JHP Newsletter - 2005, No. 2, 16 March
Greetings from South Africa! It's great to be back in Africa again.
Equipment: Sigma 120-300 f2.8 APO EX IF HSM
I'm pleased with the Sigma 120-300 f2.8 APO EX IF HSM I bought just before going to Africa. It worked well in Rwanda for the gorillas, and I really appreciated the extra speed compared to the Canon 100-400 f4.5-5.6 L IS USM. The faster lens, and the ability to increase the ISO through the magic of digital capture, let me capture vastly more usable images than I did in Uganda in 2002. The lens is also holding up much better than my only prior third-party lens, a Sigma 50-500 F4-6.3EX APO RF for my Maxxum 7 — it still feels like it did right out of the box. However, the gap in coverage between 300 and 500mm has created some compositional challenges, something that was very rare when shooting with the 100-400 and the 500.
The gap could be reduced by adding a 1.4x converter to the 120-300. However on most of this trip, in order to prevent dust from accumulating on the sensor, I've kept the 1.4x II converter permanently attached to my 1D Mk II so I can switch between the 120-300 and the 500 w/o exposing the mirror chamber to the elements. Some dust did get on the sensor at the beginning of the trip, maybe because I accidentally, and out of habit, used the lens-release on the body instead of on the 1.4x II converter when changing lenses once or twice. In a somewhat ironic twist, I've been using my 1Ds Mk II almost as a backup body for most of the trip, and have had my 28-135 almost permanently attached to it.
The exception to this camera setup was Rwanda. Because dust wasn't really an issue, and because I wanted to get the highest-quality images that I could, I used the 1Ds Mk II exclusively. The slower frame rate of the 1Ds Mk II compared to the 1D Mk II wasn't a problem, but the smaller buffer size was — I maxed out the buffer several times while trying to capture the action. On the whole, I'm glad I shot with the 1Ds Mk II because I got lots of great images with a whole lot of data in them.
Travel: Africa Introduction
My African safari began at the end of January with three back-to-back photo safaris with McDonald Wildlife Photography: two weeks in Tanzania, one week in Rwanda, and two weeks in Kenya. I probably got as many useable images from this month spent in East Africa as I got during my previous two or so months in Africa! I'm currently on a self-drive tour of South Africa, and will describe that leg of the journey in the next newsletter.
The Tanzania safari was excellent, and it was great to be back in Africa. The main goal of the safari was to see wildebeest births in the Serengeti. We started with three nights in Ngorongoro Crater, a place I had visited in 2001. On the first morning there, we saw two wildebeest give birth w/in 10 minutes and 10 yards of each other!! They were 20-30 yds from the road (No off-road travel is allowed in the crater.) in short grass, and no other animals were crowded around them. In other words, it was perfect for photography!! Unfortunately, something happened to the images I took in the crater, and I will have to wait until I get home to try to get good data. Anyways, just seeing the birth was really cool because I had never seen anything be born before. It was really funny to watch the young ones learn to walk — something they did w/in 15 minutes of being born. It's definitely a survival tactic because the young ones have to get up and follow their mothers and the herd or else they'll become someone's meal.
Then we went to Serengetti National Park, and stayed for two nights in the Seronera area, an area in the center of the park that I had also visited in 2001. Then we stayed for eight nights in a luxury mobile tented camp near Lake Ndutu in the southwestern part of the park. The large, flat plains between Lake Ndutu and Naabi Hill are used by the large herds of wildebeest to give birth every year, and it's possible to drive off track in this part of the park allowing much greater flexibility. For the first time, I was able to experience the sense of "siringet," the Maasai (native) term for "land of endless space." The Seronera area has scattered brush and trees, and the far north of the park where I had also been in 2001 has some open plains, but nothing compared to the area between Lake Ndutu and Naabi Hill where there is almost flat grassland for about 400 square miles with hills on the horizon. When we arrived, the herds of wildebeest and zebras were on the periphery of the area, and increased the vastness of the space. By the last three days of the visit, the plains were filled, so at times there were animals from horizon to horizon — an incredible spectacle.
Lake Ndutu Around Noon
Our visit was timed to be in the middle of the five-week birthing season, when about 2000 babies are born every day. The wildebeest were on a different schedule this year, and had just started to give birth when we were there. We didn't see a single birth; only a handful of newborns. So, we were very lucky to see the two births in the crater. Our group did see a Thompson's gazelle birth though. My vehicle got there a couple of minutes after the birth, but in time to see it take its first steps about ten minutes after it was born! The time we spent in the area was very productive for cats (lions and cheetahs, and we saw one very shy leopard) and other animals. I also saw and shot my first serval — a very rare cat.
Stolen From a Kill
Bed of Shrinking Lake Ndutu
After Tanzania, I went with McDonald Wildlife Photography to Rwanda to shoot mountain gorillas. The six of us had five days of gorilla trekking, and it was far superior to the two days of gorilla trekking in Uganda in 2002. The first three days were perfect for photography because there were overcast skies which provided uniform light in the forest, and I captured many great images. The last two days were sunny, and reduced the number of good shots, but still provided good gorilla encounters.
Before leaving Kigali, the capital city, we participated in the black market. Exchanging currency at a bank is a time-consuming process that involves a lot of paperwork, and the exchange rate isn't as good as what unofficial brokers can provide on the street. So, our first order of business after leaving the airport, was to stop at a small shop where our local guide took care of business — egads.
The gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, is very similar to that done in Bwindi National Park, Uganda. Trackers leave first thing in the morning to find the group of habituated gorillas, and then lead the park guides and tourists to them. Once with the gorillas, the eight (maximum) tourists have one hour, and then must leave. The trackers follow the gorillas until they bed down for the night, and then begin the process again the next day.
Because one of the groups of gorillas had moved very far into the park, we visited a research group, named Shinda, one day. This group isn't as habituated as the other groups because the researchers don't crowd in as close to the gorillas, so it was more like visiting a group of wild gorillas. The highlight of the trip occurred just as we were leaving the gorillas after our hour was up. The lead silverback came crashing through the brush and stared us down to make it clear that he was in charge. Our guide had us huddle together and crouch down to indicate that we were being submissive, and the gorilla slowly strutted his way over to us, and stood as proudly as he could about five feet away just to make sure we got the message that it was his group and we shouldn't mess with him.
The next day, we had an incredible example of the power of these gentle giants. As we were watching the lead silverback, he casually pulled down a 3-in diameter bamboo shoot and broke it in half so he could eat it. It looked like he expended about as much effort as a human breaking a pencil!
On our final day, the youngsters were very curious about the visiting homo sapiens, and they kept coming up very close to us. The gorillas don't know that they're supposed to stay seven meters (about 23 ft) away so that they don't catch any of our diseases, and several times, our guide had to push the curious gorillas away from us. (During our visits, we were frequently closer than seven meters, but usually not less than 10 ft.) Towards the end of our visit, the dominant silverback got tired of the young gorillas paying so much attention to us, so he charged over to chase the youngsters away and to show us that he was boss. The park guide was quite familiar with this male, and we were able to keep shooting as the silverback strutted his stuff a few feet from our group.
(Amahoro A Group)
(Amahoro A Group)
The Kenya leg of my East African safari was awesome! Right after Rwanda, I spent two weeks with Joe and Mary Ann McDonald and 9 other photographers (there were 12 of us altogether), and had many spectacular wildlife encounters. It was definitely the high point of the three East African safaris.
We started with four nights in Samburu National Reserve, which is roughly in the middle of the country. It was my first time there, and I enjoyed seeing species that I hadn't seen before: gerenuk, Grevy's zebra, and vulturine guineafowl. Gerenuk are antelope with a really long neck, and they feed by standing on their hind legs and balancing themselves by holding onto branches with their fore legs.
The highlight of the Kenya safari occurred towards the end of our first day in Samburu. We had arrived late at a leopard sitting on a downed tree trunk, and because of the other vehicular traffic and the high brush, we didn't have a great vantage point for shooting. After a while, the leopard got down off the tree trunk, and walked down a small path between the bushes straight towards our vehicle!! It was totally awesome to have it walk for about 25 yds directly towards me while I was shooting. When it got to the vehicle, it turned and went w/in three feet of the back of the vehicle before going down the track we had pulled in on. Then it got up on another downed tree trunk, and this time we were able to get into a shooting position about 10 yds away!! Way cool!
Then we went to the Masai Mara National Reserve which forms the north-eastern part of the Serengeti ecosystem. We spent tree nights in the lower Mara, two nights in the Mara Triangle, and three nights in the upper Mara. (I had visited the upper Mara in 2001.) At this time of the year, the zebra and wildebeest that make their home in the Serengeti and Masai Mara have migrated to the southern part, where we saw them in Tanzania earlier in the extended safari. Because the Mara had been getting some rain, zebra from further north and east had come into the Mara to feed on the new grass, and we got to shoot a zebra crossing. For the uninitiated, a "crossing" is when a large herd of animals crosses a river. The resident herds of zebra and wildebeest usually cross in October or November, and we were very surprised to see a crossing at this time of year. The timing was also unusual in another way — most last for 30 to 45 minutes, and this one lasted for at least 2.5 hours! After we had shot it for a while from our vehicles up on the plain overlooking the river, we went down to the water level to shoot some more. Because there are crocodiles in the river, I followed one of the prime rules of survival — do not be the most-available prey. In other words, I made sure Joe was between me and the river. :) I got great shots of the action from just above the water level, and had a great time shooting too.
One afternoon, we pulled into position to shoot a hartebeest standing on a termite mound, and I spotted a nearby acacia tree that framed a faraway acacia tree, and there was a small group of wildebeest in the shade of the nearby tree. I was shooting the trees with the 120-300, and Mary Ann McDonald was shooting it with her 500. I was curious to know what she saw with that composition, so I switched lenses. I must say that I liked my composition better, but the long lens did let me see a wildebeest giving birth under the nearby tree — the two front hooves of the baby were sticking out! This wasn't supposed to be happening!! The resident wildebeest were all supposed to be down in Tanzania giving birth. Shortly after we spotted the mother giving birth, that group of wildebeest started following the long line of wildebeest that had been going by the tree, thus beginning the wildebeest birth chase. We followed the mother for about 1.5 hours, and it was a challenge to keep track of her in the herd, especially when we had to leave them in order to go around a boulder field. The rest of the vehicles in our group had come to follow too, but they got sidetracked after an hour or so by a male lion eating a cape buffalo it had killed. We stayed with the wildebeest mother, and when the final part of the delivery occurred, the rest of our group hadn't been able to come back in time — nya, nya-nya, nya, nya. :)
The Mara was also good for cats, especially lions. On two mornings, we shot a pride of 19 lions with about 10 of them cubs under a year old. It was great to watch and shoot the youngsters playing. I also shot my second serval. This one was even better than the one I shot in the Serengeti because the light was much better, plus it was "my cat" because I spotted it. :) It was a very accommodating cat, and we spent at least half an hour shooting it before we left as the sun was going down.
Speaking of the sun going down, the Mara is a great place to shoot sunsets because the Maasai (natives) burn their grazing lands, and the smoke in the air makes for fantastic colors.
One morning we came across three ground hornbills hunting, and one of them had a frog in its beak. Before it snatched up another prey item, it put down what it was carrying in its mouth. After catching the new prey item, it would then pick up the item it had put down before. We watched it catch a second frog, then a small snake, then a large grasshopper.
James Hager Photography :: www.jameshagerphoto.com