This is an interesting TED Talk by David Griffin on how photography connects people. If you enjoy looking at great photographs which most of us do, or are interested in photography its worth a watch. You can find this and thousands of other really great talks at the TED Talks website. Click here.
I just returned from a great trip to central Nebraska where I was capturing images of the Sandhill Crane migration that takes pause in the Platte River basin before it continues northwards. It was on this trip that I was reminded of the unpredictability of wildlife photography and the need for a flexible approach.
Before embarking on any photographic trip I always research the area I will be visiting and the subject I will be photographing including existing images. This allows me to know what images already exist on the subject and to get the creative juices flowing as I contemplate ways of capturing unique photographs what will stand out from the crowd. If you don't already do this start to incorporate it into your pre trip plans. Rather than leaving it to chance prepare a plan for the specific shots you are looking to create before you head out the door. The better prepared you are the more likely you will be to walk away with the images you want.
Once you are in the field always remain open to adapting your plan and expectations, as Robert Burns once said 'the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.' While a well thought-out game plan is essential always remember to expect the unexpected. In wildlife photography where weather conditions and animal behavior can be unpredictable this is especially important. This unpredictability is a double edged sword as it can at times provide frustration when you don't get what you were expecting. While on the other hand it provides unexpected opportunities that keep you coming back for more.
This was not my first trip to witness the Sandhill Crane migration and as I headed to Kearney I had a good idea of the images I was looking to try to add to my collection. I entered my hide at the Rowe Sanctuary on a sunny spring afternoon and was all set to go. As it turned out someone had forgotten to instruct the cranes to do exactly as I had envisioned at the time I had envisioned. Despite events not unfolding according to my expectations I adjusted to the opportunities that were presented and managed to capture some unexpected pictures that I really liked.
While it is good to have a plan before embarking on a photographic trip it is essential to remain flexible and remember that you are dealing with weather and animals that can at times both be unpredictable. There are always images to be taken even if they don't fit in exactly with what you had envisioned and regardless of the photographic opportunity there is always the enjoyment of spending time in nature which for me is most important.
In todays digital world we are bombarded with awe-inspiring images of exotic lands, creatures and cultures, leading many an aspiring photographer to the incorrect assumption that the only way to capture special images is to visit these exotic locations. While there is plenty to be said for visiting these places the reality is that this is not possible or at least not consistently possible for most photographers.
Often some of the best photographic opportunities can be found close-by; in your backyard, a local park or your neighborhood to name but a few. Not only are these local places easily accessible at little to no cost but being able to visit them regularly allows you to build up a knowledge of a particular area or subject. This will in turn improve your ability to capture quality images of them. Knowing what time of day will produce the best lighting conditions, the best season and vantage points will all help improve your chances of capturing images that you can be proud of.
In keeping with this I have been spending time in my backyard photographing some of the many birds that frequent it. Even a short amount of time spent observing these often overlooked neighbors drastically improved my ability to predict their rapid movements allowing me to be ready to capture a certain pose or look when it arose.
In addition to getting to know a location and subject intimately the time spent behind the lens will allow you to master your equipment and technique. It does not matter if you have state of the art equipment, taking consistently good images requires time and effort. The practice you put in will make you a more confident and competent photographer so that when you do go on those special trips you will be better prepared to capture great images.
So the next time you think there is no inspiring subject matter to photograph challenge yourself to look a little closer at the locations and subjects close to home that you may have been overlooking. You'll be glad you did!
In 1963 only 63 mating pairs of Bald Eagles could be found in the continental United States. With the future of this iconic national symbol hanging in the balance, the US Interior Department designated the Bald Eagle an endangered species, affording it protection under the Endangered Species Act. This was not the first time the Bald Eagle required protection from Big Brother. For centuries they were viewed as competition to livestock farmers and the salmon fishing industry and were even hunted for sport. In 1940 congress stepped in, making the killing of Bald Eagles illegal after the decline in their population became increasingly obvious. Unfortunately for the eagles this legislation coincided with the mass use of the pesticide DDT which entered into the food chain causing reproductive failure due to the thinning of eggshells.
With the use of DDT eliminated, the killing of eagles prohibited and a growing public interest in their recovery, the Bald Eagle made a remarkable comeback. In 1997 the year they were removed from the Endangered Species Act over 10,000 breeding pairs were counted.
Comeback King. The Bald Eagle has made a remarkable comeback under protection from the Endangered Species Act.
The Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore is home to one of the largest breeding populations of Bald Eagles on the US east coast. Blackwater is a beautiful refuge and a favorite with photographers due to its abundance of birds and stunning scenery. You can see some of my images of the Blackwater Refuge here. It is however Conowingo Dam on Maryland’s lower reaches of the Susquehanna River that steals the show when it comes to observing and photographing eagle behavior. In early winter hundreds of eagles congregate below the dam wall. With the Susquehanna providing ample food a good morning’s viewing can provide numerous hunting attempts, interactions and aerial acrobatics.
I have been fortunate to spend some time capturing images of this spectacle over the past few months resulting in the following portfolio. Bald Eagles
For photographers, if you are looking to capture images of these or other birds there are a few of basic steps you can take to help you get that special shot you are looking for.
The Right Tools
Firstly make sure you have the right tool for the right job. In this case a telephoto lens with a zoom of at least 300mm or more supported by a sturdy tripod and an appropriate tripod head. Handholding a large telephoto lens will not produce good results despite image stabilization technologies that most lenses today possess. You may occasionally get a good clean sharp image but this will be an exception. Along with a sturdy tripod use a tripod head that is suitable for the size lens you are using. Despite being on the heavy side the Wimberley gimbal-type tripod head is the market leader. The gimbal-type design allows you to pan and follow birds in flight seamlessly.
Secondly make sure that you properly understand how your camera’s different functions work and use the most appropriate settings for the conditions. This is where some experimentation may be needed especially when you are starting out. Another option is to attend a workshop or seek advice from fellow photographers. For more on my workshops and instruction click here.
Take time to observe your subject and gain an understanding of their behavior and habits. This knowledge will allow you to better predict an animal's movements and behavior and help ensure you will be in the right place at the right time. In places such as Conowingo Dam you can often be spoilt for choice of subject. Resist the temptation to move rapidly from bird to bird chasing a shot. Rather use your knowledge you have gained of your subjects behavior and stick with one animal. Most of all be patient and remember to enjoy the spectacle.
Photographing wildlife can be very unpredictable. If your chosen subject does not show up or present the right shot look around for alternative subject matter. An alternative subject is always available, you just have to be aware and open to the possibilities that nature presents and you will be pleasantly surprised.
The Lesser Sandhill Crane migration is widely considered one of the greatest spectacles of the natural world. Over half a million of these majestic birds congregate for up to a month in Nebraska’s Platte River Basin while they build up their energy reserves feeding on waste corn before completing their pilgrimage to their northern breeding grounds.
This past March I was fortunate enough to head out to Kearney Nebraska with Mike Paredes (click here to see some of Mike's work and his 50% charity pledge) to witness this spectacle for myself. Driving from Omaha to Kearney, Mike and I kept wondering when we would see our first crane and it was not long before Mike spotted some in the distance. (Serious bird nerd stuff.) The closer we got to Kearney the more cranes we kept seeing and were amazed by just how many there were. Little did we know that this was just a taste of the vast numbers we would later encounter.
The skittish cranes roost overnight in the shallow waters of the Platte River where they are protected from predators such as Coyotes. Every morning at sunrise they depart their roosts for the surrounding cornfields to feed and do one of the other things they are famous for: dance. These graceful dancing displays help to strengthen the bonds between pairs who mate for life and who will remain behind on the migration if their mate is sick or injured. As evening approaches flocks of cranes will congregate in the fields adjacent to the river before moving en masse into the river once darkness has fallen.
Shortly after our arrival we headed off to find a suitable spot along the Platte where we could capture images of the cranes returning to their roosts at sunset. I commented to Mike about a small mountain off in the distance, which was strange because Nebraska is for the most part as flat as a pancake. Taking a second look through the binoculars I quickly realized that my mountain was actually a massive flock of cranes. The sheer number of birds is amazing and coupled with a 6ft wingspan they can literally block out the sun. The cranes are joined in their migration along the Central Flyway by millions of snow geese on a similar journey north. This flyway which generally follows the Great Plains narrows considerably over the Platte River Basin. This coupled with ample supply of food from the vast surrounding farmlands account for the high number of birds found here during the migration.
The other striking feature of the migration other than the visual spectacle of tens of thousands of large birds blanketing the sky is the cacophony of noise created once they have landed in the river. At this point night has fallen and there is no real chance of photographing the birds but rather an opportunity to sit back and enjoy the sounds of the night.
I soon realized the fruition of my plan to time this trip with the arrival of the full moon which provided a dramatic backdrop and some additional light. For more a full gallery of my recent Sandhill Crane images click here.
Having witnessed this migration first hand it is easy to see how so many people are captivated by it and return year after year to experience this special event. I now consider myself one of this group of addicts. In a country that used to support some of the greatest amalgamations of animals known to man it is a reminder of the splendor of nature and the ethereal effect it can have on us.
I will be heading back to Nebraska to photograph the 2014 migration. For information on joining me on this unforgettable experience. Click here.
Gorongosa National Park located in central Mozambique is one of the most diverse and beautiful parks on the African continent. It has a fascinating and tragic history, once considered the crown jewel of African parks supporting spectacular and diverse wildlife viewing and birding it was decimated by decades of civil war. In recent years this tragic past has been turning into a future of hope as the government of Mozambique in partnership with the Carr Foundation have been working to restore the park and improve the lives of the impoverished communities living in and around the park. This is no
small task given the scars left by the civil war both environmentally and socially and the resultant pressure on the parks ecosystems. Recently featured in the BBC’s Africa series and now also in Wild Travel magazine a UK based publication with an article by Leon Marais and some images by yours truly, Gorongosa is rising from the ashes. Having lived and worked in Gorongosa for 18 months I can vouch for its captivating beauty, history and uniquely intimate safari experience. Be sure to check out the article in the PDF link below or pick up a copy of this excellent publication.
While not yet providing the game viewing opportunities that more well known and established parks can Gorongosa is ever improving and does provide a unique experience for those who visit. Best for experienced safari goers who value being away from the maddening crowds of tourists and an experience that connects you more intimately with the African bush than a typical Big 5 safari. A vast array of ecosystems from floodplains to primary rain forest to palm forests and many more ensure a diversity of life seldom seen including some spectacular birding. Staying with the parks private operator Kubatana Camp (see more at http://kubatanacampgorongosa.com/) affords you the opportunity to experience the park on foot while being a part of one of the biggest conservation programs on the continent. As Leon mentions in his article be sure to give yourself ample time to really get to explore the park as it does not happen in 3 or 4 days. Follow up your safari by treating yourself to some beach time at one of the many highly rated lodges along the spectacular Mozambican coast.
For photographers Mozambique offers fantastic photographic opportunities with bright vibrant colors dominating local clothing and architecture with a splash of old Portuguese colonialism thrown in, friendly locals as well as birding, underwater (some of the best diving around), and spectacular landscape opportunities.
If you are considering a trip to Mozambique (which you should be) join me on an exclusive trip to see and photograph the best of Mozambique, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Below are a few of my favorite shots taken in Gorongosa that are not featured in the Wild Travel article.
Until next time,
Two friendly and colorful girls on the foothills of Mt Gorongosa. Mozambican culture is typified by bright, bold colors. A park scout on patrol in the park.
Gorongosa Lion House
Built as a camp by the Portuguese near the edge of the floodplain and soon thereafter abandoned for higher ground. The ruins of one of the buildings soon became a popular hangout for lions (as illustrated in this old image) from where they could gain a good vantage point of the surrounding floodplains. The Lion House today at night with a full moon rising in the distance.
The Floodplain in Gorongosa supports vast herds of Antelope during the drier months. In the wet season it is typically flooded to the point where you need a boat to get to the Lion House.
Gorongosa has some 400 different species of birds included some much sought after species such as this Pel’s Fishing Owl. Below a Marabou Stork is silhouetted in flight by a setting sun.
Dinner by Starlight
After a good walk guests sit down to dinner and drinks on Baobab Hill. Later that night lions were to visit this small fly camp keeping everyone awake with incessant roaring just meters from the tents.
The sun sets over the Pungwe River which forms the parks southern boundary while a stand of trees and palms are silhouetted by a typically spectacular Gorongosa sunset.
Each year before the park can begin tourist operations a traditional ceremony to appease the lion spirit of Chitengo is held. Before this is done pieces of palm frond are often attached around camp to ensure protection prior to the ceremony being performed.
What do wild dogs and climate change have in common you may ask? As it turns out not that much but for me there was a recent connection. African Wild Dogs (Lycaon pictus) also known as Painted Dogs or Cape Hunting Dogs are one my favorite animals and I have been privileged enough to spend time with them over the years. Their unique behavior and pack dynamics are fascinating to witness. With numbers once in excess of 500 000 and packs of up to 100 dogs they are now one of the worlds rarest predators with an estimated 3000 - 5000 dogs remaining in the wild. Loss of habitat, persecution from early farmers and susceptibility to diseases such as rabies and distemper all contributed to their sad decline. There are several organizations that focus on preserving African Wild Dogs including Painted Dog Conservation based in Hwange Zimbabwe that could use your support to continue the good work they are doing.
One of the best places to view these awesome creatures is in Mana Pools, Zimbabwe which is where I took the image below last year. Artists Project Earth (APE) have just released their latest fundraising album titled Rhythms Del Mundo Africa have used this image for the album cover. This is Artists Project Earths fourth album in collaboration with international musicians and includes artists such as Coldplay, Beyonce, Mumford and Sons the Red Hot Chili Peppers and more. All of the proceeds from the album sales go towards supporting Artist Project Earths 300 plus projects worldwide that aim to raise awareness around climate change issues, help mitigate carbon emissions and respond to assist those affected by natural disasters. These are three things that affect us all in varying ways whether we realize it or not so I encourage you to check out their website at www.apeuk.org for more information and do what you can to support them. Below is the original image I took and a copy of the album cover with the same image but with a bit of a makeover. A really funky new blue subspecies of Wild Dog?
Until next time.
I have always been fascinated by the natural world and exotic cultures. Whether it was reading too many Willard Price novels, running around exploring as a kid or today as an adult that fascination and passion are as strong as ever. After starting taking pictures as a professional safari guide in South Africa I increasingly became aware of the ability of
imagery to convey a powerful message and sense of belonging.
I hope that my images and blog inspire you to realize the beauty of the world and people around you and to get out there and explore and care for both. Read full bio here.