Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Right Tools for a Great Safari

I have been on safaris around the world. After each safari I inevitably examine what I did and how I could have done it better. A big part of this equation is the equipment that you bring. If you don't do your homework and the wildlife viewing isn't very good, then your images are going to be limited. At the same token, if you bring the wrong equipment for the light, or lenses without enough reach in an area where the guides aren't allowed to drive off road, your images will be equally limited.

On our safari to South Africa, I brought all the equipment that I could get my hands on. I would have brought the kitchen sink too if I thought it would have helped in some way. On that trip, I was traveling with Gaye and my step daughter, so I had a litte more room for carry on as I assigned a camera bag to each of them each flight as a carry on. This satisfied the airlines as I wasn't traveling with three camera bags. Instead, three people were flying with one bag each. The issue of "carry on" is a big part of how I decide what to bring or not to bring. The last thing I need is to put 35 grand in camera equipment in with the luggage and get to my destination in Africa only to disover that my equipment is in Spain, or it has arrived but is broken to bits or stolen. I am very protective of my equipment!

I came back home after our first African first trip realizing that I needed to pack lighter. For example, I realize I need extra hard drives, so this past trip, I bought small external hard drives. You can now buy a terabyte hard drive that is the size of a deck of cards. I brought two. One to store the pictures and one for back up. On our past trip to Kenya and Tanzania I scaled back considerably. I normally have two full camera bags full of equipment plus a 600mm lens. On this trip, I managed to fit all of the camera equipment into one think tank camera bag. I would highly recommend these bags. Think Tank literally thinks of everyhing a photographer needs in a camera bag. They are sturdy, practical and they don't look like they contain camera equipment. They just look like a regular carry on bag.

Here is a list of what I brought on safari to Kenya and Tanzania:
Canon EOS Mark III 1Ds
Canon EOS 5D Mark II
Canon EOS 7D
Canon Powershot- a point and shoot camera for videos and snapshots that I kept in my pocket.
I bought the 7D for this trip and really enjoyed it. I bought it because it shoots 8 frames per second and I figured it would help with the action shots. It was fantastic for catching the action. It shoots about three more frames in raw in a burst than my Mark III shoots (approximately, I can't remember exactly), I think it focuses quicker and crop sensor really helped in Tanzania where they don't drive off road and the animals in the Ngorongoro crater are 100 meters least! They aren't always that far away, but more often than not, they certainly seemed to be. Needless to say, I got much better photo opportunities in the Masai Mara.

ISO 800 7D 600mm IS- I didn't think the
7D performed very well in low light

Where I thought the 7D was quite weak was shooting with higher ISO's. Don't quote me, I am not a camera analyst or anything, but it seems to me that the Mark III 1Ds performs much better in the lower light scenarios.

In regards to lenses, I brought a 24-70 wide angle lens for my 5D Mark II, a 70-200 IS, 2.8 (which I never used once), a 100-400mm for my 5D Mark II and I put the 600mm, f4 on my Mark III 1Ds. The idea being that Africa can be very very dusty in September and you do not want to change lenses. The last thing you need is dust and gunk on your sensor. The other reason is because if you see a pretty sunrise, but have to change lenses to get the shot, you may not bother as it might just be too much effort. For those reasons, my system worked extremely well. I think people probably thought I was nuts, but I didn't care. I was there to get the best images that I could get, not to fit in. On a side note, if you do decide to try this system out, make sure that you ask to book a private guide and landrover. If you don't, you won't have room for your equipment. It will get bumped around and will constantly be in everyone's way.

I thought my system worked really well until I got back home and started thinking about it. In 2012, I will be going back to South Africa and the Masai Mara. In learning from my past experiences, I have decided that I can improve upon my current system in a few ways:
  1. I will still use my 7D on my 600mm lens. That was my bread and butter in Kenya and Tanzania and worked like a charm.
  2. I will put my 70-200 IS. 2.8 on my 5D Mark II. Interestingly enough in Africa, the use of a wide angle lens seems pointless to me. I took better pictures of the sunrises and sunsets in the Masai Mara and Tarangire National Park with my 100-400mm lens than I did with my wide angle lens.

    Sunrise taken with canon
    100-400 IS
  1. I will buy a 400mm IS, 2.8 for my Mark III 1Ds. Most of the pictures I took in both South Africa and Kenya and Tanzania with the 100-400mm lens, the lens is almost always extended out to 400mm anyway. My biggest issues were around ligthing. Either early in the morning or late afternoon, having to use high ISO's. When considering why my shots weren't better, I would say part of it was high ISO's, due to a lens that is f5.6 rather than f2.8. I think the 400 2.8 would take care of a lot of those issues.
  2. I picked up two 32 gig memory cards for my cameras which were aweome! Even at that, one day the light was good, the lions were playing and I took 3900 pictures and almost ran out of space. Once the morning safari was over I had to rush to try to download and back up the pictures so I could format the cards. I didn't really have enough time to finish and so was flustered not wanting to erase anything. Next time, I go to Africa will be two years from now. Hopefully the 64 gig cards will come down in price and I will pick up a couple of them. Having two 32 gig cards and two 16 gig cards was nice and only put me in a pinch a couple times, but I need more space.
  3. Solar charger. I was just introduced to solar chargers that are big enough to charge a laptop. I think that is ingenious! I don't know how big or heavy they are off hand, but it is definitely something that I am going to look into. When we were in Tanzania, the only chargers were in the vehicle. The vehicle had a difficult time charging my laptop. Without a charged laptop, I couldn't download my pictures. If I couldn't download the pictures, I couldn't back up my shots, then format the cards and start again. The ability to be able to always have a charged laptop is essential! The idea with these chargers is you take them out on safari with you  and let them charge all day, then they should be able to charge your laptop for a few hours and that is all you need. The other problem I have run into in the past is bringing the wrong adaptors in foriegn countries. Sometimes it is only a minor inconvenience until you get things sorted out, but bringing a solar charger would just be a nice back up just in case. For that matter, if you are really roughing it and absolutely have no access to any sort of power source, then these chargers might be essential to your sanity while on safari. When you think of it, charging is pretty essential. Three camera bodies, a laptop, picture viewer and an ipod or two, they all need charging and your trip is screwed if for some reason you can't keep these things charged.
That is all I can think of right now that I would and will do differently on the next trip. I am always looking for better photographic opportunities; thus better prints. Boring for most, but for me it is the ultimate pursuit.

Check out our main wildlife photography website and our Kenya/Tanzania blog.

Friday, September 24, 2010

I Miss Africa!!!

Well, we have been back from Africa for a week now and I am trying to figure out how soon and when we can get back again. Our blog from our Kenya/Tanzania trip is now done. I set it up so I would learn from my mistakes and repeat my successes from this trip. I tried to be as specific as possible listing what camera equipment I brought, which gear I used and more importantly, which gear I could have gone without.

Elephant taking a dust bath in
Tarangire National Park

I listed how we needed to dress to be comfortable and reviewed the hotels and tour companies that took care of us. I logged three days at Giraffe Manor, two days at Tarangire National Park, two days at Ngorongoro Crater, five days at Little Governors' Camp, along with a few travel days.

Now, after having been to Africa twice and having some really great experiences and some not so great experiences, we are planning on combining the great experiences from 2008 in South Africa with our best experiences in 2010 in Kenya and Tanzania to hopefully create our best trip to date...2012 South Africa and Kenya.

Check out our main wildlife photography website and our Kenya/Tanzania blog.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Afrca, here we come

Africa is every wildlife photographer's heaven on earth. On a wildlife safari in North America, you may see animals, or may not. On our polar bear safari for instance, I had 6 photography days and we only saw bears on two of those days. In Africa, the wildlife is so dense in many areas that you can't seem to go five minutes without at least seeing an unguate of some sort. It gets to the point where you take the scenery for granted that you just drive by them without giving them a second thought.

In twenty days my wife and I will be going back to Africa and I am pumped! Two years ago, our experiences in South Africa were so amazing, that I don't think we will ever forget our first time on that amazing continent. This trip we are going to Tanzania to see the Ngorongoro Crater and the Masai Mara in Kenya. We are hoping to catch some of the Great Migration. With any luck we will catch the end of the great migration or as it is also referred to as the greatest show on earth. This is when 1.5 million wildebeast and several hundred thousand zebra and impala travel across Tanzania and Kenya looking for greener pastures. This is not a once per year event, but a constant event as they are migrating to Kenya, then back to Tanzania to give birth and start again. Along with the migration, we will be focusing on photographing cheetahs, leopards, and lions. These animals love when the migration comes to their area as it provides an unlimited food supply for them.

I will post our results when we get back. I am really looking forward to the trip as this photography adventure as it will be much different than South Africa. South Africa is all about photographing animals in the bush. You see a couple animals here and a couple animals there. South Africa's Sabi Sands area is one of the best places to view and photogaph leopards. In Kenya and Tanzania however, they have wide open savanah and herds of animals. I anticipate this trip to be much different than our South African adventure.

Until my next post...

Enjoy your photography,


Sunday, July 11, 2010

To Print or Not to Print...

For several years, I couldn't decide whether or not to invest in a large format printer. Printing costs for a professional photographer can be extremely high. If you like printing your images on canvas, printing costs are ridiculous. This makes your costs really high which in turn mean that the price you pass along to your client is very high as well.

The good news is if you print at least weekly, in my experience purchasing a large format printer is definitely worth it. The day I set up my printer, I was instantly printing better paper prnts than the best professional printer in town. Your printer is calibrated to your monitor, so what you see is what you get. In the case of a professional printing company, they get a file and they more or less guess at what the colours should be. This may make the prints fairly close, but often not nearly as close as you would like. Now that I am printing my own work, I control the papers used, the colours and I don't have to drive across the city to approve a print, then again to pick it up.

The bad news is that there is definitely a learning curve involved when dealing with stretching canvases, but once you find the canvas that you like, learn how to stretch canvases so that your corners are perfect and find the canvas treatment that works for you, your costs drop by about 80%. At the end of the day, that is what makes me happy! The best part about stretching canvases, is that I can print up 20 canvases for an exhibit. When the exhibit is over, I can take the canvases apart that don't sell and re-use the stretcher bars on my next exhibit.

If you haven't printed on canvas before, sharpen your image just a little bit more than you would otherwise. Canvas prints show your image a little bit softer than photo paper. That is why the canvas look is great for wildlife, because you aren't usually looking at many sharp edges when you are looking at fur. That being said, I have had many city sky line canvases done as well and they have been great sellers, so I suppose it comes down to a matter of personal taste. Some of my favourite animals to print on canvas are tigers, leopards, lions, cheetahs, foxes, wolves, bears and especially polar bears.

Below is a typical picture that would look great on canvas. Deer are a soft subject and you just want to cuddle a deer fawn. They are just too cute!

So, to print or not to print? I suppose it depends how much printing you intend on doing, how much of a perfectionist you are and how much you are interested in learning a new trade. Personally, I have really enjoyed it. I bought a 44" printer, I try to print weekly and I have really enjoyed creating prints from shutter to print. Now I am thinking about learning the framing trade. I think there will be a big learning curve there and framers charge an arm and a leg! Hmmm, to frame or not to frame... Anyone have any suggestions?

Check out our main wildlife photography website and our Kenya/Tanzania blog

Monday, March 1, 2010

Eleven Tips on Photographing Polar Bears

I have been going up to photograph the polar bear moms and cubs in Wapusk National Park for five years. In that time I have learned a thing or two about how to photograph these amazing families and how to keep warm while doing so.

Photographing polar bears can be very rewarding, but also very challenging. Polar bears live in a very cold environment so photographing in these conditions can create a host of issues. In this blog, I will list some tips on photographing polar bears up in Wapusk National Park.
  1. Bring the longest lens that you can afford or rent and a good quality DSLR. If you are going up to photograph the polar bear moms and cubs you will need a long lens and a camera that can withstand cold up to -50. On my first year I used a 600mm with a 1.4 teleconverter and a full frame camera body. Since then I have tried many different set ups over the years from 600 mm and a 1.4 teleconverter to an 800 mm with and without the teleconverter and with and without a crop sensor, to having an 800 and a 600 as a back up or an 800 and a 100-400 with a 1.4 teleconverter as a back up. Each of my colleagues have their own camera/lens set ups that they prefer. My preference over the past four years is the 800mm lens and crop sensor body. I like the 800mm to get as much reach as I can on the bears. The crop sensor helps that and the crop sensor batteries last much longer in the cold than the batteries in the professional camera bodies. I bring my canon 1Dx pro body as a back up, but mostly use it for the aurora borealis images at night.
  2. Bring extra batteries. Camera batteries do not like the cold. A great trick is to buy hand warmers, put them in your pocket with your extra batteries. Make sure to switch your batteries out if they get down to the half way mark. Sometimes the battery meter isn't very accurate in the cold. When your battery levels are too low, your camera focusing and shutter will slow down. At times the battery meter will look okay, then your battery may die on you right in the heat of the action. When you switch out your batteries and warm the cold one up, the warmth will often bring back the charge of the battery.
  3. Dress warmly! If you are only going up once, you can rent a goose down parka and snow pants. They will pay for themselves if you buy them and go up twice. Over the years I have seen many different styles of parka set ups. They will all either be a one piece or a bib and snow pants. Many companies offer clothing that is warm enough, but they all have one thing in common. The parkas and snow pants must be made of down. Underneath my parka I layer my clothing with a long johns top, then t-shirt, then light sweat shirt, then heavy sweat shirt, then down vest, then windbreaker jacket, then lastly my parka. On the bottoms, I wear long johns, then insulated light snow pants, then my down snow pants. If it isn't -50 with a mean wind, I can take off the down vest and or windbreaker. If it is -50 with a wind, I need all of that protection or the wind will cut through my parka really easily. Another possibility is that I am just a wimp. Perhaps a tough guy may only need the parka and a sweater, but I'm not that guy. Warm wool socks are a given. Warm boots are also an absolute must! For around $50 you can buy boots rated to -80 or so. You don't have to break the bank when buying warm boots, but you absolutely must keep your feet warm or you won't be able to stay outside for more than a few minutes. Regular winter boots won't cut it.
  4. Any kind of camera cozy is better than nothing. When your camera is just set up on a tripod and there's no action, even a touque or wool hat over the camera is better than just leaving the camera exposed. The cozy doesn't necessarily provide warmth, but it does protect the camera from windchill. I invented a cozy that works well. You can put a hand warmer in the cozy, then switch out the hand warmer every couple of hours. (Hand warmers work best in a warm spot i.e. in a boot or a glove or inside a jacket. If the hand warmer dies out in the cold, put it in your glove and it will re-charge) This helps your battery to last much longer especially if you have you are using a pro-body camera. You can see an example of my arctic camera cozy here. This was my first arctic camera cozy. It did work well, but after using it for a season, there were some changes that had to be done so it is easier to use while wearing big mitts. 8 of my colleagues bought a cozy from me. The one thing for sure that all the photographers agreed on is their batteries lasted about 5 times longer while using the pro-camera bodies while using the cozy. The other things it did really well is it gave us an extra layer to protect our hands from the cold and shielded the LCD screen so it didn't get all frosted up.
  5. Noon time warmers- Around lunch time, it is wise to put your foot warmers in your boots. Even though it is really cold, your drive to the bears can be warm, so my feet do perspire a little bit. This perspiration then freezes if I stand outside for several hours. Now I bring an extra pair of socks and switch them halfway through the day and add a foot warmer to the bottom of my sock. I am now keeping hand and foot warmers in my car in the winter in case of emergencies. The good warmers last for 24 hours and work very well! (The only warmers I will buy are heat factory or hot hands. The other popular brand- naming no names are terrible!) 
  6. At night remember to take the liners out of your boots at the end of each day and put them, along with your socks on a register or near a wood stove or some place warm. Your boot liners and socks may not appear or feel wet, but they will likely be damp on the inside. They will absorb any moisture and hold it. When you go to put your boots on the next morning, your feet will get cold very quickly if your liners didn't have a chance to completely dry out. I even bought an insole that has holes in it. These insoles help to give an extra layer of insulation of air under your feet and the moisture drops to the bottom so your feet aren't sitting directly on top of the dampness. It seems to help.
  7. Take two camera bodies!! Always take two camera bodies in case something happens to one of them. You never know what may happen and for sure, you never know how your camera is going to react when it experiences -40's and colder. The best part about taking two bodies is you don't have to change lenses as often which gives you a much better opportunity to "get the shot".
  8. Before you bring your camera and lens into room temperature from the extreme cold, make sure to wrap your camera and lens in a plastic bag. When the camera warms up, the water builds up on the outside of the bag, rather than on your camera sensor and inside your lenses. The last thing you need is water droplets and or water stains on your sensor.
  9. Bring a thin pair of gloves that you can keep in your pockets to change the camera settings, set up and take down. It is difficult to have the dexterity to do the things that you need to do at that temperature with thick mitts. We like to keep our mitts on strings like you do with a child. That way you can take your hand out of your mitts, put your thin gloves on and drop your mitts without losing them. When your hands get cold you can quickly put them back in your cozy mitts. ( Keep a hand warmer in each mitt and your hands will always be toasty).
  10. When photographing bears in Wapusk National Park in Canada. Wildlife is unpredictable, so make sure you spend a little more time out on safari than you think you need. On my first trip I was originally offered 4 days, then later was able to upgrade it to 6 photo days. On that trip I was able to see bears on two of the six days. My second trip up I was offered 8 days. (Here's my blog from 2011 and pictures from 2010 and 2011). Now I won't go up for less than ten photo days. If you can afford to go up longer then do it. The longer you go for the better chance you have of having a great experience. This isn't Africa where you are guaranteed to see wildlife everywhere five minutes after you get off the plane. Some days you won't see a single animal. On the days that you do though, it's magical. In 2012 we had a difficult year, then in 2013 we saw a bear family on 9 out of our ten days. In 2014 it was tough again. We only saw one bear cub, but we saw her at her den, she was clean, the background was great and she was expressive, so although the sightings were slim, it was still a great trip.
  11. Book in advance if possible. Polar bear photography trips are quite expensive. There aren't many places in the world that you can go to photograph these amazing animals and a lot of people would love the opportunity to photograph them. If you are interested in going, save your sheckles and book early.
That is all the tips that I can currently think of to ensure an enjoyable polar bear photographic adventure. Good luck with your shoot if you go. It is certainly a very memorable experience. For anyone interested in seeing our other galleries, you can visit us at Harvey Wildife Photography

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Overcast to Brilliant Prints!

I'm sure everyone has seen those beautiful pictures that are taken in the early morning light or the soft evening light just before dusk. And yes, more often than not if you can get a subject to pose at either of those two times of the day, that soft lighting can make an average picture breathtaking! Unfortunately when shooting animals in the wild, they don't necessarily pose when the light is right. A lot of people get quite discouraged because of poor lighting, but poor lighting is no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are advantages to an overcast day.
  1. You don't have to worry about any shadows. Shadows can be very distracting in a picture. Sometimes you can have a great shot, but the shadows can get in the way even if you have perfect light.
  2. The picture won't be harsh due to bright or harsh lighting.
  3. You can use fill in flash easier to bring out the highlights in eyes, hair and or fur.
  4. If you feel your picture is too dull due to the lighting, you can raise the saturaton, or temperature of the picture or both in post production software.
  5. If the weather conditions show overcast all day, you can shoot for hours on end all day long without worrying about bright light and shadows.
This picture of a siberian tiger is a really big seller for me. It was a pretty dark February day at about 3p.m. I was disappointed as I thought the photo shoot would be a flop due to the lighting conditions, but I was determined to make the best of it. This picture was taken in the mountains in a field. The sun was going down over the mountain on an already dark overcast day. On the bright side, there are no shadows and the sun isn't interefering with the picture with harsh tones that are difficult to fix in post production software. It turned out really nicely.  To compare, I photographed a cougar in the early morning light the next day. I was lucky as the light was very nice and so I had both extremes in 12 hours. 

The moral of the story is, don't stay home just because it's cloudy out. Some of my best pictures have been taken on an overcast day, where the light is actually quite bright (but not harsh). 

Check out our main wildlife photography website and our Kenya/Tanzania blog