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Photographing elephants in Kruger Park

Posted by Joe Lategan on Sunday, October 6, 2013 Under: Kruger National Park July 2013

On my first day of my photographic workshop / safari in The Kruger National park I took a casual drive to get my mind in one with the bush. I spotted a heard of elephant on the opposite side of the Sable dam and locked or embedded that in  my mind’s eye  as it was breathtaking to  view the elephants from such a low vantage  point right in front of me across a dam but also in full view of the camera or the telephoto lenses.  A few days later at my   photographic seminars in the Kruger  National Park and Phalaborwa I eluded to the photographers that if I lived like them in Phalaborwa I  will definitely spend more time  at this dam and wait for elephant or other animals for that matter  to entertain me on  the opposite side rather than waiting or chasing after   lion to  photograph. As luck would have it,  (not really) as I drove into the loop at the dam after the seminars were completed, at that very moment the elephants totally unexpectedly came rushing through the bush as if my prayers were  heard just like I pictured  the scene in my mind’s eye. Of course I knew that if the  elephant would appear on the opposite side  to drink it would be good but these things don’t really happen that         quickly, it takes many  years to capture a scene that you dream about. Especially wildlife.
This time I took an afternoon drive and at around 15: 00 I guessed it would be drinking time for the elephants and planned my trip accordingly. Well it was... on the second as I drove into the dam road.

The splendour of the moment was awesome. Like a curtain of a stage opening in a second and the most majestic scene happening instantaneous. A whole heard of all sizes  including babies that varied from two days old , week old, month old controlled   and protected by the large ones breaking through the line of Mopani’s hugging the dam with ears flapping and trumpeter noises  overwhelmed me at first. The youngest  elephant was clearly protected in the water by an older sister still very young as    well as the older females. It was no different from a group of humans approaching the  waterhole. It had many souls, a spiritual experience indeed. The baby elephants was constantly protected against falling into the water by all the other elephants. Because  of the cold temperatures the elephant don’t submerge into the water . They basically  drink or spend very short time at the water so the dramatic water shots that one gets   in summer were not  going to be possible I knew instantaneously. I went for the compositions at the water   in large format first. Once a baby slipped and fell into the water and the mother in an instant pushed her up with her front leg. The shock of the moment when the baby fell into   the water was captured and can be clearly seen in  the dramatic wide eye of the baby.

Regarding the photographic approach to a situation like this, well the moment overwhelms one so, mistakes and over excitement are eminent. Which camera and lens to pick and the settings as the sun appeared and disappeared behind the clouds   every other minute making different pictures all the time so being aware of the  changes when small batches of low cloud roll in over the scene is crucial.
Regarding lenses the larger animals like elephant require small focal lengths and I  normally make the mistake to crop to tight. With my elephant shots I wanted to use the 200 to 400 zoom in for real close ups of the point of the trunks in the water and the  eyes etc and around the 250mm for the full body compositions as it was just the right distances. Not checking my zoom level left me with 200 mm shots as I pushed the zoom back accidentally in the quick handling and never checked it due to the over excitement of  the situation. A zoom lock on the lens would have done me wonders as the mistake  was made many times during my month long visit to the park. Subconsciously I was used to a fixed 300mm fixed lens that doesn’t move focal lengths if it was handled. Once again the excitement totally confused the mind as concentrating on the  composition and just selecting the image to capture out of huge variety takes up the   most time

Shutter speed and ISO.
The major challenge I had during my July Kruger Park trip was the movement of the clouds.  This off course creates a nice even light with little contrast when the cloud  covers the scene    but when for instance water that are sprayed that splatters and need to be frozen it just   pushed the shutter too low and it was not be possible. When the sun did come out for n few seconds the harsh light was good enough for  action freezing but didn’t give me the even soft light I wanted. To push and  drop the  ISO  every time the clouds move in  or out is extremely difficult and bound to destroy many images especially when you need to maximise the opportunity as the elephants  drink very fast in the winter compared to the summer when they bath and  can spend  hours in the water. In my situation clouds would cover the scene from         everything between 10 seconds and two minutes only. I found that it was best to  select an   average ISO setting that needn’t have to be changed every time. Then it depends on how good ones cameras high ISO quality or noise levels are. So here is   where the full  chip top end camera comes in and are so expensive. One can still blow up to A0' sizes   with ISO 800 or 1000  and even more if  that is ones market or style.
White balance
Now white balance is the other main decision in this type of situation. If you have to switch between sunlight   and overcast it would create similar problems than with the   ISO situation so leaving it on auto would be the best as the cameras also have good auto white balance these days. I made a few blobs due to the fact that I wanted to test the manual white balance settings of my new camera.

In : Kruger National Park July 2013 

Tags: elephant 
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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