Jaci's Trip Report Part 2: The Photography

December 11, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

In the second part of my Trip Report from Jaci's Lodges in Madikwe, South Africa, I want to focus on the photography

In part 1 of the trip report which you can read here, I described the general routine of being on a safari, whether this be in Sabi Sands, KNP, Madikwe etc. There is a general routine that is design to make the most out of game viewing. Let's just remind ourselves of that routine.

  • Wake up around 5.15-5.30am. 
  • Quick coffee just before 6am.
  • Morning Game Drive from 6am through to just before 10am.
  • Breakfast/Brunch around 10-11am.
  • Free time.
  • High Tea: 3.30pm.
  • Afternoon Game Drive: 4.00pm
  • Return to lodge: 7.00pm
  • Drinks: 7.30pm followed by dinner at 8.00pm
  • Retire to your room 9.30-10.00pm
  • If you have the energy and the company, fireside drinks may last in to the evening :-)

Now what does this mean in a photographic context?

Very simply put, on any safari, the two main periods of photography happen on the morning and afternoon/evening game drives. Both these game drives happen during "Golden Hour" - that time of the day when the sun rises or the sun sets. On the morning game drive you start with low light and as the sun rises the light conditions reach an optimum until the sun rises higher in the sky when the light becomes more harsh, leading to higher contrast.

Examples of images from morning game drives in Madikwe

400mm, f5.6, Shutter Speed 1/1000, ISO 640. Taken at 6.50am, as the sun starts to rise, I set my aperture to its widest limit at f5.6 and chose an ISO of 640 to give me a shutter speed of 1/1000 which gives me at least 2X the focal length of 400mm. ​

400mm, f5.6, Shutter Speed 1/160, ISO 640. Taken at 05.55am. Before the sun has risen and with the cover of the trees, even with an ISO of 640, and my widest aperture for the lens (f5.6), I only have a shutter speed of 1/160. This is below the 2X focal length rule of thumb, but as the Hyena is walking slowly it did not negatively impact the sharpness of the image. ​This is where as a photographer you can break "the rules" to get the image. 

100mm, f18, Shutter Speed 1/30 ISO 100. Taken at 7:07am. With the sun up, light is good. I decided to slow the shutter speed to do a panning shot. By slowing the shutter to 1/30 I am letting more light into the camera and so need to close the iris of the lens and set an aperture to f18. In this instance my ISO is at it's lowest and my aim is to get a focus point on the head of the subject as it runs. 

With the afternoon/evening game drives you head out in bright day light and this will fade as the sun sets and you will go through a low light phase into darkness. The light during the afternoon/evening drives varies dramatically, and can give some amazing images, but you have to understand how to manage that fading light.

Examples of images from evening game drives in Madikwe

320mm, f6.3, Shutter Speed 1/640, ISO 320. Time taken 3:55pm. These two giraffe's were necking and so I had to follow the 2X focal length rule for my shutter speed in order to freeze the movement. This is the only reason my ISO is set to 320. The light is absolutely perfect, and if I was not using such a long focal length I would have dropped my ISO. 

500mm, f10, Shutter Speed 1/160 ISO 640. Taken at 5.40pm. This was a special case. There was beautiful golden light but this leopard was skittish despite being high up in a tree. I therefore I had to use a 1.4X extender with my 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 lens (not ideal) and as a result my lowest aperture was f10. I therefore could not increase the shutter speed any faster, but with a static subject this did not matter as long as I kept the camera still. 

400mm, f40, 1.0sec, ISO 100. Time Taken 6.00pm. With the light fading this was another special case. ​This Hamerkop was fishing in a flowing river I still had available light but it was low in the sky and I decided to get creative. I slowed my shutter to a 1.0 second exposure in order to blur the flowing water and give a sense of movement. To compensate the exposure, and in absence of an ND filter, I had to close the iris right down to f40! I then had to hope the Hamerkop would not move and I could keep the camera still on the vehicle. I almost pulled it off. As the vehicle was in the flowing river itself there was some slight movement so the Hamerkop isn't pin sharp, but personally that doesn't bother me. 

From a photographic point of view, whether you are a beginner or advanced, game drives present some serious light management issues to consider!

I've used a schematic that I drew on my computer to summarise the photographic day in terms of this "light management". I'm not a graphic designer so please excuse the crudeness of my drawings :-) It is designed to illustrate the point about how, as photographers we are impacted by light during the day.

So what are you looking at? Well you are looking at a relative curve of light intensity versus time of day, and the relevant ISO required to manage the camera sensors degree of sensitivity to that light. It is a very simple schematic which shows that in high light intensity you use low ISO's and in low light intensity or dusk/darkness you use high ISO's. Call it a "rule of thumb". Now why is this important? Well there are two reasons:

  • In Wildlife Photography we try to use Aperture Priority Mode (AV/A) whenever possible and ISO is integral to helping control shutter speed. Shutter speed plays a key role in sharpness and subject movement. High shutter speeds freeze motion and give crisp sharp images, lower shutter speeds create motion blur and softer images. 
  • The higher the ISO, by default the more noise we induce in the image. 

Now there is a "get out of jail" for those low light/high ISO scenarios. As I mentioned in the first bullet above this can be compensated for using slower shutter speeds. But sometimes we still want fast shutter speeds to freeze the action. That's why with low light you have to balance the technical aspects of shooting versus the creative aspects of image making. 

So if we look at our schematic we have two optimal times of the day when we can shoot on game drives, the two "Golden Hours" of sun rise and sun set. And if we understand the relationship between light intensity, our cameras sensitivity to light through the ISO setting, and the impact that has on shutter speed, we have options at dawn and dusk to do creative low light shooting with slower shutter speeds if we wish. Or we just bump up the ISO and get everything sharp and crisp and live with the noise.

Now what happens during the hottest part of the day when the sun is at its highest point in the sky? We go and have a nap right? After all we just got up at 4.50am to have coffee and rusks to go on a game drive...that's early and we need some rest. No. Wrong. That's the wrong answer :-)

Well it used to be the right answer before I went to Jaci's and experienced the Terrapin Hide. The hide changed my thinking and after brunch and a quick shower I was straight into the hide for the afternoon. Some photographers will say..."Agh, the light is too intense through midday, I'll wait. I can't get any images, everything is to contrasty". And they would be right. Time to dig a little deeper into your photographic tool box.

That intense sun light....Perfect for high key shooting. 

What is high key shooting?

High key photography is when there is a larger amount of light tones and fewer mid tones or shadows. This means the vast majority of tones within the subject exposure are above middle grey and the background will be mostly white but may show some detail. 

When the sun light is so intense that the exposure on the subject gives you a "blown out" background (could be land, sky or clouds) the high key technique can come in very handy. You can over expose the image even more, and this can help eliminate those "blown out" areas showing some detail (but with a lot of contrast) into a homogenous white space, which can be very effective in black and white imagery. You can also use the high key technique to shoot images for texture rather than colour. 

By deliberately over exposing your image by +1, even +2 stops, in intense midday sunlight you can create some truly incredible black and white conversions with the high key shooting technique. Here are some of my own examples from the Terrapin Hide. 

It pays to understand your post processing workflow in Lightroom to convert the image to black and white before you start using the technique. I may broach that subject in a Lightroom tutorial in the future. But if you are keen to understand the Lightroom workflow I am sure Google and YouTube are your friends :-)

5 in a row5 in a row5 Zebras line up at the waterhole outside Jaci's Tree Lodge, Madikwe, South Africa. Image taken from the #Terrapinhide.

170mm, f5.6, Shutter Speed 1/100 ISO 320. Time taken 2:20pm. You can just detect in the top left of the frame the over exposed sky, but as the majority of the frame is composed for the Zebras this doesn't really matter and so this shot works well in colour.

112mm, f5.6, Shutter Speed 1/1600, ISO 320. Time taken 2:15pm. Technically I should have probably shot this at f7.1 or f8.0. However this was exposed +2/3 of a stop and it was composed directly into the direction of the sun light. If you look at the top right of the frame you can see an edge of the cloud. Using Lightroom I've converted this into a black & white image and what you see is a completely blown our background. With Zebras in particular, black & white conversions work really well, but I like the addition of the two giraffe in the image. 

When there's no light

I have always been a keen astro photographer. I am no expert, but I would say I know enough to be dangerous! One of the issues in the bush is that often at night you can't actually get out with your tripod and camera even within the camp due to safety. The beauty of Jaci's is that it is fenced and you can access the star bed or the hide 24 hours. This meant post dinner photography sessions in the hide, and it was a lot of fun. This is where the absence of light is compensated by longer exposures. Here's just one example:

Terrapin Hide MilkywayTerrapin Hide MilkywayThe night sky as seen from the Terrapin Hide at Jaci's Tree Lodge in Madikwe, South Africa. You can clearly see the Milky Way as the moon sets behind the horizon.

33mm, f4.0, Shutter Speed 20 seconds, ISO 1000. Time Taken 10:45pm. There was a half moon on the evening I took this image and I had to wait that it dipped below the horizon, you can just see it between the left and centre tree. You can also see the Milky Way. I love this type of photography and I hope to return at some point and maybe an elephant of giraffe would sit between those trees. That would be a special image!

So in summary, what does the Jaci's experience mean photographically?

  • Game drives during the morning and evening "Golden Hours" when the game is at it's most active.
  • Access 24 hours to the Terrapin Hide, day and night. 
  • High Key Terrapin Hide shooting through the midday hours - giving you stunning water/eye level Black and White conversions.
  • Slower shutter speed creative nighttime photography, including astro photography.

Having been several times to South Africa on safari, I think Jaci's is probably one of the few places if not the only place today you can get such an extended photographic experience. Combine that with the shooting techniques available within your own "tool kit', on drive or in the hide, the range and diversity of images is seriously impressive. My reflections as I left Jaci's to return home was not just excitement that I'd experienced it, but that there is so much photographic potential still to be explored there. And as a photographer that is such a great reason to return again. 

Until next time,

Jon

 


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