wildlife

Sneak Peek: Botswana Safari

Previously, I explained how I went about finding a photo safari in Africa that would give me a good chance to take a lot of images and visit places that offered more freedom than just staying in National Parks and Game Reserves.

Here are a few images from that trip, which I am still in the process of editing:

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Portraits by Another Name

Every time you take a picture of an animal, that’s not all you’re doing. You’re making a portrait.

I think this is something that most photographers don’t realize when they’re starting out. At first, it’s a WIN just to have an image of a wild animal that’s in any way sharp. Later the successes are when the animal is doing something interesting, or in a good looking environment. The thing to remember is: whether you’re photographing a cat or a person, the same basic rules apply. This is not some generic “critter” you’re capturing, it’s one very specific animal.  Therefore, much “wildlife photography” is actually portraiture.

Because of that, a whole other set of rules also applies:

If the eyes are sharp, the image will read as “sharp”. This may not be intuitive and I think it had never occurred to me until someone explained the mechanism. When looking at a photograph of any creature, the first place you look is the eyes.  It’s an instinctive action; you’re not thinking about doing it at all. Yet you are. And that is why if the eyes are in focus, you will perceive the image to be in focus. It’s that simple. So when you’re shooting, that should be what you’re looking for.

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Catchlights! Catchlights are especially powerful when the subject is not looking at you. For those of you new to that term, the catchlight is the little white reflection on the surface of the eye, shown below on Mr Arctic Fox. This provides the “spark” that the viewer is looking for, and makes the eyes look ‘alive’ regardless of where they’re attention is focused.

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Always weight your compositions so that there is extra space in the direction the animal is looking and/or moving. This is so subtle that most people don’t even notice when you’ve done it, but it really helps allow a viewer to feel comfortable in that image. It can be hard to train yourself to do this. It’s most important in very close up shots but it can be valuable to think about using this all the time; having an image that has extra space to one side allows you more choices in cropping later should you have not noticed something in the corner that needs to be cut out. The first example below is pretty subtle, it’s more obvious in the bottom image.

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A portrait is about capturing personality as much as it is about conveying what someone looks like. Therefore, some random fur seal is not as compelling as “Badass Fur Seal” whose look and posture convey all that he’s about.

fur seal

Whale Watching in Monterey Bay, California

I realized several years ago that sometimes, between trips, I needed a way to get out and practice my photography. And by practice, I mean shooting in situations that are new, or not that familiar, in order to get myself up to speed before a big trip. I’m not one of those that carries my camera around with me all the time. That’s what my smartphone is for (results on Instagram). There really isn’t that much that taking photos of graffiti around San Francisco can prepare you for when you’re heading to the Arctic, you know what I mean?  So the trick is to find something near by that approximates some of the shooting conditions you’d find in the place you’re planning on going and then go and shoot there.

So before heading to Antarctica, last fall I went out whale watching to get some more practice shooting from a boat (and really exercising the VR capabilities on my new lens). It was so much fun, that I decided to do it again this summer when word got around of the big run of anchovies in Monterey Bay and all the humpbacks that had some to take advantage of it.

So I ended up going out two weeks in a row, and here are a few of the shots I got:

Ode to the Antarctic Fur Seal

“Whatever you do, just don’t get bit.”

It’s not often that you hear those words, and especially not in reference to what looks for all intents and purposes like a lethargic, terminally bored seal. But, then you see the teeth. They are sharp. And apparently they are in a mouth that’s full of bacteria, not unlike a Komodo dragon. Get bit, and the deep puncture wounds will surely get infected. So don’t get bit. And don’t bother trying to run, cause they can run faster than you can. So just stare them down, make yourself big by throwing your arms out, make some noise and don’t turn your back.

“Okay, guys: Good Luck!”

That in a nutshell is your briefing on the dangers of the highly territorial and incredibly numerous Antarctic Fur Seal. You don’t expect to need to be briefed on the ways of a vicious seal. Hell, the words “vicious seal” sound like an oxymoron. But, here we are.

When we think of seals, we picture a lazy, maybe not so smart creature whose hobbies consist of napping and barking noisily at another seal who’s just stepped on them. They don’t move all that much and don’t seem very agile out of the water. They are certainly in no way frightening.

But those are not these seals.

fur seal

 

“True” seals are ones where all their spine and hip bones are in a line. They flop around or shimmy side to side to move forward and therefore can’t do so very quickly. Eared seals, like the Sea Lion or the Antarctic Fur Seal, have hip bones set up in such a way that they can get their flippers (their feet, basically) under them and use that for forward propulsion.  That’s why you don’t want to run. They’re fast.

furry

Personality-wise these are not the happy-go-lucky seals you see basking in the sun and napping all day. These seals are suspicious. They are short tempered. Some are clearly incensed that you have dared to walk across their beach and want to make sure that you know this. So they make a move on you. You will want to run, believe me. The first time a fur seal opens its mouth wide and lunges towards you, that’s your first instinct.

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But in order to so anything at all on these South Georgia beaches, you have to navigate your way through or around them. So you are faced with scenes like this: a veritable minefield of fur seals. Making your way across that field takes careful planning and a bit of bravado. And please don’t make the mistake of coming over one of those hillocks and surprising one. You definitely don’t want to do that.

minefield

The core of the issue, from a fur seal’s point of view, is that you should not be here at all. They want to make sure that you understand this, and leave post-haste. Even the babies get in on it – the first place we landed there was one very young pup that basically chased us up the beach, teeth bared the whole way. It was quite the introduction.

Suspicious pup
The first few days I was torn between hating their horrible attitude and determined desire to take a bite out of me, and really respecting such a badass animal. As the days went on though, it became funnier and funnier. They were so angry, so suspicious, so peeved, they were really a caricature.

Fur seal

So I made a point to try and get a picture of every time a seal gave me a dirty look. To chronicle their suspicion. Their anger. Their side-eye. It was not that difficult.

Top Ten Things I Did Not Expect On A Trip To Antarctica and South Georgia

Come for the penguins, stay for the fur seals!

I had done a lot of research before this trip, so I knew quite a bit about what to expect and what would await me there. Years ago I worked for a photographer who visited South Georgia and Antarctica several times, so I had seen tons of  pictures from these places, and could recognize many of them. But even with all that, there were definitely some surprises. Here’s my top ten:

1. This is the best whale watching cruise you’ve never heard of. I’ve seen my share of whales. I’ve gone whale watching on the California coast, on Vancouver Island in Canada, even in Iceland. But even I was shocked at the number of whales we saw. Not only the variety of different species, but the sheer number of whales we saw was incredible.

Line of fin whales in the Scotia Sea

2. Antarctic fur seals are incredibly territorial and downright aggressive creatures. Before our first landing in South Georgia we got a detailed briefing on how to deal with them (basically: stand your ground), but I was shocked to see tiny pups going after us as if they were great big bulls. It was cute when it wasn’t sort of terrifying. Those teeth are sharp.

Fur seal
3. We were really busy. Between the daily landings and the lectures on history and wildlife and geology, meals and being exhausted from being out in the fresh air all day, I had basically no time to read or properly edit my images while on the ship.

4. Just how close to the wildlife you get. The rule is that you need to stay 15 feet away from the animals, keeping in mind that they are free to come as close to you as they’d like… and that is often pretty darn close.

Penguin

4. Doing photography every day for 3 weeks really hones your skills. I’m not sure why this had not occurred to me, but in the course of one of these longer journeys, if you’re using your camera every day and taking at least a quick peek at the results, you’re going to get better. Not only will using your camera become more automatic, but you will be better at evaluating the unique light conditions that occur down there.

Iceberg

5. My shipmates were younger than I expected. When I was in Dallas waiting for my flight to Buenos Aires, I saw the typical cruise crowd all heading down to their South American cruises. Most of them were well over 70, their tickets and IDs hanging on those pockets you wear around your neck. But not on our ship. The group seemed to be about half over 60 and half under, which gave us a good mix. We also had ~ 30% Australians, which of course made the whole thing more fun.

6. The wind is pretty much incessant. If your eyes are sensitive to wind and tear up a lot, make sure to bring wrap-around style sunglasses to help protect them. It will make a big difference. Or be like me and just keep your camera in front of your face all the time.

Wind
7. Getting in and out of zodiacs is easier than I expected… and after learning how to do it in the swells of South Georgia, the landings on the Antarctic peninsula were downright easy, as the water is so much more protected. By the end of it we were all experts, sliding towards the front and swinging our legs over the edge and landing in the water in one smooth motion, like we’d been doing it all our lives.

Zodiac
9. Running up and down the stairs to get to and from your lower-deck cabin is pretty good exercise. My apartment is on the third floor, so running up and down stairs is not new to me, but I was surprised at how by the end of the trip, I was able to race up all 5 flights from my cabin to the deck above the bridge without missing a beat.

10. The weather was fascinating. Between the come-out-of-nowhere katabatic winds (and attendant lenticular clouds) and the thick cumulus clouds that seemed to hover just feet above the water, I was constantly amazed by it. There were thick fogs that dissipated in minutes, mist, snow, sleet, rain — we saw pretty much every kind of weather at some point. I loved it.


Clouds

One thing that doesn’t surprise me? People ask if I want to go back. The answer is simple: In a heartbeat.