2014
05.19

I began this blog back in early March and finished about 70% of it by mid-March. For various reasons, mainly work commitments and laziness, it has since lain dormant gathering cyberspace dust. Anyway, I have finally got around to finishing it - I suppose better late than never. It is long but that reflects the many different destinations we visited and the numerous photo opportunities that we were presented with.

In February I was back in Japan for my annual Hokkaido winter wonderland sojourn. Normally I’ve made this trip alone or with just two or three guests. This time I co-led a group of seven photographers along with legendary bird photographer, Arthur Morris and the hyper-creative, Denise Ippolito. When you accompany other photographers you never quite know what you are going to get but I am happy to report that the group turned out to be just about perfect – some of the nicest people you could possibly hope to meet. I love Japan’s culture but for those visiting Japan for the first time, elements of it can be frustrating and challenging. Fortunately everyone coped well and for the most part fully embraced the culture. The absence of dramas on this front was mirrored in the trip’s logistics – a good job since this was my primary responsibility. To be fair, this would not have been possible without the standing and connections of our Japanese guide and host in Hokkaido. This ensured that we had maximum flexibility in what and where we photographed, something that other photographic groups almost certainly do not have, despite what they may tell you. He and his wife have also become good friends; this being the fifth year that I have worked with them. A special shout-out must go to Shinobu for her incredible cuisine. Despite the far reaching dietary requirements of some of our party, Shinobu never ceased to amaze with her incredible culinary skills.

The Japanese are often sticklers for detail and tradition and this can sometimes lead to inflexibility and an inability to see the woods from the trees (I should add that this certainly does not apply to our hosts). But this is all overshadowed by their unfailingly charming hospitality; unrivalled politeness; mouth-watering food and presentation and for photographers, breathtaking scenery and a smorgasbord of superb wildlife.

Flight of the eagles

After overnighting in Tokyo, we flew to south-eastern Hokkaido, drove to our ideally located lodging (none of the soulless budget hotels that some other groups stay at) and were photographing within an hour. On the first afternoon we concentrated on White-Tailed Eagles and Black Kites which are attracted to a daily fish feeding. Although not my favorite location owing to the crowds of photographers that gather here, there’s no denying that if you want nice images of the eagles in flight, this is the place to go.

1. White-Tailed Eagle and Crow in flight, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

White-Tailed Eagle and Crow in flight, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

2. White-Tailed Eagle about to snatch fish, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

White-Tailed Eagle about to snatch fish, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

 

3. White-Tailed Eagle snatching fish, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

White-Tailed Eagle snatching fish, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

The crane attraction

For anyone visiting Eastern Hokkaido in winter, there’s no question that the prime attraction has to be the courting Red-Crowned Cranes. Once thought to be extinct in Japan due to demand for their feathers, they have been nursed back from the brink helped by conservation efforts and grain feeding during the winter months such that their numbers are now up to 1,200. So emblematic and charismatic are the birds, known locally as tancho, that they have become a national symbol in Japan. All are resident in a small area in eastern Hokkaido. For most of the year they are hidden deep within marshland but for two months in winter, they emerge to a few select snow-covered fields where they forage for grain and perform spectacular courtship dances. In the same vain as Albatrosses which have also perfected ritualized dancing, the poetic displays by the cranes are of special significance as they also mate for life. The atmosphere and mood from a photographic standpoint at the crane fields can change dramatically depending on the weather conditions and falling snow is the perfect ingredient. In contrast to the main Japanese Island of Honshu further south, this year has seen unusually light snowfalls in Hokkaido, leaving many of its undulating hills, normally blanketed in deep powder, bereft and brown. For the week prior to arriving in Japan, I would scan the weather forecast every day only to see nothing but fine weather forecast – not just for a few days but for two straight weeks. However, on the day before departure, a forecast for a few cms of snow began to appear about 4 days into our trip. As this day approached the magnitude of the predicted snow fall began to build until a substantial 16cms was forecast over a 24 hour period. We woke on the morning of the 16th to find white-out conditions, with all the roads closed. Given our lodge’s proximity to the main Crane field, this wasn’t a problem for us and for much of the day we had the luxury of the photography perimeter almost entirely to ourselves. The Cranes not surprisingly, were late in leaving their overnight roosts on the nearby rivers but slowly they began to arrive along with a handful of Whooper Swans. Initially it was hard to discern whether any birds had actually arrived given the white-out conditions and it is a wonder that I managed to make this next image when you see the raw file, an unaltered jpg of which I have provided below.

4. Red-Crowned Cranes in snow blizzard, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

Red-Crowned Cranes in snow blizzard, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

 

5. Raw file of the previous image

Raw file of the previous image!

Some of the credit must go to the amazing auto-focus capabilities of the Canon 1DX, which I had splashed out for prior to this trip. For a number of years I have been perfectly happy with my 1D MK4, used in conjunction initially with the 5D MK2 and then later with the MK3. The 1D MK4 is a fine camera but the 1DX is on a completely different level. The blazingly fast frame rate with a buffer that never seems to fill regardless of the number of frames one shoots in a single burst, is an obvious attraction. However, it is the autofocus, long an issue in previous Canon DSLRs, that really elevates this camera. It is soooo good. Often I used it with all 61 focus points activated and the number of out of focus images was so low as to be almost ridiculous. It’s ability to pick up contrast even when the human eye is struggling can be illustrated in the two images above.

While heavy snow continued to fall, the visibility gradually lifted and the next image was taken about 45 minutes after the ones above.

6. Red-Crowned Cranes and Whooper Swans feeding as snow falls, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

Red-Crowned Cranes and Whooper Swans feeding as snow falls, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

7. Red-Crowned Cranes walking over the crest of an undulating snow-covered field as snow falls, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

Red-Crowned Cranes walking over the crest of an undulating snow-covered field as snow falls, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

What everyone wants though are the dancing Cranes. However, seeing the Cranes dance and actually making pleasing images, are quite far removed from each other. For starters, the dancing happens very sporadically. An hour or even longer can go by with minimal activity. Then suddenly, one pair will go at it and this seems to trigger other pairs leading to a short burst of frantic activity. More often than not though, the dancing pairs are annoyingly obscured or partly so by other Cranes and achieving separation is a major challenge. Then there is the issue of the background, which on clear days provides few windows of relatively uniform, blurred backdrops. Knowing where to stand helps as is a little luck in terms of getting an eye-level view of the Cranes without the horizon level cutting through the birds – a big pet peeve of mine. But what you really need are days of low visibility and this typically only occurs when it snows. The 16th of February provided near perfect conditions for this.

8. Red-Crowned Crane courtship dance, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

Red-Crowned Crane courtship dance, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

 

9. Red Crowned Crane courtship dance, Hokkaido, Japan_90R2395 {J}

Red Crowned Crane courtship dance, Hokkaido, Japan

In the afternoon, the snow eased off and visibility increased bringing the background into play. But with continued nice dull light and periodic bouts of frantic dancing, there were still plenty of photo opportunities.

10. Red Crowned Cranes courtship dance #3, Hokkaido, Japan_90R3499 {J}

Red Crowned Cranes courtship dance #3, Hokkaido, Japan

I have lots of Crane portrait shots taken over the years but I rarely process any on the grounds that they’re easy to take and everybody else has them, but this one, using a high-key technique where you deliberately over-expose the image (taught to me a few years ago by Artie), kind of appeals to me.

11. Red-Crowned Crane portrait, high-key, Hokkaido, Japan

Red-Crowned Crane portrait, high-key, Hokkaido, Japan

Fast shutter speed images of Cranes flying sort of fall into the same category as portraits – they don’t really rock my boat. But I will make a few exceptions for instance where the birds are flying and landing in falling snow…

12. Red-Crowned Crane landing on snow-covered field as snow falls, Hokkaido, Japan_90R2560 {J}

Red-Crowned Crane landing on snow-covered field as snow falls, Hokkaido, Japan

…or where there is an interesting flight pose or angle…

13._90R2945 {J}

Red-Crowned Crane coming into land, Hokkaido, Japan

…and this next one which given the busy background, would normally go straight to the trash can. However, somehow the combination of the orange leaves and the monochromatic tones throughout the rest of the image serve to give this a Japanese painterly feel.

_P3I2561 {J}

Red-Crowned Crane flying past tree, Hokkaido, Japan

But I much prefer flight images which show motion, usually achieved by panning and slowing down the shutter speed.  Not only are they more aesthetically pleasing, but when one is using shutter speeds of 1/20th second or less, they are harder to take when the goal is to try and get a reasonably sharp head. It’s always more rewarding when one of these types of images works vs the easy, sharp, fast shutter speed flight shot.

14, Red Crowned Crane flying, with motion, Hokkaido, Japan_90R6077 {J}

Red Crowned Crane flying, with motion, Hokkaido, Japan

 

15. Red-Crowned Crane landing, with motion, Hokkaido, Japan

Red-Crowned Crane landing, with motion, Hokkaido, Japan

And sometimes even crazy images can work. Here I was set up to shoot with a slow shutter speed and I continued to pan and shoot even when the birds flew behind the trees. Again, you have to wonder how the camera held focus!

16. Red-Crowned Cranes flying behind trees, with motion, Hokkaido, Japan

Red-Crowned Cranes flying behind trees, with motion, Hokkaido, Japan

Swan Lake

My favorite destination in Eastern Hokkaido is Lake Kussharo. When we took a poll at the end of the trip on participants’ most and least favorite site, Lake Kussharo scored lowest or close to the bottom of the list on almost everyone’s list apart from mine. I still can’t quite figure this out. Maybe it was because everyone is attracted to the large iconic Cranes and Sea Eagles or maybe it was because I was the only participant who given a choice, will always shoot wide-angle before telephoto. This is an important consideration because while the Whooper Swans are pretty enough, it is the backdrop that is the big attraction and to capture this you need to be shooting fairly wide or at least with a shortish zoom lens. I certainly would have preferred to spend more than a day and a half at the lake but we were still blessed with great photo opportunities. We stayed away for the most part from the most popular site along the lake instead focusing on various lesser known ones. For one of these, I have never encountered a single other photographer in five years of travelling to Lake Kussharo. On the first morning while the rest of the group were enjoying spectacular opportunities at one of my favorite sites, I went off on my own to quickly reconnoiter my go-to early morning destination. This is very much a wide-angle site and I always try to capture the mix of solitude and frozen silence with a Japanese twist – provided by the overhanging tree branches.  I also prefer to leave the cool blue tones of the scene intact.

17. Whooper Swan at dawn, Lake Kussharo, Japan

Whooper Swan at dawn, Lake Kussharo, Japa

In the evening, I took the group to another of my favorite spots, which we again had to ourselves. I have experienced all sorts of weather conditions here but in the late afternoon, we were blessed with a beautiful sunset with the colours reflected on the frozen lake opening. Five-stops of graduated neutral density helped to balance the foreground and background lighting differences.

18. Whooper Swan on frozen lake opening, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan

Whooper Swan on frozen lake opening, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan

19. Whooper Swans landing on frozen lake, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan

Whooper Swans landing on frozen lake, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan

I didn’t completely abandon my long lenses. This is with the 600mm and the 2x. A nice image that is all about the curve of the neck.

20. Whooper Swan close-up, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan

Whooper Swan close-up, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan

It is in these sorts of situations that Artie Morris really comes into his own. He has one abstract-like image of the top of a Swan’s head with tufted orange-tinged feathers that is absolutely killer and in my book, a guaranteed contest winner.

Minimalistic landscapes

With the fixation on the admittedly spectacular wildlife, many groups overlook Eastern Hokkaido’s dreamy landscapes. Because of the paucity of snow, landscape photography was more challenging this year but with patience and a few trained eyes, we were able to ferret out a few good possibilities. As I have written before, it is very hard not to be influenced by the stark, minimalistic style landscapes made famous by Michael Kenna. This first image could easily have come from him. The difference of course is that his (small-sized) gallery prints sell for several thousand dollars.

21. Larch trees, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

Larch trees, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

The focus doesn’t just have to be on isolated trees, appealing as these are. While photographing one of my favorite groups of trees, I notice this fence some distance away. I walked a long way around the two accessible sides of the fence but could never quite find the right perspective I was looking for – hence my decision to settle for a square crop.

Fence on sloping snow-covered field, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

Fence on sloping snow-covered field, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

Pack-ice wonders

After the Swans , we journeyed to our next destination and for some in the group, the blue-ribbon species of the trip: Steller’s Sea Eagles. This eagle, with its large distinctive orange bill, is the heaviest eagle on our planet and second only to the Harpy and Philippine Eagle in size. In February and parts of March, they gather in large numbers on the pack ice in the Sea of Okhotsk, near to the fishing port of Rousu on the Shiretoko Peninsular, attracted to regular fish feeding, for the benefit in part, of photographers. When conditions are right, the snow covered, forested mountains behind the fishing port provide a beautiful backdrop for the Stellers which are joined by even greater numbers of White-Tailed Eagles.

23. Steller's Sea Eagles and White-Taile Eagles on pick-ice outside of the port of Rausu, Hokkaido, Japan

Steller’s Sea Eagles and White-Tailed Eagles on pick-ice outside of the port of Rausu, Hokkaido, Japan

One of the problems with taking images from a largish boat in these conditions is that you are usually looking down at the pack-ice, which tends to be cluttered and interspersed with pockets of water. Hence, unless you are shooting wide-angle or very tight with long telephoto lenses, you can end up with unattractive backgrounds. I am always on the look-out for small ice pinnacles which the birds will often use as perches. Since even these are of limited elevation, I try to get as low on the deck as possible to create a clean background. The other point is to anticipate the action. An empty pinnacle will invariably attract an Eagle. It is usually easier to pre-focus on the pinnacle and wait for the bird to arrive. Since I can’t be sure the bird will arrive parallel to the camera, I don’t however, like to rely on manual pre-focus. Instead I pre-focus but stay in auto-focus and rely on all 61-points of the 1DX to pick-up the action.

25. Steller's Sea Eagle with fish, landing on pack ice pinnacle, Sea of Okhotsk, Hokkaido, Japan

Steller’s Sea Eagle with fish, landing on pack ice pinnacle, Sea of Okhotsk, Hokkaido, Japan

 

25. Adult Steller's Sea Eagle perched on pack ice pinnical holding fish as a juvenile approaches, Sea of Okhotsk, Hokkaido, Japan

Adult Steller’s Sea Eagle perched on pack ice pinnical holding fish as a juvenile approaches, Sea of Okhotsk, Hokkaido, Japan

On our last morning out on the pack-ice, the crew left an exposed crate of frozen fish out on the foredeck for a few minutes. This quickly attracted a veritable army of hungry gulls, mainly Slaty-Backed and Glaucous-Winged. At times it looked like a scene out of a Hitchcock movie (without the human gore). Seeing an opportunity I quickly switched to a fish-eye lens shooting at almost point-blank range. You need to take a lot of frames in the hope that in one or two you will have some degree of separation between the gulls.

26. Fish-eye view of Slaty-Backed and Glaucous-Winged Gulls over the pack-ice, Sea of Okhotsk, Hokkaido, Japan

Fish-eye view of Slaty-Backed and Glaucous-Winged Gulls over the pack-ice, Sea of Okhotsk, Hokkaido, Japan

Monkey business

And so it was goodbye to Hokkaido for another year. Instead of going home, this year I was continuing on with the group to the Japanese Macaques, commonly known as Snow Monkeys, in Central Honshu. I first visited these charismatic monkeys in 2008 and have since been back in all but one of the subsequent years. The monkeys themselves probably don’t justify such regular trips but it is the combination of the charming ryoken that I stay at with its incredible food and a choice of 11 separate indoor and outdoor onsens that is just as much a draw card. That and the fact that it’s relatively easy to get to from Hong Kong.

Anyway, this year I had previously made an additional trip in January with my wife and daughter. In part this was to set up everything for the group in February but also because in January, you have a much better chance of falling snow. The following images are a tiny selection of those that I took over the two trips but I certainly had better opportunities on the first trip, helped by the weather with one of the days seeing heavy snow fall.

When one goes to Jigokudani, it’s important to bring a few different lenses in order to shoot a variety of images. The following were shot with a 16-35mm, a 24-105mm, a 70-200mm (sometimes with a 1.4x TC) and a 100mm macro. Most were also made with a little fill flash. Some nature photographers don’t like using fill flash but with light levels often low, I find a little fill flash really helps to bring out the details in the wonderfully expressive faces of the monkeys. Most photographers understandably spend most of their time photographing the monkeys in the outdoor onsen but there are always opportunities in some of the neighboring areas.

The first two images were taken in almost the same spot but the first one was taken at the end of February and the second in mid-January. Note the differences in snow cover. This year was unusual insofar as the first half of February saw two large snowfalls, the first one of which dumped so much snow on the area that the park was closed for three days.

27. Japanese Macaque standing on the edge of outdoor hotspring, Jigokudani, Japan

Japanese Macaque standing on the edge of outdoor hot spring, Jigokudani, Japan

28. Japanese Macaque in outdoor hot spring, Jigokudani, Japan

Japanese Macaque in outdoor hot spring, Jigokudani, Japan

29. Juvenile Japanese Macaque in outdoor hotspring, Jigokudani, Japan

Juvenile Japanese Macaque in outdoor hot spring, Jigokudani, Japan

30. Adult and juvenile Japanese Macaque in outdoor hotspring, Jigokudani, Japan

Adult and juvenile Japanese Macaque in outdoor hot spring, Jigokudani, Japan

31. Japanese Macaque shaking its fur of snow and water in outdoor hotspring, Jigokudani, Japan

Japanese Macaque shaking its fur of snow and water in outdoor hot spring, Jigokudani, Japan

 

32. Japanese Macaque standing in the snow #2, Jigokudani, Japan

Japanese Macaque standing in the snow, Jigokudani, Japan

 

33. Japanese Macaque running through snow, Jigokudani, Japan

Japanese Macaque running through snow, Jigokudani, Japan

OK this next image might look slightly familiar and there’s no question that it was inspired by Jasper Doest’s wonderful image from a few years ago which garnered many awards. Jasper’s image has the eyes shut to highlight the eye-shadow like colouring of the eyelids. This one has the eyes open and you can see the use of flash to open up the shadows. I used a 70-200mm lens with 25mm of extension tube to enable closer focusing.

34. Japanese Macaque face close-up with head fur covred in snow, Jigokudani, Japan

Japanese Macaque face close-up with head fur covered in snow, Jigokudani, Japan

The monkey’s faces are incredibly photogenic; not just for their myriad of expressions but also for their rich colouring.

35. Adult Japanese Macaque sleeping, portrait, Jigokudani, Japan (2)

Adult Japanese Macaque. sleeping, portrait, Jigokudani, Japan

 

35a. Japanese Macaque sleeping, Jigokudani, Japan

Japanese Macaque sleeping, Jigokudani, Japan

The next image was taken with a macro lens with the emphasis on the water droplets on the whiskers.

36. Japanese Macaque mouth and nose close-up, Jigokudani, Japan

Japanese Macaque mouth and nose close-up, Jigokudani, Japan

A narrow but fast flowing river flows through Jigokudani and the Monkeys will sometimes leap across it. Unfortunately in the last year, the park staff have built a small wooden bridge which the clever monkeys now largely use, in turn restricting natural crossings (imagine if they built bridges across the Mara River for the Wildebeest and Zebras to use during their migration). Anyway, a friendly group of South African photographers received permission to temporally block the bridge, thereby necessitating a return to natural crossings. With lots of rocks in the river and with the opposite river bank coming into play from most angles, careful positioning was essential to ensuring as clean a background as possible.

37. Juvenile Japanese Macaque jumping across river, Jigokudani, Japan_90R5014 {J}

Juvenile Japanese Macaque jumping across river, Jigokudani, Japan

By late February the sun is sufficiently high at midday that it covers an entire snow-covered slope on one side of the river. Grain is periodically dispensed onto this hill and the Monkeys happily take advantage of both the food and the warmth provided by the sun. I took several images over the course of the second trip and here I got lucky with the monkeys evenly dispersed and with minimal overlap.

34a. Japanese Macaques foraging on sunny snow slope, Jigokudani, Japan

Japanese Macaques foraging on sun-covered snow slope, Jigokudani, Japan

While the Monkeys are clearly the main attraction at Jigokudani, there are other photographic possibilities if one looks a little harder. For the first image a tripod was essential with a long shutter speed required (1/8th sec) to slow the movement of the water but one that was not too slow to lose all of the detail.

38. Water flowing past rock and ice, Jigokudani, Japan

Water flowing past rock and ice, Jigokudani, Japan

I noticed the snow patterns below as I was leaving the park on the first day of the second tour. The light was low and the interplay between light and shadow was especially attractive. But I was cold and running late and a little lazy so I passed assuming that I would have the same opportunities the following day. Lesson #1 in photography. If you see an attractive image, take it as it likely will not last. Sure enough the next day the lighting conditions in both the early morning and late afternoon never approached those of the first day. I did my best and this is not bad but trust me when I tell you that the contrast was much more attractive on the first day.

39. Snow patterns, Jigokudani, Japan

Snow patterns, Jigokudani, Japan

Kyoto – classic Japan

From Jigokudani, most of the group continued on to Kyoto via bus and high-speed train. Kyoto is what most people imagine Japan to be in their imaginations – colourful Shinto shrines, sublime Zen gardens, delicate plum and peach blossoms, quiet temples and narrow alleys down which geisha girls can be glimpsed. There are photo possibilities at every corner and even die-hard wildlife photographers rarely fail to be inspired.

But with millions of images already captured of the city’s iconic sites, the trick as always is to try and take something different and the following are an exercise in this pursuit.

We began the first morning, in the rain, at arguably Kyoto’s most visually arresting spectacle – the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine.  Thousands of Shinto orange coloured shrine gates line paths that criss-cross the mountains overlooking southeast Kyoto. And at one point these gates form a giant winding,  orange tunnel. The first image is a fairly standard shot of this spectacular tunnel but even here, a little imagination was necessary as this is in fact, three images blended together, with the focusing slightly different on each in order to ensure foreground to background sharpness something that would be impossible even at a very small aperture given the  70mm focal length.

39a.Tightly packed arcades of wooden, vermilion torii (shrine gates), Fushimi Inari Taishi, Kyoto, Japan

Tightly packed arcades of wooden, vermilion torii (shrine gates), Fushimi Inari Taishi, Kyoto, Japan

However, I much prefer this next image…

39b Vermillion Shinto shrine gates blur, Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto, Japan

Vermillion Shinto shrine gates blur, Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto, Japan

…but this is the really funky one. An in-camera, 5-frame, radial zoom blur: the acid tunnel.

40. Radial zoom blur of the tunnel formed by shrine gates at Fushimi-Inari-Taisha, Kyoto, Japan

Radial zoom blur of the tunnel formed by shrine gates at Fushimi-Inari-Taisha, Kyoto, Japan

Although it was raining heavily, I decided to explore the entire 5kms shrine complex that snakes its way through the swirling mist to the top of the mountain. On the way down, my eye caught the single black character on this shrine gate juxtaposed against the rectangular monochrome steps in the background.

41. Shinto shrine gate with steps in the background, Fushimi-Inari-Taisha, Kyoto, Japan

Shinto shrine gate with steps in the background, Fushimi-Inari-Taisha, Kyoto, Japan

The retina-burning Kinkaku-Ji temple bears some similarities to the more famous Golden Temple in Armritsar, India and when you arrive through the main entrance, this is the sight that greets you. While the overhanging tree branches are a nice twist, every single visitor to this site will have taken a similar image.

44. Kinkaku-ji temple, Kyoto, Japan

Kinkaku-ji temple, Kyoto, Japan

But few will have taken this much more original and imaginative image.

45. Zoom blur of Kinkaku-ji temple, Kyoto, Japan

Zoom blur of Kinkaku-ji temple, Kyoto, Japan

Another of my favorite Kyoto spots where I took our group in the early morning on two consecutive days was the bamboo forest in the suburb of Arashiyama. Here’s a straightforward image using focus stacking to ensure front to back sharpness. It’s OK but certainly nothing special.

46. Bamboo grove, Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan

Bamboo grove, Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan

This is a little more imaginative – the camera was on a tripod a few inches from the ground. A fish-eye lens was used to include as many bamboo stems as possible.

52. Bamboo grove fish-eye, Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan

Bamboo grove fish-eye, Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan

But this next image is the shot I was after and is without doubt my favorite image from the trip. The secret behind it was having been to this location before. I had taken similar images but never quite got it right. The key was finding a part of the grove that had several different shades shades of colour, zooming in to avoid all distractions and using a slow shutter speed while panning slowly in a vertical motion. But the most important ingredient was the use of a little fill flash. This helped to being out some of the detail in the bamboo while still retaining a sense of motion.

50. Bamboo forest, Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan

Bamboo forest, Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan

The images shown here represent only a small portion taken on what was an enormously successful trip. The success of the trip would not have been possible without the amazing teaching skills of Arthur Morris and Denise Ippolito. But what really made the tour so enjoyable, for me anyway, was the excellent attitude displayed by all group members and the camaraderie that developed early on into the trip. Here’s hoping next year’s tour will be equally successful.

51. The group in Japanese evening wear, Yudanaka, Japan

The group in Japanese evening wear, Yudanaka, Japan. From left: Malcolm Mckenzie, Denise Ippolito, Arthur Morris, Lex Franks, Srdjan Mitrovic, Alan Lillich, Debbie Franks, Pat Lillich, Zorica Kovacevic, Paul Mckenzie

 

2014
01.02

I didn’t do as much photography this year as in previous ones so not surprisingly, I don’t think I got that many quality shots. However, I thought I would recap a few of the highlights.

As usual I made a a very short trip in January to the Snow Monkeys in Central Honshu in Japan. I have lots of nice Monkey images but I thought I’d show a landscape image since you don’t see too many of these at this location. The key here was a tungsten white balance setting to emphasis the cool blue hues. That together with the symmetry of the rocks and ice and 1/6th of a second got the job done.

River water flowing past ice, Jigokudani, Japan

River water flowing past ice, Jigokudani, Japan

In February I was back in Hokkaido. Eastern Hokkaido is full of snowy hills and isolated trees which lends itself to minimalistic imagery.

B&W Leafless Elder trees on top of a snow covered hill, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

Leafless Elder trees on top of a snow covered hill, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

The main attraction off course in Eastern Hokkaido is birds and my favorite species are the Whooper Swans at Lake Kussharo. We were blessed with a number of misty mornings on the frozen lake which created fantastic atmospheric conditions.

Whooper Swans flying into land on frozen lake, Lake Kussharo, Japan

Adult and juvenile Whooper Swans flying into land on frozen and lake with snow dusted mountains in the background, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan

The next image might just be my favorite from the year. The key here was composition: ensuring that there was no merger between the swans and carefully using the overhanging branches as a frame in the top half of the image. There is something quintessentially Japanese about the image, almost like a Japanese painting and this is what I had in mind when I pressed the shutter. The other less artistic consideration was an ability to withstand a fair amount of pain! The temperature at the time was -20 c and I could only remove my fingers from my pocket-warmer laden mittens for about 20 seconds at a time before numbness would set in.

with selection Whopper Swans at dawn on frozen lake opening under overhanging branches, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan_74A7770 {J}

Whooper Swans at dawn on frozen lake opening under overhanging branches, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan

In June I was back again in French Polynesia for the annual Camouflage Grouper aggregation and spawning event – almost certainly the largest aggregation of reef fish globally but which (thankfully) remains largely undocumented. While I would describe myself as a decent wildlife photographer and an average landscape one, I am no more than a poor underwater photographer. Although I’ve been diving for a quarter of a century, I just haven’t put in enough hours with a camera underwater to rise above mediocrity. It hasn’t helped that for a number of years I’ve had some major sinus issues which has taken away some of the pleasure but after seeing a specialist this year (and briefly contemplating surgery), I seem to have settled on a medication combination that works. Hopefully this will mean more diving and an improvement in my underwater imagery.

This first image was taken the day after the main Grouper spawning event. What many locals don’t fully appreciate is that the Groupers aren’t the only fish species that aggregate and spawn at this location during this period. Here, large schools of Dark-Banded Fusiliers are attracted to the spawn of Yellowfin Surgeon fish. As always, there are plenty of Grey Reef Sharks in attendance and things can get pretty intense when you get enveloped by the Fusiliers with the Sharks charging into them.

Dark-Banded Fusiliers

Grey Reef Sharks among Dark-Banded Fusiliers, French Polynesia

On the afternoon of the main Grouper spawning event, we have discovered another location a few hundred meters away where another reef fish species, Convict Surgeonfish, spawn. This image shows them during a brief lull but I like it for the composition and the sun rays arrowing down to the reef. The scene looks peaceful enough but I can tell you, there was an absolute ripping current flowing over the reef and just hanging on, let along composing and taking an image was a major challenge.

_MG_8807 {J}

Grey Reef Sharks among an aggregation of Convict Surgeonfish

As I wrote in my last blog post, I made three short trips to East Africa in 2013. Apologies that I am repeating some of the images from the last blog but here are a few favorites from these trips. Up first is a juvenile Spotted Hyena which gave me plenty of entertainment and my rock cams a thorough going over near to its den in the Serengeti.

Juvenile Hyena walking, close-focus, wide-angle, Serengeti, Tanzania_MG_7314 {J}

Juvenile Hyena walking, close-focus, wide-angle, Serengeti, Tanzania

The use of a camera-mounted remote controlled toy buggy afforded me more flexibility and worked especially well with Lions in the Mara.

Immature male Lion, close-focus, wide-angle, Masai Mara, Kenya

Immature male Lion, close-focus, wide-angle, Masai Mara, Kenya

Two sub-adult male lions, close-focus, wide-angle, Masai Mara, Kenya

Two sub-adult male lions, close-focus, wide-angle, Masai Mara, Kenya

Another Lion, this time taken with a longer lens, after a particularly heavy deluge in March.

Male Lion shaking wet mane with water spraying, with motion, Masai Mara, Kenya_P3I7050 {J}

Male Lion shaking wet mane with water spraying, with motion, Masai Mara, Kenya

In my last blog I described the fun I had with a family of Black-Backed Jackals in the Mara in November and this was probably the best encounter that I had with the Jackals really dishing it out to the Vultures whenever the latter tried to encroach on a Wildebeest carcass that the Jackals were feeding on.

Black-Backed Jackal fighting with African White-Backed Vulture, Masai Mara, Kenya

Black-Backed Jackal fighting with African White-Backed Vulture, Masai Mara, Kenya

I love Zebras. There is something hypnotic about their stripes and it was these patterns that I concentrated on for more than two hours on a heavily overcast day in the Serengeti in May.

2 Zebra patterns, abstract, Serengeti, Tanzania

Zebra patterns, abstract, Serengeti, Tanzania

B&W Juvenile Zebra, abstract, Serengeti, Tanzania

Juvenile Zebra, abstract, Serengeti, Tanzania

I was able to indulge my love of aerial photography on two of my Africa trips and conditions on the soda lakes provided a bewildering array of opportunities.

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos and their trails, Lake Logipi, Kenya_74A1444 {J}

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos and their trails, Lake Logipi, Kenya

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos flying in formation over algae slick on Lake Bogoria, Kenya

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos flying in formation over algae slick on Lake Bogoria, Kenya

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos and trails through shallow water soda lake, Lake Natron, Tanzania

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos and their trails through shallow water soda lake, Lake Natron, Tanzania

In late November I went to Palau in Micronesia with celebrated photographer and all round nice guy, Tony Wu, to try and photograph spawning Bumphead Parrotfish. This was extremely challenging given the general wariness of the Bumpheads towards divers, the low visibility and the inability to use strobes (in order to minimize disturbance). I have still to process most of my images but looking through the raw files suggests that my efforts were pretty feeble especially in comparison to Tony Ironman Wu. But just to show that I did actually try, here is one image as the Bumpheads stream in, just prior to spawning.

Pre-spawning aggregation of Bump Headed Parrotfish, Palau, Micronesia_MG_1691 {J}

Pre-spawning aggregation of Bumphead Parrotfish, Palau, Micronesia

I’m definitely not one for selfies but I could not resist while free diving in Jellyfish Lake in Palau. Anyway hope you enjoyed and I wish everyone a great 2014. Next up for me will be Japan. Can’t wait.

Selfie at 10m, Jellyfish Lake, Palau, Micronesia

Selfie at 10m, Jellyfish Lake, Palau, Micronesia

 

 

 

 

 

2013
12.18

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a blog so apologies for this. For several months I was bogged down in a research project for the finance company that I work for on a part time basis. This culminated in a grueling two month global marketing trip, something that won’t be repeated again if only for the sake of my health – it really did me in and included bursting the blood vessels in one of my eyes. For three weeks I looked like a gruesome extra from a horror movie. I felt even worse for the clients who had to sit opposite me and literally look me in the eye during my endless presentations.

Anyway that’s all behind me and to be fair it hasn’t all been work as I have managed a few photographic trips over the course of the year. There’s probably enough ammunition for a number of blogs but I’m going to start with the place where I have spent more time photographing than any other over the last 15 years – East Africa. In 2013 I made three short trips there – two to Kenya and one to the central Serengeti in Tanzania. Normally my East African trips are timed to coincide with the annual Wildebeest migration but this year, partly due to work commitments, all of them fell outside of this “peak season”. The other reason is that I have pretty much given up fighting with the hordes of vehicles that now populate the Mara in August and September. Hence my trips to the Mara were in March and mid-November and to the Serengeti in May. Many would associate these “low season” trips with sub-optimal game viewing but with the right guide, local knowledge and a little luck, the low season can be every bit as rewarding as the high season. Indeed my recent Mara trip in mid-November was arguably my best ever in more than 30 such visits.

The primary reason for this was that due to a paucity of rain in the Serengeti, the Wildebeest have lingered on in the Mara far longer than normal. As a result, I spent much of my time following the herds which especially towards the end of my visit, were moving rapidly en masse in the general direction of the Mara River in and around the Lookout landmark in the south Mara. Herd numbers were as large as anything that I have seen during “peak” migration periods.

2. Migrating Wildebeest in S shape curve, Masai Mara, Kenya

Migrating Wildebeest in S shape curve, Masai Mara, Kenya

 

1. Wildebeest at dawn in the mist, Masai Mara, Kenya

Wildebeest at dawn in the mist, Masai Mara, Kenya

 

3. Wildebeest herd running, Masai Mara, Kenya

Wildebeest herd running, Masai Mara, Kenya

4. Wildebesst running, with motion, Masai Mara, Kenya

Wildebeest running, with motion, early morning, Masai Mara, Kenya

5. Wildebeest legs with motion, mutiple exposure, Masai Mara, Kenya_74A3839 {J}

Wildebeest legs, in-camera multiple exposure, Masai Mara, Kenya

When I went to the Serengeti in May I bought along my rock cams (plastic casings disguised as rocks in which I place cameras and which I trigger manually from a vehicle some distance away using wireless remotes). Although the casings blend in well with the environment, they have several failings not least being their inflexibility – i.e. once down, they cannot be manoevered. Perhaps more importantly, they are prone to “attack” by some of the larger cats. Lions in particular, tend to mistake them for Leopard Tortoises, an irresistible target. The camera lens protrudes very slightly out of the casings and this usually invites copious amounts of licking. Indeed the single biggest problem I have when using the casings with large cats and especially Hyenas is excessive amounts of saliva on the front element of the lens. What often happens is that the window for decent images is literally a second or two before the lens is fogged up with saliva. I can’t tell you how many images I have similar to the following ones.

11. Close-up of Hyena tongue and mouth as it licks the camera lens, Seronera, Tanzania

Close-up of Hyena tongue and mouth as it licks the camera lens, Seronera, Tanzania

 

15 Inquisitive young male Lion, close-focus, wide-angle, Masai Mara, Kenya

Inquisitive young male Lion, close-focus, wide-angle, Masai Mara, Kenya

So one has to be quick and lucky to get any acceptable images.

12. Juvenile Spotted Hyena, close-focus, wide-angle, Serengeti, Tanzania

Juvenile Spotted Hyena, close-focus, wide-angle, Serengeti, Tanzania

 

10. Lioness walking, head on, close-focus, wide-angle, Serengeti, Tanzania

Lioness walking, head on, close-focus, wide-angle, Serengeti, Tanzania

The better solution is to use a sturdier casing (metal) that moves. My new toy is a modified remote control buggy with a metal casing for the camera. I only had limited opportunities to use this on my most recent trip (basically you have to be on your own) but the results were quite encouraging. The Lions are initially very curious – stepping on it, attempted biting and even picking it up (it’s pretty heavy) but the ability to move it around is a huge advantage. After a while they lose interest in it and this is when the best opportunities arise.

7. Young male Lion, Masai Mara, Kenya

7. Young male Lion, Masai Mara, Kenya

8. Young male Lions, close-focus, wide-angle, Masai Mara, Kenya

Young male Lions, close-focus, wide-angle, Masai Mara, Kenya

 

9. Two sub-adult male lions, close-focus, wide-angle, Masai Mara, Kenya

Two sub-adult male lions, close-focus, wide-angle, Masai Mara, Kenya

Once fairly common in the Mara, Wild Dogs were largely wiped out in the 1980s due to disease (distemper). A few still remain, mainly around Aitong in the North Mara but these are rarely seen. Very occasionally, transitory nomads, usually on their way to the Serengeti are spotted and hence it was with some considerable excitement that we received word on the radio one morning during the recent November trip, that a small group of four had been sighted not far from us. We reached the dogs within half an hour and followed them for a good hour as they covered a considerable distance. As the sun rose higher and as temperatures increased, they settled in some bushes where we waited for seven hours hoping that they would eventually emerge and become active. Nature has a way of not co-operating and in near darkness, we left them knowing that the odds of finding them again the next morning would be incredibly slim.

Sure enough, when we returned at dawn, they were gone. We searched for another hour or two but to no avail but then late morning our radio crackled into life with information that they had been spotted about 25kms from where we had last seen them. After a long drive and a good deal of searching we eventually caught up with them as they headed in the direction of the Sand River and the Tanzanian border.

Wild dog running, with motion, Masai Mara, Kenya

Wild dog running, with motion, Masai Mara, Kenya

Again they bedded down under the shade of an Acacia tree. This time we were completely on our own and unlike the previous day, they would periodically become active. I sent out buggy-cam for an investigative sniff around but unlike the Wild Dogs which are regularly seen in the South African and Botswana parks and which are used to humans and vehicles, these ones were quite skittish and never really came quite close enough.

13. Wild dogs, close-focus, wide-angle, Masai Mara, Kenya

Wild dogs, close-focus, wide-angle, Masai Mara, Kenya

It was also clear that if there was more than one vehicle around that they would become uncomfortable and retreat into cover as was the case late afternoon. However, as soon as the 3-4 other vehicles that had joined us left at around 6.30pm, they immediately got up with the clear intention of hunting. Although we did not see any real predation, it was wonderful to see them so active and comfortable in the close presence of our vehicle. Most encounters with Wild Dogs in Africa are in areas of heavy vegetation so to see them in the open plains was a real treat and an unforgettable experience.

14. Wild dog, Masai Mara, Kenya

Wild dog, Masai Mara, Kenya

Wild Dogs playing, Masai Mara, Kenya

Wild Dogs playing, Masai Mara, Kenya

One of my favorite African animals and one often overlooked by most tourists is the Jackal. The Mara supports a very healthy population of Black-Backed Jackals which in the early mornings and late afternoons are often active around their dens, especially if they have pups. We spent a good deal of time with one family and enjoyed a number of interesting and exciting encounters. The pups were particularly playful in the early mornings affording us some nice photo opportunities.

Jackal pups playing, Masai Mara, Kenya_P3I7595 {J}

Black-Backed Jackal pups playing, Masai Mara, Kenya

In this image, shot about 30 minutes after the previous image, one of the pups closely investigates two dragonflies.

Black-Backed Jackal pup sniffing dragon flies, Masai Mara, Kenya

Curious Black-Backed Jackal pup investigating dragonflies, Masai Mara, Kenya

Here two of the pups are on the top of their den at dusk with the one on the right seemingly unbothered by the incessant chewing of its ear by the other.

Jackal pups playing on top of their den, Masai Mara, Kenya_74A0866 {J}

Black-Backed Jackal pups playing on top of their den, Masai Mara, Kenya

Shortly before this image was taken, we were amazed to see one of the parents carrying an African Hare which it had recently killed. It was quite shy when we approached and we had only a fleeting opportunity for pictures before it dropped the kill, so nothing special, but as you can see, this is a pretty big Hare when viewed in the context of the adult Jackal.

Black Backed Jackal carrying African Hare, Masai Mara, Kenya_P3I6187 {J}

Black Backed Jackal carrying African Hare, Masai Mara, Kenya

The best encounter though was early one morning when we found them on a Wildebeest carcass (probably killed by Lions). Although it was hard to isolate the Jackals, the interaction with the Vultures and the lovely backlighting was fantastic. The Jackals hate the vultures which would grow increasingly bold, edging ever closer to the carcass before being chased at high speed by the Jackals. On numerous occasions the Jackals would catch the Vultures and aggressively bite their wings.  The first image represents one of the few occasions that an individual Jackal and Vulture moved away from the main group and it is one of my all time favourites. When I first saw it on the back of the camera I really regretted clipping the Vulture’s wings but now I’m not bothered. The lighting, the action, the flying dew all combine to make this (in my very humble opinion!) a really nice image.

Black-Backed Jackal fighting with African White-Backed Vulture, Masai Mara, Kenya

Black-Backed Jackal fighting with African White-Backed Vulture, Masai Mara, Kenya

The next image was taken exactly one second after the above image (3 frames later). While not as dramatic, I like the backlit Vulture wing serving as a frame.

Black Backed Jackal watching fleeing African White-Back Vulture, Masai Mara, Kenya

Black Backed Jackal watching fleeing African White-Backed Vulture, Masai Mara, Kenya

But it’s not all one-way traffic and the Vultures can dish it out as well. A bit cluttered but a comical image nonetheless. Ooow!

African White-Backed Vulture biting Black-Backed Jackal tail, Masai Mara, Kenya

African White-Backed Vulture biting Black-Backed Jackal tail, Masai Mara, Kenya

As the sun rose, we switched around to the other side for more conventional lighting. This is the same Jackal as above, extracting a measure of revenge.

Black Backed Jackal biting African White-Backed Vulture, Masai Mara, Kenya

Black-Backed Jackal biting African White-Backed Vulture, Masai Mara, Kenya

Once they had finished terrorizing the Vultures, the Jackals spent a long time playing amongst each other.

Black-Backed Jackals playing, Masai Mara, Kenya

Black-Backed Jackals playing, Masai Mara, Kenya

With so many prides of Lions around it was perhaps surprising that we didn’t spend more time with them but we still had some nice opportunities on a number of early mornings.

_74A0576 {J}

Male Lion backlit at sunrise, Masai Mara, Kenya

This is one of Notch’s sons, also early in the morning.

Male Lion, Masai Mara, Kenya

Male Lion, Masai Mara, Kenya

I love photographing in the rain and some of the images that have done best for me in competitions have been taken in rainy conditions. If it rains and you can find male Lions, stay with them because when the rain stops or eases, they will eventually shake their manes with often spectacular results.

Male Lion shaking wet mane with water spraying, with motion, Masai Mara, Kenya_P3I7050 {J}

Male Lion shaking wet mane with water spraying, with motion, Masai Mara, Kenya

When I head out each morning in the velvet darkness of the African bush, I usually have some rough plan for what I will concentrate on, at least initially, but I rarely set these plans in stone so that if I chance upon something I’ll often stick with that and abandon my original ideas. I’ve found over the years that operating with only a very rough plan or no plan at all works best for me. While I will sometimes invest long hours (very occasionally days) waiting for a particular species to do something, I will rarely give a second look for instance to a tree dwelling Leopard. I gave up long ago waiting for Leopards to get active especially if there are other vehicles around. I’ve got hundreds of images of Leopards sitting in trees and frankly they do nothing for me and unless one has weeks to spare (no one does), it’s just not worth investing whole days sitting beside trees waiting for them to come down. When the light is good (this includes flat, middle of the day overcast conditions), if there are no iconic subjects around, go for the less obvious as photographically they can be every bit as rewarding. Here’s a good example, shot backlit again and where I waited for the Oxpecker to fly into the frame.

African Buffalo with Oxpecker in flight, backlit in tall grass, Serengeti, Tanzania_P3I0617 {J}

African Buffalo with Oxpecker in flight, backlit in tall grass, Serengeti, Tanzania

Often the most common species are overlooked photographically but I’d much prefer to photograph Zebras than Leopards sitting in trees for instance. On a dreary, low cloud day in May, I spent almost two hours with a 600mm lens and a 2x converter, attempting to make tight images of Zebras concentrating entirely on the patterns of their stripes. I can’t tell you how much fun this was.

B&W Juvenile Zebra, abstract, Serengeti, Tanzania

Juvenile Zebra, abstract, Serengeti, Tanzania

 

2 Zebra patterns, abstract, Serengeti, Tanzania

Different generations – Zebra patterns, abstract, Serengeti, Tanzania

 

Zebra patterns, abstract, Serengeti, Tanzania_P3I9818 {J}

Zebra patterns, abstract, Serengeti, Tanzania

This next one is a little different with an intentionally slow shutter speed used (1/10th sec) to blur the Wildebeest galloping past the static Zebras.

B&W Wildebeest walking, with motion, past Zebras, Masai Mara, Kenya

Wildebeest, with motion, galloping past Zebras, Masai Mara, Kenya

Impalas are a super common species and another of my favorites. This one was fleeing from a hunting Cheetah – often it’s a good idea to train your lens on the prey rather than the hunter – and what makes this image for me are the distant undulating hills. Some photographers would probably try to tell you that they specially lined up the hills in the frame but this off course is BS because when an Impala is running at 50mph across open grasslands, all you’re trying to do is keep the subject in the frame – anything more than this and the photographer is in porky pie land. My framing here is just dumb luck but I will say there is some truth to Gary Player’s old adage that “the more I practice, the luckier I get”.

with selection Adult female Impala running across savannah, Masai Mara, Kenya_P3I7805 {J}

Adult female Impala running across savannah, Masai Mara, Kenya

I love photographing birds so I rarely pass up a chance when I have it. Here are four straightforward images from the 2013 East Africa trips. The first is an African Wattled Plover and I wanted a tight head shot to show off its spectacular facial coloring and the interesting facial wattles and lappets (the folds of skin hanging from the face).

Wattled Plover head shot, Masai Mara, Kenya_P3I5019 {J}

African Wattled Plover head shot, Masai Mara, Kenya

Next up is one of East Africa’s most common birds, the aptly named Superb Starling. Because they spend much of their time on the ground, the only way to photograph them properly is at eye level, lying on the ground.

with selection Superb Starling, ground level view, Serengeti, Tanzania_P3I0090 {J}

Superb Starling, ground level view, Serengeti, Tanzania

Oxpeckers are another common species that I never tire of photographing. They spend most of their time living a symbiotic existence with Buffalo, Zebra, Impala, Rhino and Giraffe. This Yellow-Billed Oxpecker had cleverly taken refuge on a Giraffe’s leg, using the latter’s body above to shield it from rain that had begun to fall.

with selection Oxpecker on Giraff leg, Serengeti, Tanzania_P3I0208 {J}

Yellow-Billed Oxpecker on Giraff leg, Serengeti, Tanzania

Lastly, here is a Secretary bird. Again a common species and although you hear lots of stories about them catching snakes, I’ve never actually witnessed the event, until my most recent trip. I wish I’d gone tighter on the head to see more of the snake but it happened so quickly that there was no time to change lens.

Secretary Bird, Masai Mara, Kenya_P3I5284 {J}

Secretary Bird with snake, Masai Mara, Kenya

In March, we spent quite a bit of time with Malaika, the female Cheetah and her then nearly fully grown male cub. Malaika is well-known as a vehicle climbing Cheetah. In recent months there’s been quite a bit of chatter on the social network pages about the behavior of vehicles/visitors/guides in the presence of Malaika. Some of these threads have been started by fairly well-known photographers and some of their observations are correct and make a lot of sense. For instance, there was a well documented case where some disinterested visitors instructed their guide to drive off while Malaika was still on their roof. This is clearly inexcusable behavior and could easily have resulted in an injury to Malaika and as we all know, any kind of injury that prevents a Cheetah from reaching top speed is a potentially fatal one. I certainly laud the conservation ethos displayed by some of the commentators, but I feel some overstep the mark with some of their suggestions/instructions. One photographer has suggested something along the lines that vehicles should not be within 50-100m of Malaika and if she walks towards a vehicle, that vehicle should immediately drive off. He went onto suggest that vehicles/guides/visitors should be named and shamed if they allow Cheetahs onto their vehicles. For me anyway this is too extreme and I think it also displays some ignorance about the history of the Mara’s vehicle climbing Cheetahs.

In the early/mid-1990s, a camp owner in the Northern Mara found a Cheetah cub near to its dead mother, killed presumably by Lions or Hyenas. Knowing that the cub would be incapable of surviving on its own, he managed to coax it into his vehicle. He subsequently hand-reared it, named it Patel and incredibly was able to teach it to hunt. He would often spend days and nights out on the open savannah with the Cheetah and it developed a habit of often sleeping on his vehicle at night. To cut a long but fascinating story short, Patel (later named Queen or Queenie) became a successful hunter and mother and its vehicle climbing antics have been passed down through subsequent generations of Cheetahs.

While I would not sanction the active solicitation by guides/visitors to entice Cheetahs to climb onto their vehicles, it is important to remember that it is always the Cheetah’s choice whether to climb onto a vehicle. And they typically do so for a reason: to spot potential prey from a higher vantage point. Since the prey do not associate vehicles with feline hunters, being atop a vehicle has the added advantage of surprise. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve seen a Cheetah hunt successfully from a starting position on top of a vehicle.

While it’s a tremendous thrill to have a wild animal in such close proximity I would emphasis that it’s essential to display proper etiquette around the Cheetah. This means very slow deliberate movement; absolutely no touching and if the Cheetah decides to remain for an extended period on the vehicle (rare), then you just have to put up with it regardless of one’s interest level. I’ve had many, many Cheetahs on my vehicle over the years in the Mara starting with Queenie and I feel that I’ve always behaved responsibly around them. Anyway that’s my mini-rant over and I make no excuses for the following images.

Cheetah face close-up, Masai Mara, Kenya_74A7868 {J}

Cheetah face close-up, Masai Mara, Kenya

Cheetah walking on vehicle, fish=eye shot, Masai Mara, Kenya_74A7798 {J}

Cheetah walking on vehicle, fish-eye shot, Masai Mara, Kenya

Cheetah standing on vehicle top, fish-eye shot, Masai Mara, Kenya

Cheetah standing on vehicle top, fish-eye shot, with hot air balloon in the background, Masai Mara, Kenya

 

Paul Mckenzie & Cheetah, Masai Mara, Kenya_74A7947 {J}

In awe, Masai Mara, Kenya

Staying with Cheetahs but moving away from vehicles, this at first glance looks like a nasty injury but in fact it’s nothing of the sort. Rather this cub has just removed its head from the belly of a Gazelle which it has been feeding on. It even still has tufts of Gazelle fur on its nose.

Cheetah cub face covered with blood after feeding on a Thomson's Gazelle kill, Masai Mara, Kenya_P3I2565 {J}

Cheetah cub face covered with blood after feeding on a Thomson’s Gazelle kill, Masai Mara, Kenya

As I’ve written before, my favorite type of photography in East Africa is undoubtably aerial photography. There’s nothing quite as exhilarating as flying with an open door and watching the splendours of the African landscape unfold a few hundred meters below you. And nowhere is this landscape more spectacular than over East Africa’s soda lakes. It’s not cheap and I wish I could afford the stable platform of a helicopter but the small Cessna I use is still fantastic especially with the incredibly skilled pilots that I use. I have been doing this type of photography since 2006 and probably have more than enough good images to fill a decent sized book but here are a tiny selection from my recent trips. Just to give you an idea of what it looks like from inside the plane, here is an image of my good friend and highly skilled/underrated photographer, Michael Viljoen.

In progress_74A0423 {J}

A long way down

This is Lake Bogoria with Lesser Flamingos flying in formation over a huge algae slick. Someone recently pointed out to me that they see the outline of the Americas on the left, the east coast of Africa in the center and India on the right. It’s strange how you can look at an image for a long time and then someone else comes along and instantly sees something you have missed.

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos flying in formation over algae slick on Lake Bogoria, Kenya

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos flying in formation over algae slick on Lake Bogoria, Kenya

This is another image from Lake Bogoria. No algae just green waters with the Flamingos arranged pleasingly along the edge of the small island with a Flamingo “tear drop” at the bottom of the frame.

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos grouped around small volcanic island, Lake Bogoria, Kenya_P3I2661 {J}

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos grouped around small volcanic island, Lake Bogoria, Kenya

The Flamingos often gather together in staggeringly large groupings as shown here on Lake Logipi.

Thousands of Lesser Flamingos grouped tightly together, aerial shot #2, Lake Logipi, Kenya

Thousands of Lesser Flamingos grouped tightly together, Lake Logipi, Kenya

Logipi is a seasonal soda lake and conditions are very different every time I fly over it as a result of varying water levels. At one end of the lake lies Cathedral Rock, an ancient volcanic island, around which there are usually a few pools of water in even the driest periods and which in turn, always attract Flamingos.

Aerial image of Cathedral Rock in Lake Logipi, Kenya_74A7686 {J}

Aerial image of Cathedral Rock in Lake Logipi, Kenya

The furnace-like temperatures on the surface of Lake Logipi means that evaporation rates are high and while the lake can fill quickly when there is rain in the vicinity, it disappears equally as fast. Sometimes fingers of water are formed as the water retreats and the sodium, calcium and phosphate rich waters are an ideal breeding ground for the Flamingos’ staple food source – microscopic algae species.

Aerial image of a finger of lake water on dry lake bed, Lake Logipi, Kenya_74A7028 {J}

Aerial image of a finger of lake water on dry lake bed, Lake Logipi, Kenya

Even in the deepest areas, the water is never more than a foot or two deep and is usually clouded with a brownish silt. This silt sits above a bed of gooey black/dark blue mud. Flamingos walking across the lake bed leave black trails in the mud behind them and when large numbers move, this gives rise to interesting trail patterns and it was these that I wanted to capture in this next image.

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos and their trails, Lake Logipi, Kenya_74A1444 {J}

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos and their trails, Lake Logipi, Kenya

Aerial images of Flamingos flying are nice enough but what makes them extra special over Kenya’s soda lakes is the spectacular backgrounds in terms of the colours and patterns.

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos flying over shallow water lake with silt and mud trails visible, Lake Logipi, Kenya_P3I2275 {J}

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos flying over shallow water lake with silt and mud trails visible, Lake Logipi, Kenya

Lake Natron, on the border of Southern Kenya and Northern Tanzania contains some of the world’s truly spectacular landscapes. The Southern Ewaso Ng’iro River rises in the Mau Escarpment, empties into Lake Natron and is the major inflow into the lake. A large and expanding delta along the shoreline mud flat has been formed where the river enters the lake. In the distance, on the top left hand side, you can just make out the periodically active volcano, Ol Doinyo Lengai.

Aerial image of river delta on the edge of Lake Natron, Tanzania_74A0311 {J}

Aerial image of the Southern Ewaso Ng’iro river delta on the edge of Lake Natron, Tanzania

Slightly further inland, Wildebeest and Zebra can occasionally be seen crossing the river. This must be a fairly rare image as I haven’t seen any photos of Wildebeest and Lesser Flamingos in the same frame.

Aerial image of Wildebeest crossing river delta, Lake Natron, Tanzania

Aerial image of Wildebeest crossing Southern Ewaso Ng’iro river delta, Lake Natron, Tanzania

This next image is another favorite from my trips with the mud trails left by the Flamingos helping to inject an artistic element into a nice natural history image.

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos and trails through shallow water soda lake, Lake Natron, Tanzania

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos and trails through shallow water soda lake, Lake Natron, Tanzania

If an abstract painter was ever short of inspiration, then my strong recommendation would be an aerial trip over Lake Natron, much of which resembles the surface of another planet and where nature really does imitate art.

Lake bed, Lake Natron, Tanzania

Lake bed, Lake Natron, Tanzania

 

Lake bed #2, Lake Natron, Tanzania

Lake bed #2, Lake Natron, Tanzania

_74A9184 {J}

Naturally occurring mineral deposits of sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate, sodium chloride and sodium sulphate on the shallow water lake bed of Lake Natron, Tanzania

_74A9307 {J}

Naturally occurring mineral deposits of sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate, sodium chloride and sodium sulphate on the shallow water lake bed of Lake Natron, Tanzania

For the final image, I’m not even going to try and explain what’s going on here. Just sit back and enjoy. Makes me want to get out some brushes and canvas.

Lake bed patterns, Lake Logipi, Kenya_74A1288 {J}

Lake bed patterns, Lake Natron, Tanzania

 

2013
05.21

This sequence was taken late last year in Kenya’s Masai Mara game reserve. The pictures pretty much tell the story so I’m keeping the text to a minimum. All the images were taken with a Canon 1D MK4 and a Canon 600mm f4 IS (version 1) lens.

Mother Cheetah spots a Thomson’s Gazelle fawn in the distance.

Cheetah portrait, Masai Mara, Kenya

The mother slowly approaches the Gazelle fawn being careful not be seen. She uses the cover of some bushes and tall grass to get within 60-70m of the fawn. With the fawn facing away, the Cheetah bursts out from the bush, quickly accelerating.

with selection Adult female Cheetah running at top speed, Masai Mara, Kenya_P3I2118 {J}

The fawn spots the Cheetah too late and after the briefest of chases, she is tripped by the Cheetah who immediately is at its throat. But instead of dispatching the fawn, the Cheetah picks it up by its throat and carries it back to where its three young cubs are waiting nearby.

Cheetah mother bring still live Thomson's Gazelle fawn back to cubs to train with, Masai Mara, Kenya

The mother then lets the fawn go and the cubs chase after it. They quickly catch up, trip it and pin the fawn down with their paws. However, they do not yet know how to kill it. So after a short while they release their grip and the terrified fawn bounds off again. This process goes on for the next fifteen minutes and follows the exact same pattern each time. It is very hard not to feel for the poor fawn and the whole encounter appears to reek of cruelty, but you have to keep reminding yourself that this exercise is a vital part of the Cheetah cubs’ training. Within 12-16 months, the mother will abandon the cubs and if they cannot hunt for themselves, then they have no chance of survival. I try to also console myself with the knowledge that while Gazelles are abundant in Africa, Cheetahs are endangered with just 12,000 left in the wild.

1Cheetah cubs chasing Thomson's Gazelle fawn with mother Cheetah in the background, Masai Mara, Kenya_P3I7834 {J}

2Cheetah cub chasing Thomson's Gazelle fawn, Masai Mara, Kenya

3Cheetah cubs, watched by their mother, chase after Thomson's Gazelle fawn, Masai Mara, Kenya

4with selection Cheetah cub chasing Thomson's Gazelle fawn, Masai Mara, Kenya_P3I7943 {J}

5Cheetah cubs chasing Thomson's Gazelle fawn as mother cheetah looks on, Masai Mara, Kenya_P3I7931 {J}

6with selection Cheetah cub chasing Thomson's Gazelle fawn, Masai Mara, Kenya #2

After patiently monitoring the whole episode from a distance, the mother eventually decides that enough is enough and jogs after the fawn, by now visibly slower after the mauling it has taken from the cubs. The end is mercifully quick and she carries the fawn back to the cubs. One small fawn between four Cheetahs amounts to no more than a light snack and the cubs are now at a size where the mother is being required to hunt every day.

7with selection Adult female Cheetah carrying Thomson's Gazelle Kill, Masai Mara, Kenya_P3I7984 {J}After their brief meal, one of the cubs, its face flecked with blood from the meal, stands with its mother framing it nicely in the background.

Cheetah cub with bloody face, framed between adult Cheetah's lags, Masai Mara, Kenya

2013
04.18

In February (it seems like only yesterday), I made my fifth visit to Eastern Hokkaido’s winter wonderland. I have written before at length about my love affair with Japan, so I won’t bore you by going over old ground but if you haven’t been to Japan and especially to Hokkaido in winter (and I don’t mean Niseko), take my word for it and go!

Although only an eight day trip, photographic opportunities were excellent especially at my favorite location, Lake Kussharo, where the swan photography was the best I have seen.

The only negative for me on the trip was that while we did experience a wide variety of weather conditions, we probably had a little too much sun for my liking which made for challenging photo conditions in the middle of the day. The upside of course is that we had some really nice early morning and late afternoon light. Better still, we had three mornings of dazzlingly beautiful, hoar frost-covered trees.

Untitled_Panorama1

Winterscape panoramic showing hoar frosted trees, swirling mist and snow covered forested mountains, Wakato, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan; 5 image, stitched panorama, Canon 1D MK4, Sigma 50-500mm lens @138mm, handheld, f11, 1/400th sec, AV +1/3rd, ISO 250

Lake Kussharo is a large lake. While there are one or two well-known photographic sites to which photographers congregate, there are several other lesser known spots which you usually have to yourself and it is to these that I gravitate.

The first three images in this set were taken early in the morning, before sunrise when most of the swans in this group were either still sleeping or were relatively sedentary.  The final image was made after the swans had fully woken up and had become more active. The key to all these images was correct composition with the swans framed by the overhanging frost/snow covered branches and importantly, no merging of the branches with the horizon and no or minimal merging of the swans. The mood was also important and I’ve deliberately retained the blue caste in the three colour images to given a sense of both the peace and tranquillity as well as the cold. By far and away the hardest part of photographing in Hokkaido in winter is the cold. I wear one pair of thin gloves over which I have a pair of retractable mittens with the pockets stuffed full of hand warmers. After more than about 30 seconds with my digits out of the mittens, they start to freeze up and become numb and painful which also makes it close to impossible to operate the camera’s controls. So I find myself regularly having to stuff my fingers back into the warmth of the hand warmer-encrusted mittens to revive circulation.

1. Whooper Swans on lake at dawn under snow covered tree branches, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan

Whooper Swans at dawn on lake in winter, under snow covered tree branches, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan; Canon 5D MK3, Canon 16-35mm f2.8L 2 IS lens @18mm, handheld, 1/250th sec, f11, ISO400, manual exposure

 

Whopper Swans on lake at dawn, Lake Kussharo, Japan; Canon 5D MK3, Canon 16-35mm f2.8L 2 lens @16mm, handheld, 1/200th sec, f13, ISO400, manual exposure

Whopper Swans on lake at dawn, Lake Kussharo, Japan; Canon 5D MK3, Canon 16-35mm f2.8L 2 lens @16mm, handheld, 1/200th sec, f13, ISO400, manual exposure

3a Whopper Swans at dawn on frozen lake opening under overhanging branches, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan_74A7770 {J}

Whopper Swans at dawn on frozen lake opening under overhanging branches, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan; Canon 5D MK3, Canon 16-35mm f2.8L 2 lens @22mm, handheld, 1/160th sec, f13, ISO640, manual exposure

4a Whooper Swans at dawn in winter on lake under tree branches, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan

Whooper Swans at dawn in winter on lake under tree branches, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan, Canon 5D MK2, Canon 16-35mm f2.8L 2 lens @16mm, handheld, 1/125th sec, f11, ISO250, manual exposure

The next two photos were taken at another secret spot where in five years I have never encountered a single other photographer. Incredibly, these two photos were taken within an hour of each other. The weather can change suddenly in these parts and after a nice sunset, clouds rapidly rolled in and heavy snow began falling.

5a Whooper Swans on frozen lake opening at sunset, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan

Whooper Swans on frozen lake opening at sunset, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan; Canon 5D MK3, Canon 16-35mm f2.8L 2 lens @25mm, handheld, 1/160th sec, f11, ISO640, 2 Lee graduated neutral density filters (5 stops), manual exposure

6a Whooper Swans on frozen lake opening during snow storm, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan

Whooper Swans on frozen lake opening during snow storm, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan; Canon 5D MK3, Canon 16-35mm f2.8L 2 lens @16mm, handheld, 1/80th sec, f10, ISO1,000, manual exposure

The following images were shot at a slightly more popular site but one that you can still often have to yourself. The first image is probably my favourite from the trip, shot with a bendy 8-15mm fisheye lens. I really wanted to get the hoar frost-covered branches into image with the swans. I tried my 16-35mm lens but it wasn’t wide enough. While there was no way to avoid having the branches merging with the snow covered mountains, I still like the way the branches frame the birds.

7a Whopper Swans on frozen ice with overhanging, frost-covered tree branch over lake opening in foreground, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan

Fish-eye view of Whopper Swans on frozen lake with frost covered overhanging tree branch over lake opening, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan; Canon 5D MK3, Canon 8-15mm f4L fisheye lens @14mm, handheld, 1/250th sec, f16, ISO200, manual exposure

This is a more moody image, with steam rising from the thermal heated water in the cold air.

8a. Whooper Swans on at hot spring on a wnter's morning

Whooper Swans on thermal heated lake waters with steam rising, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan; Canon 5D MK3, Canon 16-35mm f2.8L 2 lens @23mm, handheld, 1/400th sec, f11, ISO200, manual exposure

If you go to Lake Kussharo you will definitely spend time at the main swan area. The swans gather at this spot because they are fed grain twice a day. It can be particularly rewarding early in the morning when the swans fly in over distant trees, which sometimes as in this first image, are covered with hoar frost, before banking against a backdrop of snow covered mountains, and landing on the frozen lake. What’s missing from these images is the sound of the birds’ trumpet like calls piercing the cold air. Almost immediately upon landing, the birds will throw back their heads and call raucously. When several land at the same time, the winter silence is broken with the sounds reverberating around the lake. I’ve stood on top of some of the adjacent mountains on a windless day and have been able to pick up the sounds several miles away.

2. Whooper Swans flying over hoar frost covered trees, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan

Whooper Swans flying over hoar frost covered trees, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan; Canon 1D MK1V, Sigma 50-500mm lens @373mm, handheld, 1/1,600th sec, f8, ISO 500, manual exposure

3. Whooper Swans landing on frozen lake, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan

Whooper Swans landing on frozen lake, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan, Canon 1D MK1V, Sigma 50-500mm @93mm, handheld, 1/1,000th sec, f9, ISO640, manual exposure

4. Whooper Swans flying into land on frozen lake, Lake Kussharo, Japan

Adult and juvenile Whooper Swans flying in to land on frozen and lake with snow dusted mountains in the background, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan; Canon 1D MK1V, Sigma 50-500mm lens @113mm, handheld, 1/1,600th sec, f9, ISO640, manual exposure

 

5. Two Whooper Swans landing on frozen lake, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan

Whooper Swans landing on frozen lake, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan, Canon 1D MK1V, Sigma 50-500mm lens @203mm, handheld, 1/1,250th sec, f8, ISO640, manual exposure

6. Whooper Swan standing on frozen lake ice, calling

Whooper Swan standing on frozen lake, calling, with wings stretched forward, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan; Canon 1D MK1V, Sigma 50-500mm lens @244mm, handheld, 1/1,000th sec, f9, ISO640, manual exposure

7. Two Whooper Swans on frozen lake, calling, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan_P3I5817 {J}

Two Whooper Swans on frozen lake, calling, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan; Canon 1D MK1V, Sigma 50-500mm lens @244mm, handheld, 1/1,250th sec, f9, ISO500, manual exposure

It would be remiss on a trip to Hokkaido to ignore the stark but often beautiful landscapes. While I am not an advocate of copying or emulating other photographers’ styles, it is very hard not to be influenced by Michael Kenna’s haunting, minimalistic landscape images taken in the depths of the Hokkaido winter.

I find myself especially drawn to solitary trees or small groups of trees on snow-covered ridges and after some exploratory snow-shoeing (easy and highly recommended if you have not tried), I found one such area. Here, multiple Wildencounters participant, Paul Quah, pauses as he snow-shoes through the area’s snow covered slopes.

8. Paul Quah on snow shoes amongst trees on snow slope, Hokkaido, Japan

Paul Quah on snow shoes amongst trees on snow slope, Hokkaido, Japan; Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm f4 IS lens @28mm, handheld, 1/250th sec, f11, ISO200, manual exposure

I’ve always been attracted to minimalistic type photography so these lonely trees were especially appealing to me. This small selection of images may not be for everyone, but I definitely plan on doing more of this type of photography in the future. Already I have some good ideas on how to be more creative when I return.

 

Tree in snow field, Hokkaido, Japan

Tree in snow field, Hokkaido, Japan: Canon 1D MK1V, Sigma 50-500mm lens @287mm, handheld, 1/500th sec, f9, ISO500, manual exposure

10. Trees on snow covered ridge, Hokkaido, Japan

Trees on snow covered ridge, Hokkaido, Japan; Canon 5D MK3, Canon 70-200mm f2.8L IS lens @140mm, handheld, 1/400th sec, f11, ISO100, manual exposure

11. Trees on snow covered slopes, Hokkaido, Japan_74A9040 {J}

Trees on snow covered slopes, Hokkaido, Japan: Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm @40mm, handheld, 1/100th sec, f11, ISO500, manual exposure

 

Leafless trees in snow field, Hokkaido, Japan_P3I5146 {J}

Leafless trees in snow field, Hokkaido, Japan; Canon 1D MK1V, Canon 600mm f4 IS 2 lens, Gitzo tripod, 1/500th sec, f10, ISO400, manual exposure

This year I didn’t spend as much time as previously with the Cranes, in part because it was so good at the swans but also because we had a lot of sunny days when we were with the Cranes. However, there were still some nice opportunities. I didn’t plan on getting the Crane heads into the first image but it really helps to add additional interest as this White-Tailed Eagle swoops over them.

 

with selection White-Tailed Eagle flying towards Red Crowned Cranes, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan

White-Tailed Eagle flying towards Red Crowned Cranes, Eastern Hokkaido, Japan; Canon 1D MK IV, Sigma 50-500mm lens @500mm, handheld, 1/1,600th sec, f8, ISO 1,000, manual exposure

For some reason, I haven’t taken many portrait pics of the Cranes on previous trips. Nothing special here but the technicals are all in order.

Red Crowned Crane head shot, Hokkaido, Japan

Red Crowned Crane head shot, Hokkaido, Japan; Canon 1D MKIV, Canon 600mm f4 IS 2 lens + 1.4x TC, Gitzo tripod, 1/640th sec, f7.1, ISO 2,000, manual exposure

 

As usual, it was hard to resist taking images of the Cranes flying and coming into land. This one was taken late in the afternoon with the bird framed against a distant, dark, forest-covered hillside.

selection Red Crowned Crane coming in to land against dark forest, Hokkaido, Japan_P3I9265 {J}

Red Crowned Crane coming in to land against dark forest, Hokkaido, Japan, Canon 1D MKIV, Sigma 50-500mm @373mm, 1/2,000th sec, f8, ISO320, manual exposure

Since there are already a gazillion flying Crane images out there, I end up spending most of time using slow shutter speeds, usually panning with the bird. Given my preference for retaining some sharpness in the bird’s heads, you need to take a lot of images to get one decent one but when you do get something worthwhile, the results, in my opinion are much more pleasing than a static flying bird image.

with selection Red Crowned Crane, flying over snow and past forest, with motion, Hokkaido, Japan_74A8133 {J}

Red Crowned Crane flying over snow and past forest, with motion, Hokkaido, Japan; 5D MK3, Sigma 50-500mm @500mm, handheld, 1/50th sec, f11, ISO400, manual exposure

A different technique here – no panning, high key and converted to monochrome.

 

Monochrome image of Red Crowned Crane flying blur, Hokkaido, Japan

Red Crowned Crane flying, with motion, high key, Hokkaido, Japan; Canon 5D MK3, Sigma 50-500mm @273mm, handheld, 1/15th sec, f8, ISO1,000, manual exposure

Owing to the uncooperative weather while at the main Crane sites, I spent very little time trying to capture the courting Crane dances. And when I did capture some spectacular action, the background was not behaving! A shame, because this is about as good as it gets action-wise.

with selction Red Crowned Cranes engaged in courtship dance in mid-air, Hokkaido, Japan_P3I9195 {J}

Red Crowned Cranes engaged in courtship dance in mid-air, Hokkaido, Japan; Canon 1D MKIV, Sigma 50-500mm @167mm, handheld, 1/2,000th sec, f8, ISO640, manual exposure

In Africa I sometimes have to hang around for hours or even days waiting for something to happen, but in Hokkaido, especially if the weather is co-operating, you can shoot almost non-stop from dawn to dusk and even at night. The images shown in this blog represent just a tiny selection of the images that I made during my eight day stay.

Star filled sky above barren trees, Lake Kussharo, Japan

Star filled sky at night above barren trees, Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido, Japan; Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm @24mm, Gitzo tripod, 25 sec, f5, ISO1,600, manual exposure

When you throw in the wonderful food, the amazing hot springs to soak in at the end of a day out in the cold and the warm hospitality that I always receive, Hokkaido has become one of my favourite photo destinations and I always look forward to going back. So I will be back next year, co-leading a larger group (this year I took only three persons). Already I am counting down the days.

 

2013
02.03

As promised, here is another set of East African aerials. These were all taken over Lake Natron just across the Kenyan border in Tanzania. I have flown many times over Natron and it has to be one of the world’s most surreal landscapes often resembling the surface of another planet. Usually there is only a little water on the lake with large patches devoid of any moisture, the result of evaporation under furnace like temperatures. This leaves behind a lake bed comprising a brittle crust of various sodium compounds overlaying thick, gooey mud.

The last two years have seen abnormally high rainfall in most of East Africa with water levels on Natron at high levels. A lack of algae concentrations caused by the high water has meant reduced Flamingo numbers. However, even after just a few days without rain, the evaporation process had begun in earnest with dramatic trails of sodium compounds on the lake surface.

Anyway, i’ll stop my naturalist waffle and let you enjoy the images. Most of them probably won’t have much sale value, but I like them and I guess that’s what matters!

Aerial view of a small group of Lesser Flamingos flying over lake with evaporated sodium compound trails on lake surface, Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm lens @70mm, handheld, f4, 1/1,600sec, ISO400, AV at -1/3

Aerial view of a small group of Lesser Flamingos flying over lake with evaporated sodium compound trails on lake surface, Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm lens @70mm, handheld, f4, 1/4,000 sec, ISO 400, AV at -1/3

Aerial view of trails of evaporated sodium compounds lake surface, beside river delta, Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 24-105mm lens @96mm, handheld 1/5,000 sec, f4, ISO 400, AV at -1/3

Aerial view of trails of evaporated sodium compounds on lake surface, beside river delta, Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 24-105mm lens @96mm, handheld 1/5,000 sec, f4, ISO 400, AV at -1/3

 

Aerial-image-of-algae-slick-and-evaporated-sodium-trails-on-the-surface-of-Lake-Natron-Tanzania-Canon-5D-MK3-Canon-24-105mm-f4-IS-lens-@28mm-handheld-11600th-sec-f4-ISO-400-AV-at-01

Aerial view of algae slick and evaporated sodium compound trails on the surface of Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm f4 IS lens @28mm, handheld, 1/1,600th sec,f4, ISO 400, AV at -1

 

Aerial view of evaporated sodium compound trails on the surface of Lake Natron Tanzania, Canon 5D MK3, Canon-24-105mm f4 IS lens, handheld, 1/6,400 sec, f4, ISO 400, AV a t-1

Aerial view of evaporated sodium compound trails on the surface of Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 5D MK3, Canon-24-105mm f4 IS lens, handheld, 1/6,400 sec, f4, ISO 400, AV a t-1

 

Aerial view of evaporated sodium compound trails at lake shore, Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm, f4 IS lens @88mm, handheld, 1/1,600 sec, f4, ISO 400, AV at 0

Aerial view of evaporated sodium compound trails at lake shore, Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm, f4 IS lens @88mm, handheld, 1/1,600 sec, f4, ISO 400, AV at 0

Aerial view of evaporated sodium compounds on lake shore and lake surface, Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 5D MK5, Canon-24-105mm f4 IS lens @105mm, 1/2,000 sec, f4, ISO 400,  AV at 0

Aerial view of evaporated sodium compounds on lake shore and lake surface, Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 5D MK5, Canon-24-105mm f4 IS lens @105mm, 1/2,000 sec, f4, ISO 400, AV at 0

Aerial image of lake bed covered by shallow water and evaporated sodium compounds, Lake Natron, Tanzania, 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm f4 IS lens @73mm, handheld, 1/1,000sec, f4, ISO, AV at 0

Aerial view of lake bed covered by shallow water and evaporated sodium compounds, Lake Natron, Tanzania, 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm f4 IS lens @73mm, handheld, 1/1,000sec, f4, ISO, AV at 0

Aerial view of lake shore made up of sodium compounds, Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm, f4 IS lens @105mm, handheld, 1/2,000 sec, f4, ISO 400, AV at 0

Aerial view of lake shore made up of sodium compounds, Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm, f4 IS lens @105mm, handheld, 1/2,000 sec, f4, ISO 400, AV at 0

Aerial view of Lesser Flamingos flying over lake shore at Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm f4 IS lens @65mm, handheld,1/4,000sec, f4, ISO 400, AV at -1/3

Aerial view of Lesser Flamingos flying over lake shore at Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm f4 IS lens @65mm, handheld,1/4,000sec, f4, ISO 400, AV at -1/3

 Aerial view of Lesser Flamingos flying over lake shore with evaporated sodium compound trails on lake surface, Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 5D MK3,Canon 24-105mm, f4, IS lens @105mm, handheld, 1/5,000 sec, f4, ISO 400, AV -1 & 1/3

Aerial view of Lesser Flamingos flying over lake shore with evaporated sodium compound trails on lake surface, Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 5D MK3,Canon 24-105mm, f4, IS lens @105mm, handheld, 1/5,000 sec, f4, ISO 400, AV -1 & 1/3

 

Evaporated sodium compound trails on the surface of Lake Natron beside lake shore, Tanzania, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm f4 IS lens @47mm, handheld, 1/2,500 sec, f4, ISO 400, AV at 0

Evaporated sodium compound trails on the surface of Lake Natron beside lake shore, Tanzania, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm f4 IS lens @47mm, handheld, 1/2,500 sec, f4, ISO 400, AV at 0

Aerial view of Lesser Flamingos beside the lake shore delta of Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS lens @70mm, handheld, 1/2,000 sec, f4, ISO 500, AV at -1

Aerial view of Lesser Flamingos beside the lake shore delta of Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS lens @70mm, handheld, 1/2,000 sec, f4, ISO 500, AV at -1

Aerial view of Lesser Flamingos flying over shallow water with cloud reflections next to lake shore, Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 5D, MK3 Canon 24-105mm f4 IS lens @105mm, handheld, 1/2,000sec, f4, ISO 400, AV -2/3

Aerial view of Lesser Flamingos flying over shallow water with cloud reflections next to lake shore, Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 5D, MK3 Canon 24-105mm f4 IS lens @105mm, handheld, 1/2,000sec, f4, ISO 400, AV -2/3

Aeria view of Lesser Flamingos flying over lake near the shore with evaporated sodium compounds on lake surface, Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 5D MK3, Canon-24-105mm f4 IS lens @ 67mm, handheld, 1/8,000 sec, f4, ISO 400, AV at -1 & 1/3

Aerial view of Lesser Flamingos flying over lake near the shore with evaporated sodium compounds on lake surface, Lake Natron, Tanzania, Canon 5D MK3, Canon-24-105mm f4 IS lens @ 67mm, handheld, 1/8,000 sec, f4, ISO 400, AV at -1 & 1/3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2013
01.04

In July and September last year I made two trips to Kenya’s Masai Mara but at the beginning of each I spent several hours in the air shooting images from a light aircraft with the doors removed on one side. It is an activity I have been doing annually since 2006 and to put it mildly, it is extremely addictive. I have written about this before so I’ll skip the details but it is not until you have spent many hours flying low over the ground that you get a true appreciation of how incredibly diverse Kenya’s geography is. For a country of its size, it is surely unmatched in its environmental diversity. While there are abundant attractions on its short grass savannahs, its tropical rain forests and reefs, its high alpine meadows and glaciers (yes – on Mt.Kenya), it is the splendours of the Great Rift Valley that for me trump everything else at least when viewed from the air. And within the Rift Valley, it is the many soda lakes that are arguably its most beguiling of features.

These lakes are periodically home to hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of predominantly Lesser Flamingos with smaller numbers of Great Flamingos also in attendance. The environment in an around some of these lakes is oppressively hostile with furnace like temperatures and waters that are often so caustic as to cause severe skin burns to human flesh. Yet somehow, microscopic algae species manage to thrive and multiple in the carbonate and phosphate-rich waters and it is this aquatic plant that forms the staple food source of the flamingos.

The algae is often concentrated into enormous slicks and while usually green in colour, on occasion, more spectacular colours form. As we approached Lake Bogoria, I could tell from a distance that something unusual was going on with large swathes of the lake green in colour vs the usual blue and light brown waters (where rivers enter the lake – high rainfall levels have this year turned much of the lake a coffee colour). As we got closer, the green algae slicks took on a paint-like, ephemeral appearance.

Aerial view of algae slick on Lake Bogoria, Kenya, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm f4 IS lens @105mm, handheld, 1/6,000 sec, f5.6, AV at 0, ISO 400

Algae slick, aerial shot, Lake Bogoria, Kenya, Canon 24-105mm f4 IS lens @58mm, 1/8,000th sec, f4, AV at 0, ISO 320

While flamingo numbers at Bogoria were well down on usual levels, there were still good numbers feeding on the algae.

Lesser Flamingos walking through and feeding on algae slick, aerial shot, Lake Bogoria, Kenya, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS lens @70mm, handheld, 1/8,000th sec, f4, AV at -1, ISO 500

Heading north, we passed over lake Boringo before heading down the Seguta Valley with its spectacular ancient volcanic features. At the end of the valley lies a seasonal, soda lake, Lake Logipi which when filled with shallow water, is almost always home to huge congregations of flamingos. This year was no exception.

Thousands of Lesser Flamingos grouped tightly together, aerial shot, Lake Logipi, Kenya, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS lens@200mm, handheld, 1/8,000th sec, f6.3, ISO 500, AV at -1

Unlike the green coloured algae that was visible on Lake Bogoria, the algae on Lake Logipi was an eye popping lime green interspersed with portions of pink.

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos, algae slick and volcanic island, Lake Logipi, Kenya, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 24-105mm f4 IS lens @32mm, handheld, 1/1,600th sec, f5.6, AV at -1/3, ISO500

 

Lesser Flamingos on shallow water lake beside algae slick, aerial shot, Lake Logipi, Kenya, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS lens @75mm, handheld, 1/2,000th sec, f5.6, AV at -2/3, ISO 500

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos walking through and flying by algae slick, Lake Logipi, Kenya, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS lens @200mm, handheld, 1\1,000th sec, f5.6, AV at -2\3, ISO 500

Algae slick, aerial shot, Lake Logipi, Kenya, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS lens @200mm, handheld, 1\2,000th sec, f5.6, AV at -1\3, ISO 500

Aerial image of Lesser Flamingos walking through algae slick, Lake Logipi, Kenya, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS lens @180mm, handheld, 1\1,250th sec, f5.6, AV at -1\3, ISO 500

In part two of this series, I’ll be showing the surreal patterns of crystallising salt formed by evaporation, on Lake Natron in Northern Tanzania. Stay tuned.

2012
12.17

This year I again had two highly commended images in the prestigious Nature’s Best wildlife photo contest. The first image which was highly commended in the endangered species category, was taken on Midway Atoll in the North West Pacific on a day of pouring rain. I was completely alone the whole day; my fellow travellers preferring the shelter of the converted naval barracks that serve as accommodation on the island. But if you look at my four commended images from the last two years, three of them have been taken in the rain. So the lesson is pretty obvious. In order to get eye to eye with the birds I needed to lie prone on the ground. I found I could lie on my right side for longer durations, using the vertical grip shutter and holding the foot of the lens collar with my left hand. I was moving around amongst the birds quite a bit and in such situations I find a tripod too restrictive, hence my preference for hand holding. The other advantage of lying on the ground is that it allowed for the pleasing out of focus, dark green background which in turn helped bring out the falling rain. The final ingredient was the use of a little fill flash to emphasis the rain drops on the birds. I was constantly making small adjustments to my position in order to keep the birds as parallel to my camera as possible but I still needed a relatively small aperture to ensure some decent depth of field and this in turn required the use of a high ISO. The rest was down to patience as I waited for the birds to come together and affectionately nuzzle each other. Finally was a willingness to tolerate a thorough soaking. Albatross pairs mate for life but only come together for a few weeks of the year (every second year for some species). The affection they display towards each other is clear to see and this is what I wanted to capture with this image.

 

Black-Footed Albatrosses interacting in the rain, Midway Atoll, USA, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 IS lens + 1.4x TC, handheld, 1/640th sec, f9, ISO 2000, AV (-2/3rds), Canon 550 EX flash at -1 EV

The second image which was highly commended in the African Wildlife category, was also taken in the rain but in a very different geography, this time on the other side of the world in Kenya’s Masai Mara game reserve. When I first found this male it was mid-afternoon and he was sleeping under the shade of an acacia tree. For the next three and half hours that’s all he did. Then at about six thirty as the light was fading and the rain falling, a Lioness appeared on a nearby ridge. The Male rose to his feet roaring several times. The Lioness didn’t hang around and quickly disappeared. Three and a half hours of waiting for less than half a minute of activity. That’s pretty much the story of wildlife photography.

Male Lion roaring, Masai Mara, Kenya, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 600mm IS f4 lens + Canon 1.4x TC, lens resting on beanbag on the side of the vehicle, 1/125th sec, f5.6, AV (-1/3 EV)

2012
12.13

In mid-October I returned to the Southern Ocean for a special extended trip to South Georgia. If you were to ask several seasoned, wildlife photo pros to name their favorite wildlife destination on our planet, chances are that a large number would have South Georgia at the top of their list. The extreme remoteness of its location means that it receives few visitors each year and save for a handful of British Antarctic Survey staff, it is uninhabited. As a result it remains in pristine condition, teeming with an extraordinary collection of wildlife and containing, amongst others, the world’s largest colonies of King Penguins and Elephant Seals, all set against a majestic backdrop of tumbling glaciers and snowcapped mountains.  In many other wildlife destinations that I have journeyed to, large amounts of patience are required as you wait for the wildlife to actually do something. In South Georgia, the opposite is true. Indeed, one is often surrounded by so much wildlife and activity that it can be overwhelming at times. On some sites, the density of wildlife is so great that photography actually becomes quite challenging – framing and composing become difficult and you end up having to work hard to find clean lines and separation between the birds and animals. No one however, leaves South Georgia disappointed and it remains one of those rare locations where wildlife numbers are actually increasing. The contrast between my home in Asia, where almost every species is in decline, couldn’t be greater.

As usual, I kept no diary or even notes from the trip but I took plenty of photographic images, processing and labeling many along the way. Most non serious photographers take pictures in large because by freezing a moment in time, they help preserve memories and this is probably the most compelling feature of photography. I certainly don’t have the greatest powers of recollection but I would estimate that nearly 100% of the time, I could look at any of the decent image that I have taken over the last 10-12 years and instantly tell you when and where it was taken and most importantly, the story behind the image. So for me as well, viewing my own images helps to bring back memories and since I’m pretty much always a happy camper when I’m out photographing, even in climatic extremes, these memories almost always tend to be good ones.

After arriving in Santiago, Chile via Auckland, New Zealand (journey time from Hong Kong including seven hours at Auckland airport = 35 hours), I was fortunate to be able to join celebrated bird photographer and hands down the world’s best photographic teacher, Arthur Morris (www.birdsasart.com) for a morning of photography, an hour from Santiago near the coastal town of Vina Del Mar. Also joining us were super creative pro photographer, Denise Ippolito (www.densieippolito.com) and mega talented photographer, Clemens Vanderwerf (www.clemensvanderwerf.com). We were very generously hosted by Chile’s finest bird photographer, Osvaldo Larrain (www.osvaldolarrain.com).

Despite the dreary weather, we had good opportunities with Sea Lions, Pelicans and Aztec Terns.

Sea Lion in surf, Vina Del Mar, Chile, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 600mm IS 2 lens, Gitzo tripod, 1/1,000th sec, f5, ISO 1,250, manual exposure

Aztec Tern in flight, Vina Del Mar, Chile, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 600mm f4 IS 2 lens, handheld, 1/ 2,000 sec, f5.6, ISO 800, manual exposure

The next day we flew to the Falkland Islands where we boarded our ship for the four day voyage to South Georgia. As usual at these latitudes, the ship was followed by a constant procession of seabirds, including a number of Albatross and Petrel species. While it is relatively easy to take fast shutter speed images of the birds in flight behind and alongside the ship, I set myself the task of improving on the slow shutter speed images that I made last year, concentrating on the swift and erratically flying Cape Petrels. After hundreds of efforts, I eventually produced this image, one of my all-time avian image favorites, with the feather details bought to life by the use of rear curtain sync, fill flash.

Cape Petrel flying over ocean surface, with motion, Scotia Sea, Southern Ocean, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 70-200mm f2.8 lens at 98mm, handheld, 1/80th sec, f.13, ISO 50, manual exposure, Canon 580 EX flash at -1

At midday on our fourth day at sea, the distant outline of the north east shore of South Georgia began to take shape through the mist. By mid-afternoon we were in the zodiacs headed for shore at Elsehul. This is a site that is usually inaccessible due to hyper aggressive Fur Seals but being extremely early in the season, they were not so territorial and we were afforded a safe passage across the beach. After a short but difficult climb up through uneven tussock grass and mud covered terrain, we emerged onto the edge of steep cliffs below which nested Grey-Headed and Light Mantled Sooty Albatrosses. It was difficult to get decent images of the nesting birds as you were generally shooting straight down on them meaning that the best opportunities were of the birds in flight. I wish I had done better with the Grey-Heads as they are a phenomenally beautiful bird with their yellow and red bills.

Light Mantled Sooty Albatross flying over bay lined with snow dusted mountains, Elsehul, South Georgia, Cnon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm f4 IS lens @28mm, handheld, 1/800th sec, f9, ISO 640, manual exposure

 

Light Mantled Sooty Albatross flying past snow covered mountains, Elsehul, South Georgia, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 IS lens, handheld, 1/800th sec, f5.6, ISO 1250, manual exposure

Grey Headed Albatross flying over sea, Elsehul, South Georgia, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 IS lens, handheld, 1,000th sec, f5.6, ISO 640, manual exposure

Close to the landing site at the top of the beach, resided a large colony of Gentoo Penguins, many of whom were sitting on eggs. Those that were not, were largely engaged in nest building activities. From time to time, the Gentoos would throw back their heads and call loudly to their partners.

Gentoo Penguin with head and bill thrust into the air, Elsehul, South Georgia, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 IS lens + 1.3x TC, handheld ,1/320th sec, f8, ISO 1000, manual exposure

Overnight, we made the short passage along the north coast to Right Whale Bay. When I landed here last year, it was, to be frank, disappointing; essentially a bunch of King Penguins in a muddy gravel pit. But in arriving six weeks earlier this year, the valley and surrounding mountains were covered in snow and ice. The contrast couldn’t have been greater and this was definitely a venue for shorter lenses so that the Penguins could be shown against the magnificence of the towering snowy peaks.

King Penguin colony, Right Whale Bay, South Georgia, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS lens @130mm, handheld, 1/200th sec, f8, ISO 800, manual exposure

 

King Penguin walking in the snow against towering snow covered mountains, Right Whale Bay, South Georgia, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 70-200mm f2.8 lens @98mm, handheld, 1/320th sec, f10, ISO 640, manual exposure

Ice patterns over stones, Right Whale Bay, South Georgia, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 16-35mm f2.8 lens @35mm, handheld,1/125th sec, f13, ISO 400, manual exposure

 

King Penguin group standing ice, Right Whale Bay, South Georgia, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm f4 IS lens @24mm, handheld, 1/125th sec, f13, ISO 250, manual exposure

Back on the ship for lunch, we made a short repositioning to Prion Island. Here the main attractions are Wandering Albatrosses with juveniles on nests readily visible. A boardwalk was constructed that leads from the beach up to the nesting sites a few years ago. While this now makes the upward traverse quite simple, it does mean that your movements are restricted to the boardwalk, preventing the dramatic, close-up images of the birds with outstretched wings overlooking the sea and distant mountains, made famous by Frans Lanting.

However, back on the beach, I did manage to make this image of an adult male Elephant Seal (aka, the beach master) “cuddling” a female. As you can see, the size difference is quite extraordinary while the scarring on the male is the result of the endless battles he must fight to protect his harem of females from rival males.

Male Elephant Seal embracing female, Prion Island, South Georgia, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS lens, @200mm, handheld, 1/640th sec, f7.1, ISO 640, manual exposure

The next morning we found ourselves further down the north east coast, at Fortuna Bay, a beautiful glaciated valley fronted by a well-protected Bay. This was a productive site image wise for me last year. This year with snow covering much of the ground and overcast skies eliminating any harsh shadows, conditions were close to perfect for photography.

Panoramic view of Fortuna Bay (3 stitched images), 5D MK3, 24-105mm f4 IS lens @24mm, handheld, 1/250th sec, f11, manual exposure, South Georgia

 

King Penguin juxtoposed against two other King Penguins in the background, Fortuna Bay, South Georgia, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 600mm f4 IS 2 lens + 1.4x TC, Gitzo tripod, 1/500th sec, f10, ISO 500, manual exposure

King Penguin scratching its face with foot, Fortuna Bay, South Georgia, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 600mm f4 IS 2 l lens, 1.4x Canon TC, Gitzo tripod, 1/640th sec, f10, ISO 640, manual exposure

At one end of the site there is an open plain adjacent to a glacier below which lies a large King Penguin colony, populated at this time of the year by sizeable numbers of “Oakum boys”, the nickname given to the fluffy brown, juvenile King Penguins. As they huddled together for warmth, adult Kings would occasional venture into the group to seek out and feed their youngsters. I had previsualised the second image shown here, with the colorful splash of the adult’s head and neck feathers contrasting with the uniform browns of the juveniles.

King Penguin chick begging for food from two adults, Fortuna Bay, South Georgia, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 600mm f4 IS 2 lens, Gitzo tripod, 1/400th sec, f13, ISO 800, manual exposure

 

Adult King Penguin surrounded by chicks, Fortuna Bay, South Georgia, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 600mm f4 IS 2 lens, Gitzo tripod, 1/250th sec, f11, ISO 500, manual exposure

After some early morning zodiac cruising around Ocean Harbor (in reality a sizeable bay), on one side of which sits the wreck of the iron hulled three-masted barque, Bayard, now home to a colony of some 80 South Georgia Shags, we moved down the coast to Cumberland Bay to anchor at Grytviken, the largest of South Georgia’s ancient whaling stations and home to the Island’s only few inhabitants. Much of the old whaling station is open to visitors and like last year, I took some funky HDR images. The new Canon pro bodies, the 1DX and 5D MK 3 feature both in-camera HDR as well as multiple frame exposure capabilities. A big thanks to Denise Ippolito for showing me how to work these (as it turns out, they are extremely simple to use). The following image is a three frame, in-camera image of rusting paint on an old ship with the camera being moved horizontally,  vertically and then diagonally during each of the respective frames. Pretty cool eh?

Peeling paint, three in-camera exposures, Gretviken, South Georgia, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm f4 IS lens @105mm, handheld, 1/2nd, f22, ISO 100, manual exposure

Those of you who have read my blog from last year’s South Georgia trip will know the reverence that most attach to Saint Andrews Bay, which is often regarded as the jewel in South Georgia’s crown. It is unquestionably one of our planet’s truly great wildlife sites, being home to the world’s largest King Penguin colony where up to 160,000 adult pairs gather with at least an additional 50,000 juveniles. It is also home to South Georgia’s largest breeding population of Elephant Seals with our arrival being timed to coincide with peak breeding numbers of 6,000. So thick was the beach and shoreline with these blubbery, submarine sized creatures that passage across large sections of the beach was impossible. But it is not just the animals, it is also the setting. The following stitched panoramic image only does a tiny amount of justice (and the small jpg is doing no favours either) to the incredible vista that lies spread out in front of you once you have climbed a small ridge set back a little distance from the beach.

Panoramic view of King Penguin colony at Saint Andrews Bay, South Georgia (5 stitched images), Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm f4 lens @28mm, handheld, 1/400th sec, f13, ISO 500, manual exposure

This image was taken in the middle of the day when the sun had long disappeared to be replaced by low hanging cloud and intermittent sleet. But early in the morning when I first landed, a low sun was out, the air was crisp and clear and a throng of Kings came down to the water’s edge to greet us. The last image in this series featured a moment of serendipity with a large flock of Shags flying towards and over me.

King Penguins on the shore line of Saint Andrews Bay, South Georgia, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm f4 IS lens @47mm, handheld, 1/640th sec, f16, ISO 400, manual exposure

King Penguins standing on beach in shore surf, Saint Andrews Bay, South Georgia, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm f4 IS lens @73mm, 1/320th sec, f11, ISO 500, manual exposure

King Penguin group headed out to sea, wide-angle, Saint Andrews Bay, South Georgia, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm f4 IS lens @70mm, handheld, 1/320th sec, f11, ISO, manual exposure

Elephant Seal and King Penguins on the shore line with Imperial Shags flying in the sky, Saint Andrews Bay, South Georgia, same equipment as previous, 1/125th sec, f13, ISO 400, manual exposure

At midday I was up on the ridge that overlooks the bay. Before taking the earlier panoramic image, we had two adult Kings standing nicely on the ridge line overlooking the colony of Oakum boys and adults. I was sitting down a few feet from these two when two more adults walked into the frame.

King Penguins on a ridge overlooking thousands of adult and juvenile King Penguins, Saint Andrews Bay, South Georgia, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm F4 IS lens @50mm, handheld, 1/125th sec, f11, ISO 500, manual exposure

I then moved a little further down the ridge to where a some of the juvenile Oakum boys were interacting with adults. I needed to keep some distance from the birds so as not to disturb them. At the same time, the juveniles would harass their parents for food and hence both parent and offspring were in a constant state of motion. In these situations, a tripod just slows you down so this next image was made with the new Canon 600mm lens resting on my knee.

King Penguin chick begging for food from adult, Saint Andrews Bay, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 600mm f4 IS 2 lens, handheld resting on knee, 1/1,000 sec, f7.1, ISO 400, manual exposure

I was told by one of my fellow travelers that a long way back from the beach on one side of the bay, were a series of glacial melt lakes on which one could sometimes find Penguins. So I walked for 30-40 minutes until I reached the lakes only to find there were no Penguins near the water. However, there were several Antarctic Skuas, all engaged in vigorous bathing activity. The birds would duck their heads under the water at high speed, pause and then rise up in the water to flap their wings.

Antarctic Skua bathing, flapping wings, glacial melt lake, Saint Andrews Bay, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 600mm f4 IS lens, 1.4x TC, Gitzo tripod, 1/2,000 sec, f5.6, manual exposure

Later on while I was down towards the beach photographing a large group of King Penguins huddled together, I had another go at shooting multiple in-camera frames, again moving the camera a little for each image.

King Penguins, multiple exposures, Salisbury Plain, South Georgia, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 600mm f4 IS lens + 1.4x TC, Gitzo tripod, 1/ 5th sec, f45, ISO 100, manual exposure

Back on the beach, the sheer density of Elephant Seals made movement difficult but I wasn’t the only one whose progress was being impeded by these goliaths. King Penguins returning from sea would often find their route back to the colony and their youngsters blocked and would have to gingerly pick their way through the seals, often being forced to make major detours. The breaking wave and spray are what makes this next image really work.

King Penguin walking between Elephant Seals with breaking wave spray in the background, St Andrews Bay, South Georgia, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 600mm f4 IS 2 lens, Gitzo tripod, 1/400th sec, f13, ISO 400, manual exposure

Another fabulous day came to an abrupt end when the captain of our ship deemed that the swell around the bay was getting to the point of making boarding the ship from the zodiacs dangerous.

Overnight we sailed further south to the southeast corner of the island and into the spectacular Drygalski fjord. Later we made a short zodiac cruise in Larsen harbor. The following image was made as we were cruising out of the fjord.

Imperial Shag silhouetted against snow capped mountains by sea, Drygalski Fjord, South Georgia, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS lens @160mm, handheld, 1/640th sec, f11, ISO 200, manual exposure

From there we rounded Cape Disappointment and proceeded up the south west coast of South Georgia. Few vessels venture to this side of the island, being much more exposed to the prevailing winds, but the scenery is wild and spectacular. Our ship was again trailed by large numbers of birds. Here, two Light Mantled Sooty Albatrosses glide alongside the ship as high winds whip by. Foreboding though the weather conditions may seem, these are perfect conditions for Albatrosses which spend most of their lives on the wing out at sea.

Two Light Mantled Sooty Albatrosses flying over stormy seas with the south west coast of South Georgia in the background, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 IS lens, handheld, 1,1250th sec, f8, manual exposure

We had hoped to make one or two landings on the west side of the island but unfavourable weather conditions made this impossible. Instead, having circumnavigated the island, we continued along the north coast to one of South Georgia’s gems, Salisbury Plain. Rather than going straight to the main bay, we went first to one of the smaller bays, Salisbury Plain Ample Bay. After a short hike up from the beach, we emerged onto a snow covered plateau surrounded by mountains with decent numbers of King Penguins and female Elephant seals.

At some point during mid-morning, the weather closed in and it began to snow, with brief blizzard like conditions. The King Penguin groups huddled together, facing away from the snow flurries.

King Penguin colony during snow storm, Sailsbury Plain Ample Bay, South Georgia, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 IS lens +1.4x TC, handheld, 1/200th sec, f16, ISO 500, manual exposure

Towards the end of the landing, I spent nearly an hour with a group of extremely playful female Cape Fur Seals. Making the following image of two females rising up in the air before coming together was not easy as a great deal of persistence was needed to get just one image where their bodies and head were both symmetrical and parallel to my camera.

Fur Seal females playing, Salisbury Plain, Ample Bay, South Georgia, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 300mm f2.8 lens, 1.4x TC, handheld, 1,1000 sec, f8, ISO 640, manual exposure

Over lunch the ship made a short repositioning to the more well known, Salisbury Plain, landing site. This is is home to 60,000 breeding pairs of King Penguins, huge numbers of juvenile Kings and one of the largest Elephant Seal populations on South Georgia. I spent most of my time on the beach, initially focusing on tight, close-up images of the colouration on the heads and neck of adult King Penguins…

King Penguin head and neck patterns, Sailsbury Plain, South Georgia, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 IS lens + 1.4x TC, handheld, 1/320th sec, f14, ISO 1,250, manual exposure

…before moving on to close-focus, wide-angle images of the Penguins, Elephant Seals and Cape Fur Seals. In these images, an angle finder proved invaluable. This is a small, vertical view finder that attaches to the camera’s own view finder which allows you to get the camera and lens right down on the ground but without killing your neck in the process.

Close-focus, wide-angle image of King Penguin peering out to sea from beach, Salisbury Plain, South Georgia, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm f4 IS lens @65mm, camera and lens resting on beach, Canon angle finder, 1/320th sec, f14, ISO 400, manual exposure

 

King Penguins walking past Elephant Seal, Salisbury Plain, South Georgia, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm f4 IS lens @70mm, Canon angle finder, camera and lens resting on ground, 1/400th sec, f13, ISO 640, manual exposure

Male and female Fur Seal interacting on the beach, Salisbury Plain, South Georgia, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm lens @ 88mm, Canon angle finder, camera resting and lens on ground, manual exposure, 1,320th sec, f13, ISO 800

Overnight we sailed down the coast, repositioning at Cooper Bay which is often an elusive site due to aggressive Fur Seals and high swells at the beach landing site. The main attraction here is a colony of Macaroni Penguins, viewable among the tussock grass but only after a steep hike up from the beach. Normally this involves scrambling up a muddy cliff but when we awoke in the morning, heavy snow had fallen overnight and continued to fall throughout the duration of the landing.

While there were some good opportunities with the Macaronis as shown here with this one calling in the snow, I spent much of my time concentrating on other avian species.

Macaroni Penguin in the snow, calling, Cooper Bay, South Georgia, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 IS lens + 1.4x TC, handheld, 1/500th sec, f10, ISO 640, manual exposure

Snowy Sheathbill standing in the snow, Cooper Bay, South Georgia, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 IS lens + 1.4x TC, 1/ 640th sec, f6.3, ISO 500, manual exposure

Snowy Sheathbill flying in snowstorm, with motion, Cooper Bay, South Georgia, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 lens, 1.4x TC, handheld, 1/200th sec, f6.3, ISO 160, manual exposure

In the above image I deliberately chose a relatively slow shutter speed to ensure some motion would be visible in the wings while also allowing for some streaking of the falling snow flakes. In the following image I switched back to a faster shutter speed as the Albatrosses rarely flap their wings, instead relying on their supreme gliding capabilities.

Light Mantled Sooty Albatross flying through falling snow, Cooper Bay, South Georgia, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 lens + 1.4x TC, handheld, 1/800th sec, f8, ISO 500, manual exposure

Towards the end of the landing, we had a lot of fun with waves of Gentoo Penguins returning from fishing trips out at sea which then had to make their way up steep, snow covered slopes to get back to their colonies. In this next image, the prime attraction is the raised orange foot.

Gentoo Penguin walking through the snow with raised foot, Cooper Bay, South Georgia, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 IS lens + 1.4x TC, handheld, 1/800th sec, f8, ISO 500, manual exposure

Back on the ship, we made the short sail to Gold Harbour. When we landed, we found the beach thick with Elephant Seals which although restricting our movements, provided plenty of photographic opportunities. As rain and sleet fell, steam rose up from the seals, amplifying the already misty conditions. Once again, I was particularly attracted to the difficulties that the Penguins, in this case Gentoos, were having in trying to thread their way through the near impassable blockade created by the densely packed Seals.

Gentoo Penguin standing in Elephant Seal colony, Gold Harbour, South Georgia, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 IS lens +1.4x TC, Gitzo tripod, 1/30th sec, f14, ISO 200, manual exposure

Gentoo Penguin standing in giant colony of Elephant Seals, Gold Harbour, South Georgia, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 IS lens + 1.4x TC, Gitzo tripod, 1/ 30th sec, f16, ISO 200, manual exposure

Later we had opportunities with the Gentoos as they surfed in on the waves to the beach. This is not as easy as it looks as the Penguins remain submerged below the waves until the very last second making tracking them through a long lens extremely difficult.

Gentoo Penguin surfing through the shore break, Gold Harbour, South Georgia, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 600mm f4 IS 2 lens, handheld, resting on knee, 1/1,250th sec, f5.6, ISO 1250, manual exposure

Overnight we sailed all the way back to the top of the island for a planned landing at Godthul. I boarded the zodiac in heavy rain, which had intensified even further by the time I landed. I stood on the beach for about a minute, quickly deducing that the wildlife opportunities appeared limited while I didn’t want to give my already soaked camera gear another drenching. So I hopped back on the zodiac and went straight back to the ship.

In the afternoon, we had time for one last landing on South Georgia, again at Right Whale Bay. Even in the space of two weeks, large portions of the snow and ice which we had earlier encountered at this site had melted, reducing the scenic attractiveness. I again made good use of the angle finder to produce this image of a group of extremely curious King Penguins. So curious were they that I regularly had to back up to include all of them in the frame.

Close-focus, wide-angle image of King Penguins on the snow at Right Whale Bay, South Georgia, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm f4 lens @ 70mm, Canon angle finder, 1/160th sec, f.11, ISO 500, manual exposure

Once back on the ship, we immediately set sail for the Falkland Islands. By southern Ocean standards, conditions during the 3.5 day crossing were relatively benign. On the morning of the fourth day we found ourselves anchored in the sheltered confines of a wide bay at Sealion Island in the southern Falklands.

There is a large variety of wildlife on Sealion Island but probably most prized is the large colony of Rockhopper Penguins. The problem is that to reach them requires a 6km hike either way, much of it uphill on the way there. Without a large assortment of heavy camera equipment to carry, this would be a comfortable stroll but weighed down as I was, the last parts of each “walk” were quite strenuous. As it turned out, I didn’t make any images of Rockhoppers that I really liked and ended up spending more time with the Striated Caracaras, the closest equivalent to the Vultures of the plains of East Africa.

Striated Caracara on sea cliff edge, Sealion Island, Falkland Islands, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 24-105 f4 IS lens @65mm, lens and camera resting on ground, angle finder,1/1,000th sec, f9, ISO 400, manual exposure

Later on I focused on several smaller bird species on an inland lake including this Two Banded Plover.

Two banded Plover on lake, eye level, Sealion Island, Falkland Islands, 1D MK4, Canon 600mm f4 IS lens +1.4x TC, lens resting on muddy lake shore, 1/2,500 sec, f7.1, ISO 400, manual exposure

Before we reboarded the ship we were able to have another go at surfing Gentoo Penguins. This time I tried for something different, slowing the shutter speed right down to capture the motion of the breaking surf with a splash of colour provided by the Gentoo’s colourful bill.

Gentoo Penguin beneath breaking wave, with motion, Sealion Island, Falkland Islands, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS lens + 1.4x TC at 280mm, handheld, 1/ 15th sec, f18, ISO 50, manual exposure

One of the main reasons I signed up for this trip so long ago was the inclusion of a full day landing on remote Steeple Jason Island, located on the extreme north west of the Falkland Islands and part of the Jason Island group. With its twin pinnacles, it is a dramatic island and fully exposed to the elements. While the environment is hostile to man, the high winds that slam into the island make it a perfect destination for Albatrosses and it is no coincidence that it is the largest breeding ground for Black-Browed Albatrosses with 220,000 breeding pairs along its three miles of coastline.

To reach the birds is no easy task with a steep hike up from a rocky landing site before one is greeted by head high tussock grass, often unsurpassable. The density of birds, most of them sitting on mud-sculptured nests, is incredible and is accompanied by a wall of shrill like whistles, grunts and screams overlain with distinctive bill clapping.

Fish-eye view of Black-Browed Albatross overlooking Albatross colony, Steeple Jason Island, Falkland Islands, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 15mm f2.8 fisheye lens, handheld, 1/400th sec, f13, ISO 400, manual exposure

The Black-Browed Albatrosses are beautiful birds with a cover girl appearance - their feathers appear almost air-brushed, their eyes and brows seemingly the work of a make-up artist and their flesh coloured bills tapering to a gorgeous reddish hue at the tip.

Black-Browed Albatross face portrait, Steeple Jason Island, Falkland Islands, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 300mm f2.8, IS lens + 1.4x TC, handheld, 1/400th sec, f14, ISO 640, manual exposure

In the early afternoon it began to pour with rain. This sent the nesting birds into a frenzy of activity as they took advantage of the more pliable mud to shore up and further sculpt their nests. It also provided opportunities for more in-camera multiple exposures.

Black Browed Albatross colony blur, Steeple Jason Island, Falkland Islands, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105mm lens @ 105mm, handheld, 5 in-camera exposures, manual exposure, 1/60 sec, f.13, ISO 400

Dotted around the colony were the ubiquitous Caracaras, on the lookout for exposed Albatross eggs and once these hatch, for unattended chicks. Despite their unappealing scavenging tactics, it was hard not to feel just a little sympathy as they shivered in the falling rain.

Striated Caracara in the rain, Steeple Jason Island, Falkland Islands, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 IS lens + 1.4x TC, 1/125th sec, f 7.1, ISO 250, manual exposure, Canon 550 EX flash (-1), better beamer

While my Gortex clothing did a decent job of keeping me dry, my thin gloves were thoroughly soaked and my hands grew increasingly cold and numb. By mid-afternoon it was time to call it a day and so I headed back to the ship, a hot shower beckoning. Before that though, there were some good opportunities with Giant Petrels around the ship as they took off and landed on the ocean surface. In this image, I again made use of a slowish shutter speed – fast enough to keep the head sharp but slow enough to blur the bird’s pumping feet.

Giant Petrel taking off from ocean surface, Steeple Jason Island, Falkland Islands, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 IS lens, handheld, 1/125th sec, f16, ISO 200, manual exposure

For our last day in the Falklands, we sailed down to New Island in the western Falklands. We started off at the north side of the island where a Black-Browed Albatross colony is perched on a dramatic cliffed landscape a half mile from the landing site. There was plenty of opportunities for images of the Albatrosses interacting with each other although getting decent head angles was much more challanging.

Two adult Black-Browed Albatrosses on the edge of a cliff, overlooking sea, courting, New Island, Falkland Islands, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 24-105m f4 IS lens @82mm, handheld, 1/640th sec, f11, ISO 500, manual exposure

 

Black-Browed Albtrosses courting, New Island, Falkland Islands, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 600mm f4 IS 2 lens, handheld, manual exposure, 1/640th sec, f9, ISO 500

The distant blue ocean made a beautiful backdrop for tight, intimate portraits of the Albatrosses.

Black-Browed Albatross preening, New Island, Falkland Islands, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 600mm f4 IS lens + 1.4x TC, Gitzo tripod, 1/800th sec, f10, ISO160, manual exposure

At midday we made a 20 minute zodiac ride across a wide bay to South Harbour and the nearby Settlement Rookery. We again encountered Black-Browed Albatrosses along the cliffs as well as Rockhopper Penguins but the main attraction was the endless streams of inbound Imperial Shags in flight carrying nesting material in their bills.

Imperial Shag flying, carrying kelp to be used as nesting material, New Island, Falkland Islands, Canon 5D MK3, Canon 300mm f2.8 IS lens, handheld, 1/2,000 sec, f7.1, ISO 500, manual exposure

Back on the ship we immediately set sail for Ushuaia at the very southern end of Argentina, in order to beat a fast approaching storm.  Although the last 24 hours saw us encounter gale force winds and huge seas, the passage felt relatively smooth with the ship facing almost directly into the wind and waves thereby avoiding any severe rolling motion. Not far from the entrance to the shelter of the Beagle Channel, we encountered a fishing vessel surrounded by what seemed like hundreds, possibly even thousands of sea birds. As we sailed by they switched their attention to us and for the next hour or two we had a huge procession of birds flying behind the stern of the ship. I again tried for something a little different photographic wise, shooting at just 1/20th of a second. Somehow, I managed to get the ocean relatively sharp while capturing the motion of the birds. With the scence almost monochromatic, a black & white conversion was an obvious choice.

Cape Petrels, Giant Petrels and Albatrosses flying blur, Scotia Sea, Southern Ocean, Canon 1D MK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 IS lens, handheld, 1/ 20th sec, f.13, manual exposure, ISO 100

A few hours after this image was taken we entered the calmer waters of the Beagle Channel from where we made our way to the port of Ushuaia, disembarking the next morning. All in all it had been a tremendous trip; one that will forever remain lodged in my memory. I made a number of good friends on the trip and the ship’s crew and expedition staff were exemplary. While it may be a few more years before I return to the wonders of the Southern Ocean, this is a destination that will surely pull me back again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2012
06.24

In late April I returned for a week to Midway Atoll for my fifth visit in four years and my sixth in total. Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my unbridled enthusiasm for Midway, one of the world’s truly great wildlife destinations. It is a special, special place and one which I will try to return to on an annual basis assuming visitor services remain intact. This year I travelled with a smaller group than normal and apart from meal times, I was pretty much on my own the whole time. Perfect. Just me, the birds and the beautiful atoll environment.

Midway is home to approximately three quarters of the world’s breeding population of Laysan Albatrosses. Including chicks, they number almost one million. Midway also hosts approximately 60,000 Black-Footed Albatrosses, comprising 35% of the global population of the species and the largest colony of its kind on this planet. On my previous visits, I have largely concentrated on the Laysans simply because they are more numerous but this year I spent much of my time in an area populated by large numbers of Black-Footed Albatrosses with the aim of increasing my image portfolio of this species.

Everything about Albatrosses can be described as superlative and immense: from their longevity (up to 60 years) to their flight endurance (a minimum of three million miles in an average life, equivalent to flying around the earth at the equator three times per year), to their enormous wing spans. The Laysans and Black-Footed Albatrosses are among the smaller of the Albatross species yet still have wing spans of seven to eight feet.

One of the advantages of spending long periods in the company of wild animals is that after a while, you start to get familiar with their behavior patterns. When the Black-Footed Albatrosses land, they will typically spend a few minutes grooming themselves after which they will undertake a big wing stretch, followed by a shake of the wings. To take this first image, I was able to crawl on my belly up to this Albatross after it landed. With the bird only a few feet away from me, I kept the camera viewfinder glued to my eye (in fact I was using an angle-finder attached to the viewfinder so that I could get the lowest possible perspective). As soon as the wing stretch occurred I was ready with the shutter.

Black-Footed Albatross stretching wings, Midway Atoll, USA. Canon 5D MK2, Canon 16-35mm f2.8 lens @16mm, Hoya polariser filter, angle-finder, camera resting on sand, AV (at zero), 1/400th sec, f9, ISO 400

Slightly larger and shyer than the Laysans, they also have a different, more frantic courtship dance – one which involves plenty of rapid-fire head shakes as opposed to the more measured head bobbing favoured by the Laysans. For these next two images, I again used a wide-angle lens at or close to the widest focal length, and an angle finder. The birds appeared completely oblivious to my presence, at one point even stepping on my arm as I lay in the sand and I found that I was constantly having to shove myself backwards in the sand in order to distance myself from the birds so that I could include both in the frame.

Black-Footed Albatross pair engaged in courtship dance on a beach overlooking lagoon, Midway Atoll, USA. Canon 5D MK2, Canon 16-35 f2.8 lens @17mm, Hoya circular polariser filter, angle finder, camera resting on sand, AV (at zero), 1/640th sec, f8, ISO 400

 

Black-Footed Albatross pair engaged in courtship dance on a beach overlooking lagoon at Midway Atoll, USA. Canon 5D MK2, Canon 16-35mm f2.8 lens @17mm, Hoya circular polariser, angle finder, camera resting on sand, AV, 1/640th sec, f8, ISO 500

 This next image of courting Black-Footed Albatrosses was taken at sunset using a 300mm telephoto lens, with the white balance on the camera manually set at 8,000 kelvin to accentuate the sunset colours and with a fair amount of under exposure dialed in to render the birds as silhouettes.

Black-Footed Albatross pair engaged in courtship dance, silhouetted at sunset, Midway Atoll, USA. Canon 1DMK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 lens handheld, AV (-1), 1/640 sec, f8, ISO 400, manual white balance at 8,000k.

Aside from the courtship dancing, I wanted to capture the interaction between both the adult pairs and the adults and their chicks. In order to get down to eye-level with the birds, I shot all of the following images lying on the ground, on my side, handholding the camera and lens, which comprised a 300mm f2.8 lens usually with a 1.4x converter. I found lying on my side and using the shutter release on the vertical side of the camera afforded me the most comfort when lying in this position for long periods of time. The birds were rarely if ever still which made focusing difficult but if I could get parallel to the birds, using all 45 focusing points on the Mark IV, focusing worked quite well. I positioned myself so that the background was a dark distant Ironwood tree forest. The telephoto lens helped to render this to a fairly uniform dark or medium green. I knew I needed a relatively small aperture to increase depth of field in order to keep both birds (or most of them) in focus but with the dark background and often overcast conditions, I was regularly fighting for sufficient shutter speed and needed to regularly crank up the ISO to levels of 1600+. 

Black-Footed Albatross couple nuzzling, Midway Atoll, USA. Canon 1DMK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 lens +1.4x TC, handheld, AV (-1), 1/320 sec, f8, ISO 2,000.

 The adult birds often travel hundreds of miles out to sea on long distance foraging trips and once the chicks are more than 4-6 weeks old, the adults can be away for periods of up to three weeks. Not surprisingly, when they return to their nesting sites on Midway, they are greeted by a ravenous chick. 

Black-Footed Albatross chick begging for food, Midway Atoll, USA. Canon 1DMK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 lens +1.4x TC, handheld, AV (-2/3), 1/640 sec, f8, ISO 2,000

 

Adult Black-Footed Albatross feeding chick regurgitated squid/fish/fish eggs, Midway Atoll, USA. Canon 1DMK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 lens +1.4x TC, handheld, AV (-2/3), 1/500 sec, f8, ISO 2,000

If there’s one single piece of advice I would give to budding photographers it is this: if you have the chance and especially if your background is dark, always, always shoot back lit. 

Adult Black-Footed Albatross having just fed its chick, with remains of regurgitated fish/squid paste visible in chick's bill, Midway Atoll, USA. Canon 1DMK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 lens +1.4x TC, handheld, AV (-1 1/3rd), 1/800 sec, f9. ISO 1,600.

 
Many photographers run for cover when inclement weather strikes, fearing for the safety of their equipment. However, with a decent rain cover, one’s equipment should be fine and with reasonably protective rain gear, you should be able to shoot in relative comfort in even the heaviest of rain. I use the word “should” because  despite the supposed rain proof qualities of my Gortex overalls, lying in a stationary position on the ground ensured that I still received a thorough soaking. Was it worth it? You be the judge.
  

Black-Footed Albatross pair grooming in the rain, Midway Atoll, USA. Canon 1DMK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 lens + 1.4x TC, handheld, AV (-1 2/3rds), 1/640 sec, f9, ISO 2,000, fill flash with Canon 580 EX 2 speedlight at -2.

 

Black-Footed Albatross pair in the rain, Midway Atoll, USA. Canon 1DMK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 lens +1.4x TC, handheld, AV (-1 2/3), 1/640 sec, f9, ISO 2000, Canon 580 EX 2 speedlight fill flash at -2.

 
 

Adult Black-Footed Albatross shaking wet feathers, Midway Atoll, USA. Canon 1D MK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 lens +1.4x TC, handheld, AV (-1 1/3), 1/500 sec, f8, ISO1600, Canon 580 EX2 speedlight at -2.

 The downy feathered chicks take on comical appearances when wet, almost as if they had gone a little heavy on the hair-gel… 

Rain-sodden Balck-Footed Albatross chick, Midway Atoll, USA. Canon 1DMK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 lens +1.4x TC, handheld, AV (-1), 1/320, f9, ISO 2000, Canon 580 EX2 at -2.

 

Rain sodden Laysan Albatross chick, with spiky wet feathers, Midway Atoll, USA. Canon 1D MK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 lens + 1.4x TC, handheld, AV (-1 1/3), 1/400th sec, f9, ISO 1,600, Canon 580 EX2 speedlight at -2.

 I didn’t ignore the Laysans and took these candid images of the adults interacting among themselves and with their chicks.

Courting Laysan Albatross pair. "sword fighting" with bills, Midway Atoll, USA. Canon 1D MK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 lens +1.4x TC, handheld, AV (-1), 1/2000 sec, f9, ISO 1600

 

Laysan Albatross chick begging for food from its parent, Midway Atoll, USA. Canon 1DMK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 lens +1.4x TC, handheld, AV (-1), 1/2000, f9, ISO 1600, Canon 580 EX2 speedlight at -2.

 

Laysan Albatross chick begging for food from its parent, Midway Atoll, USA. Canon 1DMK4, 300mm f2.8 lens, handheld, AV (-2/3), 1/1000 sec, f9, ISO 1600

One of the things you learn as your photography improves is the importance of backgrounds in your images. Quite often, I’ll become attracted to a background before any subject materialises. Often you need a lot of patience in these sorts of situations. Underwater, I’ve sometimes spent nearly a whole dive positioned in front of a colourful Sea Fan waiting for the right fish to swim by in front of it.

Half way down the international sized runway on Midway’s main island, there are several large Sea Grape trees which always seem to have a mass of brown and red leaves and which contrast nicely with the green coloured Ironwood trees on either side as well as the brilliant yellow flowers of the Verbasinia plants nearer to the ground. I had noticed that the Albatrosses would regularly fly past the trees and I thought that if I used a slow shutter speed and panned with the birds, sometimes using a little fill flash, that I might get some interesting images. Blurs are very much a matter of personal taste with my own preference being for the eyes and head of the subject to be relatively sharp but in the case of flying birds, for the wings to be blurred. This means that you do not want to use a very slow shutter speed. Depending on the speed of the flying bird, anything from 1/20th to 1/60th of a second usually works best. 

Laysan Albatross flying past Sea Grape tree, with motion, Midway Atoll, USA. Canon 1D MK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 lens +1.4x TC, handheld, manual exposure, 1/60 sec, f11, ISO 50

 

Laysan Albatross flying past Sea Grape tree and Verbasinia plants, Midway Atoll, USA. Canon 1D MK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 lens +1.4x TC, handheld, manual exposure, 1/60 sec, f13, ISO 50, Canon 580 EX2 at -2 2/3, Better Beamer.

 I had purposely chosen to go as late as possible during the visitor season in the hope that some of the White Tern chicks would have hatched. While I was able to locate several adults sitting on eggs, I was unable to find any chicks apart from two on my one day visit to nearby Eastern Island. Unfortunately neither of these was in a particularly photographic position. I still spent plenty of time with the adults as they really are my favourite bird – so pretty and elegant. If you are in any doubt, look at this beautiful specimen.

Adult White Tern on Ironwood tree branch, Midway Atoll, USA. Canon 1D MK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 lens with 1.4x TC, handheld, AV (-1/3), 1/400sec, f9, ISO 640, Canon 580 EX2 speedlight at -2 1/3.

 I also witnessed a piece of behaviour that I had not seen before. On many occasions I have seen adult White Terns feed their chicks fish. So when I found an adult with a fish in its bill perched on a low tree branch, I felt certain that there must be a chick nearby. I looked and looked but found nothing. The adult remained in the same position for nearly an hour during which time it kept lifting its head and scanning the branches above it. I began to wonder if there had been a chick higher up which had either fallen from its perch – something that is not uncommon given that White Terns do not build nests, leaving the chicks vulnerable during high winds. But with no signs of any chick on the ground, I speculated that perhaps the chick had been taken by an avian predator such as a Great Frigate bird. Suddenly there was a swish of white in the upper branches and I looked up to see another adult Tern alight above the lower one. The latter immediately took flight, landing beside its companion to which it promptly offered the fish to and which was greedily accepted. When I asked the resident biologists about this, I was told that this was part of White Tern courtship behaviour.

Adult White Tern holding fish in its bill, Midway Atoll, USA. Canon 1D MK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 lens +1.4x TC + 37mm of extension tube, handheld, AV (-1/3), 1/320 sec, f6.3, ISO 640, Canon 580 EX2 speedlight at -2 1/3.

Midway is home to two other Tern species - Sooty and Gray-Backed Terns. It is also home to two Noddy species – Brown and Black Noddies. There are 6,000 nesting pairs of Black Noddies on Midway and in certain areas they can be seen high up in the Ironwood trees, sitting on their nests. Sometimes though they can also be seen out in the open; in this case perched on a sea wall overlooking Midway’s lagoon. This particular bird tolerated a remarkably close approach – to the minimum distance of my 300mm lens. I sat with it over a long period of time, during which it largely dozed in the breezed. But every now and then, another bird would fly sufficiently close to elicit a warning call. I had no idea the Noddy’s tongue was quite so long and vividly colored! 

Black Noddy calling, Midway Atoll, USA. Canon 1D MK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 lens +1.4x TC, handheld, manual exposure, 1,000 sec, f8, ISO 400

After last year’s experimentation with remote wireless triggers and running Albatrosses, I came prepared to try again this year. For those of you who missed lat year’s blog, the idea is to take close-focus, fish-eye images of running Albatrosses by burying ziploc bag-encased cameras with fisheye lenses and with manual wireless triggers attached to the cameras, in the sand, along the natural sand “runways” that the Albatrosses run along at high speed in order to take flight. The camera shutters are triggered wirelessly by yours truely as I wait hidden behind the bushes or dunes that line the runway. All camera settings are fixed in advance (once in the bags in the sand, these are hard to change). I used an AV setting, dialling in some compensation depending on the sun/cloud conditions and focusing was switched to manual. Many times I would be set up eg for sunny conditions and a cloud would cover the sun just as the birds ran over or past the camera resulting in underexposure. Then I would set up for cloudy conditions, dialling in +ve exposure, and the sun would come out. I used two camera bodies, a Canon 5D MK 2 and a Canon 1D MK 4 with a 15mm fish-eye lens on the 5D and an 8-15mm zoom lens on the MK4. Given that the images were typically taken at distances of 4ft or less, anything more than 15mm on the 5D and about 11mm on the Mk4 (which has a 1.3x cropped sensor) is not wide enough. Strangely, I found that 8-15mm lens even when set at the equivalent focal length on the MK4 as the 15mm on the 5D, required 2/3rds to a full stop more of light. Despite all these technical issues, the greatest challenge was hoping the birds would run directly at and over the camera (or should I say, lens, since that is all that was poking out of the sand); and secondly, trying to press the manual triggers at the exact moment when the birds were just in front or over the lens – a very challenging proposition given the speed with which they run at.

The vast majority of images had only bits of Albatross in the frame or were poorly exposed, but very occassionaly I got lucky. I think I have improved from last year but am still striving for that “killer” image. Here is a very small sampling from this year.

Laysan Albatross taking flight, close-focus, fish-eye, Midway Atoll, USA. Canon 5D MK2, Canon 15mm fish-eye lens, AV, 1/8000 sec, f9 (-1/3), ISO 1,250

  

Laysan Albatross taking flight, close-focus, wide-angle, Midway Atoll, USA . Canon 5D MK2, Canon 15mm fisheye lens, AV, 1/5,000th sec, f8 (-1/3), ISO 1,250

This next image may just be my all time favorite image that I have taken. It’s exactly the kind of different image I want to take; one where the viewer has to think for a moment in terms of what he or she is actually looking at. In case you’re still wondering, I had positioned the camera and lens so that the lens was pointing directly up at the sky. The image shows an Albatross about to step on the lens. The white sand acts as a giant reflector helping to illuminate the bottom of the foot while the sun from above helps to bring out the translucent qualities of the foot and the veins inside it. I’m presenting a full frame image here, but it could probably be improved by cropping out the sunlit portion in the upper right

Laysan Albatross, close-focus, wide-angle, showing transluscent webbed foot, Midway Atoll, USA. Canon 5D MK2, Canon 15mm fish-eye lens, AV, 1/3,200 sec, f8 (-2/3), ISO 1,250

 

Laysan Albatross just after taking flight, close-focus, fish-eye, Midway Atoll, USA. Canon 1D MK4, Canon 8-15mm @11mm, AV, 1/6,400 sec, f8, ISO 1,250

 

Laysan Albatross running to take flight, close-focus, fish-eye, Midway Atoll, USA. Canon 1D MK4, Canon 8-15mm lens @ 11mm, AV, 1/8,000th sec, f8, ISO 1,250

No trip to Midway is complete without spending time photographing the courting Red-Tailed Tropicbirds. 5,000 pairs of these birds nest on the ground of Midway between February and August, typically at the base of vegetation. The birds have extremely small legs, and feet set so far back on their bodies that they can barely walk. Walking in fact is an exaggeration for their movements on the ground are much closer to crawling. However, once in the air, it is a different story. In the middle of the day especially when the sun is out, large numbers can be seen above Midway’s beaches performing their acrobatic courtship flights. The birds circle, hover and even fly backwards, sometimes in unison with other birds, the sun shining through their brilliant white feathers and their long red tail streamers switching back and forth.

Red-Tailed Tropicbird in flight, Midway Atoll, USA. Canon 1DMK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 lens +1.4x TC, manual exposure, 1/2,000 th sec, f8, ISO 400

 

Red-Tailed Tropic bird hovering during courtship flight, Midway Atoll, USA. Canon 1DMK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 lens, handheld, manual, 1/1,250 sec, f7.1, ISO 400

 

 

Red-Tailed Tropicbird hovering during courtship display, Midway Atoll, USA. Canon 1DMK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 lens + 1.4x TC, handheld, manual exposure, 1/1,250 sec, f8, ISO 400

 

Red-Tailed Tropicbird pair performing courtship flight, Midway Atoll, USA. Canon 1DMK4, Canon 300mm f2.8 lens, handheld, manual exposure, 1/1,250 sec, f7.1, ISO 400

And so another Midway trip came to an all too soon end. Sadly, as I write, there now seems a very real chance that future visitor services maybe suspended due to budget constraints. Fingers crossed that this does not happen, but if it does, I will always treasure my times on this seabird Eden.