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I have written the text of six of my books, including Art of Nature, Shades of Nature, Reflection, Phototips – Principles of Nature Photography, Phototips – Composing Nature and Black and White Phototips.

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The Silent Future of Wildlife Photography

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Since I started my career as a wildlife photographer 16 years ago, wildlife photography has changed dramatically. Then, photography was still a skill that demanded years of trial and error just to get a decent image onto film. Slide film was notoriously intolerant of incorrect exposures, so just getting the correct exposure of a straightforward image was a challenge.

How things have changed. Since then technology has swept photographers down the mighty river of change. First came automatic light meters, then autofocus, followed by digital capture. Gone are the days of photographers being technically trained camera operators who knew – and cared – what a flash guide number, or even an f-stop, was.

There is no waiting, no dark-room work. Capturing an image is instant gratification and even mistakes can be immediately corrected. Now, photographers point their cameras and phones at the world and see the potential result on the screen even before they have released the shutter. For the first time in history photographers can see what they capture, and capture exactly what they see.

This huge change has engulfed the world of wildlife photography. The standard of photography has skyrocketed. The skill of stills photography is no longer capturing what you see – the skill is recognizing the uniqueness of what you have seen, and sharing that. Photography has changed from ‘capturing’ to ‘seeing’. It has become pure, with the camera no longer an obstacle obscuring reality. Photography is at last what it should be – a true reflection of reality.

But in my mind the biggest change yet is still to come – video frame-grab.

One of these days any of us will be able to grab a frame from video camera footage that will have the same quality as today’s stills cameras can capture. Soon we will be able not only to capture action at 180 frames per second, but also to capture an image after the action. With pre-recording functions, a photographer will be able to press the button a few seconds after the action has happened, and the camera will save what it saw in the few seconds before the button was pressed – at 180 frames per second.

For wildlife photography this is mind-boggling. Instantly, the skill of pressing the shutter at exactly the right moment becomes irrelevant. Stills photography will not be ‘grabbing a moment’, but ‘pointing a camera where action will take place’. Even focus will become irrelevant, with new technology that makes it possible to focus an image after it has been taken. Wildlife photography will cease to be a skill of human reflexes and technical abilities. Instead, simply being there and pointing the camera will be enough.

The question is: Will wildlife photography still be fun? With technology eliminating the need for fanatics like me who are addicted to the sound of the shutter, will the silent future of stills wildlife photography be as fulfilling as it is today? Will the real artists sit in dark offices grabbing frames from video footage instead of sitting on game drive vehicles?

I do wildlife photography so that I can be in the wild. It is the best excuse I have yet found for being out there. Will this technology end it? Will a silent world without shutters be bearable?

I am fortunate to have survived autofocus and digital capture. And the greatest lesson I have learnt from surviving is that you have to hold on to your boat when there are rapids coming. No matter what. And I have learned that waterfalls, dangerous as they are, are the most beautiful of all. Especially when viewed from downstream. At 180 frames per second.

To find out more about Reflection, click here.

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Rest in pieces

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This is a heartbreaking story of a vain, camera-loving grasshopper.

Heinrich was driving home after a shoot in Kruger National Park. He drove on a dirt road through a local community just outside the park when he saw this grasshopper in the middle of the road. He stopped, got out of his vehicle and inspected the subject.

Evidently the grasshopper didn’t fear him, as it made no attempt to move when he approached. In fact, it seemed to be posing, stretching out its long red legs, trying to seduce him.

He took out his 100mm f2.8 macro lens and lowered himself down on the dirt road. The grasshopper’s eyes lit up when it saw the camera. Heinrich used front lighting, placing the camera flat on the ground, and fired a few times.

On inspecting the images on the LCD screen, they seemed to be fine, but neither Heinrich nor the grasshopper were satisfied. The camera just wasn’t low enough – using the 100mm macro it was as if he was still photographing downwards because of the height of the camera body.

Heinrich went back to the car for his 300mm f4 lens. He attached an extension tube and a 1.4x tele-converter to it, so that he could focus closer and fill the image frame with the grasshopper. He lay down on the road again and started photographing.

The images improved because he was using a longer lens and was further away from the subject – his perceived angle of view was lower. This meant that the foreground and the background were totally out of focus, accentuating the grasshopper’s beautiful features.

He closed down his aperture to f16 to photograph from up close and yet still keep the whole subject in focus. Because he was so low on the ground, the small aperture didn’t really influence the out-of-focus background as it was a long way away from the subject and still adequately blurred.

He shot away, until he heard the sound of a vehicle behind him. It was a small pick-up truck that wanted to pass. Heinrich and the grasshopper were irritated as the shoot wasn’t over yet. Heinrich stood up and moved out of the way for the vehicle to pass. He gestured desperately to the driver to be careful but the man just smiled broadly, waved back and drove straight over Heinrich’s model.

Although there are far too many self-obsessed grasshoppers in the world, it was still a sad day – this image was the last one ever captured of it.

There could have been so many more…

 

From the book:

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Dead Vlei disappearance

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If you have ever been to Dead Vlei close to Sossusvlei in Namibia, you will know that it is a place known for two things – haunting trees reaching out from the pale earth and pale tourists reaching for their cameras.

There are so many photographs taken of the vlei that it is almost impossible to be original. The emptiness and desolation of the place is so overwhelming that many avid photographers have captured the scenes, only to return home to find images identical to theirs published everywhere. For there are only a few images that one can take of the place.

It is only the obsessive photographer who goes back time after time, who manages to look past this barrier of predictability and capture an original image of the well-photographed scene.

Yet sometimes it is not only the obsessive but also the forgetful who get it right. Like Heinrich.

While photographing for Art of Nature, Heinrich walked down the long, sandy track to Dead Vlei with a bag full of all the equipment he would need. Or so he thought.

He had visualized what images he would take of the vlei, using his 16-35mm lens, and he knew exactly what he wanted. When he arrived, he immediately dropped his camera bag to the ground and took out his camera.

He dug through the bag but couldn’t find his 16-35mm lens. It had disappeared. (It was probably still in the vehicle.)

If you have ever been to Dead Vlei, you will know that to jog back to your vehicle for a lens is not wise, because by the time you’ve fetched it and returned to the Vlei, the light will have gone and your legs will be jelly.

So Heinrich had to shoot with what he had. On closer inspection, he discovered that the only wide lens he had with him was his 15mm fisheye. This was a disaster because the fisheye lens tends to distort landscapes terribly.

But he persevered. First he photographed the landscape with the horizon a third from the bottom, but it was severely distorted and looked totally unnatural. After experimenting for a while, he discovered that if he placed the horizon in the centre of the image, it did not distort at all. Also, subjects further away from the lens tended to be distorted far less than subjects close to the lens.

He aimed into the sun and this created a pleasing image, as the fisheye lens is so wide that the sun was tiny in the frame and could be an enhancing element of the image.

But the image that he saw and wanted to take was with front lighting, shooting towards the dunes to get the vivid orange, blue and white colours. The problem was that the lens was so wide that as soon as he aimed with the sun, he saw his own shadow in the viewfinder. It didn’t matter what he tried, his shadow was always there.

So he “made a plan” and stood at the base of one of the dead trees. This worked, because not only did he manage to hide his own shadow in the shadow of the tree, but the tree shadow also produced a pleasing black, crack-like shape spreading from the base of the image and leading up into it. The image worked because it was different.

Photography is not about what equipment you take along – it’s about what you do with the equipment you didn’t forget.

From the book:

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To blur or not to blur

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That is the question. A question that has tormented many wildlife photographers throughout their photographic careers. I for one am still looking for the answer, which is still somewhat blurred.

Every wildlife photographer goes through a blurry phase. It normally starts during the final stages of a long trip, when you have photographed a specific subject to death. It is then that you ask yourself – What if? What if you close down your aperture? What would happen if you photograph the subject with a one second exposure?

And with that thought, you would be flung head-first into a dreamy, obsessive, rule-bending photography phase. From then on you will constantly keep your lens on f22, and blur all detail out of the world around you. You will miss countless prize-winning photographs, looking for the perfect blur.

And then one morning, you would wake up to look at your images, just to realize that there is no relation between your images and the real world. Then you would make a mental note to tape down your aperture dial on your camera. From then on you would again start photographing like a normal photographer.

The blurry phase, however, is an exhilarating one. A phase during which you will not only lose your focus, but also your photographic inhibitions. And by losing your physical focus, you just may, if you are lucky, stumble upon the real focus or core of photography – that a photograph is not merely a copy of the world. A photograph is a copy of how you see the world.

I have gone through the blurry stage. A few times.

And for me the world still is pretty blurry.

 

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The nutty hippo

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There is a hippo bull in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve, close to Kruger National Park, that has lost his wits. He spends his time in a small pond close to nowhere, without any social interaction with other hippos. Perhaps it is this loneliness that made him crazy. Or perhaps it is his craziness that caused him to be alone. Whichever way, he is an unusual and eccentric hippo.

Every time a game drive vehicle drives past the little pond, he gets extremely excited, rolling in the water to reveal his pink belly, snorting and yawning.

Because of his entertainment value, he has become the backup plan of many game rangers in the area – if they cannot find the Big 5, they can always show their guests the nutty hippo.

Heinrich was introduced to this hippo while photographing for their book Kruger – Wildlife Icon of South Africa.

One late afternoon the hippo was in a particularly snorty mood. The sun was setting and the light became golden and soft. Animals in the water always look better from water level, so Heinrich, under the supervision of the game ranger, got down to ground level next to the pond with his 600mm f4 supported on a bean bag. He locked the focus on the hippo and started shooting.

He began with front lighting, but the light was becoming too flat and too warm for front lighting. He tried side lighting, but the water drops didn’t show up enough on the images when the hippo snorted.

So he decided to move to the far side of the pond, photographing almost directly into the sun to make use of backlighting to accentuate the spraying water as the animal snorted.

He tried to use a fast shutter speed, but the water drops were just spots on the photograph and almost invisible.

He dialled down the aperture to f16, so that his shutter speed was 1/30 second. This speed was perfect to blur the water drops just enough, so that they appeared as lines – almost a firework effect.

He maintained the ISO at 100 to keep the image quality as high as possible.

The sun disappeared behind the horizon, the hippo took one last roll in his pond, snorted and laughed. This time Heinrich was laughing too – he got the photograph.

This, however, was not Heinrich’s last encounter with an insane hippo. The other hippo nearly cost him his life. Read more about it in a later volume of Phototips.

 

From the book:

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