Monday, 17 September 2012

Photographing African wildlife with impact; Basics and Light (part 1)

I have been fortunate to have experienced 5 trips to Africa to cater for my passion for nature photography. I am writing this copiously illustrated four-part article to assist the reader in adding impact to his/her future safari images in order to make the precious memories more long-lasting. I have been to Kenya (four times) as well as Tanzania and South Africa.

A major factor in getting good images is to be with a company who understand the requirements of passionate nature photographers. I have been with and highly recommend.
Joe and Maryanne McDonald and
Stu Porter from Wild4 Safaris. 

The primary aim of this article is to illustrate how you can add impact to your safari images by adding elements that will ‘provide the mustard’.

In any level of nature photography it is necessary to get the basics right...... to get a ‘keeper’ image. The basics that need to be mastered are;

1. Exposure  The image must have the correct exposure. This is made easier with current technology in that a glance at the histogram on the back of the camera will tell you whether your image falls within acceptable bounds and ‘blinkies’ will tell you if there are any dreaded, information-restricted highlights. Good exposure is naturally dependent on the ambient light and good directional light occurs a few hours after sunrise and a few hours before sunset. The hotter, brighter and more contrasty light around midday are generally avoided by competent photographers.

2. Sharpness. The main element of the image should be as sharp as possible. The sharpness is a result of the camera and lens quality, the steadiness of the camera (i.e. on a tripod or solid support) and the speed of the exposure. A good sharp image should show very good detail over all of the subject (and the perch if possible).

Tawny Eagle

3. Composition. The image should be well-composed, generally obeying the ‘rules’ of composition. There are additional elements that come under composition and these include; (a) Background. The background should never be distracting the eye from the main subject. (b) Foreground. Again the foreground should not contain distracting elements such as large areas that are out-of-focus or contain distracting colors. (c) Perch. If the main subject is a bird the perch should also be natural and mostly in focus as well. 

Not enough attention is generally given to the background of an image and this can seriously detract from the impact.

Using a combination of judicious composition and sharpness can result in images with impact. In the following images of big cats there is progressive focussing in on the eyes of the subject. My go-to lens is usually the prime 500mm without extenders to maximize sharpness. The lion image has been the basis of a painting by a fine-detail, professional wildlife artist.

Resting Leopard

Kruger Lion

Cheetah stare

If the basic elements are correct you will have a pleasing image to add to your collection, website or blog. These images are good to illustrate articles detailing the physiology or appearance of the animals encountered on your African Safari.

The following are examples of what I regard as good basic images, where the above-mentioned elements are in place. 

Coke's Hartebeest

Secretary Bird


Goliath Heron

Yellow-billed Hornbill

In the above images those of the Hornbill, Heron and the Hartebeest have clean backgrounds whereas the waterbuck and Secretary bird show the mammal/bird in their natural environment, which is desirable in many cases. 

In my opinion there are 4 key elements that add the WOW factor to images. They are; Light, Color, Cuteness and Action.

1. Light

The first element that adds impact to safari images is extraordinary light. The vast plains of East Africa allow for uninterrupted early, warm light. Backlighting can give impact to some subjects especially if they are furry……this gives a pleasing rim-lighting effect. The golden warm light that occurs the first 20 minutes after sunrise can  create a very pleasing image. Make sure you are in place to catch this golden period, even it involves traveling for some time in the dark. Storm clouds often gather late in the day and if the sun is in the opposite direction some dramatic lighting results and this can add  zing to your images.

Many mornings and evenings provide ample opportunities for sunrise and sunset shots. These sort of images are very common and to stand out they must be spectacular. The following two are examples, albeit not outstanding, of light before and after the sun appears/disappears. Make sure you have a strong silhouette, off-centre in the picture.

Even before the sunlight fully hits the subject there is a warm light that can be utilized.

An errant lion cub approaches his mother with extreme caution.

The first 20 minutes of direct sunlight gives a rich golden glow to subjects and a spotlighting effect.

A Lioness watches over her mischief-seeking cubs.

Bat-eared Fox

A Hyena pup interacts with it's mother

The subject need not be in the direct sunlight, which lights up the surroundings to add depth.

A Leopard rests after making a kill

The subject can also be backlit to add depth and subsequently impact.

Impala females 

The light after the first 20 minutes and for the next hour still has a golden tone and should be used to advantage. The nights can be cool and many animals use this period to warm up.

Black-backed Jackal

Cheetah female and her two cubs.

As a general rule you need to position your vehicle between the subject and the rising sun. You must remember that the big cats are loathe to look directly into the sun so it is better to position the vehicle 10 degrees, or so, off centre. 

Midday light should not be ignored because this is the optimal time to use polarizing filters.

Maasai Giraffe sheltering from the midday heat.

Evening light can be equally dramatic, especially in conjunction with a stormy sky.

Grazing Elephant 

Wildebeest and Zebra march in front of an approaching evening storm (best seen full on image)

To be continued...................

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