Frolicking Friday

Impala enjoy a friday night in the South African bush

One Friday afternoon as we were heading back to camp (in Kruger National Park, South Africa), we came across an incredibly playful group of Impala. They were bouncing, chasing each other, mock fighting, charging and seemingly just really enjoying a rare cool afternoon. We stopped to watch them for a while and it became apparent that there was a ‘path’ that they were all ‘racing’ on, which took them through a tunnel of trees. I decided to set my infrared camera up to try and capture a shot of them running through the trees – but the light was not right. For once, the sun was hidden and the impala were in too much shadow. However, after 10 minutes the sun broke through through the clouds for a brief moment and cast a shard of light into the trees – just as the impala ran through. Heart pounding I took the opportunity to capture a shot (and hoped for the best). This is the image that resulted.

For the majority of my infread photography I use an infrared modified Canon 550D and favour the prime 50mm lens.

Double snatch

Double Snatch

Two southern carmine bee-eaters catch flying insects simultaneously, in Kruger National Park.  Tough light here as it is nearing 7am in a South African January, there is some air distortion and I couldn’t convince the sun to come a little further round closer to us to better fill the faces.  Never mind, glad these chaps found some breakfast that morning 🙂

South Africa is a truly amazing country, and if you get the chance to visit I urge you to do so.  Photos from our trip are available in Taraji Blue’s South Africa photo gallery. If you’re planning a visit you might find my trip reports of interest on the Taraji Blue Kruger Park blog. 


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.

Being prepared as a photographer in a digital world


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

Meet Mr Crotchety Pants…

Mr Crotchety Pants (2)

This is Mr Crotchety Pants, he lives around Lower Sabie in Kruger National Parks and he does not like me one bit! When I say he doesn’t like me – it’s not like he’s taken a slight dislike , he REALLY does not like me – to the extent that he almost ran us off the road. Here’s how I lived to tell the tale…

It was  a lovely afternoon – the sun was beginning to lower and the temperature had become very pleasant. We set out from camp for a game drive and decided to take a nearby loop road to enjoy the last few hours of the day. Barely a few km down the road we saw a HUGE bull elephant standing beside this tree. Due to the low vegetation height we saw him in plenty time and parked a very respectful distance from him to see if he’d walk on. I was the driver that afternoon and really did not want to scare the mother-in-law too much by driving too close (she was in the front passenger seat beside me).

As the elephant started to amble toward the road it became evident that we’d need to wait this out – as there was no way I was going to try and squeeze past him to continue our drive – nor was I too keen on getting any closer. So I popped the engine into neutral and we waited patiently. After about ten minutes we’d started to form quite a queue of traffic behind us and I was worried that, on this single track road, the other drivers might start getting very impatient (unfortunately not many people are that respectful of elephants and will happily drive on quickly by). It was at this exact moment that I recalled how closely packed the row of cars behind us was that the elephant took an immediate dislike to me. He swung to face us head on. Standing in the middle of the dirt track, ears spread wide he raised his trunk towards us. The sense of annoyance was intense. With a very meaningful and not well intentioned gait he started to stomp towards us – throwing out his right front leg to the side as he approached. It became very clear that this was a very unhappy ellie. I had no chose but to start the engine up – something that rattled him even more and he sped up, coming closer every second.   My heart was racing and adrenaline was pumping through my body – I threw the car into reverse gear but had no where to go as the car behind was right up my jacksie. I started to gesticulate to the driver behind – but he seemed oblivious – it was only when he saw the elephant through our front window that he realised that hulk of grey was not bad weather in the sky, but a very angry bull. Regardless, I decided that I could not afford to wait any longer – I was petrified. I started to reverse, figuring that the worst that could happen is that I forcefully push the guy behind me back and have a dented rear-end for the pleasure. Thankfully the driver behind got the message – and he too started to reverse into the guy behind him – it felt like the slowest chain reaction in the world.

After reversing a good distance back we thought that might placate the elephant. It didn’t. We had a glorious couple of minutes to settle our beating hearts before the whole scenario repeated itself… three more time! I desperately wanted to do a three point turn – but the road was so narrow there that I could not afford the time to turn – in seconds he’d be bearing down upon us again. It’s on this day that I became very accomplished at reversing!

After what felt like a very long time, and many grey hairs later, I was afforded a few minutes to turn the car around on a slightly wider piece of road – this allowed all the cars behind to get a good view of Mr Crotchety Pants and caused an immediate reaction – three cars turned on their heels and sped off, dust billowing behind them. I wasted no time in following suit. Mr Crotchety Pants became the undisputed king of the road!

Further trip reports from Africa are available here.
Photos from our trip to Kruger National Park are available in our Taraji Blue online photo gallery.

Mr Crotchety Pants