Friday, February 25, 2011

Ten Biggest Safari Mistakes and Lessons...Number Four

Learn how to clean the sensor in your camera...

I have always been really careful changing lenses. But  having big hands and being somewhat klutzy, I have always been a little paranoid about the inside of a camera, so probably like most people, I learned how to clean inside the camera with a little dust blower and figured that would be sufficient. I figured that inevitably I would have to take the camera in to be professionally cleaned, but in the meantime, I felt I was pretty good not rocking the boat. Last year I went up north to photograph polar bears. I hadn't realized it before, but I had quite a few spots of dust on the sensor. Now when you are photographing normal things with colour, you likely won't notice (as I didn't) that there are any problems. When it comes to photographing subjects that are white on white however, the imperfections show up.
This picture of a red panda is a good example of what dust spots do. Look in the top
right hand corner of the picture. They aren't difficult to remove in light room or
photoshop. They are just annoying and time consuming. I would rather just have
a clean sensor than to waste time removing what shouldn't be there in the first place.

My advice? Check your sensor before you go on safari. Take a picture of something white, then enlarge that picture and look for dust spots. They will show themselves more easily on a white background. 

Did you find dust? Whether or not you did or didn't, you should go to the local photography store and buy some lens and sensor cleaning supplies. They are expensive, but inexpensive compared to the price of your cameras and safaris! 

Visible Dust has great products designed to carefully clean your sensor. I highly recommend them.

In regards to cleaning the sensor, I simply referred to video's that I found on you tube such as the one linked here. I found them to be informative, easy to follow and I successfully removed my dust issues. 

My one tip before cleaning a sensor is to use a butterfly dust remover first. I prefer that over using a blower as a blower just blows dust from one corner of your sensor to another where as the butterfly creates a charged environment that actually attracts the dust to the gentle bristles of the butterfly. Please note that I am not a professional sensor cleaner. The guy in this video is. I really don't want to be held accountable for your sensor successes or failures. I'm merely pointing you in the right direction. I believe that a sensor cleaning kit should be in your camera bag for every safari. Especially the dusty ones! If you find yourself in India or Africa and you find dust on your sensor, you had better know how to get it off, because there aren't any camera repair shops in the bush.

Well, now we're down to number three. Oh, so many things for me to learn the hard way. Until next time...


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Ten Biggest Safari Mistakes and Lessons...Number Five

One year we were on a boat on the ocean whale watching when a black bear came out of the dense bush. It was early in the morning, there was a slight fog on the water and yet the lighting was perfect. The light illuminated his fur and the images were just perfect. I snapped away for about ten minutes. I was feeling cocky as I was the only one on the ship with a 600mm lens. No one else could really get the images that I was getting and although I would never want any of my fellow photographers to have a bad photography day or experience when the opportunities presented themselves, part of me was feeling quite proud and cocky of the images that I was recording. The bear left and as the captain of the ship moved on, I figured I would scroll though my shots to find that "perfect" image that I knew must be in one of these pictures. After all, the lighting was perfect, the bear was almost posing and the reflection off the water was breathtaking. It was such a great moment that even the photographers who were out of reach of the scene were still in awe of the moment. It was such a perfect moment that the other photographers seemed to want to see my images almost as much as I did.
Black Bear Cub

Now for the lesson. When I went to check my pictures, I discovered that I forgot to put the memory card back in the camera after downloading the pictures on to my computer from the day before. OUCH! Five years later I am still pissed off at myself about that one. Note to self... When setting up the settings in your new DSLR camera, make sure your camera is set to "Shoot without card off". This setting disallows the photographer from taking pictures if no card is in the camera. Had I set up the camera that way, I would only have missed out on one shot, not ten minutes of shots!!! ARG!

The picture to the left by the way is not from that day. It is another cute little cub from another day on a different safari. This one was in Minnesota at the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary. I spent two days with the wild bears in an unfenced area. After giving me a bear safety lesson and staying with me for about 30 minutes, the guides then left me on my own to photograph the bears in their environment. It was a thrilling experience. They are habituated to people, but are still wild and would come and go as they pleased. If you enjoy photographing black bears, I would recommend checking it out.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Ten Biggest Safari Mistakes and Lessons...Number Six

Bring a second camera body...
When we first started going on safaris, of course we could only afford a camera each and when that is all you can afford, then you make due with what you have. In the meantime, I saved and learned lots of things the hard way. From showing up on safari and realizing that the sensor was dirty and I didn't know how to clean it, to missing shots because I had the wrong lens for the situation. Unfortunately wildlife doesn't wait for you as you change lenses.

My dad used to say "hope for the best, fear the worst and..." well the rest is inappropriate, but I did learn that that part of hoping for the best is also preparing for the best. Start by bringing a minimum of two camera bodies.

There is nothing worse than traveling half way around the world to discover that your only camera is malfunctioning for some frustrating reason that you can't figure out or is broken or magically some smudge of some sort has appeared on the sensor that you can't seem to remove...Learn to clean your sensor...A topic for another blog

Baboon Portrait
On a bright note, a second camera body isn't just insurance. It will give you the opportunity to get shots what you wouldn't be ready for otherwise. Keep a long telephoto lens like a 500, 600 or 800mm on one camera body and a wide angle or medium range telephoto on a second camera body like a 100-400mm on the other. This way you can very quickly get different views of the same shot. Another option is to put a 70-200mm on one camera body and a 100-400 on the other. If the action is close, I will set a small large aperture of f-16 or so on one and a fast speed of 1000 or so on the other. 
Baboon Fight

That way if I am interested in taking portrait shots, I am ready with the high aperture camera and if the animal runs, I am ready with the camera with the high speed. Otherwise you will be fiddling around with settings while you are missing the shots.

Another tip is use camera straps that enable you to carry two cameras comfortably at the same time. I use R straps. They are comfortable and enable me to switch cameras quickly.

If you can afford a second camera body and a second lens, get them. Both cameras and lenses can malfunction. Last year when I was photographing polar bears, one of my cameras froze up and the image stabilizer on my 600mm lens was locking up. Thankfully, my camera thawed and my lens started working again. In the meantime, I was very frustrated, but I still had back up equipment.

Next blog. Lesson number 5. Hmmm, what will it be? I have made soo many mistakes and learned soo many lessons. I seem to have an unlimited supply of material in that area.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Ten Biggest Safari Mistakes and Lessons...Number Seven

Back Up! Back Up! Back Up!
I can honestly say that I haven't learned this lesson the hard way, but I have seen it happen to others. In 1998, we went to South Africa and Gaye had all of her pictures on SD cards. The cards are small and difficult to keep track of. When we got home, she discovered that she was missing three of these cards. Those cards represented at least two days of her safari that were completely wiped out. Never mind losing the cards, they can become damaged and sometimes for no apparent reason, the information on these cards can become damaged as well. You may think that this only happens to amateur photographers, well it doesn't. When I was in Northern Manitoba photographing polar bears, one of the professional photographers was doing the same thing. I know it is extra work and after the safari, people are back at the lodge socializing and enjoying a snack before dinner and talking about the events of the day. Yes, who wants to miss out on fun. I don't either, but did you travel around the world for the snacks and some socializing that you can do later or for the photography? Some people leave pictures on their cards from the previous day and buy extra cards. Their card fills up more quickly in the field and inevitably you end up missing some great photo opportunities as you search for the next card instead of backing up your pictures at the end of the day, then deleting the pictures on the card, so you have a fresh start each day with empty cards. Some people are scared to erase their cards. If this is you, don't fret. I am always paranoid about it too. That is why I down load to two different locations, then I double check that all of the pictures backed up properly by noting the picture count on each hard drive. Once I am positive that my work has been backed up twice, then I erase my cards.

A Taste of Daisies. Minnesota, 2009
My advice is to back up all of your pictures after each photo shoot. Go to your room, turn on your computer and back up your pictures on a portable hard drive and then back those pictures again on a second portable hard drive. Remember that hard drives have moving parts. Anything with moving parts can become defective for one reason or another. I label the hard drives, then store them in separate places. When I get home, one hard drive goes in the safe and a second hard drive goes in the safety deposit box. I also have unlimited storage in cyberspace, so I intend on uploading the pictures in cyberspace one day, but unfortunately at this point, they take forever and a day to upload each one, so until I can figure out how to upload them quickly to cyberspace, I will continue doing what I am doing until I figure out how to more efficiently upload to cyberspace...I think I will  learn that trick and save it for another blog.

You travel around the world and work hard for your pictures. The picture of the bear smelling the daisies is a one in a million for me. What are the odds that I am going to get a picture quite as unique as that one again? That being the case, why would I risk losing it? I wouldn't. And truth be known, he wasn't smelling the daisies. He was trying to eat them. I have a couple more shots from that day here.

Another trick is to buy a picture viewer for the field. I use an epson 7000 picture viewer. Between shoots, if you would like to quickly see a larger version of your pictures without firing up your laptop, this little device is a great option for you. You can also download your pictures on to the viewer in case you are getting low on card space. I personally don't use the device for storage very often unless it is a third option for saving. Like I said before, for me, I am not comfortable until my pictures are backed up in a minimum of two separate locations.

So to recap; lets see, this one is complicated... BACK UP! BACK UP! BACK UP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Ten Biggest Safari Mistakes and Lessons; Number Eight...

Do your research. 
Safaris can be very expensive. To me, too expensive to go purely on a guess and a hope. The internet is an amazing tool! The first time we went to Africa, I researched ahead of time for months. My first priority was to photograph leopards. Most of the people I have spoken to who have gone to Africa were lucky if they got even a glimpse of a leopard. 
Mother and son leopards in Mala Mala
A quick internet search and I found out that the most dense population of leopards in Africa are in an area called the Sabi Sands. From there, I narrowed it down to the game reserves that most appealed to what I wanted to get out of my safari experience. Some people like pampering, amazing food and fancy rooms. Personally, as a wildlife photographer, I was just interested in the best wildlife game viewing experience I could find within my price range. A great tool is trip advisor. I searched and looked up questions on this site for months and when I was ready to book my trip, I was confident in my decisions. The trip was amazing. It was such a great trip, that we will be going back to the same spots in South Africa and some of the same game reserves in Masai Mara in Kenya in 2012. South Africa was amazing for leopard viewing, while Little Governors' camp in the Masai Mara was fantastic for viewing lions.
Little baby; big yawn!
 In 2012, we are hoping to experience the best of both worlds.

I have spoken to a lot of people who have been to Africa and most of them seem to be at the mercy of what ever their travel agent chooses. When we were in South Africa, we saw leopards almost every day. In fact one day we saw 5 different leopards in one day! I was so grateful for my homework. Most travel agents wouldn't know about the specifics of what kind of animals you will see on safari, just that you will see lots of wildlife. Safaris can be very expensive, not to mention that you don't go to Africa every day. My lesson today is to do the research. Think about what kind of wildlife you would like to see, research it and then book accordingly. Sure, hire a travel agent if you like, but my advice would be to at least research what your travel agent recommends and make sure that the trip that is being designed for you is the sort of trip that will be the ideal trip for you.

To recap:
  1. Decide which wildlife you are most interested in seeing on safari.
  2. Research which area will provide the best viewing for those animals.
  3. Go to trip advisor then to individual websites and research the safari camps in that area that would best suit your needs and your budget.
  4. Hire a travel agent and share your information or book it yourself.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Ten Biggest Safari Mistakes and Lessons; Number Nine...

Be aware of people when you are trying to photograph wildlife
In National Parks, it is common to see signs that say "Be aware of wildlife". I think the signs should also warn photographers of people who scare wildlife :) 

In Jasper a few years ago, I was on a highway when I noticed an osprey in a tree with a fish in his talons. I was so excited. I pulled over in the ditch, got my camera and lens ready and quietly got in range of the bird as he enjoyed his meal. Tourists noticed me with my camera and pulled up beside me. I was so excited as I don't have any pictures of ospreys. They asked me what I was up to, so I pointed out the creature and whispered "osprey". I figured the whispering would be a dead give away that they could quietly enjoy the sighting from their car. The next thing I knew, four doors slammed and of course the bird flew away instantly. I still don't have a picture of an osprey. Lesson number one: If you have a great wildlife sighting and a tourist asks you what you are looking at, remember this phrase "pretty flowers". If you don't I can almost guarantee that most tourists will scare the animal away. They will get out of their car and attempt to get closer with their point and shoot cameras. Many people will even attempt to get closer (too close) even if that animal is a bear or an elk during the rut, so if they don't see the animal, the safest thing for many tourists is to know that you are looking at pretty flowers or something else boring.

Beware of people on safaris. When we hire a guide on safaris, we save longer and pay extra to have a private guide when ever possible. Several years ago we were on a grizzly bear safari. At $500 per person, we got in a boat with a guide and another family with two small children. We boated out two and a half hours to the estuary where the grizzlies were. We got within 150 meters of them when the mother panicked and insisted that we leave. She figured the grizzlies were going to attack the boat. I suppose it would have been a terrible photo shoot anyway because the children were bored and fidgety, so any pictures that day would have been very challenging anyway. The guide obliged, my ten pictures were terrible and for a thousand dollars, we got to spend about ten minutes 150 meters away from grizzlies on shore. What a waste of a day and money!

The next year we went out to the coast again. We tried again, but this time photographed them from the tree stands. Thankfully, our second experience was much more successful. No children, only a group of adults who actually wanted to see the grizzlies. We went with Tide Rip Grizzly Tours. Our grizzly pictures this time were much more successful. We watched 17 grizzlies as they fished, played, ate and had the occasional play fight. It was a lot of fun.

I am delighted that I learned this lesson before we went to Africa. It is one thing to have a bad photo day or two when you are a two hour flight from home. It is another thing to learn this lesson after you have saved up for a year to fly half way around the world, only to sit in a land rover with fidgety tourists who may want to go back to the camp early so they can have drinks and a massage. 

Long story short: Most people enjoy a quick view of wildlife, but aren't necessarily interested in trying to get a great image. The average tourist and the average photographer are interested in getting very different things out of the safari experience. Be aware of people while on safari and be very aware of the people who you are on safari with!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Ten Biggest Safari Mistakes and Lessons...

I have been going on wildlife safaris for the past 12 years two or three times per year. Some safaris I have been alone, while on other safaris there have been a group of us up to as many as 15 photographers. Over that time I learned lessons on every one of those safaris. Sometimes I learned from the other photographers, but too often I learned some hard lessons myself that still plague me today. The good news is I try not to make the same mistakes too often. In theory I wouldn't learn the same mistake twice, but unfortunately I can't give myself that much credit.

I don't want to bore you with all ten mistakes and lessons on the same blog, so I will start with my mistake that I would rank at number ten and we'll count back. Hopefully this information will be helpful to those who are just starting out in wildlife photography and looking for some direction and answers...

Mistake Number Ten:
Thankfully I am not alone on this one. I have seen many photographers make this mistake. "Don't cheap out on equipment." Wildlife safaris are often quite expensive. If you can afford to pay two to thirty or forty grand for a safari, you can afford appropriate equipment.

Years ago, I was on a kayak off Vancouver Island. My dream at the time was to photograph an eagle catching a fish. I craved to capture the image of a wide wing span, the splash on the water, the animal interaction, the attack, the talons and the action. All of these aspects of this kind of picture intrigued me then and still catch my attention today. It sounded like a long shot, but on the off chance I had the opportunity to capture this sort of image, I would go home a happy camper. Well, we kayaked around for a couple hours, then came to a quiet eddy in the ocean. We stopped to watch a fidgety bald eagle in a tree. I got out my camera and he swooped down right in front of us. He was facing us as his talons hit the water. His wings were spread, he made a great splash and missed the fish, but it was still a spectacular "in the right place at the right time" moment. To this day, I still remember that exact moment. Unfortunately for me, I was using a cheap lens and my memory of that event is still much clearer than the picture was. 

My lesson? I skimped on the price of the lens and ended up with a fuzzy image. Now I can't guarantee that my picture would have been crystal clear if I was using one of the lenses that I use today. Many of my pictures today aren't crystal clear either. The difference is that there was no way that picture could have  turned out as I would have liked. I just didn't have the right tool for the job. The lens wasn't fast enough, images it produced weren't clear enough and it had no image stabilization capabilities and I was in a kayak!

What lens should you be using for wildlife photography? People ask me that a lot. Go for a lens with image stabilization and reach.People often skimp on camera equipment, suggesting that it isn't in the budget and yet will spend thousands on the safari. These people come home with fuzzy images of tiny little specs on pictures that represent bears, whales and other exciting wildlife. I am not trying to be critical. I have spent thousands on wildlife safaris years ago only to come home with yucky pictures. I also have friends who went to Africa a few years ago and spent an absolute fortune on a three week safari. They had a good camera, but neglected to buy or rent a good lens. Although they rave about their vacation, admittedly, their one regret is that they should have spent another 1700.00 for a great lens! This coming from people who don't claim to be photographers and don't want to be photographers, but experienced such amazing wildlife in Africa, that today they still regret not bringing a good telephoto lens.

My suggestion? Research the lens first. I am a canon guy myself. I love the IS L series white lenses and won't use anything else, but that is just me. Research the glass, then choose the camera that fits the glass. The lens is the most important investment of a photographer's arsenal. The camera is second. Now you may tell me that you can't afford it, but I would suggest that if wildlife safaris are what you enjoy and you enjoy wildlife photography, then I would suggest that you can't afford not to buy the appropriate equipment. I started with an EF 100-400mm IS f4.5-5.6 lens. Again, I am not suggesting that is what you should get, just that is what I bought several years ago. I love that lens and still use it regularly on safaris today. If you already have a good DSLR, and can't afford to buy the glass, then consider renting a great lens for a couple weeks while on safari.

I had much less money then than I do now, so I scrimped and saved and bought my lens one year and a great camera the next. In the meantime, I went on safaris that were inexpensive so I could afford the camera equipment. If you feel that you can't afford a good lens, there are lots of places I can recommend that people go in Alberta where you can camp at night and find bears, deer, deer fawns, coyotes, elk and a host of other exciting wildlife during the day. That way you can still save up for the good glass...but that blog will have to wait for another day...

Next blog from Lessons that I have learned. Mistakes and Lesson Number Nine: Be aware of people when you are trying to photograph wildlife!