What’s your background in photography, and what are you shooting with today?
My interest in photography started when I was about 16 when completing a school pinhole box project. Having bought an Olympus OMD with a small zoom lens after the experiment, and with all the exuberance of youth, I took hundreds of slides of the South African landscape only to find that this meant money for development that I did not have. Then came girlfriends, marriage, children, and life in general, which meant the camera was put away and only pulled out for the usual family photo session or a few holiday slides. Much later, when on holiday in Germany, I was introduced by my nephew to the “new” technology, digital, and that is where it all started again. A few days later, I bought a Canon G9, and after learning how much that enthusiasm for photography was still there, that camera became the steppingstone to the Canon 600D, then the 60D, then the 6D.
I now shoot with my favourite, the 5D iv. Once I had the 6D, the lens collection started. I am very fortunate to own several lenses, with the Canon 100-400 being my favourite for wildlife, the Canon 24-105 for travelling, and the Sigma ART 50 f1.4 for fashion and portrait. I would love to own a 600mm or 800mm Prime but I don’t want to increase the mortgage payments on my home to buy a lens; hence I use my 100-400 zoom with a 1.4x extender.
Tell us a bit about how your passion for wildlife photography started...
I realised my passion for wildlife began after I found myself reading different articles in photographic magazines - I kept returning to the wildlife section three or four times over. Then one day I read an article on Greg Du Toit in the January 2014 Digital Camera magazine, where he set out how he dug a hole near a watering hole and waited for months to get the perfect photo of a crouched lioness drinking from the pool that won him the Wildlife Photographer of the year in 2013. I was hooked, but then disappointingly realized I now live in New Zealand where the most dangerous animal around is some sort of slug!! But that has not stopped my love for wildlife, it just means my selection of animals is now different from what you find in Africa.
What do you love photographing the most?
My passion remains for the African big game, but this is not on the cards right now so I am focusing on the abundance of New Zealand birds.
Having said that, getting an opportunity to photograph Burma just before she was taken from the Auckland Zoo and sent to Australia was a highlight for me. I appreciate that I was not in the African bush but at a zoo and that neither is Burma an African Elephant, but the shot I got is exactly what I had envisaged and had in my head for years. Turning the photo into B&W brought out the majesty and humbleness these animals have for me. They are big yet portray a sense of gentleness that one sees in their eyes, and I think I captured it.
The other photo I really like is that of the three Zebra taken in South Africa on a game park. Illegally climbing out of the car and crawling about 200m through the bush I caught them grazing in the field. Again, B&W seems to emphasise their striped pyjamas and proof I was not attacked by a wild baboon or lion while crawling through the bush.
From your point of view, what makes a good wildlife photo?
I always compare what I do to that of published photos from professional photographers, trying to understand what makes their photos so mesmerising.
Over the years I have realised there are many things that make a great photo, but the most important is a photo that immediately grabs your attention for more than a few seconds, captures the imagination, and then pulls you in to want to touch the animal, or makes you feel as if you are right there next to the animal and you are part of the photo. It is capturing emotion that is portrayed in the life of the animal, from the extreme of a fight or killing of prey to an animal simply staring off into the distance. Photographing a lion crossing the road falls flat compared to a bird pulling a worm out of the ground, yet a lion is more interesting than a simple bird. It is not what is photographed but what the photo is telling you.
The one thing that allows you to get a photo like that is having a real passion for your genre and lots of time and patience. The art of patience has been lost by many due to today’s lifestyle of having a thousand online friends, and needing an immediate response and is something I need to work on too. Wildlife photography means going out for days, taking hundreds of photos, and getting no photo that has that emotion. But then one day it clicks (excuse the pun) and you get the photo and that is so rewarding.
The other thing I have learned is to focus on the animal and make sure there is nothing in the photo that distracts the viewer. A simple thing like a light or dark spot in the background bokeh, the odd twig in front of the animal, or dirt on the edge of the mouth takes the eye away from your subject.
Last but not least, if you can, get the focus on the eyes. Your eye is drawn to the animals’ eyes and if they are out of focus a perfect shot can be ruined.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced to get the photo you want?
I struggle with time due to the demands of work and life in general but I have one of the most patient and supportive wives who allows me to get time to do a bit of photography.
One day, I had planned to set out in the morning to photograph birds by the lake only to have something come up and delay the trip. Anyway, my wife made space and we shot out as soon as possible but it was too late for what I really wanted to capture which was birds trying to catch bugs as they warmed up and started flying above the water. When we got to the lake the mist was rising and I put up the tripod, shot off a few photos and the mist was gone five minutes later. The photo of the swans is one of those photos. I had planned a shot like this for months and every time I went out there was no mist, or if the mist was there the birds were not. I call this my lucky shot.
The photo of the Kingfisher took years to get as each time I would have so much vegetation in the background of the photo, the bird got lost in it. This is very much an issue with wildlife photography and getting yourself positioned for the perfect shot does not mean the bird complies. For some reason when you focus for a clear shot, they sit behind you or find the only twig that has a leaf to cover part of their body!
Do you plan your photography shoots?
As a hobby photographer with a family and a very demanding job, spending months in a waterhole trying to photograph a lioness is just not possible, so I plan well but prepare for the worst.
I will scout out bird areas on the network, keep an eye open for Hawks while driving in the countryside (they don’t fly far from their nests), or talk to people in the know. I also read what others advise, and then go out and try it out.
There is no guarantee of getting that well-planned Gannet photography day though, and the sunny, calm, and abundant bird day you thought you were onto can see wild winds, rain, and crowds of tourists, however, you might still come home with a gem.
This was the case with my single Tui shot showing the Tui having lunch hanging onto swaying flax flowers - This shot was proof of an entire day’s efforts.
How do you improve your photography and continue to learn?
I remember an interview with South African’s golfer Gary Player who was asked why he was so good at playing out of sand bunkers. His response was simple; “The more I practice, the luckier I get”. The same is with anything in life, and none more for photography. With digital these days, you can take thousands of photos where you can try different things at no cost other than your time. This teaches you about light, shutter speed, ISO settings, focal length, and how your camera works.
I highly recommend getting feedback too. I thought some of my photos were good until I got some honest feedback and saw how little things can make big changes turning an average photo into a good one. However, a bad photo stays a bad photo no matter how much editing is done.
The other thing I do a lot of is read photographic magazines. They are full of information and once I have read an article I go and try out whatever I read. Soon you discover how to improve which forces you outside again to retake a photo and try to improve on it.
The most frustrating exercise for me is the photo of the Hawk. I have taken hundreds of photos and this one here is my best, but I am not happy with it. So, once I get over Covid, I will be out again trying to capture her hunting at a wetlands area close to my home.
What advice would you give to people just starting wildlife photography?
The best advice I can give is from my own experience when I was getting back into photography...
- Don’t spend $$$$ on gear unless you can afford it but buy the best you can afford, starting small. Get a camera that you like and avoid the argument of is a Canon better than Nikon or Sony as they are all good cameras. Remember, expensive cameras don’t produce good photos, the operator takes good photos.
- Make sure whatever body you get leaves you enough money for the best lens you can afford as this can make or break your photo quality - An average camera with a good lens will take a better-quality photo than a cheap lens on an expensive camera. Looking back, the 24-105 f4 was the most versatile and it is this lens I got the most enjoyment from.
- Once you know how to use your camera, understand f-stops and ISO settings, and are out of nappies (i.e. using manual settings and not Auto), then upgrade to better gear and lenses that you can afford and which fit with your type of photography. It is no good getting a state-of-the-art portrait lens that has a f1.2 stop when you want to photograph birds, or you brag about the fact you can afford a 600mm prime lens that costs more than a car, but you really just want to photograph bugs. I have come across so many that have rushed out and done this and then they lose interest in photography as they can’t do what they wanted to do.
- Digital post-processing will bring the best out of a photo. A slight adjustment of lighting, minor boosting of a colour, or cropping is always required. There is no such thing as a pure photo as even back in the film days editing was undertaken in the darkroom. Choosing which software to use can become a nightmare to navigate but don’t skimp money here either - You spent a lot on gear and cheap or free software will not get the best out of your photo.
- Don’t spend hours editing your images after a ten-minute photo outing - Spend more time in the field and less time on the screen.
- Wildlife photography can mean expensive lenses depending on what you shoot. Most wildlife, other than insects or macro photography, requires long lenses. I would love to own a 600mm or 800mm Prime but I don’t want to increase the mortgage payments on my home so I use the 100-400 zoom with a 1.4x extender. Having spent time with friends on a photoshoot on Tiritiri Maitangi Island I have come to realise how limiting a 100mm lens is for wildlife photography so I would not recommend anything less than 200mm, though 300mm would be better.
- Shutter speed needs to be up usually around 1/5,000 or more for bird photography so being able to adjust ISO and f-stop to keep the light settings without degrading the photo is important. Lower quality cameras don’t handle high ISO settings well as they don’t have the digital band to allow you to pull the detail out of dark areas in the photo.
- Wildlife requires patience and plenty of time on your own (or with other photographers), and research. Don’t expect to walk out for an hour, see a couple of birds, take two photos, and come home with a winning shot. If you do, I suggest you buy a Lotto ticket that very afternoon. Be prepared to wait patiently for long periods taking lots of photos and not getting the right photo. The day you get ’a keeper’ will make up for the hours before and excite you to get out and do it all over again.
- Take time to understand wildlife habits, traits, and behavior as this will allow you to be in the right vicinity at the right time of day.
- My final tip would be to shoot in RAW. Editing will be required, but you will be limited in what you can do if you shoot in jpeg.
What else should we know about you and your photography? Other than wildlife, I do a lot of fashion photography for my daughters clothing business and as a result, I am starting to investigate portrait as another field of photography. I’m also getting back into landscape photography after a hiatus from this genre.
I am currently saving up to undertake a photography safari or two with my wife. It will be a dream come true for me. Maybe I will get that opportunity to dig a hole next to the watering hole and come home with a photo of a lifetime. Until that day comes, I will be out practicing with the aim of getting that perfect shot.