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Kruger National Park Photo session - March 2013

Posted by Joe Lategan on Monday, May 13, 2013 Under: Kruger National park Photoshoot March 2013
I spend some time at a low water bridge north of Letaba camp watching and photographing birds catch fish and the interaction between them. What was interesting and pretty to watch was that each bird has his own little fishing spot just like fishermen around a dam or river would do. They each have selected habitat or fishing spots.

The small black lily-trotter, the smallest bird of the lot was going for the smallest fish in the shallowest piece of the flow or he was last in the food chain of small fish, not that it is not man enough to stand its ground against the largest birds however. Quit a feisty character I might say. The hammerhead would catch in a little deeper water but only a meter away from the Lilly trotter and the lapwing would concentrate on the opposite  side of the low water bridge or the downside where water starts flowing   over the bridge catching fish swimming downstream before they swim over the road. These were all fish that tried to escape from predatory fish, crocodiles, and catfish approaching from this side. They are naturally the smallest fry as well.
Here it forms a dam wall in the river before it runs over the road and runs down a series of small rapids down the other side of the road.
The other birds prefer to catch on the down flow side of the river where water ran over a few rocks into shallow stream between the reeds. They all swim upstream like most fish tend to do and naturally the larger fish that migrating.

A giant heron that were the most nervous of all the birds flew away when I initially approached with the vehicle took 2 hours to return and move closer to my vehicle where he waited for the larger fish lowest downstream and away from the vehicle. Every time too large a fish swam up stream towards the smaller birds they would let the fish swam past   to be picked off   by the bird that thought it was large enough to swallow it. 
I waited anxiously for a large enough fish to swim upstream for the heron to swallow and luckily within 15 minutes I could hear a relatively large fish came rushing up the stream between the reeds. This was audible when you got used to the general sounds of the flow. The water here was about 3cm deep and relatively fast. The fish really had to swim strong to move upstream. The smaller birds immediately moved away to  gave way to the heron that moved closer to the water in an instant hearing that a fish is approaching but not yet  visible. Just one strike and...Fish on! Luckily I was close enough to get only the head into the frame with a 400 mm lens.  Due to its long beak the image filled the frame with the fish   in its beak. As soon as it lifted its head with the fish in its mouth I saw it was a small tiger fish and pressed the shutter instantaneously. 

I was much chuffed when I saw the tiger fish’s set of teeth. It turned sideways and that made it easier to get the fish and the head in the frame as I was on an aperture of f4 only I think.  

The water that ran over the road was not more than 2mm deep and fish from 10mm to 15cm swam over as the instinct to move up stream controlled its senses instinctively. It was also here that the kingfishers caught their fish as it was deep enough for them to dive into the water. Of course they are much more difficult to catch as they tend to fly all over and selected fishing spots very erratically. If you don’t have a branch that has been identified on   its fishing route that you can sit and wait at it is not very easy to get them in the action diving for a fish. So within 2 meter of water there were, the lily-trotter, hammerhead, green heron, blacksmith lapwing, giant heron, and king fisher, crocodile, catfish and tiger fish fishing! 

Besides that there was a smallish monitor lizard gulping up fish by the dozens every 30 minutes. The crocodiles were also present in the water on the wall side of the river before the water ran over the bridge ready to grab any of the larger fish that made it past the heron swimming upstream. They grew big over the years living at this bridge. A few meter upstream a group of hippo also moaned while I was capturing the images just ensuring I had the right sounds in the background to set the mood for my morning at the office.

Why did I pick to sit here at the low water bridge and not drive around looking for lion or other big cats like all the other photographers?
Knowing what I know about the habitat and evaluating the intelligence I had from the ranger and other visitors I decided that there is not much action in the immediate area and made the call to pick a spot where the most animals were grouped together and to stick to that spot regardless of the results. The small habitat (shallow water) favoured by all the species made it extremely possible to capture a variety of species interactions. Most people would race around to get to a kill of mega predators but if the chances are slim for that, images of a few other kills such as birds of prey or other smaller creatures would do as well. In other words I normally ask myself what would be the best images at the end of every day when I returned to camp if there was a competition on. If you are a professional every day must    bring in a sellable image or good enough image to use in marketing on one or the other platform.
The interaction of species regardless of the size is normally a good spot to spend time at.

After spending half the day in the sun I had at least a half dozen images I could use in any international coffee table book and without a doubt one of the best images that were captured anywhere in the Kruger Park for that day. 
The following made that possible.

What it takes to capture these images
1. Patience. To sit still in the middle of the day in the African sun takes a lot of patience and mental toughness as well as physical stamina. I perspired tremendously during the 3 hour session on the low water bridge. 
2. Ability to stay still in the vehicle and not make a lot of sudden sideways movement and  not to move any part of my body outside the vehicles window. The lens also must not move in and out of the vehicle but stay on the bean bag or tripod. I keep my head behind my camera and try to not move behind the camera. I would never have been able to capture the image of the heron if I didn’t basically freeze for two hours. As soon as other vehicles attempted to move closer the heron would fly away. I also always wear a camouflage bandanna. Stay away from white caps or clothing.
3. Plan ahead. The bridge was very narrow and I knew other vehicles would have to pass from the front and back. I had to thus park on the very edge of the bridge and had to allow vehicles through or past between me and the birds that were very irritating as some people have no consideration and would see you take photos and still park between you and the birds. Consider what the movement of the sun will be to get your angles right. What are the chances that larger animals could come and drink at the water and where could it possibly take place? Look at game tracks leading to water. Do you have enough water, snacks, sun block etc.
4. Knowledge of the birds or animals behaviour. They start behaving differently when they see or hear fish moving upstream. To get them at the moment of impact with the water or fish is very difficult but not impossible if you can predict the moment they are about to strike and press the shutter. So knowledge of the subject they prey on is also important. As far as I’m concerned the most knowledgeable person on the subjects being photographed will almost always outperform the rest. All world class photographers are extremely knowledgeable nature lovers.  You must then be sure of how many images your camera can capture on high speed continuous shutter release. For my best results in this instance I used polarised glasses in the stream and could see when a small fish struggled upstream and got my shutter finger ready when the head of the bird started moving towards the movement in the stream.
5. Concentration and Alertness. Even if you know the behaviour of the birds or animals it will not secure the special image if you are not alert throughout the session. There is absolutely nothing I think of when I’m busy waiting to capture a specific behaviour of an animal. My finger stays on    the   shutter almost for the duration of the session whether it be a morning or afternoon session. And when something special is expected I will keep it on the shutter the whole day every day. It is thus better to break the day up into two sessions as your concentration is affected by too long sessions. There are other reasons you  need      to be alert at all times and that is that you should concentrate on the subject at hand and at the same time scan the area for other potential images. Most photographers will lock onto a subject once the action is on and forget what’s happening behind them due to shear excitement. Most images are missed due to this inability to not be totally submerged into the action covered by the lens.
6. Knowledge of your equipment and awareness of the environment. When the weather changes the slightest bit like a cloud that rolls in front of the sun I must be able to change the ISO or the exposure compensation without looking at the camera but merely instinctively feeling the button like a blind piano player. 
7. Know the location of your back up equipment or supporting equipment such as batteries, flash guns extra batteries, cleaning gear, back up camera, lenses etc.
8. Safety. The sun must be treated with respect and sun block needs to be applied every morning. Then the equipment needs to be moved as the sun move during the sessions. I always cover my equipment with a towel and clothing if not in use an if my lens need to be on the tripod or bean bag in the sun I also cover it to protect it from the sun. I don’t cool down my water but make sure I keep it from the sun as well as my snacks or food for the session.   I always carry an emergency supply of water as you never know what could happen. If   your vehicle breaks down it can take the whole evening before you can drink or eat again. During almost all my last photographic sessions I was dehydrated after the third day as I forgot to drink enough water and especially replacing electrolytes.  
9. Know your back up equipment. When you have two different camera models or more make sure you still know the ins and out of the other as well. I struggled with this recently when I had to use my back up camera and luckily had the book at hand. Also make sure you are familiar with new equipment. On the same trip I recently had to replace my fixed lens with a zoom lens and kept on taking photo at 200 mm missing some great shots due to this. I was not used to a zoom lens and thus never checked its focal distance. Every time I moved the lens sideways when panning with moving animals on the bean bag I moved it down from 400 to 200mm.
10. Play back your creative ability while you wait for things to happen and remind yourself of the equipment and accessories you have in your bag or case. This will make you think out of the box when the action happens. It happens almost every time when I captured a very good image that moments later regretted not using my flash or using another lens or not using two flashes or different camera etc. I always travel with photographic magazines to stay in the zone and to constantly stimulate and motivate me.

Lion and hyena images
We had a very quite morning and afternoon photo sessions on the road. I spent the whole morning at a water hole and took a long drive in the afternoon with very little results. I was   just making the remark to my host and friend that I have not seen such little animals before  on the main roads(Including birds and reptiles). We were running late and all the other vehicles were in the camp when suddenly a lioness appeared in the middle of the road with a very small cub in her mouth galloping down the road in the same direction we were heading in.

I had to drive next to her and it was just impossible to get a nice shot as she covered a lot of ground fast. I tried to race ahead and let her run into the shot but I didn’t want the tar road and she was coming down the tar road in the picture so after three attempts aborted the technique. Never the less I tried with the long lens but every time she was next to the vehicle or my window I had to take a shot. She had a collar  on that also irritated me and I knew I had to get a shot more from the front to hide the collar or from the grass but I would have had to leave the road and that is illegal. One image that worked was when she looked towards me when I drove next to her. Then I also had to take   the image from lower than the vehicle window as to not to get the tar road in the picture and   therefore I had to drop my hand with the camera outside and towards the road to get level with her. The sun from behind us into the lion also didn’t work and I knew I had to get on the other side of her to get the sun from behind to give some dimension to the image as the sun was now very low and lit up the grasses on the side of the road as well as her silhouette very nicely. I thus had to drive with the one hand and grabbed my other camera that had a 105mm lens on and popped the flash for some fill flash into the sun.

I did not have time to change lenses to put on the wide angle or a 50 mm. Using the one hand to drive I pushed my one arm out of the window below the window to get to the level and hoped she would look at me which she did from time to time as my hand and camera was probably between 1 and 1, 5 meters away from her while she galloping and calling for what I think was another cub and listening. Of course I didn’t have time to select the proper settings but realised I had to get the shutter up as it was a bit low for my shaking arm. I immediately afterwards realised I should have done a slow shutter moving shot with a fill flash. It would have been awesome. I quickly thought of a image directly into the Sun to get a ghost like image to reflect upon the dwindling numbers of lions cubs in Africa. Of course to get that the conditions had to be just right and straight into the sun with a bit of flash maybe, but definitely overexposed. Not being behind my camera to look through the view finder whether I could see if the sun was directly into the camera I had to guess how low and at what angle I should hold the camera. I got one image close but not really what I envisaged. This all had to happen within a very   short period as she was really moving with a   purpose and I had to still also make the gate in time. I probably had 4 minutes left to make it and made the camp 1 minute late but lucky for me the gate guard was also 1 minute late for duty. He literally walked towards the gate as we drove through.

The next day in the afternoon also after running a bit late but this time with almost 39 km's to go on the tar road that I didn’t expect much to happen on a hyena appeared on the side of the road with the same   size cub as the lioness the day before. The den was literally beneath the road in a storm water pipe. There were no real photo opportunity but never the less we had to make use of the serendipitous moment as much we could. To see a lioness with such a small cub running along the road is exceptional to say the least and to see a hyena with the cub also in the tar road is very special. I made the camp just in time again.

In : Kruger National park Photoshoot March 2013 

Tags: "kruger park photo shoot" "kruger park photographer" "kruger park wildlife" "hammerhead" "green heron" "goliath heron" "nile crocodile" "tigerfish" "lion photo" "lion cub" 
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About Me

Joe Lategan I am a extreme lover of the "creation", and hater of destruction thereof. Photography allows me to share in a deeper dimension than words with fellow men/women, my feelings in this regard. I am a inspirational speaker on the sustainability of the environment and and creation. On the other hand I present, consult and drive Cost leadership programs (including Disaster/ emergency preparedness and systems analysis,risk and ethics) for corporations