Being prepared as a photographer in a digital world

IMG_20130608_193915

This is a technical post about what to do when (before!) equipment fails and how to work around difficulties in non-urban locations. Earlier this year we travelled to Kruger National Park with a small group and spent a fantastic two weeks exploring the southern part of the park. We’d been before and have plenty of experience in Africa and isolated locations. The first few days went well technically and thankfully this was the period we saw most wildlife. As the trip went on though, our equipment started to misbehave. In this post I’ll take each occurrence, detail what happened and what I’d do differently in the future.

Hard drive glitching or failure – having an alternate approach

We usually back up our CF cards to a pair of Freecom Tough Drives before clearing them ready for the next day’s shoot, and use a laptop to do the copy. On this trip, something odd started happening: extreme lockups for 30 seconds or so whether nothing was possible, then a return for 10 or 20 seconds, and back into a lockup. The computer was basically unusable (not helpful for Marie trying to prepare some work materials on holiday) and this was the first time it’d exhibited this behaviour. I suspected an SSD failure but out there not much can be done to work around it – the laptop went back in the boot of the car and stayed there.

Three things to learn:

a) don’t change anything before you go on a trip. We hadn’t, actually – the SSD has been in use for some time, but clearly something updated or the disk hit some issues which meant it performed terribly. Once I got back, I had some success through updating the Intel RST drivers, but even then there are issues with Windows 8 which mean I’ve switched back to a spinning disk for greater reliability in the field.

b) take plenty of storage for your cameras. We were a little pushed by the end up the trip, to the extent of having to use our near-abandoned 1Gb CFs cards on the final days, which with 25mb files coming out of the 7Ds is like using your final roll of film. We just scraped through, and obviously could have started to sift through the early cards to erase clearly missed photos, but that just cuts into your day.

c) take a second operating system. Probably the main learning experience from this particular drive failure is that when you are only using the laptop to do data transfers (rather than Lightroom processing or editing) then it doesn’t matter much what you are using. In future I’ll take a USB stick with bootable Ubuntu installed so that if the laptop drive fails entirely – and this is always a possibility – there’s still the opportunity to use the machine as a bridge between camera and external disk. There are other ways to do this – a Nexus 7 or smartphone can feasibly be a backup with the correct cables and software.

DO change things before you go on a trip – fix any bugs

In contrast to the above advice not to tweak and play around with a stable system, one of the major frustrations for me was having a Canon EOS 7D which had performed flawlessly for the previous 3 years but suddenly started freezing once we’d reached Kruger. It would seize up entirely without warning and responded to nothing – even the power switch had no impact. The only way to get back into shooting mode was to remove both batteries from the grip and re-insert them, at which point it’d be available again. This was clearly frustrating on self-drive safari, where things happen quickly and you have seconds to stop the vehicle, pick up your camera, and find that nothing works.

After I returned home I discovered there had been a firmware update a couple of months previously which addressed this problem, and having applied it I haven’t had the same lockups since. However it’s one of those cases where it is worth spending the time to ensure that everything about your gear is clean and in order – and a rare occasion where ‘if it ain’t broke (yet) don’t fix it’ is not applicable: keep an eye on the release notes from your camera manufacturer and if something seems a serious issue, even if it isn’t hitting you yet, consider upgrading the firmware to avoid disappointment on location.

SD cards which are too slow for HD video – the importance of testing and knowing your gear

On a whim after seeing Charlie Hamilton-James’s fabulous shots of cheetah in infrared we fancied a try and had bought a little Olympus XZ-1 (“Little Yellow”) due to reports of the infrared blocking filter being pretty ineffective. Experiments in the far north of Finland with Little Yellow and an infrared pass filter were interesting (see below) – however the slow shutter speeds required, the resulting high noise from a smaller sensor camera, and the fact that you have to pre-focus before attaching the black filter made it clear that this wouldn’t really work in somewhere as fast paced as Africa. While preparing for the trip we decide at the last minute to splash out for a DSLR infrared conversion – as existing 18mp+ users we picked up a second-hand Canon EOS 550D (“Big Blue”) from Protech Photographic. Great service from both companies – the camera had been on both round trips in less than 10 days and was ready to roll.

However, this meant little time for testing, and even though we’re used to using Sandisk Extreme CF cards in our DSLRs, the 550D’s SD card slot tripped me and for some reason I went for normal Sandisk SDs. It wasn’t until later in the trip that we realised that while the RAW capture rate was fine, any attempt to capture HD video (yeah, in infrared) was thwarted as the cards just couldn’t keep up for more than a second or two.

Action: know your equipment, think about your needs, don’t scrimp

Test shot of Finland trees in infrared, showing black sky and light white branches and leaves

Twinned

Twinned

One of my favourites from our recent trip to Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, two swallow-tailed bee eaters spent half an hour flitting around the trees surrounding our vehicle in the Kalahari. Unmissable streaks of colour about 20cm long, bee-eaters are a delight to watch and caused frequent emergency stops as the cry ‘just one more picture’ rang out on discovery of yet another species by the roadside.

Protected?

A white rhino is very unimpressed with our company. Taken using a Canon film SLR in Kenya 2004.

The white rhino. Near threatened according to IUCN, but the IUCN don’t work in Kruger. In 2005, 13 rhino were poached. In 2007, 13 rhino were poached. In 2009, 122. In 2011, 448. Between January 2010 and May 2012, 991 were killed in Kruger National Park – that’s nearly 6% of the global population in 30 months, with an increasing acceleration. You figure out the rest.

Affluent people think rhino horn will protect them against cancer. It won’t. Even if you evade cancer you will die in a car crash or from heart disease, so the efficacy of alternative medicine (or any medicine) is largely irrelevant when it comes to insulating yourself from death. 30 years later you will be retired, less affluent but will be able to go on safari, you will be more wise and will be in awe in the glory of the world, and you will wonder where all the animals have gone. Look inside your soul.

Please share photos of our gorgeous rhinos, but be careful to remove any GPS or keyword information that provides the location of the rhino, as poachers use real-time data to track rhino populations. Poachers are mostly just trying to looking after their own families – it’s the level above which is criminally profitable – but the whole chain is ethically wrong.

We do a lot of stupid things to the environment but most can be rationalised by our society’s and personal progress and a general aspiration to be better next time. I am guilty of some of these things. But ingesting a rhino without any credible evidence is just murder.

DIE HAPPY; DON’T MURDER OUR GLORIOUS FRIENDS.

RHINO HORN IS NOT MEDICINE
角是不是药
코뿔소의 뿔은 약이 아니예요
গণ্ডার শিঙা ওষুধ নয়
Рог носорога это не лекарство
قرن وحيد القرن ليست الطب
サイの角は薬ではありません
राइनो सींग दवा नहीं है
Rhino buynuz dərman deyil
Рог насарога гэта не лекі
Rhino adarrez ez da medikuntza
Chifre de rinoceronte não é medicina
Tanduk badak bukan ubat
رائنو سینگ دوائی نہیں ہے
Gergedan boynuzu ilaç değildir

…with apologies for lack of right-align, translation errors, and languages omitted. If you continue to intentionally use rhino horn – or to be honest, any medicine which uses endangered and threatened species – as part of your selfish and futile attempt to prolong your life, you have participated in a crime, and I will have nothing to do with you. Grow up. Cancer can be beaten; regret can’t.

(I have tried to avoid unsubstantiated hyperbole like ‘last of the dinosaurs’ but if something is factually wrong here please let me know and I’ll correct)

Published
Categorized as News

Our ‘losing’ wild dog Veolia Environnement Photographer Of the Year photograph

Family

I put ‘losing’ in quotes because no submission, no photograph can be counted as a loss. These beautiful wild animals that roam the earth in playful groups, caring for each other and their families, protecting their own species, so animated and enjoyable to watch and so ignored by tourists seeking the ‘big five’ which basically do nothing all day.

I also say ‘losing’ because this triangular family shot was one of our submissions to the Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition and were rightly rejected in favour of (amongst 48,000 others!) Kim Wolhuter’s wonderfully graphic and metaphorical shot of species fragmentation visible at http://www.nhm.ac.uk/visit-us/whats-on/temporary-exhibitions/wpy/photo.do?photo=2813&category=45&group=3

It needs a bit of back story, and we were privileged to have Kim talk at #wildphotos in London this weekend – I dare say more than a few were in tears at his evocative story of tracking a group of wild dogs, finding them gradually become infected by rabies (likely from tame dogs near the perimeter), and have to put each dog down himself in order to protect the group. Inevitably, this continued until there was only one.

Imagine seeing a family dissolve until there was only one, and then poof, it’s gone.

Imagine seeing a species dissolve until there was only one, and then poof, it’s gone.

Simple things can be done. Vaccinate tame dogs against rabies. Allow enough free range of land to prevent reliance on single areas of food and water which may become risky.

I must be honest: when I went to Kruger last year for the first time since our honeymoon in 2002 (when we had an OK experience) my expectations were that I would perhaps see one or two lions, or leopard; elephant I dearly hoped would be populous (and they were), but two species I knew would be unlikely: rhino and wild dog. Yet we saw all of these species, and many of each, and on the last day were totally surrounded by wild dog on the banks of the road for over an hour, relaxing, playing with each other, ripping an antelope apart (it’s food, remember), and chasing eagles up to the horizon. An incredible privilege.

Imagine seeing a species dissolve until there was only one, and then poof, it’s gone.

Wild dogs are endangered on the IUCN Red List – they estimate *6,000* remaining. Estimates will vary, but we saw 20 around our vehicle in a small area of Kruger. Statistically, that means roughly 299 other packs scattered around Africa – and Africa is big, you know? We could be wrong about our monitoring, but I’m not happy waiting.

There are things you can do:

Donate to African Wildlife Conservation Fund – http://www.africanwildlifeconservationfund.org/

Learn about wild dogs Neil Aldridge’s Underdogs book which includes a donation to African Wildlife Conservation Fund – http://www.conservationphotojournalism.com/awcf.html

Na’ankuse, a group which includes a wildlife sanctuary – http://www.naankuse.com/

Donate to the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust – http://www.bpctrust.org/wild-dog-conservation.asp

Donate to the Endangered Wildlife Trust in SA – http://www.ewt.org.za/

I’m not kidding – in 5 years we will have a major mammalian extinction due to human encroachment. If all we have ready is an apology then we are already on the way to disaster.

Published
Categorized as News

I Have Seen Tomorrow

I Have Seen Tomorrow

We went to a talk by Doug Allan (one of the key BBC cameramen for Planet Earth etc) last night in Manchester and he pointed out how humbling it is to stare in another animal’s eyes, and interestingly that *we* are usually the ones to break away (if you’re single or a man, you know what I mean) – a silverback gorilla stares at you, and you look away until you feel enough time has elapsed that you’re settled internally and can build up confidence / reduce fear to maintain eye contact.

Once you get there, you bristle from head to toe with emotion. You settle into a trance, you watch the tiny movements, you try so hard to *keep* the contact and not let your partner drift away; you flirt, in a way. Sometimes – sometimes – you even stop firing the shutter.

As you’d expect, the experience is better in smaller groups, ideally pairs, ideally alone, ideally without a vehicle or other obstacles, just you, the wildlife, and a bottle of Château Pétrus. It doesn’t – perhaps shouldn’t – be a lion, perhaps better not since lion are often asleep and uninteresting to watch. But find their eyes, don’t be afraid to lock gaze, and see what you feel.

(Make what you wish of the title.) This is the whole image as captured, no crop. Fair enough it’s at 400mm on APS-C; according to the image details this means the distance from the lioness is 3.8m. (is this a new thing in Windows 8?) That sounds about right. She was in the shadow of the vehicle for much of the time, so pretty close.

Published
Categorized as News