JHP Newsletter - 2015, No. 1, 15 March
Greetings from Colesberg, South Africa! It's so nice to be back in Africa. I've completed a two-week photo safari in Tanzania and am now in the middle of eight weeks in South Africa.
Equipment: Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM
I wasn't eagerly awaiting the arrival of the EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM zoom lens. I had slowly stopped using the previous version, the EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L IS USM, because I didn't like the image quality and sold it shortly after getting an EF 70-200mm f2.8 L IS II USM because the 70-200 with a 2x III tele-extender was sharper. I was quite happy with the 70-200 and extenders and especially liked the constant-length design which is useful when operating out of a short long-lens case on safari.
After the EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM was released, I read the reviews and I was surprised that the image quality was so much better than the previous version. In fact, it's as sharp as the EF 70-200mm f2.8 L IS II USM with a 2x III in the center and much sharper in the corners — sold! I ordered one in time to use it in Yellowstone and then took it with me to Africa. I'm quite happy with the image quality, autofocus, and IS (image stabilization). I'm not really thrilled with the tripod collar. While it provides silky smooth rotation, the lens wobbles all over the place when attached to a tripod. In fact, it wobbles a lot more than the EF 70-200mm f2.8 L IS II USM with a 2x III attached which has a much longer moment arm from the camera body to the tripod collar. Also, the locking knob is rather small and tucked away on the lower corner which makes it hard to operate when actually on a tripod.
Despite the shortcomings of the lens, I highly recommend it as a reasonably-priced, very sharp, hand-holdable, long-range zoom lens.
Travel: Bosque del Apache NWR, New Mexico, USA
I went to Bosque del Apache NWR for about a week over New Years. It's a favorite location for wildlife photographers because sandhill cranes and snow geese are plentiful. While I did photograph those standard species, I concentrated on photographing other species. I came across the juvenile red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis, below L) one morning but the perch wasn't very exciting and I didn't intend to photograph it. I did, however, park nearby to photograph some sandhill cranes flying by. While I was still there, another vehicle pulled up and two people got out and started walking towards the hawk. I shifted my focus to the hawk and was ready when they flushed it. American kestrel or sparrow hawk (Falco sparverius) are fairly common in the area. I almost didn't stop to photograph this male (below R) because of the blah sky, but it was hard to pass up the frame-filling opportunity. Fortunately while I was set up, a slightly-bluer area of clouds moved into the background which is when this image was made.
1/1000 sec, f5.6, ISO 250
1/60 sec, f8, ISO 800
My most exciting subject was this striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis, below L). I discovered it trotting down a side administrative-use-only road towards the main auto loop road and of course I slammed on the brakes and started photographing it from the window. As it approached the junction with another administrative-use-only road on the other side of the canal, it made a small detour into some thick brush and I thought that might be the end of the encounter. Fortunately, it came out and cut across the junction which is when I made this image. I couldn't photograph it for very long on the other side of the junction due to heavy brush between the auto loop road and the canal, but the encounter was sure great while it lasted! American coot (Fulica americana) usually aren't very interesting to photograph because of their drab gray coloration, but one afternoon several of them were walking across a frozen pond and that allowed me to photograph their unusual feet (below R).
Travel: Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA
Due to housekeeping constraints, I only had five days in the middle of January to photograph in Yellowstone National Park. I knew the visit was going to be short and was worried that the four days of travel required to get there and back would make the whole trip questionable. The weather was rather warm with temperatures above freezing almost every day, so the conditions weren't the best for photography either. Fortunately, I had a great encounter with gray wolf (Canis lupus) 870F of the Junction Butte Pack on my first full day. She was at an elk kill not too far from the road. There were usually a dozen or so ravens at the carcass too making for an even messier scene, but occasionally they'd flush and this time (below L) the wolf looked right at me — perfect!
1/2000 sec, f8, ISO 320
1/500 sec, f5.6, ISO 800
Another very special encounter was with an American marten or pine marten (Martes Americana). It was on the wrong side of the road, and because I knew the encounter would be fleeting, I shoved my 600 out the passenger window, rested the lens hood on the sill and took a few shots. The marten was small in the frame, but at least I got a decent shot. Then I hauled the 600 back inside the car and put on a 1.4x tele-extender. While doing that, the marten moved up closer to the road and now I had too much lens! I got in position to shoot it and was able to make this image (above R). The marten took off more or less along the road and I decided to turn around so I could shoot out the driver-side window. As I was doing that, the marten crossed the road and then headed away. I had about two minutes with the elusive creature, but it was thrilling!
Travel: Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti, Tanzania
I couldn't extend my stay in Yellowstone because I had to be in Tanzania to lead a two-week photo safari beginning the second week of February. The safari was a resounding success and was one of the best safaris I've ever had. The weather was unusual with several days of solid, or nearly-solid, cloud cover that provided nice diffuse light for most of the day so we could shoot much longer than we could if it had been clear, and that helped us make some great images.
The safari started off with four days in Ngorongoro Crater which has one of the highest animal densities in all of Africa. It's one of the best places in East Africa to see, and sometimes photograph because no off-road travel is allowed, the black rhinoceros or hook-lipped rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis). We had two very good photo ops where the rhinos came close to the road with good light. In this image (below L), one is running towards the road in early light. We also had many good photo ops with a pride of lions (Panthera leo) that had several small cubs. One afternoon after a rain shower, one of the cubs proudly strutted around carrying a toy or trophy (below R).
1/1000 sec, f5.6, ISO 400
1/750 sec, f5.6, ISO 800
Then we spent two days in the central Serengeti in Serengeti National Park. One of my favorite places to photograph there is at the Retima hippo pool where you can get out of the vehicle and get down to water level. The hippos were quite relaxed this time so there weren't any serious squabbles to photograph, but a mother hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius) brought her tiny baby out of the pool to cross to another location (below L). Another great set of subjects were three cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) cubs about a month old, the youngest cubs I've ever seen. They were hiding from predators and the sun when we arrived, but after some high thin clouds moved in, the cubs came out for a nice group picture.
Then we spent seven days in the southern Serengeti with our time split between Serengeti National Park and the adjoining Ngorongoro Conservation Area. We spent some time one morning near a spotted hyena or spotted hyaena (Crocuta crocuta) den that had two small pups. They were rather shy, but eventually came out into the open enough to get a nice image of the both of them (below L).
A highlight was spending most of a day with a pack of African wild dog, African hunting dog, or Cape hunting dog (Lycaon pictus, above R). It was the first time I had seen them in East Africa, and we had a lot of time to photograph them due to the cloud cover that created nice diffuse light. Note that I intentionally used a slow shutter speed for this image to create motion blur.
A leopard tortoise (Geochelone pardalis) can grow up to be about 2 ft (61 cm) long, and this one (below L) was a more typical 9 in (23 cm) or so long. I photographed it from outside the vehicle using a tripod to get a nearly eye-level perspective.
I tried to photograph as many animals running with motion blur as I could, and this rather long exposure combined with the speed of the female Thomson's gazelle (Gazella thomsonii) created a really nice effect (above R).
We spent a few hours one afternoon with a cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) mother and four cubs in Hidden Valley. There was nice cloud cover that created wonderful diffuse light so we could photograph them as they hunted and played. In this image (below L), two of the cubs are playing rather roughly — hey, you almost poked my eye out!
Another day, we had a fantastic morning with cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) in the plains of the southern Serengeti. We watched two males, probably brothers, hunting and then give chase to a days-old blue wildebeest or brindled gnu (Connochaetes taurinus) calf. Before the lead cheetah got to what I thought was the intended prey, it took down a newborn calf that was probably less than two hours old. The second cheetah helped to kill the calf by pulling on its rear end, and the tug-of-war was amazing to watch and photograph! We left the two males to their meal to go watch and photograph another cheetah chase and kill a days-old wildebeest calf. We returned to the two male cheetahs in time to watch and photograph them chase and kill a days-old wildebeest calf. The kill did not go cleanly. After the cheetah that took down the calf thought the calf was dead, it rested a bit before dragging the calf into some thicker vegetation to hide it from competitors. While the cheetah was resting, I could see that the calf was still breathing and things would get interesting. After the cheetah started eating the hind quarters of the calf, the calf started bleating but the cheetah kept eating. After a minute or so, and about 20 minutes after the initial take down, the cheetah went back to strangling the calf which is when I made this image (above R). After the calf was subdued again, the cheetah drug the calf further into thicker vegetation, and we left because it was unlikely that there would be any more photo ops. We learned later at camp that the calf was alive for about 40 minutes after the initial take down.
We spent a lot of time another morning with some lions at a wildebeest kill. The lions and the kill weren't that interesting, but the wind direction was perfect to photograph the vultures that were flying in for clean up duty. This hooded vulture (Necrosyrtes monachus, below L) had just landed and was keeping its wings out to look impressive as it approached the other vultures that were already there.
While waiting for the cheetah mother with four cubs to do something interesting on our second visit to Hidden Valley, I spotted a spotted hyena or spotted hyaena (Crocuta crocuta) with a baby Thomson's gazelle (Gazella thomsonii) running in the distance. We gave chase and photographed it for quite a while. In this image (above R), it had just stood up from taking a short rest in a shallow pool.
We spent an hour or so photographing two pairs of beautiful sunbird (Cinnyris pulchella) one afternoon as they fed on a blooming bush. They were mostly hidden by branches, but occasionally one would land on a good clean perch like the male in this image (below L).
1/750 sec, f8, ISO 400
1/1500 sec, f4, ISO 640
We had a very cooperative young female leopard (Panthera pardus) one afternoon. It started out as a typical leopard-jam with vehicles surrounding the acacia tree in which she rested. It became atypical after she came down from the tree and didn't dash off into the brush never to be seen again. Instead, it became an extraordinary encounter as she calmly walked along the road (above R) and paused a few times to do her business before finally moving into some thick vegetation and resting.
I'll tell you about South Africa next time.
Take care and happy shooting.
James Hager Photography :: www.jameshagerphoto.com