The ones that got away

I get nervous before I go on photography trips. Part of that is just worrying about travel arrangements, visas and packing everything I need, but another part of it is worrying that I won't get the shots I want. Here are a few examples of 'the ones that got away'.

Taj Mahal

Before I went to the Taj Mahal, I was determined to get the classic 'Lady Diana' shot of the building from the end of the reflecting pools. That was the whole point of the trip, and I was really worried about it. I couldn't face the idea of screwing up what would probably be my only opportunity to visit the world's most famous building.

When I arrived in India on a G Adventures trip in November 2013, we went to the Taj Mahal early one morning, around 0530. We had to queue for a while and then go through security. At that point, I was about to rush off and take the shot I'd been dreaming about, but our tour leader then introduced us all to a local guide who was about to give us a 15-minute lecture about the building. What a nightmare! I knew that the whole place would be crawling with tourists if I didn't go and take the shot immediately, but it seemed a bit rude just to rush off without hearing the talk. In the end, I was too British about the whole thing and missed the shot of a lifetime. Too bad. On the plus side, I ended up with this image of the Taj Mahal.

'There once lived an exotic princess in a fairy tale castle...'

It's the very opposite of the 'Lady Diana' shot. One is all symmetry and clarity, the other is misty and mysterious. The higgledy-piggledy minarets and the blue haze make the building seem more like a fairy tale castle. I do like this shot, but I still regret being too polite to get the one I wanted...!

Jumping impala

Not quite sharp enough...

This would've been a great shot. It could've been a great shot. It should've been a great shot. But it wasn't. Why? Motion blur. If you look closely, you can see that the whole body is slightly out of focus, and that was simply because I didn't think to change my shutter speed. I was parked in a jeep in Botswana when a herd of impala came chasing across the road. They were galloping fast, but there were five or six of them, so I did have time to focus on each of them, one by one, as they crossed the road in turn. Unfortunately, I was using my default camera settings that were designed to capture animals that were standing still. I was using an 80-400mm lens, so I had my camera on 1/320 and f/8 with auto ISO. That would normally have worked, but not for a jumping impala! What I really needed was a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 of a second. I just didn't think...

Caracal

This is what it looks like on Wikipedia.

A few years ago, I went to a talk given by Paul Goldstein somewhere in London, and one of the slides he showed was a picture of a caracal. I'd never seen one at the time, but Paul was very proud of his shot, which showed a caracal from the side running through long grass. The image stayed in my mind, and I was very excited when I went to Tanzania in January 2018 and actually saw one for myself! It was quite a way away, but I had my 800mm lens with me, and I was just about to take a shot when the driver told me to wait. He was going to drive around and get closer. Well, funnily enough, the caracal disappeared, and I never got the shot I wanted...

Polar bear

The best of a bad bunch

In June 2014, I went on an Exodus trip with Paul Goldstein to Spitsbergen to see the polar bear. It was a last-minute booking, so I got a good deal on the price, and I was lucky enough to share a cabin with a nice French chap called Eric, but the real prize was getting some good shots of a polar bear. We had 13 or so sightings, but, sadly, they were all too far away for my 500mm lens. That was in the days before I got into the habit of renting the Nikon 800mm monster, and I really wish I'd had it then. Amongst other sightings, a mother and her two cubs put on a great show for us on the ice, but, when I got back to my cabin to review my shots, I found they were all too soft and too distant. Ah, well, at least I have an excuse to go again now...

The kill

I've been to Africa several times now, visiting Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Zambia and Botswana, but I've never seen a kill. I've seen the chase, and I've seen the predator eating its prey, but I've never seen the crucial moment of the kill. Now, I know some people would be a little squeamish about seeing one animal kill another, but I don't think I'd feel that way. To me, it's the ultimate expression of 'the survival of the fittest', and I'd love to see a lion, leopard or cheetah kill something on the great plains of Africa.

I have many stories of 'the one that got away'. There was the time when I climbed Mount Kenya and arrived back at the camp, only to find that everyone that morning had spent an hour watching a pride of lions kill a wildebeest 50 yards away from the gate of the national park! Or there was the time on the same trip when I booked the wrong flight home and had the chance to spend an extra day on my very own personal game drive. We saw a cheetah 'timing' (or hunting) an impala, and it was the most exciting thing that's ever happened to me in Africa - but no kill. In Antarctica, I watched from a Zodiac as a leopard seal ripped apart a penguin, but I didn't quite see the initial attack. In the Brazilian Pantanal, I was watching a jaguar on the river bank from a small boat when the call came over the radio that lunch was ready. No sooner had we met up with the other boat than we had another call, this time to say that the very same jaguar had just killed a caiman! We rushed back and watched as the young jaguar made a mess of the whole thing. To begin with, he had hold of his prey by the throat rather than the back of the neck. This is fine if you're a lion, but jaguars prefer to kill caiman (or small crocodiles) by nipping them on the back of the neck. This jaguar was in a bit of a bind: he didn't want to kill the caiman the 'wrong' way, but he couldn't change his grip in case it got away. He spent 10 minutes humming and hawing before finally killing the caiman, but that was only the start of his problems. His next job was to find a safe place to store his prey, but the banks of the river were 8-10ft high and very steep, so he spent another 25 minutes trying to find a way up into the undergrowth, desperately trying to drag the 10ft crocodile with him. By this stage, around 20 boats had gathered to see the jaguar, and, when he eventually managed to scramble up the bank with his kill, everybody gave him a big round of applause!

I'd rather have seen the kill than stopped for lunch!

 

Conclusion

All this goes to show exactly how close I've come to the elusive kill, but no luck so far. However, I'm off to the Masai Mara in a couple of weeks, so maybe, just maybe I'll be able to bring back the shot I've been dying to get...

Safari bingo: animals

Tired of always having to ask your safari guide what you're looking at on a game drive? Here's your cut-out-and-keep guide to the most common animals. Shout 'Bingo!' when you've crossed them all off...but not too loudly!

Cabárceno

The best safari destination you've never heard of!

A bit of an animal

A bit of an animal

Photography is a lonely business, so I was delighted when a friend called Tammy from my old camera club asked me to go on a wildlife workshop in northern Spain. "Spain?" I hear you ask. "What on earth is there to shoot in Spain?" Well, there's a little gem that nobody's ever heard of called Cabárceno. (In case you were wondering, it's pronounced kuh-BAR-thuh-noh). It's official title is the Parque de la Naturaleza de Cabárceno (or Cabárceno Wildlife Park), and it's a Longleat-style safari park that has hundreds of animals from all over the world in large enclosures perfect for taking pictures. You can't actually enter the areas reserved for the animals, but all you have to do is look at the map of the park, drive to the animal you want to see, get out of the car and start taking pictures. There's no waiting around for hours or driving aimlessly in the hope of spotting something - the animals are all where they're supposed to be, and that means the photographic opportunities are endless. I took nearly 4,000 pictures on the first day, which is more than I've taken anywhere else in the world!

The course ran for two days (17-18 June 2017), and it was run by a wildlife photographer called Marina Cano. Tammy told me she was very famous in the industry, and I was certainly impressed by the shots I saw on her website, so I had no problems signing up. I wasn't sure I'd get much from any tuition that was on offer - and that turned out to be the case - but I decided it was worth it just to be able to see so many animals so cheaply without all the hassle of long-haul flights to Africa, India or South America. 

Tammy and I flew in on Friday evening, stayed the night at a couple of local guesthouses just outside the park and then met up with everyone at the entrance at 0900 the next day. There were 12 guests, plus Marina, her partner Michael and a couple of assistants called Paco and Luis.  Most of the guests were Spanish and spoke little to no English, but we were lucky that a lovely northern couple called Barry and Christine changed their plans and made a last-minute decision to join us. That meant that the four of us from England could drive around in the same van, and we had a lot of fun together.

After spending an hour waiting for everyone to arrive and filling in forms and finding our passports to get tickets for the park, Marina gave us a briefing over coffee at one of the local cafés, telling us what the plan was and asking if we had any questions. The general idea was that she would take us to the best viewing spots, and we would get out and take pictures. Simple as that. She also gave us a bit of 'homework', which was to choose our five best shots for her to review the following day.

On day one, we ended up going to see the gorillas, then the bears, then the lynxes, zebras, cheetahs, lions, lynxes (again!) and finally the ostriches, with the odd giraffe, elephant and Bengal tiger cub thrown in. On the second day, we saw pretty much the same animals but with the addition of a couple of white rhinoceros, a herd of fallow deer and a glorious encounter with a hippo, which opened its mouth incredibly wide almost as soon as we arrived - and then did it again! We also went to see the birds of prey, and that was a good chance to take close-up 'portraits' of red kites, bald eagles, golden eagles, peregrine falcons, vultures and - my personal favourite - the black-chested buzzard-eagle.

The general format was to spend three or four hours taking pictures in the morning, then stop for a long lunch at a restaurant at a little village just outside the park and then go back to take more pictures until around eight o'clock in the evening. The days were pretty long, and we had to cope with a rather unusual heatwave that meant temperatures rose to 33°C at times, so were were pretty tired when we finally got back to the various 'posadas' where we were staying. That made it quite hard to do our homework on the first night, as most of us just wanted to go straight to bed! However, we all managed to produce our five images for the review after lunch the next day, and that was the most educational part of the whole course.

Image #1

Image #1

Image #2

Image #2

Image #3

Image #3

Image #4

Image #4

Image #5

Marina gave some sensible feedback, and I was very impressed with most of the pictures people had taken. Even though we'd all seen exactly the same animals from exactly the same spots at exactly the same time, the quality and variety of the images was amazing! It just goes to show what's possible with a little imagination, and Tammy in particular produced a very creative picture of the two lynx side-by-side that looked just like a pen-and-ink police mug shot! That inspired me to try over-exposing (and under-exposing) my shots that afternoon rather than just taking the same old, same old sunny 'record shots' that didn't have an ounce of emotion in them.

It was a shame we didn't review all the images a bit earlier, as we only had a few hours to practise what we'd learned, but the trip wasn't quite over. We had a free morning on the Monday before our flight in the afternoon, and Barry and Christine kindly offered to drive us round the park in their motor home! That was a real bonus, and we got some great shots of a barnful of Ankole-Watusi cattle and the two white rhino lying side-by-side under a tree.

All in all, it was a great trip, and I thoroughly recommend Cabárceno if you're looking for a cheap and cheerful way to take great pictures of animals you'd never usually see without spending thousands on a long-haul safari. We were lucky with the people we met, and there wasn't much actual 'teaching' from Marina and her team, but that's only a minor quibble. Yes, the workshop cost €295, but the Ryanair flights from Stansted to Santander were only a hundred quid, the Posada Venero and Cabárceno only charged €50-60 a night, and an annual season ticket for the park was only €55, so what better place for a do-it-yourself safari! Can't say fairer than that. 

 

Species list

Animals

African elephant
Ankole-Watusi
Bengal tiger
Bison
Brown bear
Canada lynx
Cape buffalo
Cheetah
Common ostrich
Eland
Fallow deer
Giraffe
Grévy's zebra
Hippopotamus
Lion
Lowland gorilla
Rhesus macaque
White rhinoceros

Birds

Bald eagle
Black-chested buzzard-eagle
European griffon vulture
Golden eagle
Peregrine falcon
Red kite

Butcher's bill:

1 x lens hood (it fell off into the bears' compound, and they ended up eating most of it!)

 

Norman Plastow Gallery 2016

"Every picture tells a story"

Opening day...

 

My travel and wildlife photography exhibition is over now, so I just wanted to say a big thank you to everyone who came along. I hope you all enjoyed the show! 

Thanks also to the Norman Plastow Gallery and to Norman himself for dropping by again. I had 93 visitors in six days and sold 11 greetings cards, two unframed prints, two A3 framed prints and two 80 x 60cm framed prints.

Here are all the comments people wrote in the visitors' book:

V. good!
— Dave
Chill!
— Emma
Beautiful photos
— Kathy
Fabulous!
— Sarah
Love them all!
— Sarah
Just fabulous!
— Jane
Lovely work!
— Leigh
Wonderful photographs, Nick. Great sharing memories of the Antarctica expedition. Looking forward to your next show!
— Lynne
Must come back!
— Patricia
Great work and interesting talking to you.
— Lars

Putney Artists' Open House

I had 48 visitors over the past couple of weekends and sold three of my favourite prints.

Peekaboo pig...

Peekaboo pig...

I just wanted to thank everyone who came to my Open House exhibition on 1-2 October. I hope you enjoyed the show!

I sold one framed print of a pig that I saw in a little village called Tordi Sagar in India (see image above), two unframed prints, one postcard and eight greetings cards, so it was well worth the effort.

If you're interested in coming along to any of my future exhibitions, I have a couple of events coming up:

  • The Glaziers' Art Fair on 24-26 October at Glaziers Hall, 9 Montague Close, London SE1 9DD. Opening hours are 1000-1630 on Tuesday and 1000-1700 on Wednesday, and there's a ticketed private view on Monday from 1800-2000 (see http://glaziersartfair.com).
  • 508 King's Road Gallery, London SW10 0LD. Opening hours are 1000-1800 (see https://www.facebook.com/508kingsroad/).

Thank you also for your comments in my visitors' book. Here's what you had to say:

Really impressive
— Jill
Awe-inspiring!
— Ujjayini
Great
— Lola
V. good
— R
Thank you.
— Anna
Great job!! Lovely owl!
— Andrea
Great!!
— Dom
Great!
— Adrian
Fantastic!
— Chris
Amazing!!
— Phillipa
Lovely
— Madeline
Amazing!
— Blanka

Getting the most out of game drives

The worst part about taking pictures is knowing you've just missed a great shot. Here, I try to help wildlife photographers learn from 'the one that got away'.

The one that got away...

This would've been a great shot. It could've been a great shot. It should've been a great shot. But it wasn't. Why? Motion blur. If you look closely, you can see that the whole body is slightly out of focus, and that was simply because I didn't think to change my shutter speed. I was parked in a jeep in Botswana when a herd of impala came chasing across the road. They were galloping fast, but there were five or six of them, so I did have time to focus on each of them, one by one, as they crossed the road in turn. Unfortunately, I was using my default camera settings that were designed to capture animals that were standing still. I was using an 80-400mm lens, so I had my camera on 1/320 and f/8 with auto ISO. That would normally have worked, but not for a jumping impala! What I really needed was a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 of a second. I just didn't think...

In order to avoid moments like that, here are my answers to a few obvious questions:

What equipment do I need?

Good question. It's obviously too late to do anything once you're on safari, so it pays to get your equipment sorted out beforehand. People often ask me what camera I use, and it reminds me of a story I heard about Ernest Hemingway. He went to a photography exhibition in New York and was so impressed he asked to meet the photographer. 

Hemingway: These pictures are great. What camera do you use?

Photographer: Well, I use a Leica with a 50mm lens for most of my shots. I'm actually a big fan of your work, too, Mr Hemingway. I've read all your novels. Can I just ask: what typewriter do you use...?

The point is obviously that a good camera doesn't necessarily make a good picture, and it's mildly insulting to photographers if you ask about their equipment without complimenting them on their talent! However, all other things being equal, a good camera can make life a lot easier for wildlife photography. I'd suggest getting a full-frame DSLR with a zoom lens with a maximum focal length of at least 300mm, preferably 400mm or more. The problem with a bridge or DX camera is that you won't get the quality you're after, as they don't have large enough sensors. I started off with a bridge camera and thought the zoom was great - until I saw the Nikon DSLR one of the other guys had! I had a severe case of 'camera envy', so I emailed a friend of mine who was a professional photographer to ask what he would get. He recommended either Nikon or Canon, but Canon made photocopiers, so that was out of the question! Instead, I bought myself a Nikon D800 - complete with 36.3 megapixels! - and it's served me well ever since. I now also have a D810, which is an upgraded version of the D800. Having two cameras means I don't have to worry about changing lenses. Instead, I carry them both cameras on a SpiderPro holster that looks a bit like an old Western cowboy's gun belt. I can take them out and put them back with just one hand, and I can lock them in place if I'm going on a boat ride or clambering over rocks and don't want to take any chances. 

As for lenses, I mainly use an 80-400mm on the D800 and rent an 800mm prime on the D810. They're both made by Nikon, and for a very good reason. I tried a Sigma 50-500mm and then a Tamron 150-600mm lens, but the images just weren't sharp enough. I now manually check the autofocus of all my lenses using Reikan Focal automatic lens calibration software. All you do is print out a 'target' and set up your camera on a tripod to take pictures of it from a certain distance away. Once you load the software, it guides you through the set-up and takes a number of exposures automatically, just asking you to change the manual focus adjustment anywhere from -20 to +20. When the routine is finished, it gives you a PDF report showing the optimal adjustment value - and that's what persuaded me to use only Nikon lenses. I'd been on a trip to Svalbard and wasn't happy with my shots of the polar bears, which were all just a little bit soft. One of the other guys on the trip told me he did a manual focus check, and that's when I started doing it, too. It was only when I bought my new 80-400mm lens that I realised the huge difference in sharpness: the Sigma and Tamron were down at around 1400 on the numeric scale, and the Nikon was way up at 2200! In short, check your lenses. They're mass-produced items, so there's always bound to be some slight variation in focus, and you'd rather fix it yourself than have to use it as an excuse when you don't get the sharpness you want.

I also make sure I always pack a polarising filter together with a lens cleaning kit (with sensor swabs and cleaning fluid), a beanbag (for resting the lens on the windowsill of a jeep) and my laptop (so that I can download and work on my pictures in the evening). If I'm going to be near a waterfall, like Iguazu or Victoria Falls, I'll also take my tripod and a 'Big Stopper' neutral density filter to give me the chance of taking creamy pictures of the water with a  long shutter speed.

What else should I do before I leave?

Getting the right equipment (and changing the time zone on your camera!) is one thing, but you can help yourself out by booking the right holiday in the right location at the right time. Check when the 'long rains' are if you're going to Africa. Check when the peak season is for wildlife viewing. Check if it's possible to visit when there's a full moon or - even better - a harvest moon. You can ask all these questions (and more) to make sure you get the very most out of your trip. One useful site for African expeditions is Safari Bookings, which allows you to search for packages by location, duration and price. I also like to travel light. I hate the whole airport experience, so I avoid having to check any bags in by having a roll-aboard camera bag and packing all my clothing into a jacket that has a pocket in the lining that goes all the way round. It looks a bit funny when you walk through customs - and some people just couldn't do it - but it saves me an awful lot of time and bother. If you’re a birdwatcher, you might also want to invest in an app to help you identify the local species. I downloaded one called eGuide to Birds of East Africa, and it’s excellent. It does cost around £27.99, but it’s very quick to check the name of a bird - which is often what you need to do when your guide tells you what it is but you’re too embarrassed to ask him how to spell it!

What should I take with me on the game drives?

If you're a keen photographer, you won't want to miss anything while you're out taking pictures from the 4x4, but that doesn't mean you need to take the entire contents of your camera bag! I would simply take your camera(s) and your longest lens(es) - protected by waterproof covers - plus a couple of spare batteries and a lens cloth. A beanbag might come in handy on certain vehicles, but that's about it.

What should I wear?

I generally cover up to avoid sunburn and insect bites, so I generally wear green cargo pants, a long-sleeved shirt, a floppy sun hat and trainers. (It's very easy to get sunburn, though, so do slap sunscreen on any exposed areas before you leave.) I also take a jacket on morning game drives as it gets quite cool before sunrise. If it's a walking safari, I'll wear hiking boots instead. I avoid baseball caps as it's hard to look through the viewfinder without bumping the camera on the brim, and sunglasses rather get in the way when I'm taking pictures. My wardrobe consists of greens, browns and blacks. I'm not sure if animals are exactly frightened by bright colours, but you'll get some funny looks from the other guests if you turn up in hot pants and a Day-Glo pink T-shirt!

What camera settings should I use?

There's an old photographer's joke:

Fan to photographer: I love your pictures. What settings did you use?

Photographer to fan: f/8 and be there!

The point is that 'being there' is more important than any camera settings, but that doesn't mean they don't matter at all - as shown by my shot of the leaping impala.

Exposure

The 'Exposure Triangle' consists of the aperture, shutter speed and ISO value, and these are the only three ways you can change the brightness of the image: either having a bigger hole, keeping it open for longer or increasing the sensitivity of the sensor. A lot of beginners stick to automatic as they don't trust themselves to use manual settings, but they lose a lot of control by doing that. The camera doesn't know how fast the animal is travelling or how much of it you want to be in focus, so how can it possibly decide the best combination of shutter speed and aperture? Why not experiment a little and decide for yourself the kind of image you're going to take? Now, you still have to make sure you get the correct exposure somehow, and I'm not suggesting you use the exposure meter and manually change the settings for each shot! What I do is start off with a good set of general-purpose settings and set the ISO to automatic. That way, I get exactly the shutter speed and aperture I want, but the camera makes sure it's correctly exposed. The general rule is that you need a shutter speed the inverse of your focal length, so, If I'm using my 80-400mm lens at the top end of the zoom range, that means around 1/400th of a second. (Bear in mind, though, that you have to take into account the speed of the animal as well as how steady you can hold the camera!) I generally like to take 'portraits' of the animals, so I want to throw the background out of focus to emphasise the eyes. That means a wide aperture such as f/5.6, but I've started using f/8 because my lens tests tell me that both my lenses perform at their sharpest at f/8, and I want the maximum sharpness I can get. The problem comes, obviously, when there's not enough light to use your default settings, or the animals are moving too fast. That's when you need to take charge and make a difficult decision: which is the most important, the shutter speed, the aperture or the ISO? If it's a fast-moving animal, the shutter speed obviously takes priority. If the light level is dropping, then you probably want to compromise and change both aperture and shutter speed by 1/3 of a stop (or more). Most stock agencies don't want pictures taken at high ISO values (640+), so that's something to bear in mind if you're trying to sell your work.

Autofocus

Manual focus has its place in macro photography and in low light conditions, but wildlife photography generally demands that we use one of the two methods of autofocus: single point (AF-S on the Nikon) or continuous (AF-C). I generally keep my D800 with the wide-angle lens on single point, as I'll be using it to take landscape shots, but I keep my D810 with the long zoom lens on AF-C 3D, as I'll be using it to take pictures of animals. In fact, sharpness is so important for wildlife shots that I use what's called 'back-button focusing', which means setting up the camera so that I can focus by pressing the AF-ON button on the back with my right thumb. The AF-C 3D setting continuously focuses on one particular point on the animal that you select when you first press the AF button, and it magically follows that point even if the animal is moving. It's not perfect, but what it does mean is that you don't have to worry about losing focus when you half-press the shutter and then take a picture. By separating the focusing from releasing the shutter, you get the best chance of getting that all-important sharpness in the animal's eye.

White balance

You can always change it in Lightroom later (or another image-processing software package), but I generally still try to update my white balance setting as the light changes. It saves time later, and it follows the general principle of trying to get everything right in camera. Messing around in Lightroom should always be a last resort.

Quality (RAW)

Shoot in RAW. There. Is. No. Alternative. 

Other settings

One of the confusing and frustrating thing about the DSLR is the number of settings there are and the fact that you can't 'reset' everything in one go. It would be wonderful if there were one button that would do everything, but there isn't. There are mechanical as well as electronic settings, so it's impossible to assign one button to change both. As it is, it's worth having a mental checklist to go through before you go out on the game drive and even while you're out there. The main settings to monitor are the following:

  • Mode: Manual, unless you've never picked up a camera before...

  • Shutter speed: 1/1000 (I know the 1/focal length rule, and I know Nikon's Vibration Reduction and Canon's Image Stabilisation mean you might get away with up to four stops 'slower', but animals move too quickly to take that chance!)

  • Aperture: f/5.6 or f/8, depending on how big the animal is and therefore how much depth of field you need

  • ISO mode: auto

  • Exposure compensation: None, unless you're photographing a very bright or dark animal such as a polar bear on ice or a gorilla

  • Autofocus: AF-C 3D on the Nikon, continuous servo on the Canon

  • White balance: Daylight - if it's your typical African sunny day, although you can always change it later if you shoot in RAW

  • Active D-lighting or Auto Lighting Optimizer (ALO): Auto or off unless you're taking a picture into the sun and want detail in the shot (It's a kind of in-camera HDR to squeeze the histogram for images that would be too contrasty otherwise.)

  • Lens lock (off, obviously - you don't want to miss a shot because you can't zoom in!)

  • Artificial horizon: if you have symbols in your viewfinder to tell you when the camera is straight and level, then do use them. It’ll save you an awful lot of time later on straightening horizons in Lightroom…!

What should I do on the actual game drive itself?

Although you may end up spending many hours on game drives without seeing much of interest, it's very important to be ready for anything. That means paying attention to a few simple guidelines:

  • Tell your guide what you want to do or see. For most people, the epitome of the safari experience is to see a kill. To make sure you have the best chance of doing that, I’d suggest asking your guide to try and find the big cats for you and then - crucially - to stay with them for as long as it takes. Leopards are ‘ambush’ hunters, so that won’t work unless you’re very, very lucky. Lions are possible, but they tend to hunt in the evening. The best are probably cheetahs as they hunt during the day and - when they do - offer spectacular opportunities to see the fastest land mammal sprinting at up to 70mph! However, if you’re a bit squeamish or if you’re worried about your children seeing something that might upset them, you might ask your guide just to drive around with no particular plan in mind, stopping to take pictures of whatever you happen to see. If you have a specialist interest such as birds, for example, you’ll need a different strategy. Birds don’t come very high up most people’s list of things to see, so you might need to arrange a one-off day for all the birders in the group. In general, though, you should just make sure that you let the driver know when you want to stop and when you’re happy to move on. It’s your holiday, so don’t be afraid to ask for what you want!

  • Make the most of the sunset. If you’re in a national park, it can be very frustrating towards the end of the day when you have to get back before they close the gates, which is usually around 1800-1830. That means missing out on all sorts of possible opportunities, including taking pictures at sunset. The good thing about going to a privately owned ‘conservancy’ is that, first of all, you’re allowed off-road and, secondly, you’re allowed to stay as long as you like! One way to get great shots is to drive to the brow of a hill around half an hour before sundown, find a herd of animals and then take shots of them in silhouette against the sky. Just make sure the horizon is nice and low so that you make the most of all the colours.

  • Make sure you're camera settings are correct. It may sound obvious, but it's no good being lazy and thinking, "Oh, I'll set the shutter speed and the aperture if an animal comes along." There's often very little time to get a good shot before the animal turns or moves away, so the last thing you want to be doing is checking your settings. Just stick to the basics, with the shutter speed at 1/1000, aperture at f/5.6 or f/8 and the ISO on auto. If it's still a bit dark in the morning, that might not work, and you might have to reduce the shutter speed or increase the aperture, but the important point is to make those decisions in advance, not when you're about to take a picture.

  • Get into a comfortable position from which it's easy to take pictures. If you have more than one camera or a camera with a long lens, find a good spot for all your equipment so that it'll only take a few seconds from spotting an animal to taking a picture. If you're in a jeep, that might mean winding the window down half-way so that you can rest your lens on it or taking your shoes off so that you can stand on your seat if there's a pop-up roof. Just don't end up in the same predicament as a friend of mine, who thought his camera wasn't working when he'd actually just left the lens cap on!

  • Keep a good look-out. Your guide or driver will usually be very good at spotting animals and birds and stopping in the right position so that you can take a picture, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't pay attention. I generally sit in the front seat and point things out as we go along. If the animal is far away or it's something common like an impala, I'll just say, 'Impala on the right', but I'm quick to tap the driver on the shoulder if I spot something more interesting. Even if you end up right at the back, don't be afraid to tell the driver to stop. He may have seen it all before, but it's your trip and your memories!

  • Tell everyone where and how far away the animal is. If they see an animal, a lot of people will just point and say, "Oh, look!" or "Over there!" but that's not terribly helpful unless it's a herd of elephants on a treeless plain! It's difficult to follow someone's arm when they're pointing from a different position, and it's hard to know where to look if you don't know how far away the animal is supposed to be. I'd suggest using the 'clock' method and giving a rough estimate of distance. For example, if you see a lion on the right side of the vehicle, you might say, "There's a lion at three o'clock about 100 yards away."

  • Take care of your kit. A lot of safari destinations are very dusty or sandy, and it's easy for your camera and the front lens to get covered with a film of dust, so be sure to clean them regularly. It's often hard to tell if you have a lens hood, but it's worth checking. When I was in India, I wiped the front of my 800mm lens with a lens cloth after a couple of hours on the road, and it turned almost completely red from all the dust!

  • Keep the noise down. Animals and birds are easily spooked, so try to keep your voice low, either when you're chatting to other guests or when you spot something. There's nothing worse than getting a great sighting of a leopard or something, only for someone to scare it off by talking too loudly...

  • Don't rock the boat. The best wildlife shots need a rock-steady platform, so twisting around in your seat, standing up, sitting down or generally moving around too much is a nightmare for the other photographers. If you have to change position, either wait until other people have taken their shot or do it very slowly and gently.

  • Be considerate. Tempers often get a little frayed in the excitement of the chase, so do be aware of the other guests and what they're trying to do. If you jog someone's arm or tell the driver to move on before someone has finished taking pictures, just apologise. You're there for a once-in-a-lifetime experience, not to hack off your fellow guests!

What makes a good photograph?

Dust, air and spume. That's the Holy Trinity of wildlife photography, according to Paul Goldstein, who is a wildlife photographer and also a great speaker and raconteur. I went on two of his trips to Spitsbergen and Tadoba, and I've seen several of his presentations. The idea is that 'dust' is thrown up by the movement of the animals and gives you a sense of dynamism and energy, 'air' means that an animal is in the air and about to land - so we have a sense of anticipation - and 'spume' is the spray that is thrown up by movement in water.

That's just Paul's view, and there are obviously other aspects to the question. One thing that he also points out is the difference between a 'record shot' and a 'photograph'. To him, a 'record shot' is just a snapshot, a picture that records exactly what's in front of you, but a 'photograph' is something that obeys the rules of composition and has been consciously constructed by the photographer to provoke an emotional reaction. There aren't that many rules of composition in wildlife photography, but it's worth bearing them in mind when you're out shooting. Here are a few of the common ones:

  • Fill the frame. Robert Capa once said: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” People don't want to have to search the image for the animal, so zoom in or ask your driver to get closer so that you can make it the centre of attention!

  • Use leading lines. Where available, they can lead the eye of the viewer into the image, for instance in a picture of an impala on the horizon crossing a road leading into the distance.

  • Use the Rule of Thirds. Human eyes don't like things that are too symmetrical - unless you can manage a perfect reflection - so try to put the focal point of your shot off-centre. That adds dynamism and a different kind of balance.

  • Focus on the eyes. People don't care if 99% of an animal is out of focus as long as the eyes are sharp.

  • Capture the moment. A guide in the States once compared my shots to those of another guy on the trip. He said that Stefan's were always technically perfect, very sharp and with gorgeous, saturated colours, but mine were all about the moment. I take that as a compliment. It means you have to wait for the right moment to take the shot. Don't just keep clicking away like a Japanese tourist by Big Ben. Compose your shot and then wait for the animal to do something to make it more memorable. It could be a sneeze, a yawn - anything! - but it will mark your picture out as special.

  • Tell a story. The tagline to this website is 'Every picture tells a story', and that's a goal we should all aspire to when taking pictures. What are we trying to say? What mood are we trying to create? What's the emotion behind the shot? It's not always easy, but picking exactly the right composition can create humour, joy, sorrow, horror and any number of other powerful reactions - which is just what we want.

  • Break the rules - selectively! Obeying the rules will give you a nice, balanced image, but Paul for one hates 'nice', and I can see his point. Sometimes, the best way of creating a strongly emotional image is to break a rule or two. You have to do it sparingly - and consciously - but it sometimes gives you that much more of a chance of creating a genuinely arresting image. One of his favourite techniques is the 'slow pan', which means following a moving animal or bird with a slow shutter speed and taking a number of shots as it goes past. The idea is to create a sense of movement by blurring the background and the legs or wings of the animal or bird while keeping the body and especially the eyes sharp. It's a technique that's very difficult to master. You have to do a lot of experimentation, and it helps to have a tripod! I once went on a boat trip in Svalbard and took 1,504 pictures of guillemots using the slow pan - but I only kept four of them! It sounds like a lot of effort, but it's worth it in the end.

A day in the life of a wildlife photographer

24 April 2016, Moremi

A spotted eagle owl looking very wise

My iPhone just about died yesterday, so I switched it off overnight. Miraculously, it's now back to 24%!

We saw leopard tracks but no leopard and then a lone impala to start the day. We were out for 90 minutes before collecting the other staff and the trailer. We then drove north towards Chobe NP. At one point, the road ahead was flooded. Contrary to what you may have been told, there's no bridge on the River Khwai, so we had to take a different route...

"Nkwe!" Makabu suddenly shouted, which I later found out meant 'leopard' in Setswana. He had just seen one crossing the road, and he immediately followed it. After a few yards, he stopped, got out and jumped on the roof to work out where it was, then he unhooked the trailer and drove after it off-road. You're not supposed to do either of those things, but I like the fact Africans think rules are there to be broken! The leopard escaped, sadly, but that means Makabu now leads 2-1 in big cat sightings...

Fun fact: 

'Nkwe' means leopard and 'tau' means lion in Setswana.

Having said that, our handyman chipped in with a great spot of a spotted eagle owl perched in a tree as we were driving past. It was just hidden by a branch, so I asked if I could get out and walk a bit closer. Makabu said I could, and I took a very rare picture. I've never seen a spotted eagle owl before...

We stopped for lunch (and to collect firewood), and I managed to get attacked by very prickly and sticky fertility grass. Not even thick socks are good enough protection against it. Then again,  you can always boil it up and drink the liquid if you're having problems with your womb!

At around 1400, we dropped off our team to make camp, then we went back out for another game drive. The radio chatter suggested there were lions out there and maybe even a leopard, but it all seemed like a wild goose chase until we saw a pair of young lions asleep under a large fever berry tree. They like it as it has the best shade, and - lo and behold! - you can also boil its leaves in water to cure a fever. Is there any plant out here that doesn't have medicinal properties?! We even had chance to come back later for some great close-ups.

Shockingly, I had to change my WB setting to cloudy a few times today. Very poor...

Fun fact:

You can tell which termite mounds are active by the presence of wet sand deposits on the surface.

Species lists:

We saw impala, black-backed jackal, tsessebe, low veld giraffe, hippo, warthog, Burchell's zebra, blue wildebeest, red lechwe, tree squirrel, chacma baboon, vervet monkey, elephant, waterbuck, lion, wild dog.

We ask saw birds including Burchell's starling, African darter, blacksmith plover, Swainson's francolin, helmeted guineafowl, red-billed hornbill, saddle-billed stork, grey hornbill, African fish eagle, spotted eagle owl, long-tailed pied shrike, African jacana, wattled crane, Cape turtle dove, little egret, Egyptian geese, Gabor goshawk. 

 

Botswana and Victoria Falls

If you fancy watching a herd of 30 elephants crossing a river, photographing a malachite kingfisher perched three feet away or seeing an elephant chase off a pride of lions, try Botswana!

Water. You don't realise how important it is until you've been on safari in Botswana. I'd been to Kenya three times, but I'd never been to the Okavango Delta or the Chobe River, and it made all the difference. You don't have the iconic silhouette of Mount Kenya or the wildebeest migration across the Mara, but the landscape is utterly transformed. If Nigella were writing the recipe for Botswana, it would be something like this:

1. Take a country like Kenya or Tanzania
2. Smooth off any surface imperfections (like Mount Kenya or Kilimanjaro)
3. Sprinkle with dead trees
4. Add water
5. Serve hot

The water makes the landscape itself beautiful - especially when your guide cuts the engine, and you're watching the sun set over the Delta! - and it acts as a great backdrop for wildlife photography. Which is why I was there in the first place...

Itinerary

The reason I wanted to go to Botswana was to take pictures in a different environment; the reason I was able to was that I had a wad of cash burning a hole in my pocket when a property deal fell through! Whatever the reason, it worked out well enough, as an Indian couple wanted me to teach their two young children in Nairobi from 11-17 April. I did the same thing last year, and it's been a pleasure both times. It also gave me a head start in getting to Botswana. I found a useful site called Safari Bookings that allowed me to enter the location, duration and cost of the trip, and I searched through all the possible options. A friend of mine Jason was thinking about coming, too, but he eventually couldn't get the time off, so I decided to go for broke. I was a once-in-a-lifetime trip - although I seem to do one of those every few weeks nowadays! - so I didn't want to compromise on the itinerary. A group tour would've been cheaper, but that would've meant spending more time in a big truck on the road, going to places I didn't really want to go to and having to put up with other people (eeeuuugghhh!). In the end, I found an American company called WorldwideXplorer that was willing to tailor their 14-day safari for me and me alone. Marisa looked after my booking, and she was always very helpful. It wasn't cheap, but I was guaranteed to see the highlights I wanted, starting off on Chief's Island in the Okavango Delta and then moving north through the Moremi Game Reserve and Chobe National Park before finishing with a helicopter ride over Victoria Falls. It was going to be a 'mobile safari', which meant I'd be travelling in a customised Toyota Land Cruiser with a local guide and two other staff, camping every night and making the most of all the travel time by spending every day on game drives from sunrise to sunset.

My route from Maun to Victoria Falls

The only downside to tacking the safari on to the end of my trip to Nairobi was that I had to go during the 'shoulder season'. That meant it was harder to see the animals due to a combination of denser undergrowth and altered migration patterns following heavy late rains caused by El Niño. It didn't look too promising during the first few days, and I had to have a couple of 'chats' with my guide Makabu about the itinerary, particularly when we didn't see a single thing on a two-hour boat ride! When a group of Germans arrived, we almost ended up starting our game drive at 0800 rather than 0600 until I let him know in no uncertain terms that wasting two hours was 'unacceptable'! Anyway, I persuaded him to get permission to junk the boat rides in favour of game drives, and we soon settled into a routine of waking up at 0530, leaving at 0600 on a game drive, eating a packed lunch, getting back at 1800 for a quick 'bush shower' and then dinner and bed. Once we'd left Chief's Island, we changed campsites every couple of days, which meant picking up our cook and handyman, hitching the trailer and then driving north. Our overall itinerary was as follows:

Night of 18 April: Flight from Nairobi to Maun via Johannesburg

19 April: Sedia Hotel, Maun

20-22 April: Chief's Island, Okavango Delta

23 April: Third Bridge, Okavango Delta

24-25 April: Moremi Game Reserve

26-27 April: Savuti, Chobe National Park

28-29 April: Ihaha, Chobe National Park

30 April-1 May: Waterfront Lodge, Livingstone, Zambia (near the Victoria Falls)

2 May: Flight from Livingstone to London via Johannesburg

Wildlife

The density of wildlife might not have been as high as in peak season, but we more than made up for it by the sheer number of hours we spent driving through the bush. I can only remember one day when we had more than a few minutes for lunch, and we must've spent over 100 hours on game drives and/or boat rides during our 10 days on safari. Apart from the rhinoceros, we saw all of the Big Five - lion, leopard, elephant and Cape buffalo - and we saw a total of 29 mammals and reptiles and 81 different types of birds, including my two favourites: the African fish eagle and the lilac-breasted roller (see list below).

African fish eagle on a dead tree. Thank God for DDT.

African fish eagle on a dead tree. Thank God for DDT.

Lilac-breasted rollers should be seen and not heard

Lilac-breasted rollers should be seen and not heard

My only disappointment was hearing the roller's call for the first time. For such a beautiful bird, why does it have to sound like an angry crow with a sore throat! Makabu's species knowledge was excellent, and there were only a couple he didn't know or got slightly wrong. Having said that, there was always a bit of a language barrier between us. We usually had to ask each other to repeat what had been said, and bird names are not the easiest words to pick up - you can imagine how many times Makabu had to repeat 'Swainson's francolin' to me!

As I say, I was in Botswana to take pictures, so the highlights for me were inevitably coloured by the ones that turned out well.

Birds

I'm very fond of the lilac-breasted roller and the African fish eagle, but my favourite bird encounter came when I was on a boat ride on the Chobe River. I spotted a malachite kingfisher in the distance and asked my driver to get a bit closer. He did as I asked and then cut the engine, letting the boat drift closer and closer. I immediately started taking pictures, and the bird got bigger and bigger in my viewfinder until it almost didn't fit in the frame. I was using a 400mm lens, but the malachite kingfisher is only a tiny bird, so I had no idea how close I had come until it eventually flew off. I put my camera down and realised I had only been three feet away from it! I'd seen one before in Kenya last year - again on a boat ride - but this shot was the mother of all close-ups!

It's called the malachite kingfisher because malachite is, er, green...

It's called the malachite kingfisher because malachite is, er, green...

Lions

We saw a lot of lions during the trip, but we were particularly lucky in Moremi, when we saw the same two lions at sunset and then early the following morning. We were able to get incredibly close - no more than five yards away - and the light during the 'golden hour' was fantastic.

I love the smell of impala in the morning. Smells like breakfast!

I love the smell of impala in the morning. Smells like breakfast!

Elephants

Chobe is famous for its herds of elephants, and I certainly enjoyed my boat ride on the Chobe River when I suddenly found myself in the middle of a herd of 30 elephants crossing from one side to the other! However, the most exciting moment I had came when we spotted a couple of young male elephants in the Delta and drove to within ten yards of them. They were happily eating the fruit that was being dropped by vervet monkeys in a tree when one of them decided to step forward and challenge us by trumpeting in full-on Tarzan fashion! I have to admit, that sent my heart racing! Makabu later told me elephants attack silently - so I needn't have worried - but I defy anyone to be calm when an elephant is trumpeting at you from five yards away - even Makabu started the engine at one point!

"Mud, mud, glorious mud! Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood..."

"Mud, mud, glorious mud! Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood..."

Lions & elephants

As if lions and elephants separately were not enough, they actually joined forces at Ihaha. We were driving along a track on the shore of the Chobe River at dusk when we saw a pride of eight lions lying in the shade of a tree. I could see an elephant heading their way, but I had no idea what was going to happen next. Out of nowhere, the elephant suddenly started trumpeting at the lions and then chased them all away! I've never seen lions move so fast...

Elephant 1 Lions 0

Leopard

The first time 'we' saw a leopard was in Moremi, although I didn't actually see anything at all. I was busy watching an impala when Makabu suddenly shouted, "Nkwe," which I later found out meant 'leopard' in Setswana. He had just seen a leopard cross the track right in front of us, and he immediately drove after it. After a few yards, he jumped on the roof to work out where it was, then unhooked the trailer and followed it off-road. You're not supposed to do either of those things, but I like the fact that Africans believe rules are meant to be broken! The leopard escaped, sadly, but we did see one three days later in Savuti. We had started our game drive at 0630, and almost immediately we saw a leopard sitting in the middle of the dirt track. It trotted towards us in the golden light, and I got some great shots - although I was worried my favourite was a bit blurred. You be the judge...

The cat who walked by himself...

The cat who walked by himself...

Victoria Falls

The other highlight, of course, was seeing the Victoria Falls for the very first time. The walking tour was useless - there was so much spray we couldn't see a thing! - but the helicopter ride was sensational, much better than the one I did over Iguazu a few weeks earlier. I'd managed to book a private tour, so I sat in the front seat and took pictures while the pilot flew over the falls and then went down into the gorges downriver.

It's a very dramatic landscape, so cresting a ridge and dropping down to a Grade 6 rapid is really quite exciting - especially as we were no more than 20 feet above the waves! I did have a few problems with reflections in the glass when shooting into the sun, but there was no window to open, so I just had to put up with it. It was only when we landed and I told the pilot I was a professional photographer that he told me that, if he'd known beforehand, he would've taken the rear door off and let me shoot from there! Grrrr...

Dr Livingstone discovered them, I presume...

Verdict

I'm very glad I decided to visit Botswana for the first time. I still have a sentimental attachment to Kenya, as it was the first country I ever visited in Africa and provided me with lots of happy memories of climbing Mount Kenya as well as seeing the Big Five on various game drives, but Botswana has the big advantage of water. It makes such a difference and turns the ordinary into the extraordinary. I just hope my pictures have somehow managed to capture that.

List of species

Animals

  • Banded mongoose
  • Black mamba
  • Black-backed jackal
  • Blue wildebeest
  • Burchell's zebra
  • Cape buffalo
  • Chacma baboon
  • Cheetah
  • Common warthog
  • Eland
  • Elephant
  • Ground squirrel
  • Hippopotamus
  • Impala
  • Kudu
  • Leopard
  • Leopard tortoise
  • Lion
  • Nile crocodile
  • Red lechwe
  • Sable antelope
  • South African giraffe
  • Steenbok
  • Tsessebe
  • Vervet monkey
  • Water monitor
  • Waterbuck
  • Wild dog
  • Yellow mongoose

Birds

  • African darter
  • African fish eagle
  • African green pigeon
  • African harrier-hawk/harrier hawk/gymnogene
  • African hoopoe
  • African jacana
  • African marsh harrier
  • African skimmer
  • Bateleur
  • Black crake
  • Black egret
  • Black-collared barbet
  • Black-winged stilt
  • Blacksmith plover
  • Brown-headed snake eagle
  • Burchell's sand grouse
  • Burchell's starling
  • Cape turtle dove
  • Cape wagtail
  • Cattle egret
  • Coppery-tailed coucal
  • Crowned eagle
  • Double-banded sand grouse
  • Egyptian goose
  • Fork-tailed drongo
  • Gabor goshawk
  • Glossy ibis
  • Great white egret
  • Great white pelican
  • Green-backed heron
  • Grey heron
  • Grey hornbill
  • Ground plover
  • Hadeda ibis
  • Hammerkop
  • Helmeted guineafowl
  • Hooded vulture
  • Kori bustard
  • Lappet-faced vulture
  • Lilac-breasted roller
  • Little bee-eater
  • Little egret
  • Long-tailed pied shrike
  • Malachite kingfisher
  • Marabou stork
  • Martial eagle
  • Meyer's parrot
  • Monotonous lark
  • Ostrich
  • Pied kingfisher
  • Pygmy goose
  • Red cormorant
  • Red-billed francolin
  • Red-billed hornbill
  • Red-billed oxpecker
  • Red-billed teal
  • Red-breasted korhaan
  • Red-eyed dove
  • Sacred ibis
  • Saddle-billed stork
  • Secretary bird/snake eagle
  • Slatey egret
  • Southern ground hornbill
  • Southern pied babbler
  • Southern red bishop
  • Spoon-billed stork
  • Spotted eagle owl
  • Spur-winged goose
  • Swainson's francolin
  • Swallow-tailed bee-eater
  • Three-banded plover
  • Water dikkop
  • Wattled crane
  • White-backed vulture
  • White-browed robin chat
  • White-crowned plover
  • White-faced whistling duck
  • Yellow oxpecker
  • Yellow-billed egret
  • Yellow-billed hornbill
  • Yellow-billed stork

The Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica

How to waste a lot of money on birds...

How juvenile

How juvenile

I put on a photography exhibition last year, and I had 15 shots I took in Kenya, Spitsbergen and India. I’d gone to Kenya to see the Big Five, to Spitsbergen to see the polar bears and to India to see the tigers, and I had plenty of good pictures, but they didn’t have any of those animals in them! It was a bit like that on my Antarctic trip. The one photograph on my shot list that I didn’t want to miss was of thousands of king penguins on Salisbury Plain in South Georgia. However, we were weathered out and then didn’t get there until the light was fading fast, so I didn’t get the shot. However, I did end up with five shots I was very happy with and nearly 400 that I can sell.

When people ask me how I got a particular shot or what my settings were, I usually make the old photographer’s joke: “It's f/11 and be there…!” Just ‘being there’ is a big part of wildlife photography, and the Antarctic is certainly the place to be for seals, birds and penguins. Lots of penguins!

Day 1

The trip was a cruise on the Sea Explorer 1 laid on by Polar Latitudes, and I booked it through Audley Travel. The itinerary started in Ushuaia, at the foot of Argentina, where we spent one night in a hotel and woke up to the most glorious sunrise. What a great way to start the day! 

"Now that was a pretty good day..."

"Now that was a pretty good day..."

The itinerary lasted from 31 January to 18 February 2016 and took in the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the Antarctic peninsula. I had booked it only a few weeks earlier, and I was lucky enough to have the very last cabin all to myself. (History does not record how many people turned down the chance to be my roommate!) I was told it was going to be a ‘luxury’ cruise, and the quality of accommodation, food and service was certainly excellent throughout. There was one particular duck salad that melted in the mouth! Our regular routine involved an early morning wake-up call from our Expedition Leader Hayley, then a buffet breakfast in the dining room on Deck 2, followed by a Zodiac cruise or ‘wet landing’ in the morning, a buffet lunch, another excursion and then a recap and briefing in the main lounge before dinner in the evening. However, that was only on days when we were within sight of land. On the other days, we had to make do with lectures from the expedition team. They were all very knowledgeable, but there were only so many times I wanted to hear about Shackleton’s adventures or learn about Antarctic rock formations! After a safety briefing and lifeboat drill, our first port of call was the Falklands - two days’ sail away! When the ‘detailed itinerary’ for the trip just says ‘a day at sea’, you know you not going to take too many pictures. I had to make do with trying to perfect the ‘slow pan’, taking hundreds of shots of the albatrosses and petrels following the ship with very little to show for it…

Day 2

A day at sea…!

Day 3

When we finally arrived in West Falkland, it was a gorgeous sunny day with no wind. A promising start, but I had first night nerves. I always feel nervous about taking pictures for the first time in a new place. It was the same before going to the Taj Mahal - it was the trip of a lifetime, and I didn't want to screw it up!

For our first Zodiac landing, we were split up into different groups named after penguins: blue, king, gentoo and macaroni. I put my name down for ‘king’ to join up with Phil and Judy, a nice couple I’d briefly met at the airport and then chatted to over various meals. Phil had a similar background to me and wanted to learn about photography, so I was happy to chat away about that. He was also a Watford fan, but the less said about that the better…!

We had a great morning on Saunders Island (apart from one of the staff being a little bit too officious), and we saw two penguin rookeries and an albatross nesting site on a rather steep slope leading to a cliff. One of the naturalists ‘Snowy’ took me down, but I had to crawl back on my hands and knees - it was a bit scary! The highlight was seeing a couple of king penguins looking after their chicks. Once we were all back, we had a buffet lunch, and I quickly went back to my cabin to import my photos. That was my regular routine after that. I always try to keep up-to-date when it comes to rating and editing the pictures I take, and there was usually plenty of time in the early hours before breakfast.

After lunch, we landed on West Point Island, where we saw a spectacular colony of black-browed albatrosses and their chicks interspersed with rockhopper penguins. All the birds were so close. At one point, the ‘voyage photographer’ Adam tapped me on the shoulder and I turned round to find an albatross perched less than a foot away! 

After the usual recap, I had dinner and then drinks with Phil and Judy and showed them a slideshow of my favourite photos and some I’d taken in the Galapagos. 

Day 4

I went to bed with the cruel sea outside my window; I woke up with two red telephone boxes instead! As someone once almost said, "Stanley, I presume…”

We went on a worthless expedition to Gypsy Bay, where the wind was blowing at 50 knots and we weren't even allowed on to the beach because of possible mines left by the Argies! I did see two Magellanic penguins in a burrow, but I went back to the ship as quickly as I could. I wanted to walk around Stanley, see the governor’s mansion and maybe have a pint in The Globe, but the weather was so miserable I worked on my photos instead. 

I was only interrupted when someone started cleaning my window from the outside...!

I had lunch on board - along with the only other 14 sensible people! - and then 'grazed' al afternoon. Food and drink is far too easy to get hold of when you have nothing else to do...

After the usual briefing (when Hayley confirmed that there would be a photography competition), I had dinner with Phil and Judy, a talkative and well travelled American called Tracy and an English teacher. Phil educated Tracy on our political system before the teacher and I almost got into an argument about the role of government. That's why you should never discuss politics at the dinner table!

Day 5

I had set my alarm for 0530, but even that was too late to capture any colour in the sky before dawn, so I worked on my photos - knocking out a couple that didn't quite make the grade - and read The Numbers Game, a book about sporting analytics. I then went to the 'Club' on Deck 4 for an early breakfast and then a Lord of the Rings-style 'second breakfast' of yoghurt and a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel in the dining room straight afterwards!

Hayley did her usual wake-up call at 0630 and announced that we had done 150 nautical miles overnight, with 1.5-2.5m swells and a 20kt following wind - perfect conditions, especially as it was a 'tropical' 14° outside!

We were being followed by another cruise ship, the Academic Joffe, and seeing it astern reminded me of the film of Patrick O'Brian's Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World. 

We were going to be at sea for the following two days, so they scheduled several lectures to entertain us: a guide to knowing your camera by Adam; a talk about why Antarctica is so cold, dark and windy by Jim; an analysis of Southern Ocean population dynamics by Elke; and a comic talk about sailors' superstitions by Rickard.

I had drinks and dinner with Phil and Judy again at the Club and then in the restaurant. It was mostly memorable for the rather large swell that resulted in the ship rolling so violently that the starboard portholes on deck two were underwater and had to be closed after the meal. I then looked through a few slow pan shots if taken earlier. It's always a hit and miss affair - I once took 1,504 slow pan shots in the Arctic and kept only four! - and this time I even accidentally deleted the only half-decent one!

We all had to put the clocks forward that night prior to landing on South Georgia. 

Day 6

I think the weather forecast must have been wrong. That was definitely more than 2.5m of swell! Try 10m! Sleeping is very difficult when you don't know if the ship is going to right itself every time it rolls? I had an early breakfast and went on deck to try and take some slow pan shots of the birds, but I only lasted two minutes as the deck was rolling so much! They closed Deck 3 while I was out there...

I had breakfast with Phil and Judy then sat with them at Snowy's talk on the birds of South Georgia and Pablo's talk on a whaler's story. 

After lunch, I lent Phil my Mac to work on his photos, and then we all had to watch a briefing video on South Georgia and go through 'biosecurity', which meant getting all our outer layers checked for organic matter and vacuumed by the staff. 

After the usual recap and briefing, I had dinner and then went up to Phil and Judy's room for a glass of wine once the staff had retired. 

Day 7

As I feared, our landing at Salisbury Plain was called off in 50-knot winds. We tried to go to another landing place, but we eventually had to settle for a talk by Jim on weather forecasting. Too bad. It was supposed to be the highlight of the entire trip, and I didn’t know if we’d have a chance to go back.

After lunch, Hayley announced the Prion Island trip was going ahead as planned. We saw lots of cute fur seals and a few wandering albatrosses, the bird with the largest wingspan in the world at 3.6m. 

We then had an early dinner so that we could squeeze in a late visit to Salisbury Plain. It was great to be able to go, but our group was drawn last, so the light was fading by the time we got there. There were tons of fur seals and king penguins, but it was too dark to take many good photos. Disappointing. 

I worked on the day's photos back in my room, closing the curtains to prevent any bird strikes....!

Day 8

Hayley started off with a very downbeat message this morning. We were supposed to be having a wet landing in Fortuna Bay, but the wind was 50kts, gusting up to 70kts, so that wasn’t possible. Instead, we had a talk from Peter on Sir Ernest Shackleton, although even he didn't know how the party on the James Caird had ended up on the wrong side of South Georgia and why they hadn't just sailed round to the other side! We then saw a film called South with Shackleton. Elke told us over the PA that we'd passed a minke whale and then a humpback, but I couldn't see them. I know about minke whales, but ‘Elke whales’ are the ones too far away to photograph…

I lent Phil my laptop, so I just read Britain Today - a digest of UK news available on board - and The Numbers Game on my iPhone. 

Later on, we went for an impromptu Zodiac cruise for a couple of hours. We saw a glacier, a fur seal, a few elephant seals on the beach and a few snow petrels. Otherwise, it was just a sunny cruise on a nice calm bit of water. 

Day 9

After breakfast, we had a wet landing in St Andrew's Bay, which has the largest concentration of king penguins in the world. Unfortunately, we landed in the wrong spot, so I couldn't get a picture of the 150,000 pairs in the main rookery. Grrr...

"What's this? Am I supposed to stand on it or step over it?"

"What's this? Am I supposed to stand on it or step over it?"

After a quick lunch on my own, I joined the photographers on a trip to Grytviken led by Adam, the Voyage Photographer. We made a toast to Shackleton at his graveside and threw the dregs of our Jameson's whiskey over it, after Peter had given a kind of toast. He also told the story of a rather flamboyant Spanish woman who had read the inscription out loud to the group but had mistaken ‘explorer’ for 'exploded’: "So that's how he died, then..."

I then set out to take pictures. Unfortunately, Adam's pace was rather slow, so I broke off to look at an old boat, which turned out to be guarded by some very territorial fur seals! There were a couple of old whalers at the whaling station, plus all the old equipment, so I broke out my 18-35mm lens and went to town. It was a gorgeous day, clear and calm, and the late afternoon sunlight was fantastic. 

I took the last Zodiac back to the boat and then had a barbecue with the usual crew on Deck 5. Our ship entertainer Randy started to play some toe-curlingly bad covers, so I made my excuses and escaped to work on my photos. 

Day 10

After a quick breakfast with the gang, I returned to finish rating my photos. I did it just in time for the first outing to Gold Harbour. There were lots of penguins and elephant and fur seals - so many, in fact, that we couldn't really move around much. The penguins were particularly curious, as usual, and they would walk up to within a couple of feet of me as I was taking pictures. 

After a quick lunch on my own, our Cooper Bay landing was cancelled due to high winds (37-40kts), but we went to the beautiful Drygalski Fjord instead and some people had a Zodiac cruise. I bowed out, as there wasn't much chance of wildlife, but Tracy and Phil showed me their pictures of a leopard seal! Not good...

After I'd been through a few of Tracy's photos, we all had dinner together and then a few glasses of wine in Phil and Judy's cabin. 

Day 11

I woke early to work on my photos, had a quick breakfast and then carried on. I took a break to hear Jim talk about ice as if it were a rock - bizarrely! - and then went back to my laptop, skipping the chance of a tour of the bridge. I then went to Snowy's talk on penguins before having lunch. I calledPhil, but he had food poisoning or something. 

The ship doctor’s daughter Livia played some songs on the guitar at around 1430, and I lent my laptop to Phil and Tracy. 

It was an unusually amusing recap and briefing. Rickard told us about the lives of the whalers, who spent most of their lives at sea away from their wives and families. One captain of a whaler worked for 37 years and only spent 4 years 8 months under his own roof. The only means of communication was letters, but the post system was very unreliable. He told the story of a couple from Nantucket called Anna and Lucas through their letters to each other:

Anna: Dear Lucas, where did you put the axe?

Lucas (14 months later): Dear Anna, why do you need the axe?

Anna (6 months later): Dear Lucas, I've found the axe. Where's the hammer?

I had dinner with the usual crew and then put the clocks back an hour. 

Day 12

I woke up at 0130 with the ship pitching violently. Some of the waves were apparently 10 metres! It's all very well to smile as you look out and see the bow wave, but this was very disturbing!

I was coming down with a cold, and I'd used up all my Sudafed, so I asked Dr Tom for some drugs. 

Phil and Judy finally brought down my laptop, and we had lunch together. Afterwards, I went up to their room. We had a pub quiz using an iPhone app, and then Tracy came in, and we chose Phil's photo competition entries. We then went down to see Jim's talk on Antarctic geoscience - until I fell asleep and had to go to my cabin!

Daniel then went through the difference between swell (waves caused by distant winds), seas (waves caused by local wind) and fetch (the uninterrupted length of sea where the waves develop), Peter talked about Elephant Island and Elke about phytoplankton. Hmm…

Day 13

I had a decent night's sleep for a change, due to the calmer conditions. I added vignettes to most of my wildlife shots and then had breakfast. I took a risk then by cleaning my D810 sensor with a wipe I'd already used, but it seemed to work. On the one hand, don't want to scratch it; on the other, I don't want to have to clone out a sensor spot on every single shot I take!

We had another biosecurity check and then had a very successful Zodiac cruise. We went to Point Wild on Elephant Island, where the Shackleton party had camped for four months, and saw a leopard seal catch and eat a penguin! It also spent a few minutes coming very close to our boat, and it was amazing to see it at such close quarters. On our way back, we saw a glacier calve with one of our Zodiacs in the foreground. Too bad I was on the wrong side of the boat to get the shot…!

After a quick lunch with Tracy, I managed to screw up by leaving marks on the mirror while ‘cleaning’ the inside my camera with a brush not designed for the job. That'll teach me for leaving my dust blower behind!

I worked on my photos then read my book for a while before the usual recap and briefing, then dinner with the gang. Disturbingly, my cabin door was open when I came back. I must've tried to slam it, I suppose. I was a bit worried, but my cameras and all my equipment were still there, so that was a relief. 

Day 14

Seven out of seven! After breakfast, I set foot onAntarctica for the very first time, completing my set of continents. Hurrah! All the staff were having a go at me for getting too close to the adélie penguins, and one of the guests was even a bit snotty with me when I accidentally walked in front of her while she was taking a picture. I had a chat with Phil and Judy, and that made me feel better again...!

I somehow lost my lens hood on my wide-angle lens, but it turned up at reception under Lost Property. Phew...!

I worked on today's photos until lunchtime, when I ate with Tracy and a nice American couple called David and Mardi. 

Our afternoon excursion was cancelled at the last minute due to all the brash ice surrounding the ship, so Tracy forced me to look at a ‘cute’ penguin book called Antarctic Antics, by Judy Sierra:

"To keep myself up off the ice, 

I find my father's feet are nice. 

I snuggle in his belly fluff,

And that's how I stay warm enough."

I had dinner with the usual crew, and then we had a staff quiz. We were given a list of crazy facts about all 14 of them, and we had to guess who had done what. I retired early…

Day 15

Phil and Judy filled me in over breakfast, which was chiefly remarkable for the customer service. I ordered French toast and fruit sauce, but my waiter knows I always make myself a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel. As there was no smoked salmon on the table, he brought me a plate with a bagel, smoked salmon, cream cheese and even half a lemon - as they usually only have thin slices at the buffet. Very impressive! I spoke to Adam in the corridor about doing a talk together on photography. He liked the idea of choosing five of each other's pictures and taking about them, so we'll get half an hour to do that on the voyage home to Ushuaia. 

We had a wet landing in Neko Harbour this morning. I walked straight past all the penguins and up to a rocky bluff with a view of a glacier. It looked like it would calve at any moment, but it never did. However, I got a few shots of Phil and other hikers on the ridge line. 

I was on the first Zodiac back, so I had a hot chocolate and imported my photos. 

We had a barbecue again on Deck 5 for lunch, and I sat with Phil and Judy again. Afterwards, I worked in my photos and read my Spenser novel until we hit an iceberg. Fortunately, it was only a small one...!

We were having the world's most boring Zodiac ride in the afternoon when an enormous chunk of ice calves from one of the glaciers. Too bad it looked nowhere near as spectacular as a photograph. 

I had dinner with my friends and then spent an hour whale watching with Phil. We did actually see a few flukes, but they were a long way away. 

I ended up in the bar, where I talked to Tracy about her career crisis until she changed the subject and tried to set me up with one of the Dutch girls!

Day 16

Hayley woke us up at 0609 today for an early Zodiac ride to Cierva Cove. I had the choice of 90 minutes, 45 minutes or a cup of coffee in the Club. Phil was keen to see whales, but I didn't think that was likely. However, it was our last cruise, so I decided to do the long one with him and Judy. We didn't see any whales, funnily enough, but I did get a good shot of a penguin jumping into the water. I know I'm lazy about getting out there sometimes, so I think I made the right decision in the end. 

After lunch with the gang, we were supposed to have a wet landing, but it was cancelled due to the swell, so we all had a team photo on Deck 5 instead. When all the Dutch group knelt down in the front row, someone said: "Finally, we've got them on their knees!" 

As we started our crossing of the Drake Passage (or Cape Horn to you and me), the four of us went up to Phil and Judy's room to pick my competition entries. I only got one of my original choices! Phil and I went down to upload them and look at the other entries, but there was nothing there, so we went to the Club and had a gin and tonic with some of the black ice Heather had found this afternoon. It’s spent 30,000 years at the bottom of a glacier, so it’s had all the air squeezed out of it, which makes it incredibly clear. It also lasts a long time, so I time it with astopwatch: after 36 minutes, it was still going strong! 

After dinner with the usual crew, Adam gave a funny bar talk about his career highlights and sang a humorous song about how to 'woo a lady'. I gave him my pictures for our talk, but he didn't have anything for me, and our talk wasn't on the schedule for tomorrow, so I went to bed...

Day 17

This was supposed to be the morning when we all had a lie in, but I woke up at 0530 as usual. After tossing and turning in bed and then doing the crossword for a bit, I went to the 'early bird' breakfast in the Club, where I had a nice chat with Sally. We then had proper breakfast together in the dining room with her husband Giuseppe, who kindly allowed me to call him Pepe!

I didn't fancy listening to Peter or Pablo talk, so I sat amidships to avoid the swell and read my Spenser novel. Adam gave me 15 of his photos, but Tracy was still using my laptop, so I couldn’t choose the best ones yet. 

After lunch with the gang, I spoke to Adam, and we arranged our talk for 1430. It went pretty well, and it was nice to be able to show off my work - even though everyone seems to have a different idea of what my best pictures are!

I showed Henry and his wife a slideshow after the talk and then had a chat with Phil before the usual recap. These things are getting pretty dull and incomprehensible, so I just read my book and listened with half an ear. 

We had dinner with a British couple, and then I went to my cabin to copy Phil and Tracy's pictures on to a memory stick. 

Day 18

I thought it was going to be a long night going across a bumpy Drake Passage, but I finally managed to get to sleep and woke up at 0700. I had breakfast with the gang, and then Hayley announced we were passing Cape Horn, so we took a look. It wasn't particularly exciting, but it was nice to tick the box. Phil later told me I’d been looking at the ‘wrong’ Cape Horn, but it all looks the same…!

After lunch with the gang, where we were joined by Gayle and her husband, there was an announcement of whales and then even orcas on the starboard beam. (They were a long way away and probably sei whales.)

We went up to Phil and Judy's room to drink wine, and we even saw a few dolphins. The recap was led by Hayley, who revealed that we'd driven 3,536Nm on our trip, drunk 491 cans of beer, 739 bottles of wine, 10 bottles of gin and 9 of whisky. 

In the photo competition, I won a Helly Hansen beanie for the best landscape shot of an iceberg at sunrise! I made the top five in every category apart from 'funny and creative', and Phil made three. We then went up to the bar for a gin and tonic, although there was no more black ice. Shame…

I met Irina on the way to dinner, so I bought a bottle of Dom Perignon for our table. There was a receiving line consisting of all the staff, so it took a while to sit down. Phil and Judy and Tracy were at our table, and we were fortunately joined by Giuseppe and Sally. After dinner, we all trooped into the lounge to watch Adam's video of the whole trip. It was pretty good and made me think I should learn how to do something similar for my friends back home. I asked him which software he'd used and then completely forgot what he'd told me! Something Pro...

Day 19

We were all woken by Hayley on the PA at 0630 in time for breakfast at 0700. I ate with Phil, Judy and Tracy, and then we were called for our busto the airport. Tracy was on the next bus, so we said a quick goodbye. We might be having dinner tonight in Buenos Aires. Phil and Judy were on the early flight, so we said goodbye at the gate. 

When I arrived at the Hotel Pulitzer - the same place as if stayed last month - I went through my email backlog and then went out to dinner at Don Julio's. I didn't hear from Tracy, so I had to eat alone, but I didn't mind that. I had a chorizo, melted provolone and sun-dried tomato starter followed by the fillet steak with grilled vegetables and something called a suspiro porteño, which was a mish-mash of dulce de leche cream, brownie and coconut and hazel meringue. The butter was a little hard, they didn't immediately give me a clean plate for my starter, there was no sauce with the steak and the double espresso was dreadful, but the main problem with eating outside on a balmy night was the cyclists cutting right through the restaurant! By the way, BA is a small town. I know this because one of the guys at the next door table was the same guy I'd sat next to on the plane!

Day 20

I did some electronic chores, published a couple of blog posts on Iguazu and Buenos Aires, upload my favourite shots to my website. The weather had changed overnight from blue skies and boiling sunshine to thunder, lightning and rain! I took a taxi and met Tracy for lunch at a place called Halina Café in Palermo. I had to get some cash out on the way, having so sensibly got rid of my last pesos at the restaurant last night, and I left my card in the machine! And I was doing so well…Anyway, we had a nice lunch, swapping stories about the cruise and Tracy’s current digs, and then we shared a cab back to the hotel. Tracy went off to get her phone fixed, and I packed for the flight home. My car picked me up at 1430 and took me to the airport, where I caught my flight to London via São Paulo - or San Pablo if ever you find yourself in an Argentine airport searching desperately for your flight! 

My Antarctic expedition was over, and I enjoyed it. I was lucky with the weather, the people I met and the chance to get up close and personal with a leopard seal! The staff were knowledgeable, the food and accommodation were perfectly good, and, most importantly, I managed to take a few good pictures! It’s an expensive voyage, and the only reason I was able to afford it was that a property deal fell through and the money for the deposit was burning a hole in my pocket (!), but that’s the very definition of the trip of a lifetime, isn’t it? It’s a journey we take only once, and probably against our better judgment, but I’d much rather regret the things I’ve done than the things I haven’t...

 

Wildlife sightings

Mammals   
Antarctic Fur Seal, Arctocephalus gazella
Antarctic Minke Whale, Balaenoptera bonaerensis
Blue Whale, Balaenoptera musculus
Commerson's Dolphin, Cephalorhynchus commersonii
Crabeater Seal, Lobodon carcinophaga
Fin Whale, Balaenoptera physalus
Hourglass Dolphin, Lagenorrhynchus cruciger
Humpback Whale, Megaptera novaeangliae
Leopard Seal, Hydrurga leptonyx
Peale's Dolphin, Lagenorrhynchus australis
Sei Whale, Balaenoptera borealis
South American Fur Seal, Arctocephalus australis
South American Sea Lion, Otaria flavescens
Southern Elephant Seal, Mirounga leonina
Southern Right Whale, Eubalaena australis
Weddell Seal, Leptonychotes weddellii

Birds 
Adelie Penguin, Pygoscelis adeliae
Antarctic Petrel, Thalassoica antarctica
Antarctic Prion, Pachyptila desolata
Antarctic Shag, Phalacrocroax bransfieldensis
Antarctic Tern, Sterna vittata
Arctic Tern, Sterna paradisea
Atlantic Petrel, Pterodroma incerta
Black-bellied Storm-petrel, Fregetta tropica
Black-browed Albatross, Thalassarche melanophris
Black-chinned Siskin, Carduelis barbata
Black-throated Finch, Melanodera melanodera
Blackish Cinclodes, Cinclodes antarcticus
Blackish Oystercatcher, Haematopus ater
Blue Petrel, Halobaena caerulea
Brown Skua, Catharacta lonnbergi
Cape Petrel, Daption capense
Chilean Skua, Catharacta chilensis
Chinstrap Penguin, Pygoscelis antarctica
Common Diving-petrel, Pelecanoides urinatrix
Crested Duck, Lophonetta specularioides
Dark-faced Ground Tyrant, Muscisaxicola maclovianus
Dolphin Gull, Larus scoresbii
Falkland Pipit, Anthus correndera
Falkland Skua, Catharacta antarctica
Falkland Steamer Duck, Tachyeres brachypterus
Falkland Thrush, Turdus falcklandii
Gentoo Penguin, Pygoscelis papua
Grey-headed Albatross, Thalassarche chrysostoma
House Sparrow, Passer domesticus
Imperial Shag, Phalacrocorax atriceps
Kelp Goose, Chloephaga hybrida
Kelp Gull, Larus dominicanus
King Penguin, Aptenodytes patagonicus
Light-mantled Sooty Albatross, Phoebetria palpebrata
Long-tailed Meadowlark, Sturnella loyca
Macaroni Penguin, Eudyptes chrysolophus
Magellanic Oystercatcher, Haematopus leucopodus
Magellanic Penguin, Spheniscus magellanicus
Magellanic Snipe, Gallinago paraguaiae
Northern Giant Petrel, Macronectes halli
Rock Shag, Phalacrocorax magellanicus
Rockhopper Penguin, Eudyptes chrysochrome
Royal Albatross, Diomedea epomorphora
Ruddy-headed Goose, Chloephaga rubidiceps
Slender-billed Prion, Pachyptila belcheri
Snow Petrel, Pagodroma nivea
Snowy Sheathbill, Chionis alba
Soft-plumaged Petrel, Pterodroma mollis
Sooty Shearwater, Puffinis griseus
South American Tern, Sterna hirundinacea
South Georgia Pintail, Anas georgica
South Georgia Pipit, Anthus antarcticus
South Georgia Shag, Phalacrocorax georgianus
South Georgian Diving-petrel, Pelecanoides georgicus
South Polar Skua, Catharacta maccormicki
Southern Fulmar, Fulmarus glacialoides
Southern Giant Petrel, Macronectes giganteus
Striated Caracara, Phalcoboenus australis
Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura
Upland Goose, Chloephaga picta
Wandering Albatross, Diomedea exulans
White-chinned Petrel, Procellaria aequinoctialis
White-rumped Sandpiper, Calidris fuscicollis
Wilson's Storm-petrel, Oceanites oceanicus
Yellow-billed Teal, Anas flavirostris