Jun 292012

We returned back to Quito from Napo Wildlife Centre early on Friday afternoon and met up with the other nine guests who were joining us for the Galapagos cruise. That afternoon we caught up with laundry and sleep! In the evening we all headed to La Ronda in Quito; a lively street that is closed to traffic and full of music, entertainment and a great variety of restaurants.

The food market in Otavalo

When booking a tour to the Galapagos Islands I strongly recommend having a spare day in Quito or Guayaquil the day before your cruise. If you are delayed and miss the departure of your cruise, then it may be several days before you can join your group.

On Saturday’s there is a colourful market in Otavalo, a town about two hours drive North of Quito. I hired Tierra de Fuego to take us to by coach and again Felix was our excellent guide.

 

For the first time, we went for a walk through the food market before heading to the more famous artisan’s market. As always, it was a wonderfully colourful experience and a great opportunity to shop for gifts at very attractive prices.

Instead of using my Nikon D3x, I used my new Panasonic GX1. Due to the camera’s great image quality and small size it is an excellent camera for travel photography. Read more about the GX1 in my blog post here.

Group photo in Cotacachi

After lunch we drove to Cotacachi, a town famous for it’s leather goods. It’s a great place to buy wallets, handbags, belts etc. At one point I thought we would be leaving with a beautiful leather saddle for Teresa’s horse but it was not to be.

We drove back to Quito in the rain and got ourselves ready for the early departure to Galapagos the next day.

 

Getting 19 people checked in for our Galapagos flight is always challenging. In addition to the usual challenges of air travel we also had to get our bags pre-screened for Galapagos and also ensure that each bag was tagged correctly so that it would end up in the correct cabin and on the right boat.

Sunset behind Kicker Rock, Galapagos

 

Jim was a great help and looked after the pre-screening whilst I handled the check-in. It didn’t seem long before we cleared security, boarded the plane and we were on our way.

 

The Galapagos archipelago is 1,000km West off the coast of Ecuador. If you are departing Quito, then it is highly probable that your flight will stop at Guayaquil before continuing to either Baltra or San Cristobal airports. At Guayaquil our naturalist Orlando Romero boarded. Orlando has been the senior naturalist on my previous two Galapagos photography tours, he is very understanding of the needs of photographers and is always willing to discuss the daily programme with me so that we can optimize it for photography. Orlando retired shortly after our 2010 photography tour, so I was very grateful that he had agreed to join us again.

 

Our second naturalist was Ivan Lopez. Ivan was with us in 2008 and is a very entertaining naturalist who lives in San Cristobal and runs a dive shop when he’s not working as a naturalist.

 

It wasn’t long before we left the harbour and started the cruise. Our first stop was the beach at Playa Ochoa. This was an opportunity to snorkel and relax before we set off to watch the sunset at Kicker Rock.

A beautiful, tranquil beach at Cerro Brujo, San Cristobal

 

The next day was also spent at San Cristobal. Our first stop was the beautiful beach at Cerro Brujo. We saw sea lions, Sally Lightfoot crabs, a few marine iguanas and watched pelicans fishing. We had a relaxing walk down a perfect white beach, listening to the waves softly splashing on the shore. I could have sat there for hours!

 

 

We returned to the Flamingo and after lunch we sailed North East to Punta Pitt. This year we were on a new itinerary and Punta Pitt was a replacement for Genovesa. The latter is a popular spot for birds, particularly red footed boobies and Magnificent Frigates. Before we went onshore we went snorkelling with sea lions. It was a blast and I’ve never snorkelled with so many sea lions at once.

Curious sea lion and friends at Punta Pitt

In the afternoon we went for a “panga” (Zodiac) ride to an islet to see all three types of boobies (red footed, blue footed and Nazca) and Frigate birds we then went for a walk at Punta Pitt. Although we saw the birds, the panga ride and the subsequent walk at Punta Pitt are absolutely no match to a visit at Genovesa. If you are looking for a cruise to Galapagos then I strongly recommend finding one that visits both Genovesa and Espanola, which I will describe in my next blog post.

Jun 232012

Mirror-less cameras have been on the market for four years. I recently bought my first mirror-less camera, the Panasonic GX1 and used it extensively in Ecuador. In the next few posts I will discuss my experience of the Panasonic GX1 and attempt to answer these questions:

Panasonic GX1 with Olympus 17mm f2.8 lens

What is a mirror less camera?

Why did I choose the Panasonic GX1?

How does a mirror less compare to SLR and compact cameras?

Are they any good?

In which circumstances will I use a mirror-less camera?

 

Before I discuss why I bought the Panasonic GX1, what is a mirror-less camera?

A mirror-less camera is similar to a digital SLR in two major respects.

1. You can change lenses.

2. They use larger sensors than a compact camera.

Sea lion on Espanola in the Galapagos Islands

A Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera uses a mirror and a pentaprism to allow the photographer to see through the lens optically. In contrast, a mirror-less camera uses the camera’s sensor and either the LCD and/or an electronic viewfinder to show the photographer what the lens can see. (Just like a compact camera).

By eliminating the need for a mirror and pentaprism, the mirror-less camera can be made much smaller and lighter than the SLR. The disadvantage of the LCD and electronic viewfinder is that they can be slow to react when using the camera in high speed scenarios such as photographing wildlife or sports and the LCD can be difficult to see in bright sunlight.

Why choose the Panasonic GX1?

For the past couple of years, a Nikon D3x has been my primary camera. The D3x really suits my photography and I have no plans in replacing it, however, with my new work in Europe and Africa I wanted a camera that would be small, unobtrusive and yet take high quality photographs that would be accepted by stock agencies. A mirror-less camera seemed the best option and after lots of research I narrowed my choice to the Panasonic GX1 and the Sony NEX-7. Although the Sony NEX-7 is an excellent camera, there are currently very few autofocus lenses available for the Sony “E-mount” cameras. In contrast, there is an excellent choice of Olympus and Panasonic lenses available for the “Micro Four Thirds” lens mount which is found on their cameras. It was the choice of high quality lenses that lead to me buying the GX1 over the NEX-7.

Otavalo in the highlands of Ecuador

My Panasonic GX1 kit

Along with the camera I bought the following lenses: Olympus 12mm f2.0, Olympus 17mm f2.8, Olympus 45mm f1.8, Voigtlander 25mm f0.95 manual focus and Panasonic 100mm-300mm f4.0-5.6.

I should mention that the micro four thirds sensor has a 2x crop factor. Therefore, a 12mm lens is effectively a 24mm lens, the 25mm Voigtlander is a ‘standard’ lens and the 100mm to 300mm is effectively a 200mm to 600mm lens.

For accessories, I bought the Panasonic LVF2 external viewfinder, Metz Mecablitz 58 AF flash, a Nikon lens adapter and an L plate from Really Right Stuff. What is amazing, is that all this equipment fits in to a small Lowe Pro Photo Runner 100 waist or shoulder bag. Also, the camera with the 17mm f2.8 lens fits in my pocket and it is this simple one camera, one lens combination that I take to work.

First impressions

The GX1 is a small but solid camera that feels very well built. The Olympus lenses are surprisingly small, very light and have fast, silent autofocus. One early frustration that quickly turned in to a delight, was moving the autofocus (AF) area. It is fast and easy to move the AF area on my D3x but I was not finding the same on the GX1, then it dawned on me; “may be I just touch the screen on where I want the camera to focus!” Lo and behold that’s exactly what you do. I like being able to use a combination of buttons and touch screen gestures and find that the GX1 is very easy and intuitive to control once you get accustomed to the touch screen.

I took the camera with me to Ghana in March and found that the very bright conditions combined with finger prints on the LCD made it difficult to see what I was doing. In addition, manually focusing the 25mm f0.95 was practically impossible on the LCD, even indoors. Fortunately, these problems were solved by using the Panasonic LVF2 electronic viewfinder. If you are interested in a mirror-less camera, budget on buying an electronic viewfinder (EVF). Some mirror-less cameras such as the NEX-7 and new Olympus OM-D EM-5 include an EVF.

At home I used the GX1 with the Mecablitz 58 AF flash and had great results from the bounce flash. I was so happy with the camera and flash that I decided to use them to photograph Kendra at her Alice on Ice skating event. This event was a great test of the camera in the world of low light and high speed. Found out how it performed in my next blog post…

 

 

Jun 112012

A "stinky turkey" sits on a branch as we paddle down a creek near Napo Wildlife Centre

Napo Wildlife Centre (NWC) is located inside the Yasuni National Park in Ecuador’s Amazon basin. The national park has an area of 9820 km2 and is situated to the South of the Napo river. There is a lot of oil production in the area and the Napo river is an important artery for the oil industry, tourism and local communities.

 

The easiest way to access the Napo river is to fly to the busy city of Coca. On clear days it is possible to see several volcanoes on the short 35 minute flight from Quito. Surprisingly, three airlines offer daily flights to Coca using Airbus aircraft.

 

Curious capuchin monkey

It’s a short bus ride to the river and then a two hour ride by a FAST motorized canoe to the head of the Ananugu creek. From here we transfer to smaller canoes for a scenic paddle down the narrow creek to the lodge.

 

The lodge itself is beside a beautiful lake and we were accommodated in spacious thatched bungalows. Since my last visit, four larger bungalows have been added for families. The guides just keep getting better and this year we had two wonderful guides who were not only knowledgeable and spoke excellent English but regularly consulted me in order to ensure we gave the group the best photographic opportunities.

Trying to photograph a Blue Morpho butterfly in flight is very challenging but I managed to achieve it this year.

As most of the wildlife activity takes place early in the morning and in the evening, then these are the times that we do our activities. The daily routine was essentially; 5:30am wake up, breakfast, morning activity, lunch, siesta, afternoon or evening activity, dinner, sleep.

The main activities are; jungle hikes, canoe rides along the narrow creeks, a day trip to parrot clay licks and the community’s cultural centre, a hike and climb up the observation tower which offers views above the canopy.

The most exciting activity for me are the canoe rides. You never know what you’ll see around the next corner; it could be a troop of monkeys jumping across the creek, a kingfisher sitting by the waters edge or the elusive giant otter. The variety of wildlife along the creeks is amazing.

A group of bats sleep under a branch just above the Napo River

During our stay this year we saw nine different types of monkey, 3 toed sloth, a variety of frogs, bats, caiman, turtles, giant river otters, spiders, butterflys and of course a huge variety of birds.

We visited two clay licks but only one had any parrots this year. However, clay lick day is also our chance to visit the community’s cultural centre. Since my last visit in 2010, the ladies of the community have made a new cultural centre and in a new location. The new one is a great improvement and we were treated to displays of dancing and singing and we were also shown a traditional house and demonstrations of various household tools.

Despite some rain, we had an excellent four nights at NWC and I saw lots of animals that I’ve never seen before. Although I have few photographs this year, I have lots of video footage that needs to be edited.

After four exciting nights at Napo Wildlife Centre we headed back up the Napo river to Coca and flew back to Quito. In Quito we met the rest of the group that were joining us for the Galapagos Islands but before heading to Galapagos we had due to visit Otavalo and Cotacachi the next day.

FInd out more in part three….

 

 

Jun 022012

Presidential guard outside the Ecuadorian Presidents palace in Quito

Ecuador is a very diverse country which offers lots of photographic opportunities. The country has four distinctly different geographic regions.

1. Galapagos Islands

2. La Costa (the coast)

3. La Sierra (the highlands)

4. El Oriente (the East or Amazon basin)

In previous visits to Ecuador I have been fortunate to explore much of the highlands and after four visits to Galapagos I have now seen the majority of the areas around the islands that are open to visitors.

Since 2008, I have been visiting Napo Wildlife Centre (NWC) in the Amazon basin. NWC is entirely owned and operated by the Añangu community and is the only lodge inside the Yasuni National Park.

In previous Galapagos tours I offered an optional tour to NWC after we returned from Galapagos. In 2012, Jim Slobodian and I decided to try something new; have the optional tour to Napo before going to Galapagos.

To make this work, I needed a buffer day before NWC in case anyone’s flight was delayed. Therefore, the first day of the workshop was a tour of Mitad del Mundo (the equatorial monument) and a tour of Quito. I organized this with Tierra de Fuego in Quito. Our guide was Felix, who proved to be an excellent guide.

Richard, Jim and the group visit the equator.

Instead of visiting the regular equatorial monument, Felix took us to the Inti-Nan Museum. This museum had a variety of interesting exhibits but best of all were the interactive experiments. The most popular was the demonstration of the Coriolis effect, check out my video on my Youtube channel….

Demonstration of the Coriolis Effect at the Equator

Nancy MacNab climbing the stairs to the top of the basilica's Northern tower

Following our visit to the equator we drove to the old part of Quito and went to the impressive Basilica del Voto Nacional. The basilica was started in 1892, it was consecrated and inaugurated over 90 years later in 1988. Officially the basilica is unfinished but they have something to do with the legend that the world will end when construction is completed!

 

The basilica does not have the history of other Quito churches but it does offer tremendous views from it’s towers.  An interesting feature of the basilica is that gargoyles have been replaced by sculptures of the animals found across Ecuador.

 

After visiting the basilica, Felix led us on a walking tour of the old city. It was a great walk, especially as it was Sunday and the streets were closed to traffic. Unfortunately the majority of churches were closed to visitors but we did visit the Jesuit church “La Compania” which is probably my favourite church in Quito.

"Gargoyles" depicting Ecuadorian animals around the Basilica

The only downside of our walk is that Ottmar had a trouser pocket slashed but fortunately he did not lose his money. In Quito, be very vigilant, keep your backpack in front of you. Take small amounts of money in your pockets.

The day ended at the viewpoint “El Panecillo” which is to the South of the old city. The following morning we flew to the Amazon basin but that’s another story…

Aug 222011

In this second part of ‘Understanding Depth of Field’ I will look at the problems associated with using very wide and very small apertures. The main problems that I will look at are:

  • Why can’t I see the depth of field in the viewfinder?
  • Problems with using a wide aperture (focusing and lens softness)
  • Problems with using a small aperture (diffraction and shutter speed)

Why can’t I see the depth of field in the viewfinder?

This is a question that I am asked a lot!

Let’s imagine that you are using aperture priority mode and you change the aperture from f4 to f11. If you look through the viewfinder as you change the aperture you see absolutely no change in depth of field (DOF). However, when you take a photograph there is a big difference in DOF between the f4 photo and the f11 photo.

So why, when the camera is set to f11 do you see the DOF for f4 in the viewfinder and not the DOF for f11?

The reason is that when you mount a lens on to the camera, the camera automatically sets the lens to the widest aperture. This is to give you the brightest possible image in the viewfinder for composition and focusing. It is only when you press the shutter release that the camera sets the lens to your chosen aperture.

If you do want to see the depth of field before you take a photograph then many digital SLR’s have a ‘depth of field preview’ button. Pressing the button sets the selected aperture and you can see the depth of field, the viewfinder image also goes very dark!

Problems with using a wide aperture

 

This photograph of my daughter Erin was taken with a 50mm f1.4 lens at f1.4. Only her left eye is really sharp. Using a smaller aperture such as f4 would allow me to get her face in focus but maintain the blurry background.

From last week’s blog you will remember that a very wide aperture will produce a shallow depth of field. If the depth of field is too shallow then your focusing needs to be very accurate. This can be very difficult to achieve if your subject is moving!

Another problem is that not all of your subject will be in focus. E.g. If your subject is not looking directly at you, then one eye may be in focus but the other eye is soft.

Another problem with using a wide aperture is that many lenses are only sharp in the centre of the frame when they are used at their widest apertures.

If you have plenty of light to work with, then trying using a smaller aperture to overcome focusing problems and lens softness. E.g. if you are taking a portrait with a 50mm f1.8 lens, then try the shot at f2.8 or f4. You will still see a blurry background but your subject will be sharper and you will have fewer problems focusing.

If you don’t have plenty of light to work with then try one of these solutions:

1. Increase your ISO and use a smaller aperture.

2. Move further back.

3. Prefocus on a point that you expect your subject to pass and take multiple frames as the subject passes that point.

Problems with using a small aperture

Probably the biggest problem with using a small aperture is the slow shutter speed you will get when taking a photograph in low light conditions. The easiest solution is to mount the camera on a tripod and use a remote shutter release. If using a tripod is not possible then increase the ISO but beware of noise!

The second major problem with using a small aperture is diffraction. When rays of light pass through a small aperture they diverge and interfere with another and create a diffraction pattern. In simple terms; if the diameter of the diffraction pattern is larger than your camera’s pixel size (pixel pitch) then the resolution of your photograph will be reduced.

When is diffraction really a problem? To be honest you will only notice diffraction when you are producing large prints.

There are four ways to solve diffraction problems:

  1. If you are using a small aperture to get a slow shutter speed then use a neutral density filter instead of small aperture. E.g. use f8 and a 3 stop ND filter instead of f22.
  2. If you are using a small aperture to get a large depth of field then focus at different distances and use either Photoshop or Helicon Focus to combine the different photographs and increase depth of field.
  3. Alternatively, if you are using a small aperture to get a large depth of field then use a tilt-shift lens and tilt the lens to move the plane of sharpest focus. I will explain in a separate blog post in the very near future!
  4. Perhaps the easiest alternative, if you are using a small aperture to get a large depth of field is to use a wider angle lens.

Below are two photographs which show diffraction. These are cropped photographs from a Nikon D3x with a 105mm macro lens. The lens was manually focused.

In the first photograph, the Nikon D3x sensor has resolved a fine hair in the centre of the photograph, in the second photograph there is greater depth of field but the fine hair has almost disappeared because the diffraction pattern at f32 is much bigger than the D3x’s pixel pitch and therefore the sensor can no longer resolve the detail.

Macro photo of a paint brush at f11. Notice the fine hair near the centre.

Macro photo of a paint brush at f32. Compare the fine hair near the centre with the previous photograph.

Aug 112011

I have decided to write several articles on depth of field. The articles will range from ‘What is depth of field?’ to ‘Problems and solutions associated with shallow and large depth of field’, the latter is detailed as it includes useful information on diffraction.

This week we’ll start with the basics. What is depth of field and how is it controlled?

Depth of field (DOF) is essentially how much of an image is in focus. Shallow DOF means that only the distance you have focused on will be in focus. A large DOF means that most of the photograph is in focus.

The combination of a telephoto lens (600mm), wide aperture (f4) and large, full frame sensor give this photograph a very shallow depth of field.

Depth of field is controlled by the following:

1. The size of the aperture in the lens: Small or shallow DOF = wide aperture = low f number (e.g. f2.8). Large DOF = small aperture = large f number (e.g. f16)

2. The focal length of the lens: Wide angle lenses give a much greater depth of field than a telephoto lens.

3. How close you are to the subject: Close = shallow depth of field. Far away = greater depth of field.

4. The size of the sensor: Small sensors = large depth of field (e.g. compact cameras), large sensors = shallower depth of field (e.g. medium format cameras)

The combination of a long focal length (105mm) and close distance to this flower means that it is very difficult to get a large depth of field despite using an aperture of f11.

Why use a shallow depth of field?

The advantage of using a shallow depth of field is that you can turn a distracting foreground and background in to a complete blur. This makes your subject really jump out, such as the photograph on the left. Therefore, a shallow depth of field is very useful when taking portraits and photographing animals.

A wide angle lens (20mm) and small aperture (f32) give this photograph a large depth of field.

Why use a large depth of field?

A large depth of field is used when you want both the foreground and background of the photograph to be sharp. This is traditionally the case in landscape and architectural photographs. This is typically achieved by using a combination of a wide angle lens and small aperture.

It is important to note that when you use a small aperture, the only area of the photograph that is truly ‘in focus’ is the part of the photograph that you have actually focused on. E.g. if you have focused on a point 10 feet away, then everything at 10 feet is critically sharp.

With digital cameras using a small aperture (usually smaller than f11 on dSLR’s) can cause a problem called diffraction. Diffraction can be a considerable problem if you create large prints. I will look at what diffraction is and to solve the problem in a future blog posting.

Jul 142011

The night sky from our camp in Botswana. The camera is pointing toward the Southern Cross and the trees are lit by the campfire. 15 minute exposure.

Night photography can be fun and rewarding and with digital photography it can also be easy to achieve great results.

You will need a tripod and a remote release, preferably one with a timer and a fully charged battery in your camera. A fast lens such as 50mm f1.8 would be useful but not essential.

The first thing to do is to find a suitable location, somewhere with a wide view of the sky and with  a strong foreground element such as a tree would be perfect.

Next, plan when to go. When the moon is full, it will light up your foreground but the stars will be dim. During the new moon, the stars will appear brighter but you may need to light up your foreground element with flash or a flashlight.

Next, plan which direction to take the photograph. If you are pointing North or South then the stars will create concentric circles around a point.

For focusing, use Liveview if you have it and focus manually. If you don’t have Liveview then manually focus the lens to infinity and make sure that you are far enough away from the foreground element so that it is in focus. This will be easy to achieve with a wide angle lens.

Turn off any vibration reduction or image stabilization.

The Northern Lights above Watchee Lodge. 30 seconds at f4, ISO 320.

Now for the tricky part, working out the exposure. I strongly recommend doing a test shot with a fast lens and high ISO first and then calculating the actual exposure.

The reason for doing this is to save time later. Assuming that you have ‘long exposure noise reduction’ switched on, then after your long exposure, your camera will be busy doing a black point calibration and this can take 50% to 100% of the time that was taken for the photograph.

E.g. If you do a 20 minute exposure, the black point calibration (long exposure noise reduction) will take 10 to 20 minutes. This means that your camera will be busy for 30 to 40 minutes. If you didn’t have the correct exposure then you’ve wasted a lot of time!

Lets assume that our goal is to have short star streaks. This will take a 15 minute exposure. We also assume that we want an aperture of f4 and 200 ISO.

Most digital SLRs have a long exposure of 30 seconds. In manual mode, set 30 seconds and f4 for the exposure.

The difference between a 15 minute exposure and a 30 second exposure is 5 stops: (8 minutes, 4 minutes, 2 minutes, 1 minute, 30 seconds) i.e. halving or doubling the time is 1 stop.

Therefore in order to have the same exposure at 30 seconds we need to increase the ISO by 5 stops (400, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400).

Now take a photograph at 6400 ISO, f4 and 30 seconds. If the photograph is too bright then try again at f5.6 or f8. If it is too dark then try f2.8 or increase the ISO.

Assuming that the best exposure was 6400 ISO, f5.6 and 30 seconds. All you need to do know is set 200 ISO, f5.6 and bulb.

Wait a minute, what on earth is ‘bulb’? Bulb is a shutter speed setting that is used for shutter speeds longer than 30 seconds. You usually need to be in manual mode to set the shutter speed to ‘bulb’. The shutter will open when you press the shutter release and it will close when you take your finger off the shutter release.

Due to camera shake and finger fatigue, you probably don’t want to hold the shutter release down for 15 minutes! This where the remote release comes in useful. If you have a remote with a timer then set the timer to 15 minutes and take the photograph. It will close the shutter once the timer has counted down. Otherwise, press the remote release and lock the switch. Use a watch and after 15 minutes unlock the remote.

You should now have a great night photograph! Good luck and let me know how you got on.

Jul 072011

Geopic II on Nikon D3s, it works on any Nikon with a 10 pin plug

A new piece of equipment that I first tried in Scotland and which was very successful was the Geopic II GPS for Nikon SLR’s. The aim of using a GPS with a digital camera is to embed the location from where the photograph was taken in to the photograph’s metadata.

I have tried other GPS solutions in the past but the problem has always been synchronizing the GPS with the photos.

The Geopic II is connected to the camera’s 10pin remote socket and the GPS information is written into the photo immediately, therefore, there is no need to synchronize devices later.

The Geopic II isn’t the only solution for Nikon SLR’s but it had great reviews and is an excellent price. It also incorporates the heading information so that you know in which direction you were pointing for each photo, in my opinion heading is a very useful piece of information that is missing from many camera GPS options.

Also, this unit unlike many others includes a remote socket which allows you to record GPS information and fire the camera remotely when taking long exposures.

In Africa the Geopic II was again invaluable for logging the location of each photograph.

You won’t find the second useful accessory in camera stores, in fact you can only find it at MEC in Canada. The MEC Aegir 20 pack is a completely waterproof pack that uses a zipper to seal it. I have used similar packs in the past but always found their zippers to be hard to close. This pack is lightweight, a great price and saved my very expensive 300mm f2.8 lens when I was capsized by a hippo.

Large Aquatech Soft Hood on Nikon's 600mm f4 lens

The third and final piece of equipment that I also found useful was a folding lens hood for my Nikon 600mm f4 lens. The 600mm f4 will actually fit inside a large number of camera bags, but it’s huge 7.5 inch x 5 inch (19cm x 13cm) hood will not! Using this lens without a hood is not an option, the best solution that I have found is the Aquatech Softhood. The hood is not cheap and it is not much lighter than the original hood but it is very strong, waterproof and folds flat or folds in half. It is available in two sizes, depending upon which telephoto lens you use.

Jun 292011

Cheetah relaxes at sunset

Now that I’m home, it is time to share some thoughts on the equipment that I used in Africa.

I always find it interesting to write down what worked, what didn’t and what I’d do next time.

In the first instalment I will look at the big stuff; cameras and lenses. Next week I’ll discuss the smaller accessories which can often make a big difference.

Video

The photo tour to Africa was the first time that I planned to do a serious amount of videography. Unfortunately, my Panasonic TM700 camcorder was stolen at Johannesburg. I was left with my Panasonic TS3 compact camera and Nikon D3S to record video. I primarily used the D3S and despite lacking the autofocus sophistication of the TM700, it was a great tool. When combined with the 70-200mm f2.8 lens that I borrowed from Nikon, I was able to get some great pan and zoom videos of the wildlife. For distant subjects I even used my 600mm lens for video! Once I edit the video I should be able to produce some exciting multimedia presentations about the trip. Sound is still something of an issue and I haven’t yet discovered the perfect solution for recording high quality sound in the field. As soon as I do, I will share it with you!

Lens Choice

Lens choice was obviously important for this trip. The two lenses that I used the most were my 300mm f2.8 VR (1005 photos) and the 600mm f4 VR2 (792). It should be noted that I use two full frame cameras, Nikon D3x and D3s. If you have a DSLR with a smaller sensor (e.g. D7000 or D300s) then probably the best option would be Nikon’s 200-400mm f4 lens. Using the 200-400mm zoom would allow a photographer to create some stunning video footage and save a lot of weight but the advantage of having two big telephoto lenses was that I was able to take stills with one and shoot video with the other.

I am a big fan of prime lenses and do not own a 70-200mm lens. However, Nikon Professional Services (NPS) in Canada kindly loaned me a 70-200mm f2.8 VR2 lens for the trip. It was very versatile and ideal for using from a vehicle or canoe, I used it for video and produced some great pan and zoom video segments with it. No matter which camera system you use (Canon, Nikon, Sony etc) if you are serious about wildlife photography then a 70-200mm f2.8 lens is an incredible tool that will last you years. If you couple a 70-200mm with a tele-convertor such as Nikon’s TC17EII, then you can end up with a 120mm-340mm f4.8 lens.

We didn’t really use wide angle lenses. Next time I’ll take a 28mm f2.8 instead of my heavy 17-35mm f2.8 lens.

 

The high speed Nikon D3s is ideal for capturing fast action such as this impala

Camera Choice

I took five cameras on this trip; Nikons D3x and D3s (full frame DSLRs), Panasonic’s TS3 (waterproof compact) and TM700 (camcorder) and my Fuji GX617 panoramic camera.

I primarily used the D3x and used the D3s when I expected the action to be fast and furious, or the light was getting low or when I wanted to shoot video. Both are full frame but the D3x’s 24 mega-pixels can give you a 1.5x crop and you’ll end up with a high quality 10 mega-pixel photo.

The slim nature of the TS3 made it great for grabbing documentary shots, especially as it has a built in GPS to log the location.

The idea of using my GX617 was to photograph wildlife at sunset or sunrise, especially if they were moving through a scene. Something which would be very difficult by stitching. I was also able to use it from the canoe on bright days. Unfortunately, my TM700 was stolen in Johannesburg which was a big loss as it’s autofocus makes it incredibly useful and easy to use.

In future I would contemplate taking a Nikon APS-C camera such as the D7000 or D300S and use the Nikon 200-400mm f4 lens but I’m not sure that they can replace my D3x or D3s. If Nikon comes out with a new professional quality APS-C camera then that would probably be the camera to use with the 200-400mm lens.

Next week….

In my blog next week I will look at the accessories that made an important difference to the Africa photo tour

Jun 242011

Nick paddles whilst Steve looks for wildlife on the Zambezi river

Our photo tour to Zimbabwe was not just about canoeing and getting up close and personal with hippos.

In the mornings we went on game drives and if Nick found any interesting tracks, then we would go on a walk so that we could get some great photographs.

On the last two days we had two very exciting walks. Nick noticed that a group of impala were very agitated, we stopped driving and searched the landscape with our binoculars. Nick’s trained eye noticed a pride of ten lions moving in the grass. They didn’t seem to be hunting and the impala were fully aware of them so we decided to follow the lions.

Nick was obviously armed and we set off with our cameras across a plain and in to the  grass.

Part of a pride of lions that we were following on foot.

The lions seemed to be strolling casually but they were hard to keep up with. They headed in to some thick brush and we continued to follow.

At this point, Nick told us to keep close together and reminded us what to do if a lion charged – DON’T RUN!

Following lions in thick brush with limited visibility is very exciting, at least I think so but unfortunately we never caught up with them. They probably lay down, watched us, rolled their eyes and thought “more tourists!”.

African wild dog alpha female outside her den

The following morning was even more exciting. Nick knew of an African wild dog den that was near our camp, after breakfast we headed there by landrover and walked the last kilometre.

It is unusual for African wild dogs to reuse old den sites, the exception is when a new pack is formed and the inexperienced alpha female will use a den she is familiar with for her first litter.

Nick was delighted to find that this was the case at this old den. About nine dogs were lying in the open in front of the hidden den site. They were a long way off and difficult to photograph. After they became used to our presence we slowly shuffled forward on our bums, with our cameras on our laps.

Slowly but surely we got closer and the dogs seemed comfortable with us. We took some great photographs and just enjoyed being these magnificent but now, very rare predators.

It's hard to get away from hippos on the Zambezi river

After my capsize on the previous day, we were a little apprehensive when the hippos seemed to be too close. Fortunately, they behaved themselves and we had no more incidents.

The last couple of hours of the last day were particularly good because the terrain wasn’t suitable for hippos. In the warm glow of the afternoon light we drifted alongside a vertical sandy bank and saw African fish eagles, a python, monitor lizards and birds that nested in the sandy bank.

It was a great end to four days on the Zambezi.

Monitor lizard poses as we drift past

Will I go back to Africa? Definitely, especially to Botswana. In fact, on the way home we were throwing ideas around for another trip.

Whether I organize another photo tour to Botswana is not certain. This year’s tour took a huge amount of planning but had very low attendance and I tempted to return with family and a few friends on a private trip.

However, if you are interested in Africa then use my website contact form and drop me an email as I can always be persuaded to change my mind!

In the end the four of us had incredible experiences and have many breathtaking photos, that I’ve not yet shared on my blog.