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.


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.

Jun 222011

A hippo did this!

For the second year running I had an exciting few days on the Zambezi river, canoeing through the beautiful Mana Pools National Park.

For those of you that have been following the blog, you’ll remember that last year a hippo decided to bite the canoe that was ahead of me.

This year it was my turn to be hit!

Before I tell you the story, let me give you some background…..

A bee-eater, one of the many birds that we saw on the Zambezi river

Mana Pools National Park is a World Heritage Site and has excellent populations of elephant and hippopotamus, there are also around four denning sites of the elusive African wild dog.

Our goal was to canoe through the national park for four days. In the mornings we went on game drives and also headed in to the bush with Nick, our guide (who was armed). In the afternoons we travelled around 25km down the Zambezi. For the first two nights we stayed at the Vundu Camp lodge and for the second two nights we camped at two different campsites.

Canoeing is a great way to see birds, crocs, monitor lizards, elephants and of course hippos.

Two bull hippos deciding which one is the most dominant.

Each canoe has a guide who paddles and we sat at the front enjoying the scenery and taking photos. There are times when we followed narrow channels and sometimes these channels would have pods of hippos that had to be negotiated. Hippos are nervous of people and their instinct is to enter the water, dive and hide. Personally, I would be happier if they stayed on the land where we could see them! Hippos also sleep in the water and many hippo accidents have happened when a hippo rises from the bottom underneath an unsuspecting canoe. To prevent this, our guides bang their paddles loudly on the side of the canoe so that the hippos know where we are.

On our third day we where paddling down the main river and we were about 100 metres from the shore. My guide for the day was Danni, a 22 year old who was spending her first year as a guide. It was a holiday weekend and her parents were visiting the camp from Harare. They were driving along the river and witnessed the hippo capsize us.

A close up of the damage by the hippo

As we floated down the river in the last canoe we discussing how tame the Zambezi would be if it wasn’t for the excitement of dodging hippos. Suddenly, the canoe was capsized by a bull hippo that had deliberately swum the 100m from it’s pod! In an instant I was under the water. I had been holding my Nikon D3S with 70-200mm lens on my lap. My instinctive  reaction was to thrust the camera up and hope for the best.

I swam to the surface where I saw Danni calmly hanging on to our overturned canoe and she told me to hang on to it and stay still (because of the crocs) whilst the others paddled back to us. I looked at my D3S and it still worked! A few minutes later I was in another canoe and we rafted ours to the shore. I was obviously shocked but after a cup of tea and changing in to my fleece I was happy to carry on.

The hippo had put a hole in it so we had to call the base and get another sent to us. The rest of my group couldn’t believe what had happened and for the next 2 days everyone was on edge whenever we came to close to hippos.

Nick, the main guide simply could not believe that I had kept my camera dry and shook my hand. I’m sure I couldn’t repeat that feat again!

Jun 152011

A male Cheetah on the lookout for his next meal

Without a doubt, Botswana has completely surpassed my expectations.

On the drive from the airstrip to our camp we saw; lion, cheetah, elephants, zebra, giraffe, wildebeest and a huge number of birds.

It very quickly became apparent that our guide, Brian had a great deal of skill in getting us very close to the animals and I was soon wondering if I was going to need my 600mm lens!

An Impala jumping through the grass at Moremi.

On the first evening we rescued another vehicle at a river crossing and photographed two male cheetah at sunset. It was an incredible birthday and the week just got better.

Throughout our stay in Botswana, Brian was superb. He has guided several photography safaris for Andy Biggs and Theo Allofs, so he knew exactly what our needs and expectations were and always had us on the correct side of the animals.

During our 3 days at Moremi we saw wild dogs (the rarest predator in Africa), cheetah on several locations, ostrich, eagle owls, crocodiles, a huge variety of birds, a python, a variety of antelopes and probably a bunch of things that I’ve already forgotten!

A very upset Vervet monkey makes an alarm as one of his buddies is stalked by a leopard.

We had the camp and Brian exclusively to ourselves and as I promised, we had plenty of room in the vehicle as we had a complete row to ourselves and we could quickly move from one side to the other depending on where the action was and action was plentiful!

Following our fabulous 3 nights in Moremi, we moved to the Khwai Concession. During the move we came incredibly close to a leopard. We heard and saw a vervet monkey making alarm calls and he kept looking at a nearby tree so we went to investigate. We searched the trees but could not see the leopard.

We then concentrated on photographing the upset vervet monkeys when suddenly a vervet monkey fell about 3 metres behind us. It had obviously just been slain by the leopard! We looked and looked but still we couldn’t see the leopard.

We backed away and kept watching but to no avail. Brian was really frustrated as he loves leopards and really wanted us to get some close up photos but this one got away.

We continued on our way to Khwai and stopped at Khwai village and were shown some of the houses that have walls built from empty beer and pop cans. We then headed in to the Khwai concession and the first thing that Brian showed us was a hyena den and outside were two very young hyenas playing!

Two young hyenas playing in front of their den.

At Khwai we saw a lot more lions than we had at Moremi and these included two very young cubs that were still nursing. On one evening we had the pleasure of watching them being moved by their mom.

At Khwai we also saw a large number of elephants plus honey badgers, a variety of eagles and vultures, different antelopes, two types of mongoose but still no leopards!

I paid for my own spot on this photo tour but despite the expense it has been very worthwhile and we still have five days to go!

Tonight we watched the total eclipse of the moon and tomorrow we’ll be exploring Victoria Falls town before heading to Mana Pools National Park on Friday. The next blog update will be on June 23rd, so stay tuned. In the meantime, here are a few more photos.

A young male lion watches us through the grass

A lioness moves one of her cubs to a new hiding spot.

A giraffe, just after sunset at Moremi.

Jun 072011

Downtown Johannesburg

After two overnight flights (Calgary – London and London – Johannesburg) I’m finally in Africa at the start of our photo safari. The flight arrived very early but fortunately the hotel had our rooms ready and we were relaxing by 8am.

As we had the whole day here we decided to catch up with some sleep and in the afternoon and had a fascinating tour of Soweto with Modeno who was a fun and informative guide.

Our first stop was downtown Jo’burg and we visited a traditional medicine shop. Dried roots filled shelves; drums, spears and other ceremonial regalia were around the walls and lots of animal products such as hooves hung from the ceilings.

Modeno told us how many of the products were used, including a rather graphic description as to how to use a spear; I’ll save you the details!

A sign of the times. An old apartheid sign in downtown Johannesburg.

Before arriving in Soweto we drove past the ‘Kalabash’ soccer stadium that was used for the main events in the 2010 soccer world cup and then went to the cooling towers at the old Orlando power station in Soweto.

The cooling towers have incredible art painted all around them which was done by scaffold, as you can imagine the middle was difficult due to the concave shape of the towers. The towers are connected by cables with a bungy jumping platform in between them.

One of the two painted Soweto cooling towers

A family lives here. No electricity, running water or sanitation.

I was expecting Soweto to be full of depressing shanty houses. It certainly has many of those but some areas are surprisingly affluent. Winnie Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and other prominent South Africans still live in Soweto. There are still a lot of shanty areas that have incredibly small houses made of corrugated steel with no electricity, running water or sanitation. The government is slowly rebuilding Soweto but it is taking a very long time, which must be frustrating for the inhabitants when they see the infrastructure improvements that were made for the soccer world cup.

Our final stop was to the Hector Pieterson museum in Soweto. Hector was killed when black children protested against being educated in the Afrikaans language on June 16th, 1976. It was the police’s reaction to this protest that drew condemnation from around the world. Although Hector was not the only child killed, he became an icon of the struggle against apartheid due to a photograph of him being carried from the scene. It shows the power that photography has as a medium.

Tomorrow we head to Botswana and start our safari in the Okavango delta. Look out for the next blog post on June 16th which will be from Victoria Falls.

Nov 232010

One problem with running a photography business is that it’s easy to get distracted!

Photography is very diverse and offers different ways to make a living. I started my business six years ago and in that time I’ve done commercial, stock, travel and fine art photography, I’ve even done some portrait work.

It is difficult to focus when you have to make enough money to pay the bills and you’re offered a huge variety of ways to do so.

I find that it is difficult to achieve long term goals when I juggling many, unrelated projects at the same time.

A few months ago I decided to sit down and think about what was important, what was preventing me from doing those important activities and create a way so that I could concentrate on what I really wanted to do, yet pay the bills!

To solve the problem I come up with three goals and a road map to achieve those goals.

It took me a surprisingly long time to solve a balancing act of creating a new and steady revenue source, having quality time at home and enjoying my photography. However, with a road map in place I am suddenly more productive, more focused and enjoying myself.

I’ll not be announcing what changes are coming just yet but I will be concentrating my business on teaching photography and taking more nature photographs. It will probably take me one to three years to achieve two of the three goals but what I’ll be doing in that time promises to be a lot of fun and spiritually rewarding.

If you’re lacking focus and keep getting distracted, then spend some time creating goals and decide how you’ll achieve those goals. Read the goals often and you’ll be surprised at how productive you become.

Hopefully, they’ll be few detours on the way!

Nov 012010

In May 2012 I will be returning to the Galapagos Islands for another photo tour.

The dates are May 4th to May 14th (Galapagos and Otavalo) or May 4th to May 20th for Galapagos, Otavalo and Napo Lodge (Amazon Basin).

The itinerary is new and our luxury yacht will be going to some exciting new locations!

The price for the trip will be announced early in 2011 but for now pencil the dates in your 2012 calendar!

In the meantime I will be doing a talk at the Canmore Library at 7:30pm on Monday, November 8th. Some of the photos and stories will be from my 2010 photo tour to the Galapagos Islands.

Oct 132010

Golden larches at Sunshine Meadows

This year’s Canadian Rockies Tour went beyond my wildest expectations! We had tremendous weather, incredible fall colours, which, combined with high water volume at most waterfalls has given breathtaking results.

The first full day started in Canmore and of course we had to go to Mount Yamnuska where the poplar’s were in their full fall glory. I was inspired to take my first Yamnuska panorama.

Later that morning we moved to Lake Louise, via the Bow Valley Parkway and photographed bull Elk and poplars. The next morning started at Herbert Lake. We had dramatic clouds, some pink light and mist; an awesome combination!

Fall panorama of Mount Yamnuska

Golden light reflected off a small creek in Jasper National Park

Then we went to Sunshine, met our hiking guide Joel and went up to Sunshine Meadows. This was my first fall visit to Sunshine Meadows and I wasn’t disappointed. Joel is a very knowledgeable, friendly guide who told us about the area as we walked from one location to another. If you need a guide in the Lake Louise or Banff area then contact Joel and Nadine at Great Divide Nature Interpretation. At each photo stop I showed the group some tricks with solid neutral density filters as well as the benefit of polarizing filters.

The following day was wet and I spent the morning teaching everyone how to take panoramas and gave some tips on using Lightroom. In the afternoon we had a ‘show and tell’ in the lounge at the Post Hotel. The weather cleared up and we dashed off to Takakkaw Falls and the Kicking Horse river for the afternoon light.

Medicine Lake at sunset

The following day we went to Moraine Lake for sunrise and then left Lake Louise and had a leisurely drive up the Icefield’s Parkway to Jasper, the weather was stunning and perfect for this magnificent drive. During our stay in Jasper, we saw rutting Elk just outside the town and photographed some beautiful sunrises and sunsets at a variety of places in the area.

It was another fun photo tour for me and my last of the year. I’ve decided to run the trip again in 2011, so stay tuned for more details!

Sep 282010

Mount Yamnuska at sunrise. Photo by Shirley Davis.

With fresh snow on the mountains and lots of fall colours, conditions the Nature Photography workshop looked promising, unfortunately the weather forecast was calling for rain!

This was the first workshop to be held in my new office so I was interested to see how it would work out.

As always, the Friday evening was spent checking that everyone’s camera gear was ready for the weekend; then I gave a lecture about using filters, understanding histograms, exposure compensation and using aperture priority mode.

Saturday morning was clear, cold and there were some dramatic clouds around the mountains. My plan was to head to the Bow River to photograph the Three Sisters and Mount Lawrence Grassi but unfortunately, there was so much mist coming off the river that the mountains were obscured from the valley floor.

Goat Mountain and poplar's. Photo by Richard Dettbarn.

Instead, we headed to Mount Yamnuska to get away from the river. It looked very promising, the mountain towered over the misty valley bottom and we walked to a small body of water at the foot of the mountain. As we reached the lake, the mist again obscured our view so we retreated to higher ground and had a beautiful sunrise with the fall colours in the foreground.

After sunrise we returned to the office for breakfast and stopped to photograph a large group of Rocky Mountain sheep.  After breakfast we had a variety of  lectures, critiques and discussions before breaking up for dinner. In the evening we headed out again looking for wildlife.

Rocky Mountain sheep. Photo by Ron Baker.

We saw a female moose and her calf but unfortunately, not much else! On Sunday it was dark and gloomy but the group did a great job of creating abstract landscape photographs before the rain set in.

Sunday was spent with more lectures and critiques. Throughout the weekend, the group had some excellent questions which led to some interesting discussions about techniques, equipment and composition.

It was another very enjoyable weekend for me and a treat to meet a group of talented and enthusiastic photographers. Here are some of their photographs and comments…..

“I truly enjoyed the weekend and learned a lot. I came away with a better understanding of how it all comes together to achieve a pleasing photo and I also learned to enjoy my camera and equipment versus wondering what I was doing wrong all the time. I will definitely be taking other courses that you offer in the future.” – Monica Ritter

Goat Mountain shortly after sunrise. Photo by Monica Ritter.

Bow River abstract. Photo by Norma Gursky.

“Thank you very much for all of the ideas and knowledge that you shared with us last week.  I really enjoyed myself and learned a lot about both my camera and photography in general.” – Ron Baker.

Smut's creek abstract. Photo by Paul Murphy.

The beauty of fall. Photo by Tamara Carter.

Backlighting at sunrise. Photo by Erin Baer

Sep 212010

Photoshop Elements 9 was announced today! See below for a list of the important new features. Use the link below to visit the Adobe website to get your mail in rebate of $20!

Announcing Adobe Photoshop Elements 9. Easily edit, create, organize, and share your digital photos. Buy now.

Here’s what’s new:

  • Layer masks have been added – they were only available for adjustment layers in Elements 8.
  • Better RAW processing capabilities
  • Greater choice of photograph styles and it’s easier to apply the style of one photograph to other photographs.
  • Photomerge has been improved with better blending (this is used to create panoramas)
  • Easier to share photos and videos on Facebook.
  • Ability to easily create and print calendars, cards and photo books at home.