rains had been heavy and persistent. On a wet and overcast morning, we surprised these three animals from behind the long grass. They stared at us quizzically. The clouds opened up for an instant allowing the sun to peek through, giving a welcome sheen to the grass tops, a warm illumination to the sides of the giraffe and some much needed contrast to the heavy clouds. The picture was taken at ISO 200, F6.2 and at 1/180 sec with an 18-250mm lens.
Guest blog by Daniel Polakow
Polakow Photography www.polakow.co.za
The family of rollers hold a very special place in the hearts of visitors to Africa. It is also not uncommon to find locals frequently gasping at their resplendent colours. Their hues are best displayed throughout the aerobatics (hence the name ‘rollers’) of courtship and territorial flights. Africa has the most colourful endemic rollers. It is also commonplace to see large telephoto lenses trained on rollers in Mpumalanga and Limpopo, very typically the ubiquitous and relaxed lilac-breasted roller, in the hope of capturing them in flight with their wings open. A less easy task than it sounds to anyone who has ever tried.
A particularly difficult roller to encounter in South Africa is the racket-tailed roller. The distinctive spatulate tips at the end of their tail-shafts give them their name. Their distribution starts at the very edge of north-east Limpopo and runs into central Africa. In South Africa, they are reclusive and uncommon. This magnificent specimen was snapped at 1/2500 sec, f6.3 and using a 28-300 mm lens in Tanzania.
Guest blog by Daniel Polakow
Polakow Photography www.polakow.co.za