Hello and welcome to my blog where I share my photos and experiences from my travels to the African bush and other wild places.

Thursday, May 16, 2013


I'm sure all bird photographers have found themselves in the situation before where they drive around in a wilderness of bushveld or grassland in the hope to find a decent avian subject to photograph but without success. We have all started like that, having high hopes to photograph a whole coffee table book of stunning bird photos in our first weekend to the Kruger National Park since taking up photography. Through experience you learn that it does not work like that. It would be easier to find a needle in a haystack than trying to find random birds to photograph without targeting specific species or habitats. If you are new to bird photography I would suggest you hone your skills on shorebirds first. They are typically larger birds, easy to find and there are lots of them!

Marievale Bird Sanctuary, South Africa
Nikon D4 | Nikon 200-400mmf/4 | 1/1000 sec at f/4, ISO 400

Bird photography is the most popular genre of wildlife photography and it's not difficult to understand why. Birds are everywhere and for most wildlife photography enthusiasts who find it hard to be out in the "real" bush often enough bird photography is a welcome substitute. Birds are beautiful and interesting creatures that comes in all shapes and sizes. Their best feature is of course that they fly, and thus we enjoy the technical and creative challenges that photographing birds brings. It becomes a way for us to express our love for nature and showcase its beauty. Instead of just sitting and watching we enter into their world and we try to do their beauty justice with our images.

Our desire to capture new and exciting images of birds leads us up mountains, down valleys, to national parks, to private reserves, local reserves, bird hides and often our own innovative ideas. Each of these excursions are done with a specific goal in mind, whether it'd be to photograph the breeding colony of vultures at the top of the Magaliesberg mountains, or owls in the spot light of a private safari vehicle, or even just to have a nice Saturday morning in a bird hide at the local wetland ready to photograph anything that moves or hints at flying. In South Africa we find birds in a variety of habitats so it becomes important to focus on specific groups of birds in a specific habitat at a time when you plan to do bird photography.

A particular classification of birds is called shorebirds and they make for a great first subject for any new bird photographer. There is an exciting new field guide available, "Field Guide to Shorebirds of South Africa by Cowgill and Davis" that will help you find and identify the more common shorebirds in South Africa. Roy Cowgill and Stephen Davis did an excellent job in providing you with all the tools necessary to find and identify these birds. With its guide to classification characteristics and behaviour, identification framework and visual clues it is a vital companion to anyone ready to go out in the field to photograph shorebirds. But which birds are shorebirds exactly? The Oxford dictionary defines shorebirds as those birds that frequents the shore. That would seem quite obvious but not very specific, so here is a list: The most common species under this classification would include storks, plovers, herons, jacanas, sandpipers, darters, flamingoes, cormorants, hamerkop, ibises, spoonbills and coots. Some of the lesser known species include snipes, flufftails, bitterns, wagtails, crakes, rails, avocets and stilts.

Shorebirds, like the name suggest, are confined to the narrow strips of shore that lines the dams, lakes, rivers, wetlands and oceans - that is where their food is. These thin strips of habitat that you find throughout South Africa is a relative small area where you can find a large concentration of birds. Shorebirds are mostly long and slender birds with large flat feet, thin long legs and elongated beaks designed to pick their food from water, mud or between rocks. Their diet consists of fish, crustaceans, insects and other small organisms found along a shore, in mud or shallow water. Their long thin legs are designed for them to wade through the shallow water in search of a meal. They become very focussed as they vigorously "work" an area they deem productive while they patrol the shore, up and down, in an attempt to capitalise on every opportunity for food. They are very predictable in this way which is important to take advantage of as a bird photographer.

Purple Heron
Marievale Bird Sanctuary, South Africa
Canon 1D Mark II N | Canon 600mmf/4 + 1.4x | 1/2500 sec at f/6.3, ISO 800

One of the keys to photograph birds is to get close enough to them to have the subject large in the frame. A mere dot in a landscape where you struggle to figure out what the subject is, is not considered bird photography. Shorebirds are generally some of the larger bird species so you can still get fabulous results without having to crawl right up to them. Fixed hides or even mobile hides are the traditional place to photograph shorebirds from, but if the habitat allows I suggest getting down to the ground and sit or lie on the shore itself. As you walk to your spot along the shore the birds will fly off but just sit very still and wait a few minutes. The birds will all come back to where they were foraging before, right next to you, without taking too much notice of you and that's when you can take incredible photos.

For bird photography I recommend a long lens of at least 400mm, fast focussing camera with a high burst rate and a good support system. Everyone will tell you that you can never have a long enough lens for birds, but that's only partly true. Consider this: when you photograph from close to ground level you'll notice a lot of heat waves and optical noise in the air between you and your subject. Thus, you'll find that the image quality improves when you can get closer to your subject, rather than trying to photograph from miles away with the biggest bazooka you can find. Any digital camera body would suffice but the newer models do offer improved autofocus, tracking and image quality even in low light conditions. These will not only help you to better capture action sequences but it will also allow you to make great quality large prints. Last but not least you need good support for any long lens, for the stability to create sharp images. As a minimum you'll need a good beanbag, but alternatively you can invest in fancier systems like tripods with fluid or gimball heads.

Okavango Delta, Botswana
Canon 1D Mark IV | Canon 600mmf/4 | 1/500 sec at f/4, ISO 400

The three most important things to consider when photographing birds are the background, light and angle. To create a striking image you need the bird to stand out from the background. This will immediately draw the viewer's attention to the subject. To create the soft blurred background you should use the smallest f-stop that the lens allows, like f/4 for example. This effect is also enhanced when the subject is further away from the background or when you photograph from a lower angle. Choose the colour of your background carefully. It is more striking to photograph the bird against a green or neutral background than against the blue sky.

Next to consider is the angle and quality of light. The beautiful palette of colours of any bird are best appreciated in soft light, when the sun is at a low angle, and with the sun directly behind the photographer. The soft light will reveal subtle detail in all the colour tones while the front lit light will illuminate every part of the bird visible in the photo. Don't let overcast conditions stop you from going out. Wide angle photos in overcast weather can create lots of mood and atmosphere and its the best type of light to take close-up photos that will reveal the textures of a bird.

Taking photos from the birds' level will create more dramatic images. It creates the feeling that you're part of the bird's world rather than being an outsider who just snapped a photo of a ground bird from the top of a vehicle. In bird hides you are unfortunately restricted, but when the opportunity allows you should try to get as low to the ground as possible when photographing shore birds.

On Patrol
Northam, South Africa
Canon 1D Mark II N | Canon 600mmf/4 + 1.4x | 1/2000 sec at f/8, ISO 640

Here are a few other tips for creating stunning images of shorebirds:

1) Wait for the bird to do something interesting. They often stretch their wings, or indicate that they will take to flight.
2) Early mornings are your best chance to have no wind and flat water when you want photos with no ripples in the water.
3) Only include the full reflection of a bird in the water in your photo when the water is clear and when you have a perfect reflection.
4) Try to isolate a single bird or group of birds from the rest. This will create a strong focal point in your photo.
5) Avoid having other birds in the background behind your subject. This might be difficult when there are many birds like is often the case along a shore, so choose your subject carefully.
6) Don't photograph birds facing away from you. It's best when the bird is tilted slightly towards you.

The best advice would be to have fun and be patient. Enjoy creating beautiful pieces of art!


Sunday, July 29, 2012


So you recently bought your first DSLR camera and lens, booked a photographic safari and are ready to photograph a whole coffee table book of stunning wildlife photographs in one trip! The only problem is that you think the "P" stands for Professional and the "A" for Amateur on the camera dial! Here are my top 10 tips for any beginner photographer.

1. Focus on the eye

The viewer's attention is always drawn to the eye of the subject. This is the strongest element in your photo that needs to be well illuminated and importantly, IN FOCUS. It's the element that gives "life" to the subject. The closer you are to an animal the more important this becomes as the depth of focus increases (levels of focus on a subject). Use a single autofocus point and move it to eye of the subject while maintain your striking composition.

The king
Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
Canon 1D Mark IV | Canon 600mmf/4 | 1/1000 sec at f/4, ISO 400

2. Look for a plain background

Choosing the right background is one of the biggest considerations for the angle to photograph your subject at. The better you can separate your subject from the background the more striking it would be. This would keep the viewer's attention ON the subject. Choosing a shallow depth of field to create a blurred background is one way of achieving this, the other way is to change your position in relation to the subject until you find a uniform background without any distracting elements.

Juvenile green-backed heron
Kruger National Park, South Africa
Canon 20D | Canon 600mmf/4 + 1.4tc | 1/1000 sec at f/5.6, ISO 200

3. Compose! Not in the middle

When you look at the impressive African animals through your view finder, you are likely to be drawn in and be captivated by their beauty. This usually leads to the cross hair syndrome where you, like a hunter, fire straight at your subject composed in the middle of your frame. Remember to consider composing your subject away from the centre of the frame, leaving it the theoretical space for the subject to look into or move into. Try to find elements in the opposite corner of the frame to balance your subject with.

Elephant on the plains
Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
Canon 1D Mark IV | Canon 600mmf/4 | 1/800 sec at f/8, ISO 200

4. Wait for good light

The photographs that stand out above the rest are the ones that have either captured incredible action, invoked an emotion by the viewer or have a wonderful mood and feel to it. One way to create mood and feel in a photo is to use spectacular light, the kind of light that you get in the first or last hour of sunlight. This light is soft and gold in color with the low angle of the sun illuminating the subjects from the side. Make sure you get out early to give yourself the best chance of finding a good sighting in the early morning light.

Zebra portrait
Okavango Delta, Botswana
Canon 5D Mark II | Canon 600mmf/4 | 1/800 sec at f/4, ISO 200

5. Be ready!

When you capture a subject doing something interesting it can take a photo from ordinary to spectacular. A lion yawning, a bird lifting its wing during takeoff or a cheetah smiling. You have to patiently wait but be ready for a special moment that usually happens unexpectedly. It helps to learn your subject's behavior. A bird gives an indication just before it will takeoff, a lion will yawn after waking up and cheetah cubs become playful after a meal. The key is to keep your eyes open and be ready no matter how uneventful things might seem at that moment.

Elephant doomsday
Amboseli National Park, Kenya
Canon 1D Mark IV | Canon 600mmf/4 | 1/250 sec at f/5.6, ISO 200

6. Make sure it's sharp

Whether you photograph on aperture priority mode like most wildlife photographers or any other mode, always take notice of your shutter speed to make sure your photographs are sharp. This becomes increasingly important when photographing action or moving animals. In aperture priority mode the shutter speed can be modified by changing the aperture and ISO values. With good camera and lens support a portrait can be photographed at anything from 1/50 to 1/320 second shutter speed, walking animals from 1/400 to 1/800, running animals from 1/1000 to 1/1250, flying birds from 1/1600 to 1/2500, and small, fast flying birds at 1/3200.

Malachite exit
Marievale Bird Sanctuary, South Africa
Canon 1D Mark II N | Canon 600mmf/4 | 1/3200 sec at f/8, ISO 800

7. Make sure your subject is in focus!

This might seem obvious, but I still see a fair number of photos these days where the background is in focus instead of the subject. This is mainly due to the camera setup with all the focus points active, leaving the camera to choose where in the frame to focus. Change this setting to use a single autofocus point instead. Make sure that point is over your subject and so be in control of where the camera will focus. Another advantage of this setting is that the camera does fewer calculations to determine focus and thus focusses much faster and more accurately.

Impala pride
Kruger National Park, South Africa
Canon 5D Mark II | Canon 400mmf/5.6 | 1/320 sec at f/5.6, ISO 200

8. Don't forget about vertical compositions

We are often so captivated with what we see through the viewfinder that we forget to pay attention to composition and the camera settings. Remember to compose each photo and that in nature some shapes and scenes lend themselves to a vertical composition. Don't forget to turn your camera 90 degrees and photograph in portrait mode. Tall animals like giraffe, head portraits of most animals, birds with long necks like flamingoes and herons, and landscape scenes with significant clouds might all merit a vertical composition.

Double vision
Rietvlei Dam Nature Reserve, South Africa
Canon 20D | Canon 100-200mmf/5.6 | 1/30 sec at f/8, ISO 200

9. When the light gets tricky, switch to manual mode

In tricky lighting situations like spotlit animals in the dark, or backlit subjects in low light, it becomes increasingly difficult to get your exposure right. The camera struggles to calculate what the correct exposure should be and as a result one usually ends up changing the exposure compensation vigorously, resulting in poorly exposed or blurred photos. Since the light is low we want to use a large aperture (small f-stop) and a shutter speed fast enough for a sharp photo. Switch to manual mode and keep modifying your camera settings, i.e. f-stop, shutter speed and ISO until the your histogram confirms the correct exposure.

Queen of the night
Mashatu Game Reserve, Botswana
Nikon D3s | Nikon 200-400mmf/4 | 1/200 sec at f/4, ISO 6400

10. Get close, go wide

I often see portfolio's with mostly tight shots and head portraits of animals. The worst is when people crop significantly to produce similar photos but end up with poor quality and pixelated images. The tight portrait shots have great impact but remember to also take photos that showcase the animals in their natural environment. A leopard photo from the Kalahari desert should look different to a leopard photo from the Okavango Delta! Use a wider lens to include the environment and get close to your subject to have it large in the frame.

Kalahari lizzard
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa
Canon 5D Mark II | Canon 70-200mmf/2.8 | 1/320 sec at f/8, ISO 100

Thursday, July 12, 2012


September is a dry month in Amboseli National Park in Kenya. The grass on the plains have disappeared and the elephants have to travel far between the acacia forests on the outskirts of the park and the wetlands in the middle of the reserve. Many breeding herds travel across the open plains daily. The dry conditions during this time of the year creates a spectacle of small whirlwinds that the locals call "dust devils". They usually first appear from 11am onwards when temperatures start to soar. I wanted to capture these dust devils with a significant scene in the foreground, something typical to Amboseli. I tried a number of times but either the dust devils were not strong enough, getting lost in the background, or there were no animals to be seen to anchor the image in the foreground. A few days passed without any success. Then, finally, I got lucky when a breeding herd of elephants returned to the acacia forests after visiting the wetlands, with a series of dust devils as a backdrop.

Elephant doomsday
Amboseli National Park, Kenya
Canon 5D Mark II | Canon 70-200mmf/2.8 | 1/640 sec at f/8, ISO 100

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


The north of Kenya is wild country. Most of the popular tourism only extends as far north as Samburu National Park. From there the roads get tough, the land gets dry and you might run into some friendly or not-so-friendly tribes. These tribes still live very traditionally, off the land, and have to defend their land and culture from other hostile neighboring tribes.

I recently guided a photographic safari to the north of Kenya where we wanted to photograph this land from a different perspective. From a helicopter we were not only safe but we also got the required unique angle and a great appreciation of how the habitat changes from mountains to savanna bushveld and beautiful rivers. Much of that land also forms part of the Great Rift Valley and from the air it is a fascinating landscape with lakes, craters and streams of solidified lava from as little as ten thousand years ago. It is like seeing geological formation in action.

One morning after photographing the colorful pools of the Magado crater we headed north past the town of Archers Post. This town is known as the border between civilization and the wild country. We wanted to fly along the Usao Nyiro river which is a beautiful shallow river lined with palm trees and lots of birds. Just before we reached the river we saw a herd of buffalo moving towards the river through some thick green vegetation. Most of the buffaloes were almost white, probably from a recent mud bath in the patches of white mud, from sodium carbonate, that were visible in the area. This created a nice contrast to the green vegetation and a perfect opportunity to showcase this unique environment. Party cloudy skies, mountains, river, striking green vegetation with a herd of white buffaloes all contributed towards the scene. The execution was simple, I took out the wide angle lens and after making a few turns in the helicopter over the herd I got the shot.

White buffaloes
Northern Kenya
Canon 1D Mark IV | Canon 16-35mmf/2.8 | 1/400 sec at f/8, ISO 400

Sunday, July 1, 2012


Like most people, leopards are my favorite animal. Not only do they have the most beautiful coat, but they move graciously and have a magical secrecy about them. They are one of the iconic animals of Africa. I followed a male leopard in the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya while he was on the move and looking for a meal. The Masai Mara is known for its great open plains which is not your most typical habitat for leopards. This leopard had some difficulty moving from one cluster of bushes to the next without giving his position away to a grazing herd of impala. At some stage he was walking down a large grass covered hill, lying down, then stalking, and moving forward slowly again. We positioned our vehicle at the bottom of the hill and were lucky to capture this stalking posture at eye level, as he was moving down.

Stalking leopard
Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
Canon 1D Mark IV | Canon 600mmf/4 | 1/1600 sec at f/5, ISO 800