About this Blog

Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Keep it Moving - Thanda Photography Workshop

I’ve just finished another Thanda photographic workshop with a great bunch of photographers from the African Impact volunteer programme. For once the weather was perfect (readers of this blog will know that I seem to have a weather gremlin that tests my thesis of ‘bad weather makes for good images’). This month was instead the month of close encounters. A couple of fantastic up-close encounters left the photographers of this month's Thanda Photographic workshop with some incredible images. A close encounter with two of Thanda's elephants had a number of us grinning from ear-to-ear, albeit with hearts still drumming in our ears (when an elephant is so close that the lens hits it's minimum focusing distance you know you are close). 

Still, despite close encounters it can get difficult to produce images that are different to the 'same old' that you see produced every single day. Somehow as a photographer you still have to do  more than simply get closer. One of the ways in which to separate images from the crowd of ordinary wildlife imagery is to add a sense of movement. Photography is medium of time, although we tend to forget about this element of the image making process. In fact, photography is all about light and time. The shutter speed is usually so fast that the element of time isn’t that obvious, despite the fact that the fast shutter freezes a moment in time. With the ever-increasing low light abilities of digital cameras photographers have been able to use fast shutter speeds even when the light levels are very low. This means that the evocative use of long (ish) exposures seems to be relegated to professional photographers.

This doesn't have to be the case. Creating images with movement doesn't have to be that difficult. Again, modern technology such as in lens vibration reduction (or image stabilization for Canon cameras) makes it even easier to pan with a moving subject so that smooth ‘flow lines’ are visible while keeping the subject close to tack sharp (there is always going to be some loss of critical sharpness, but because of the movement this doesn't matter as much anymore). Panning basically means to move the camera so that the subject stays in the same point of the frame as it moves. The difficult part is to not pan faster or slower than the moving subject. An exposure that doesn't freeze the movement is going to show blur in the areas that were static in the frame (bushes, ground, background) and which were moving in a different direction to the actual pan (legs, arms etc.). Elements of the frame or subject that are moving at the same pace as the pan come out relatively sharp (the head and body of the subject). The longer the exposure the more blur there is and the less chance that there is a sharp area in the frame. The shorter the exposure the less sense of movement there is, but the more chance that the subject is sharp.

In the image of the elephant eye I concentrated on keeping the eye as steady as possible while moving the camera in time with the elephant's head swaying ponderously from side to side. The result is an image that is 'sharp, but not', creating a sense of drama. Although I don't think the giraffe shot is necessarily successful it does demonstrate that the sense of movement can change the overall feeling of an image. The image of the Marabou Stork flying was taken earlier this year and again gives that sense of speed and movement that would be lacking in an image without the blur. Additionally, the bird shot would be criticized as being too far from the action without the blur. Personally, i feel it works at this size (bird in relation to space) because of the blur. Working with slower shutter speeds is more difficult than with fast shutter speeds, but the effort pays off in the long run with genuinely unique imagery. If you simply through glossy coffee-table books by the big gun wildlife photographers one will notice numerous blurred movement images that technically would be slated by camera club enthusiasts and competition judges, but which are spoken about by the authors with pride. Give it a try, slow things down a touch. 

Thanks to a wonderful group of photographers this month. I loved your company and am looking forward to meeting some more of you in the Berg in a few week's time. Keep checking as well to see if I can post the call of the Greater Geared Photographer (Maioribus Apparatus pictor)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


When you travel to South Africa from abroad, you don't usually expect to see snow. You definitely don't expect to be trapped by said fluffy white stuff as it precludes all travel...or at least safe travel. That was the situation myself and the workshop attendees found ourselves in at the end of this month's photography workshop in the Drakensberg. Monday morning came with a couple of inches of snow that just kept on piling up. Roads were closed coming into Phudhaditjaba from just about every direction (that didn't stop some 4x4 nuts though what with the opportunity to see some serious snow...South Africans are mad ;-) ).

I can only commend the people at Witsieshoek Resort for their incredible service during our pleasurable incarceration there. Deon and Isabel were phenomenal hosts, allowing us run of the lodge, excellent food and amazing help with electricity and warmth (they had problems of their own with power outages, diminishing supplies of diesel for the generator and stranded staff members). But throughout they kept a steady supply of hot chocolate and coffee coming through to a group of cold photographers as they capitalized on the downtime to process images and make the odd foray to shoot some snow, build an igloo or toboggan down the driveway of the lodge. I can think of few better places to be snowbound in!

Then this morning the clouds lifted and the Amphitheatre was bathed in magical golden light that sparkled off the virgin snow-field that lay around us. Being South Africa things thaw pretty quickly and the fear of black ice on the road was quickly dispelled as winter wonderland rapidly turned to slush central. Before this though there was plenty of opportunity to capture that golden three-dimensional light as it washed over the Amphitheatre and the Mahai Valley below.

If a photographer happens to come from the northern hemisphere photographing snow can oft
en be a commonplace occurance. For those who it isn't it can be a little frustrating dealing with exposure and the cold. Nowadays modern exposure meters are so good that the old over-exposure of snow requirements isn't quite as important as it used to be. Nikon's 3-D colour meter does an amazing job of handling snow. The occasional 2/3rd over-exposure only ever needed to be dialed in occasionally for effective 'expose the the right' metering (admittedly shooting directly into the sun as it filtered throughlow-lying cloud was a little tricker, but nothing that manual and a peek at the histogram couldn't solve). More confusing to photographers who don't shoot in the snowy conditions is condensation on the lens. As the cold moist air comes into contact with the front element of the lens or a filter - like a graduated ND - condensation forms causing the image to lose contrast and clarity. A simple solution, albeit fiddly, is to blow cold dry air onto the glass with the aid of a blower like the Giottos 'Rocket'. This dries the moisture at the same temperature as the ambient temperature. Trying to blow using your mouth simply puts warm moist air into contact with cold glass. Viola, instant fog filter. So, make sure you have a decent blower when heading out to shoot. It's useful for more than just blowing dust from the sensor.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Mountain...What Mountain. It Could be Belgium

I always seem to wax lyrical about the weather. It's not that I mean to, but bad weather seems to follow me around. It's as if some Norse weather God is laughing jovially to himself as he tests my motto that bad weather makes for good images (it does, it really does - if your camera can survive the cold and rain and your feet don't get frostbite that is). So, there we were. Looking out over the magnificent vista that is the Witches viewpoint...and it could have been Belgium. A whole lotta white met us slap bang in the face...with a very cold wet slap.

Still, the whole weekend didn't have awful weather thankfully. The Drakensberg is like that. Magnificent days are followed by days where a giant sponge is squeezed out over the mountains, drenching everything. Herein lies the moral of the story. Don't trust mountains! They are temperamental beasts, that can turn on you in minutes notice. A quick survey of the deaths in the Drakensberg and one realises that the majority of fatalities have occurred to people who have taken the mountain for granted. A few months ago while walking down from the Chain Ladder and the Amphitheatre we came across two men and a young girl (the daughter of one of the men) walking up. They were dressed completely inadequately in sport shorts and T-shirts... and the weather was closing in. It had already taken them 2 hours to reach a point that should have taken 1. When I suggested that they turn around they indicated that they were prepared for cold weather...they "come from Joburg and it gets cold there".

Great images do come from bad weather. If the photographer is prepared. If you are wet and cold and shivering, the likelihood of taking a spectacular image of dramatic weather and lighting is about nil. Good warm, waterproof, mountain clothing is about as essential to great images as tripod is. I firmly believe that great images happen when you feel you should be elsewhere. Great images don't happen when you are concentrating on your own survival (not true of combat photographers admittedly).

Despite weather everyone had a fantastic time. This says a lot when two of the photographers in the group were struggling from the after effects of tick-bite fever (a perverse trophy from their time in the bush) and a third had some serious malady with her knees. Ah, the joys of hiking and photographing in the mountains. But...beautiful light kissing the flanks of the Amphitheatre at dawn, misty water from roaring Cascades, stars trailing over the Eastern Buttress were all the stuff of photographic nirvana.

Except of course when you are shivering and can't feel your fingers anymore while concentrating on ice that has formed on long grass on the escarpment....So, in the words of Annelies on the top of the mountain as we struggled to motivate image making, "I think I'm done now!"

Ok, so some great images do happen while one is concentrating on survival - so long as the camera is actually used - but they don't tend to involve any acute level of concentration on the image itself ;-)

A cold Postscript: This entry was written while still at the wonderful Witsieshoek  at the end of the workshop. It's Monday morning now and we are still at Witsieshoek...and the snow is piling up outside (we're snowed in for the foreseeable future). I'll write again once we finally get off the mountain, but that looks like a couple of days from now...time to go and create some great images in dramatic and cold weather!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Straight outa Star Wars

This thing was big...and loud. Any second and Luke Skywalker was about to step out of the cockpit. Last week I found myself photographing something called a Compressor Carrier for a industrial hydraulics company based outside Durban. This behemoth is intended to provide massive amounts of compressed air for exploratory drilling in any terrain. It looked mean. To photograph it so that it looked hard and industrial, as well as intimidating I chose a low angle of view. Waiting for low light also meant that I was able to throw some hot-shoe flashes into the mix. The basic setup was a flash on camera set to about 1/2 power, flash to camera left on full power and two more flashes boomed together camera right and about 10 metres in front to light up the side and rear of the machine. Although most of the images were very simply processed, I over processed this for an industrial look that is quite popular at the moment. Lots of fun basically.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Thanda Tripping

Much of south Africa was gripped with a cold spell that brought snow to the highlands and freezing rain to much of the coast stretching down the east and south of the country. So much for a temperate winter! The photographers I joined on this month's Thanda Wildlife photography workshop came to grips with icy rain and freezing wind as we attempted the impossible...to find animals that were as mad as us in the open.

This isn't actually as easy as one would think. Naturally wild animals don't have a warm centrally heated brick house with double glazing to call home. Still, what shelter they can get they will needless stick to, whether it's a burrow in the ground or a close-standing group of acacia. It's only idiotic wildlife photographers that come out in the open to greet the slushy drops of cold water with apparent glee. Well in the hopes of creating great images at any rate. I have a habit of saying that bad weather means for great images. It often does, but only if something actually happens during that bad weather. Hey ho.

Thankfully the cold spell blew (in a gale force wind) away eventually. It left motorists stranded on a pass between Kwazulu-Natal and the interior as snow built up to over a foot deep on the middle of the highway. In Zululand it meant for uncharacteristically cold and wet winter weather. But shoot on we did!

One of the inherent problems with wildlife photography and game drives is the angle of view that the photographer is forced to accept. Whenever one goes to workshops, reads books, and watches photographers on television, the idea is pounded home that the animal needs to be on the same eye-level as the photographer. The reason why images by the likes of Nick Nichols and Frans Lanting are so powerful is that the camera's lens is on the same level as that of the animal's eye. This creates a connection between the viewer and the subject, a pathos develops if you would like. We are placed in the same 'space' as the animal occupies. This connection is severed once the all-important eye-contact and eye-level view are lost. At what stage in the wild would we possibly be on an angle above a lion?

This is difficult for any enthusiast photographer to deal with. The average enthusiast does not have the means available to photograph big five animals from anything but a game viewer vehicle (traditionally an open top Land Rover or Land Cruiser). Professionals usually put a lot of money and time into getting unique images by getting not only eye-contact, but either eye-level angles or an angle that is out of kilter with the usual view of the animal (think of Nichol's image of a blue gelled Rhino from ground level, his image of a tiger jumping across a stream - and the remote camera, Andy Rouse's shot of a muddy elephant chucking wet mud at a low angle camera). They do this by using remote camera's, special vehicles, and, getting out of the vehicle. This is not something your average photographer is even allowed to do. So what do you do?

Get down as low as possible in the vehicle. With birds, try and get the guide to start looking out for birds that are at eye-level to you. Ask the guide about spots where the vehicle is likely to go into a hollow in the track or road that could work for animals. The above shot of a yawning lioness is one of my favourite sites for lions in Thanda Reserve. Here a low dam wall is a regular chill spot for the resident pride of lions. The game viewer ends up being just below the lion's eye-level...perfect for that low level kind of image. Use the guide's knowledge to be able to get good shots. Impress upon them the importance of angle of view. Also, be prepared to accept that getting the incredible Cheetah shot might not happen, but the killer image of a Lilac-breasted Roller, might just.

Thanks to a wonderful crew this last month. I enjoyed working with a keen and advanced group that were game for mad dashes in the rain. Now I'm holding thumbs that the sun stays out long enough to dry them and the animals off!