Love, Fear, Confusion

Leaving the group behind, I took the path less travelled and embraced an opportunity to explore the rocky hillsides of Blomsterbukten in Greenland. I literally stumbled upon this couple of Arctic Hares. Immediately alerted to my presence, yet not familiar with human presence, they froze in anticipation. I immediately sunk to my knees and waited....and waited. With time they became more habituated to my presence and started to interact with each other once more. I sought this opportunity to frame what appears to be a stolen moment for this couple of hares.

Two Arctic hares on the rocky hillside overlooking Blomsterbukten, eastern Greenland. This shot is important to me because of what happened before, and illustrates why wildlife photographers need to understand nature perhaps more than they need to understand photography.

Arriving on the coast via Zodiac, we split into rough groups and walked up a shallow valley to reach the lake over the hill. One small group caught a glimpse of something white on the valley slope – it was September, so the Greenland coast was free of snow. A hare! In glorious white, quietly watching the scene.

Most people know hares and rabbits are very skittish and will disappear in a flash, so we slowly got prepared to set up a photograph, no sudden movements, taking time to be quiet and unobtrusive. Except for one fellow traveller. Zoom lens up, he walked directly toward the hare, perhaps unaware of his pace as he tried to grab the shot. People who are familiar working with animals may empathise when I say I could ‘feel’ the danger zone around the hare, the circumference line where it would bolt if anything crossed into its territory. I winced as I saw the photographer cross over my invisible line, and bang – the hare was up and over the crest of the hill, out of sight.

The group shrugged and walked on while I bristled at the lack of respect for the residents of this region, a place where we were visitors, guests. This, though, became my mission. I splintered off from the group and circled round to the other side of the hill, ascending slowly and always keeping eyes peeled. When you do this you become aware of the time elapsed, and start to feel downtrodden as the slow travel just adds minutes and metres to the hare’s escape.

As I peeped over the hill, I froze. Barely 10 metres in front me, TWO HARES! A blessing, a reward. I unfolded my tripod very slowly (for video stabilisation rather than stills) and settled down. The three of us sat quietly on the hillside overlooking the majestic Greenland scenery for a good 25 minutes – they played, cleaned, chewed, and as here, gazed into each other’s eyes, before bouncing off around the corner. I didn’t follow them – this is their place.

I descended back the way I’d came and walked round to join the group – no animal sightings for them, and it turns out Marie was having a wild time taking landscape shots while unconsciously sinking slowly into a sticky, muddy bog. I was pleased – I think I took the right path, but it was a mental path, not just a physical one. Approaching your wildlife photography with respect, caution, and patience is rewarding in the images you can create, and in the lift it gives your soul. Those 25 minutes are very special to me not because of the photos, but because the hares allowed me into their home.

Stars And Spray

The Milky Way arcs downward to the raging seas of the Tsitsikamma coast, South Africa.

The Milky Way arcs downward to the raging seas of the Tsitsikamma coast, South Africa, passing rugged folds of quartzite (I think – I’m no geologist) gently lit by nearby cabins. This was also posted for +African Tuesday *African Rocks* on Google+ so let’s also assume a good proportion of these stars harbour planets or asteroids, many of which will be composed of rock! (and metals, and gas) Technically they aren’t African planetary rock formations yet, but Africa has the Southern African Large Telescope located in Sutherland, South Africa, and the Square Kilometre Array will be built across South Africa and Australia. So there’s a good chance that planets will be discovered through the lens of African “glass” and by my book that makes them African rocks.

This is a mindblowing place to sit hidden among the rock folds for a few hours in the dark night, waves quietly crashing around, silence behind, millions of jewels shining above, and the galaxy slowly – noticeably – drifting across the sky.

Technical notes: 15 seconds at probably f/3.2 or f/4.0 using the Samyang 14mm f/2.8 (manual aperture so not in Exif), which is an outstanding lens and great fun to use – very sharp in the corners/edges and not much coma (there’s some trailing in the very limits of this image due to the exposure time) on the Canon EOS 5D Mark III at ISO 3200, which is a very low ISO from someone who’s used to cranking up the 7D to unforgivable noise limits and still needing 25-30 second exposures, which all the trailing that entails. Mounted on a Manfrotto 190 CX PRO 3 tripod with a 501HDV fluid head, accompanied by a can of Castle or two.

Review: The Masters of Nature Photography


The Masters of Nature Photography is a hardcover book published via the Natural History Museum (UK) and is very closely linked to the globally renowned Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. I bought this book a month ago but an article today by the Guardian (tdlr; welcome, but incomplete) prompted me to revisit it and write up the thoughts it provoked in me.

It’s unusual, but this is one book where the photographs are outshone by the words. You’ll have seen many of the wonderful images before, and the Guardian article exhibits them nicely, but this isn’t the point of the book. The point of the book is to explain, to give insight into the encounter, or the challenge, or – and I felt this particularly in a 21st century, high capability culture – to get a sense of how difficult things were in the past, even just 10 years ago with low ISO film and constrained decision making ability. It is the text that should warrant your investment in this book, rather than the photographs – particularly you, the photographer, but also you, the awe-struck citizen who admires the dream-makers.

Keen wildlife photographers will known Rosamund Kidman Cox well, who provides the introduction (and I assume some oversight!) to the book – Ros was editor of BBC Wildlife magazine for 23 years and has been involved in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competitions and particularly the annual compendiums resulting from the competition, as well as a very welcome fixture at the annual WildPhotos conference held at the Royal Geographical Society in London. A comment she makes in the introduction appeals to me:

“Though the tools they work with are far better than in the days of film, tools are just tools. Knowledge and experience, and vision and passion, are still the most crucial elements.”

The book spans 30 years of wildlife photography and picks out only 10 photographers – each choose 10 of their favourite images. 10 photographers is a small number, but they are 10 who delineate almost the whole spectrum of wildlife photography, with different (conflicting?) views, different equipment, different vision, and different risk levels.

I dare not spoil the prize that awaits the purchaser of the book too much, but some personal highlights – just 5 of 100 images – of humility, integrity, and steely arrogance stand out:

  • “Sometimes I look at this picture and think I can’t believe I shot it” (Ice Wolf, Jim Brandenburg, 1968 on Kodachrome 64 (I would think the same today with a 5D3 on 4000 ISO))
  • Baby Clowns by David Doubilet – if I have seen this photograph before I don’t think I can have spent enough time on it to understand it at all. When I first saw the photo – in the book, the typical layout is one image facing text on the opposite page – I might still have skirted over it, which says more about me than the photographer or designer – we are too fast, too quick to decide on our indulgence in a new thing, too quick to dismiss. This is an utterly, utterly astonishing photograph which brings tears to my eyes and shows astonishing vision, both technically and emotionally, on the part of the photographer.
  • “The last mega-mammals on Earth, running out of time” (Twilight Of The Giants, Frans Lanting, 1988 and a near-perfect shot for many new photographers to dream about)
  • “I moved around until I found a good angle and then waited a few hours until the swans had finished resting” (Volcano Swans, Vincent Munier, 2008 – great photographers wait, and it’s because they know something always happens; you have to be in the right place, time will sort itself out)
  • “It was too late.” (Whiskey, Michael “Nick Nichols”, 1989 – I can’t even look at this photograph, let alone think of creating it.)

There are many more, and photographers I haven’t mentioned who are no less deserving of inclusion in the book but for whom I’d rather people read the book and give each page time to sink in. This isn’t just a coffee table photography book, it’s a compelling journey through the minds and the eyes of the photographers who have awakened a renewed sense of natural belonging, risk and hope, and who have successfully brought it into the public eye, in part through such valuable events as WPOTY. For the new and aspiring wildlife photographer I would be likely to recommend this book above almost others in that it gives both breadth and depth – for the experienced wildlife photographer, well, if you aren’t continually aspiring and haven’t seen anything new recently then I’d go and seek out that, and take the book with you to inspire your journey.


A group of triumphant African elephant wander away, trunks swinging, from the watering hole in Kruger Nationanl Park.

To kick things off for Google+’s African Tuesday here’s My African Favourite – elephants. No matter the excitement we experience when seeing kills, unusual activity, or new species of mammal or bird, we still end up with a longing to see elephants just doing their thing, keeping close, clearly communicating and exploring the world. There are several species which exist in their own taxonomic order themselves – effectively their own branch of evolution, and elephants for me (since we don’t have living dinosaurs) are the most emblematic icon of the natural diversity we have on this planet, and their tender interactions point to their longevity both as a species and as families.

In this image, a group of triumphant African elephant wander away, trunks swinging, sated from the watering hole in Kruger National Park. Elephant appear and disappear with astonishing speed – they are huge, but the gentle trees that patter the landscape are usually bigger and swallow these creatures silently. Unusually, I think elephants can be picturesque subjects from both behind and front, due to the oversize nature of their appendages (and those massive air conditioning ears!)

Africa is so diverse, but when you look at the habitat maps (at least for southern Africa) of elephant it’s surprising to see the small range of elephant. Indeed when we traveled to Kgalagadi, despite the wonderful landscapes and amazing setting in which to see cats, birds, ground animals and wonderful stars, Africa somehow didn’t seem Africa without at least a hint of these wonderful – but confined – friends. That’s why elephants are my African favourite on Google+’s African Tuesday today – we’ve just this afternoon arrived back from a long trip in SA including Addo, so hopefully tomorrow we’ll be able to add some more.