Tuesday, October 25, 2011

SOUTH LUANGWA - LIGHT CHALLENGES


Before we have everyone wondering if I have become a heathen who worships the sun god Ra ......let me explain. It started at Easter in 2009 on a trip to Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana on one of our photographic expeditions when the skies simply opened and we had a flash flood tear through the Mashatu Tented Camp. (cf. AFRICA IS NOT FOR SISSIES post of February). Since then the rain has relentlessly followed me on almost every break I have taken to the bush bar my visit to the Serengeti which was thankfully, rain free. My friends have dubbed me Modjaji (the African rain goddess for those of you who don’t know) and so it was to be that when we arrived at Chichele Presidential Lodge in South Luangwa that another conglomeration of cloud had followed me there.

There is nothing as sad as seeing a bunch of enthusiastic photographers on the back of a safari vehicle at the break of dawn – and dawn fails to break. The optimist will of course declare that this is a CHALLENGE! Defy the non-existent light they will loudly proclaim and stretch your camera to its utmost. Of course, they forget that a camera really requires contrast in order to produce great images and during sad, rainy, grey days there is so little contrast that animals simply blend into the landscape and the poor camera is sadly lacking.

Our first drive in the South Luangwa Reserve starts off in the dark. Four aspirant photographers, one expert photographer and the camera ghillie with Prince the expert guide. We head straight for the buffalo kill we had had a glimpse of the night before in the hope that when the sun rises we will be witness to some fine action. We are undaunted by the lack of visible stars in the heavens. We approach the scene, and to our delight we find two young male lions and a female still standing guard over the rotting carcass. The vultures are hovering in the background just waiting for the opportunity to present itself for them to move in. However, they still hang back as the lioness is particularly aggressive in her defence of the putrid heap of flesh and bones. We are even given the evil eye as we wait patiently for the light.

In desperation we attempt to light up the scene with a spotlight. There are several photographers who visit, especially the Kruger Park, who have made a speciality of capturing animals by spotlight and they make for very evocative photographs. However, with the (non) breaking dawn the contrast of light and dark is simply a wishy washy scene and most dissatisfactory. No golden light for us I’m afraid. 


We spend the first two days disconsolately moving from scene to scene and the mutterings on the vehicle about the rain, my influence on its appearance and the lack of light are heard regularly. Then on the third day our hopes are raised and in the afternoon we are treated to a golden shower of light at a waterhole where first we are treated to some Buffalo quenching their thirst followed by a good sized herd of elephants and suddenly the birds start to sing and the mechanical birds on the vehicle create their own symphony of sound albeit an abrupt stutter.

Day four has everyone up extra early as we head out in total darkness. The drive takes us down to the river and we manage to catch the glorious rays of golden light dancing on the grass and off the backs of the Puku who continue to graze unperturbed by our appearance.


The rest of the day we revel in the sunlight and have to fight off the glare of the midday sun as we are reluctant to head back to the Lodge.

Day five and it is time to go, but not before we head off determined to make use of that glorious orb’s rays. Once again we head down to the river and we are treated to a gentle sunrise that flicks its tentacles across the river. Out come the LEE filters and the homage to the chocolate box begins.





For the rest of the morning we are treated to sharp focus photos with oodles of light and we can head off home safe in the knowledge that we have at least chased and captured some of the light.



Friday, October 21, 2011

THE LIFE OF A CAMERA CADDY



Those of my photo friends with whom I have travelled will know that I am lucky enough to have a “camera caddy” to help carry my gear, assist me with changing lenses and if on our own, drive the vehicle. My “caddy” is of course my other half Paul, who on our recent trip to Luangwa was inspired to write the following piece about a photographic trip from a different perspective. I hope you enjoy his reflections on life in the “bush”.

My trip to South Luangwa as a “camera caddy”

Monday 06h00 on my way to work listening to Joe Cocker’s “now that the magic has gone” set me thinking (slightly depressed) about the week before. Then I smiled as I began to reflect on just what a great week I had just had.My designation on our bush trips is the camera caddy (recently promoted from camera ghillie). This is an old Scots term for a fisherman/ anglers attendant...to do this, do that, change this, charge that, clean this, download that…and carry everything…and no you can’t use my camera to take a photograph…yet it is one of the best jobs in the world.
Why you ask?
I have just returned from an amazing trip to the bush with five passionate wildlife photographers…the venue, South Luangwa. We spent six days of exceptional sightings and remarkable photographic opportunities (and yes, they did muff a few). I would like to share my perspectives of this trip with you.

                      
PICTURE THIS (excuse the pun) Three Canon EOS 1D Mk 4’s, Four Canon EOS 1D Mk 3’s, One Canon EOS 5D Mk 4,Three Canon EOS 7D’s and a Nikon D3 (shame). Supported by: One Canon 600mm f4, Two Canon 500mm f4, One Canon 400mm f2.8, Two Canon 300mm f2.8, Three Canon 70 – 200mm f2.8, One Canon 24 -70mm f2.8, Two Canon 16 - 35mm f2.8, One Canon 17- 40mm f4, Canon Macro 60mm f4 and sadly a Nikon 200 – 400mm f4…(wait until the Canon’s EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x zoom comes out)…it (the Nikon) will become a dinosaur. However, it is still one of the best (until Canon arrives) and I can’t argue with that.
Terra bytes of FC’s (for the non- photographer these are Flash (storage) Cards that store photos in a digital camera…and can be as big as 128 Giga bytes each… so they say), Wimberley gimbals, Badger panning plates, bean bags, monopods, tripods, battery packs, super clamps, flash guns, ball heads, and a gorilla pod. Enough Lee filters to die for. GPS, yes, we (being them) must geotag. i-Pod’s, i-Phones (with every app you can think of), screwdrivers, duct tape, scented loo paper (very important… also called wipes), Leatherman/men, allen key thingies, Apple Airs etc…all of this, incidentally should have fitted into 6 x 15kg “soft bags” which is the baggage limit on a African safari air hop. You can only imagine what the ground staff at various (and some very remote) airports had to say when we (they) checked in.
The entourage looked like a “ThinkTank” gadget parade or a banded mongoose train heading for “Killie” (Mount Kilimanjaro) in the middle of the summer after a “Mara” crossing. All in one go. Amazingly we managed to fit into a British Aerospace Jetstream 41. This commuter class aircraft (30seats) is designed for low cost high volume travel trips such as sportingevents and now photographic safaris.

                                   

We just made it. What was the pilot thinking when his plane (the Jetstream) required an extra few hundred metres for take-off and the strain as he pulled back on the “stick” cursing the ground staff for not letting him know that the “local photographers club” was on board and that they (the photo club) certainly brought in a new dimension when it comes to “limited soft baggage allowances”. But hey, we are responsible people and we would never put anyone at risk…we bought an extra ticket (seat) for the gear…this equates to 75 kg’s. SO DO YOU GET THE PICTURE?
                                                        
Two hours of bumping along a dusty African safari trail and we finally arrive at our destination…Sanctuary’s Chichele Presidential Lodge. Welcomed by traditional smiling faces and refreshments it is interesting to note that as the baggage is unloaded there was a hint of amusement reflected on the friendly faces indicating that we were definitely not the “normal” guests checking in…and so the adventure begins.
The following scenes (and there are certainly enough to write a book about) should give you an idea what it is like to be a camera caddy. Up at 04h15 and on the road by 4h48 starts a typical day for a privileged person like myself. With everyone carefully positioned (for the best angle) we set off to find that magical moment. The morning starts with our friendly field guide Prince asking what we would like to see. The reply is “pangolin, aardvark of course…no just joking, whatever comes around is good”. Liars, of course we really do want to see a pangolin being chased by a leopard, with an aardvark looking on. Backlit by the rising sun…BBC stuff. You can also throw in African painted wild dogs on the hunt…and all of this must be before the golden hours have expired and then, and only then, can you (me) take a coffee break. It’s hell for those who suffer from tiny bladder called TB in photo terms which also stands for toilet break…or I want to mark my territory(mostly men) I need a bush (mostly women) stop I want to use a spade, dig a hole combined with “I need a bush”. When there is an emergency and no bush, or dangerous animals are around…the command is given “all face the front” as the poor person has to do with crouching behind the back of the vehicle. For some strange reason this is called a bush experience. So, do not drink the local water and you can avoid the “bush” experiences.
On an afternoon drive at about 16h00 we pass a pond and find an elephant cow with baby feeding on water plants…a must do shot as the light was perfect. The vehicle is manoeuvred into position after lots of “little more to the front….no, no, go back, back some more, a little bit further, ok stop. Is everyone happy…good?” This conversation is normal on a photographic safari and it requires great skill to get it right….I know this as I have to listen only because a camera caddy has absolutely nothing to do with where the vehicle must be placed….I don’t (not allowed to) take photos…they who are the photographers have all the say.
                                                                       
As this is all going on a call comes from Prince “ellies at 5 o’ clock” and a herd of elephants arrives complete with matriarch and kids and they decide to drink some 30 metres to the right. Re-focus and added pressure is put on all as the herd settles down. The matriarch susses us out and continues to drink….quite relaxed. There is silence as the scene is absorbed…and then she (the matriarch) decides to dust herself with some sand right next to the vehicle. Five photographers all shooting in servo mode is crazy as she continues to perform. This equates to at least 40 frames per second (all combined) and or 3,000 Mb per burst…and the call for more (flash) cards goes out . Needless to say when the scene was over there was this eerie silence as everyone reflected on what they had just witnessed…an amazing scene that can only be captured by the avid and the patient wildlife photographer. 
It’s daybreak and the stars are still visible….the lighting is good; it’s going to be a good morning (session). Hold tight commands Prince as we swing off and descend down to the lower reaches of the Luangwa River valley. Barely 10 minutes into our drive, barking Babs (Yellow baboons) and screeching guineafowl are heard (these are called bush alarms) just to our left. Everyone is on alert and suddenly a lion….no I mean a leopard is spotted at 12 o’ clock (this bearing refers to the front of the vehicle) some 150 metres away. Great excitement as everyone gets ready to “shoot”. The leopard (now confirmed to be a young male) heads up a hill and we track (follow) to get the right shot. He (the leopard) appears to be restless or shy and won’t stand still… difficult to get a good shot. Meaning a 400mm f2.8 with 2x can’t get enough light…great frustration ensues. So we move on as the sun is just about to make an appearance. Puku (Kobus vardonii) backlit at eye level and the right background is found and the call is “I’m going in close(200-400mm), f4, ISO 400, and minus 2/3rds”. Yes got it…”just turn around please” (meaning the subject) mmm great thank you. Ok what’s next…this will make a great “grad” shot as everyone jumps out of the vehicle after the guide’s permission is secured and only once he has secured the area. Caddy must now make a quick change from lots of glass to the softer option and get all the “Lee” paraphernalia out and assembled…”where’s the lens cloths”…a scrambling ensues in the search for the right (graduated filter) one. Time is of the essence as the light is coming on fast. Whilst all the ooohs and aaaahs, great colour, nice wispy clouds, are going on I manage to continue with a quick crash course in tracking as Prince and I discuss all the tracks (spoor) I can find and explain what they are. I find an antlion (Genus: Myrmeleon) hole and explain its significance to Prince…he is impressed and I get a 9/10…not bad for a camera caddy. Yes, it is assumed that a camera caddy must be able to track and distinguish various animal behaviour as well…its part of the job description.
                                                     
Got the shot” time to move on as we head out to see if we can get some “carmine” (carmine bee eater) shots Luangwa’s speciality…had to change the gear en-route.
On the way back to the lodge (it was dark) we came across the leopard we saw that morning. Yes he was still there. The difference was he had joined up with a lady friend. Something one rarely sees in the wild. I love being a camera caddy.