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The Hunters and the Hunted
In light of recent events regarding the killing of a well known lion from Hwange National Park, ZImbabwe, I would like to re-post this blog entry from winter 2013.
You will find some very personal thoughts on a rather controversial topic here. And please do note that my views are based on my own, personal experiences and may not be in line with the concepts and programs pursued by the conservation organisations I support.
Many if not most of today's leading conservation experts maintain a "use it or lose it" view when it comes to trophy hunting of super charismatic and even endangered species. They will argue that hunting operations help to conserve additional land, which withouth the hunters could not be protected. That hunting quotas would keep under tight control the killing of wildlife for entertainment and the income from this would be vitally important for the development of the people on the ground.
Needless to say that professional hunters and hunting outfitters and clubs around the globe use these arguments to form their political and social influence against conservation efforts that question the commercial hunting of threatened and endangered species. To them, just as long as they are allowed to kill the animal they want and have their tropy shipped home, the world is fine.
Just recently I had the privilege to spend an evening with some of the most experienced, leading experts in long-term species conservation and without my adding to it, the topic of trophy hunting came up. One expert in this round referred to people opposed to this practice as tree huggers who would fail to see the bigger picture.
Well, I am absolutely flat out behind long-term species conservation. However, when this big picture is observed through the viewfinder of a camera, an image presents itself that leads me to differ on the hunting issue. Through my camera and lens, I see the short-tusked and tuskless elephants. I see the immature lions taking over a pride, because the dominant male got lured into a hunting concession where it was shot by some dimwit, directly causing the death of 4 cubs and a female (so Mr dimwit trophy hunter actually killed 6 lions without knowing it). And I see vast areas of bush dominated by troops of baboons hundreds strong, because the leopards that are supposed to keep things in balance have all been baited an lured to hunting blinds, where they, too, were shot by someone for sport.
Subadult lion mating... where are the dominant males at Chikwenya?
Hunter selfies: The Melissa Bachman case and related stories
I would generally refuse to post images of trophy hunters posing with the animals they just killed, as I consider this to be one of the worst forms of disrespect for life. But if you are nevertheless interested to see what such disturbing behaviour looks like, then follow this link to view an image of a person called Melissa Bachman, posing with a male lion she killed for fun. Her picture recently did the rounds in social media. The lion she claims to have stalked was released into an enclosure, probably no more than 24 hrs before that Bachman woman got there. It was raised simply to one day be shot by some trigger happy coward. She will have the lion stuffed and shipped to her home in the USA, where she will bragg about how she took this lion's life. Another example, again a "huntress" can be found here.
More and more information about South African farms where lions are bred for canned hunting comes to light. It deeply saddnes me to see humans treat animals in such a way. Just how far removed from any kind of appreciation for life does one have to be to engage in such activities?
This, and nothing else is the reality of canned hunts.
The winds of change
In some places, people have started to understand that in the long run, life is more valuable than death. It is true that hunters sometimes pay a lot of money for their trophies, but then the trophy animal will be "used" only once and by one hunter. If that animal would remain alive, however, there would be other people coming to see it and to photograph it. Potentially for years and years. Some of the best examples for hunting concessions that have been successfully converted to photographic safari destinations exist in Botswana. Other countries, I hope will follow.
My personal view on this is absolutely clear: There needs to be a drastic change of attitude towards trophy hunting of rare and endangered wildlife. Worldwide, on every level of society. This change of attitued has to follow the change that we saw in the fashion industry with the ban on selling fashion items made of exotic furs. It is not ok to shoot a leopard or a lion for sport. Especially when there are less than 25'000 lions surviving in the wild and several leopard sub-species are facing extinction. If you, dear reader personally know people who do this, then go out and tell them that in this day and age, their behaviour is disgustingly reprehensible.
Instead of hunting with a rifle or bow and arrow, I do my "hunting" with my camera equipment. Rather heavy artillery, as it is. And when I have collected my trophy, in the form of a special image captured in technical perfection, then my trophy walks away and carries on with its life. After all, this life is just as precious as the life of any other species on the planet, including that of a Homo sapiens carrying a firearm. How could it not be.
Please feel free to comment and share your views.
Taking it Personally
"There is definitely improvement... there appears to be much more thought in your photos as you get to the more recent ones - you're learning your craft well." - This is a note I got from a friend who recently looked at my portfolio. An opionion I appreciate very much, as it comes from a person whom I admire for her determined engagement in species conservation and her clear, no nonsense way to look at wildlife photography and cinematograhpy.
There are probably as many different styles of wildlife and nature photography as there are determined people working with cameras in the field. Developing an individual style is as much about mastering equipment and techniques as it is about personal progress. In this Blog entry I write about my own attempt of establishing a personal photographic style.
When I first started taking a camera into nature, I simply tried to record what I saw. For personal keepsake, for holiday memories. Very often, being overly captivated by the excitement of an observation combined with lacking experience would cause me to miss special behaviour, or even just a clear view of a moving animal. I was far from understanding my camera and "personal style" was something I admired in exhibitions and books by leading masters of the art.
The more I studied the work of professional wildlife and nature photographers, the better I could understand what defined an individual style. I realised achieving this myself would require gaining a lot of experience and then learning about my own preferences. But what did I want to express and accomplish with the time I could devote to photography? How would my portfolio eventually stand out from others? -
Having discovered my personal preferences, I see the answer is much simpler than I first anticipated. But before going there I would like to touch on five different types of wildlife photos I like to distinguish:
1. Proof of presence photos, identification of a species or individuals
These photos are relevant to confirm the presence of a species in a particular area or region, or to identify individual animals in order to establish range size and density, as well as movements and patterns of activity. Most often such photos will be taken with small point and shoot cameras that are connected to and fired by passive infrared, laser or sound triggers. Of course there are also very highly sophisticated camera tarp systems for top grade SLR cameras and today, high level camera trap photography has become a field of expertise on its own.
Photo trap site for scientific research (© KORA www.kora.ch)
Confirming the presence of a species and / or identifying indivual animals (© KORA www.kora.ch)
2. Safety shots, or first approach
At the very beginning of some wildlife encounters in a special setting, before going for a particular idea I often try to get a safety shot and then I work my way up from there. Safety shots will hardly ever make it to fame, but now and then a great result comes from stopping a little bit further out and capturing a set stage.
A safety shot of a Lilac-breasted roller perched in afternoon light turns into a special capture as the bird takes off
3. Context images, "animalscape" images
Context images show wildlife in its natural habitat and typically, this catgory of photograph invites the observer to share a particular experience of the area in which it was captured. Animals being the actual objects are an important part of the whole story, but there is much more to these shots than "just" animals. Of course there are fabulous landscape shots of well-known areas and landmarks, but often it is the presence of an animal only that really creates the desired connection.
Animalscape: Zambezi flood plains below Mana Pools National Park
I sometimes hear people say there are few things more boring than watching a pride of lions sleep, and usually I would share the sentiment. Yet the London Natural History Museum 2014 Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award went to Nick Nichols for a photograph showing exactly that: a pride of lions sleeping on a rock formation above an east African plain. But what I really mean are photographs and movie sequences that show typical or unusual behavoiur, such as feeding, courting, mating, a fight or a stalk, and, often considered to be particularly spectacular, the interaction between predator and prey species.
Lionesses feeding on a Kudu bull, Mana Pools NP, Zimbabwe
5. Camera interaction (unprovoked)
My personal favourite type of photograph is this: the moment when I connect with individual animals and they look straight into my lens, or even start communicating with me during whatever they are busy with. Understanding and avoiding behaviour that comes across as potentially threatening, or in any way agressive, fearful or careless is a prerequisite to safely capture camera interaction shots. At the same time, I don't want to alter the behaviour of an animal through my action or presence.
A Black-tufted capuchin during early breakfast stops to look up at me
Over the years I tried moving from holiday memories and documenting my experiences to creating technically sound photos. Teaching myself about light, colour, depth of field, focus / sharpness, exposure time and three-dimensional framing. I learnt from my mistakes, compared my results with photos of top professionals and kept reading up on what others did. At the same time I learnt a lot about taking into account the environment I was shooting in and about animal behaviour. This, however was very tricky at times and photographically I missed out on some of the greatest wildlife observations I ever had.
A major influence on the development of my own style came through time spent in the wild some years ago with my friend and professional photographer from Brazil, Octavia Campos Salles. On one side I extended my experience with special and challenging objects and on the other side it uncovered for me how I would look at some situations differently, and as a result, how my photos taken at a sighting would differ from the ones he would take. This, I suppose resulted in me becoming aware of a further step towards individuality. Towards understanding what I like and want to further about my photographic work.
From observation and documentation of presence to anticipating and capturing behaviour, I eventually found that it was unprovoked camera interaction I would enjoy most. Felids and many other mammals, primates, elephants and some birds, especially macaws and parrots, but also hornbills for example are very good at detecting interaction. Especially cats react quite well to careful, non-verbal communication and some of the very wildest individuals actually can be great flirts ;-)
Further field trips opened up possibilities to experiment, find situations I was looking for and capture images that I would enjoy and consider what I call my preferred style. While there are many different types of images in my portfolio, my favourite photographs combine the following qualities:
I will shortly create a gallery folder containing my personal all time favourites. In the meantime, I enclose in this blog a few examples of photographs I particularly like.
4 Seconds: this was all the time I had when this female jaguar appeared on the shores of a lagoon in Brazil's Pantanal, from getting the camera ready on a moving boat to capturing this photograph and seeing the cat move on. The very last light of the day.
The blink of an eye: I was in a stretch of riverine forest at Pousada Aguapé (Pantanal, Brazil) looking for ocelots with Malini Pittet and Fabiano Vargas. It was good night and when this cat started climbing up a tree next to me, I was ready to capture this moment.
Up close: the story behind this photograph is described in my trip report on Botswana and Zimbabwe 2013. The short version is that I was in the field on foot with Humphrey Gumpo in Mana Pools, Zimbabwe and found a pride of lions feeding on a kudu bull they had taken down the previous day. This subadult male, together with three brothers was being pushed into dispersal, but for a last time the pride tolerated the young lions near this kill.
Surprise I: it was cold morning in Brazil's Atlantic Rainforest and I was photographing birds around the lodge in Parque do Zizo when I heard some woodpeckers announcing their arrival with loud, high-pitched calls. Seconds later this beautiful Yellow-fronted woodpecker perched next to me.
Surprise II: again a very cold and wet day in the Atlantic Rainforest, south of Sao Paulo. This time it was a pair of very shy Saffron toucanets that cautiously started feeding on palm nuts. Again I enjoy the cool, rich colours and the almost three-dimensional appearance of this photograph.
Clearly, only a hand full of the photos on mywilderness.net do reflect my preferred, personal style today. But I generally enjoy photography in all sorts of conditions and there are many special situations I personally consider worth capturing. Yet over time I expect to be able to present an increasing selection of photos that do raise my pulse whenever I look at them and remember the moment of an up close and personal encounter.
Sticking to the quote above: I see there are some good photographs, but not yet any great ones in my portfolio. Time will tell if I ever manage to capture a moment never before documented.
Patrick Meier, March 2015
The "bad" Light
Until a few years ago unless there was sufficient and evenly available light, wildlife photographers had a huge struggle to capture special and spectacular images. Film ISO sensitivity dictated the limits to shutter speed and there was only so much one could take with regard to the trade-off beteween grain and detail. Digital photography has redefined "good" and "bad" light, i. e. the conditions of available light in which expressive images can be captured in a phenomenal way.
Sure, up to about the year 2007 most digital cameras would not produce great results when ISO settings above 800 had to be selected. This was especially true for sensor types with patchy dynamic range and colour depth capabilities. But image sensor technology kept evolving and has now arrived at a point where in every camera class digitally captured images in low light simply blow away anything that could have ever be done on film. Yes, even medium format: With PhaseOne, Hasselblad and others launching new digital backs based on a 50MP CMOS sensor produced by Sony. In short, todays digital cameras are capable of capturing phenomenal images in light conditions where just a few years ago not even a poor photo could have been taken.
This transition clearly has had a significant effect on my own photographic work. Of course I always enjoy the warm golden hour light, and greeting a sunrise in the field or enjoying a spectacular sunset surrounded by wildlife is as amazing an experience as ever. Personally though, in many situations I prefer blue hour light or even an overcast, rainy day to golden hour light.
A similar development can be observed for harsh lighting / contrast conditions typcally encountered in midday sun. With the use of modern camera systems I find it has become much easier to be creative and I will sometimes go after subjects that allow for monochrome or high-key filter processing to create a special effect.
Some examples of blue-hour light images:
After spending time with a different jaguar about 400m further up a lagoon along Rio Tres Irmãos in the Brazilian Pantanal we were heading back to our lodge. The sun had set behind the horizon and there was very little light below the shoreline trees when suddenly we came across a young, female jaguar hunting in the area. From the moment I could lift my camera to the moment I captured this scene no more than 4 seconds had passed. Just to confirm again how important it is to be ready before the shot. (ISO was set to 3'200, aperture to f/4).
Another example from the same area, this time a female jaguar patrolling along her territory:
A stunning example from Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe. Just as with the images above this light creates a much larger contrast in colour temperature than golden hour light: The further away an object is in the background, the cooler its colour tone turns out.
Equally spectacular are the images below that were taken on overcast, rainy days. The first capture is from the Atlantic Rainforest, south of São Paulo, Brazil.
The second capture shows the main falls at Iguaçu on a stormy day with heavy downpours and relatively high waterlevels carried by Rio Iguaçu. I processed this image in black and white to support the dramatic scene.
High-key images taken during midday sun can turn out equally spectacular, descriptive and with a very particular style. Again, only a couple of years ago it would have been considered pointless by most photographers to even lift a camera at a scene like the one below, captured at Savuti (Chobe National Park, Botswana).
A similar impression also with a high-key filter applied I have managed to photograph at the Selinda Reserve in northern Botswana:
These are just some examples of images captured in more challenging available light conditions. I hope to be able to move parts of my photographic work to a medium format camera system sometime soon. With the considerably improved dynamic range of these cameras and digital backs I expect to produce even more striking images in low and very high-key light.
Of course light is only one component in photography. Next to composition, focus, depth of field and contrast there is one phenomenon that fascinates me most. It is wildlife interaction with the camera. If ethically achieved without disturbing an animal this is the most fascinating dimension of wildlife photography for me. So the next will be titled "Taking it Personally". It will describe the status of observation, behaviour, interaction and artistic interpretation thereof.
The "good" Light
I remember a very interesting discussion with Humphrey Gumpo one day, after returning to Chitake 3 camp site (Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe) from an extended bush walk. We had been out walking since before sunrise and it was now around 11:00h on a very hot morning. As we sat down for a cooldrink, I quickly went to arrange the tripod and camera, overlooking puddles of water in the Chitake river bed. Humphrey was positively surprised by this...
...as a short while before I arrived in Zimbabwe to start this safari, he had been guiding a group of professional photographers from Europe. This group, Humphrey said, had for the duration of their entire trip refused to pick up a camera, and in many cases to leave camp if not in golden hour light. For photography and cinematography, golden hour light does hold special qualities, but with so many images captured in this warm, soft light, I have come to prefer other lighing situations for many cases.
Colour temperatures are a characteristic of any visible light, measured in Degrees Kelvin (K). This measurement system was developed in the late 1800s by British mathematical physicist William Kelvin. It provides a method of describing the relevant characteristics: A light having higher color temperature will have more blue light and thus, a larger Kelvin value than a light with lower colour temperature. The following table shows the color temperature of various sources of light:
As opposed to steady light sources, with natural ambient light, colour temperatures vary throughout the day. During sunrise and sunset, color temperatures tend to be around 2,000 Kelvin, during the golden hour they range around 3,500 Kelvin and during midday, colour temps are around 5,500 Kelvin.
What exactly is the golden hour in terms of natural ambient light?
Golden hour light basically describes the warm, soft light with its long shadwos, as it occurs during a morning's first hour of sunshine, starting right before sunrise and an evening's last hour of sunlight, visible until after the sun disappears behind the horizon. Very distinctive photographic effects can be achieved in this light. Technically speaking, though, golden hour light conditions may prevail for more or less than 60 minutes, depending on the geographical location, weather situation and season. Most importantly, golden hour light can be cut short by smoke, haze or clouds blocking the sun as it stands low over the horizon.
When the sun is near the horizon, sunlight travels through more of the atmosphere, reducing direct light intensity, so that more of the illumination comes from indirect light. Blue light is somewhat scattered, so if the sun is present, its light appears more reddish. In addition, the sun's small angle with the horizon produces longer shadows. Furthermore, because there is less contrast during golden hour, shadows are less dark, and highlights are less likely to be overexposed. Landscape photographers in particular appreciate the warm color of the low sun and often consider it desirable to enhance the colours of a scene, especially with the support of polarising filters.
Some examples of golden hour light images:
A late afternoon shot of a Zambezi side channel, with the Zambian escarpment in the background. I used a circular polarising filter to reduce indirect glare and enhance colour saturation. The clear atmosphere and calm, flowing water create a beautiful effect.
A golden hour classic: This male cheetah, member of a coalition of three at Kwara, Botswana is looking straight towards the setting sun. As with the image above, colour tones are generally warmer in the foreground, than in the background. No filter was used.
Golden hour light also provides the unique setting required for silhouette images. All it takes is a bit of courage, to leave the beautifully lit subject and start shooting against the rising or setting sun. Silhouettes can be fantastically spectacular. One of my personal favourites is this huge elephant bull, wading through the flooded Chobe river shoreline, as the sun begins to set over Namibia.
A a last example, golden hour light gone wrong this time. Although the sun stands low over the horizon, the light is almost gone as the atmosphere is filled with dense smoke from bush fires, blocking the warm, golden glow that usually would prevail during a sunset over the Selinda spillway in northern Botswana.
Of course there are a gerat many images in my galleries that have been captured during golden hour light. However, in my humble opinion, my most outstanding photographs I have captured in more difficult light conditions, namely in blue hour light and on dark, overcast and even rainy days. To me, these light conditions just add so much more drama and depth and I have come to prefer blue hour light over the warm, "perfect world" golden hour light in many cases.
The next blog entry will be titled "The bad Light", and I will describe what I mean and compare golden hour images to blue hour images.
Inspiring Conservation Photographers
There are many incredibly skilled professional photographers out there, producing great nature and wildlife images year in year out. But then there are a hand full of guys who besides being gifted with a mindblowing creative eye, are determined to brave the harshest of conditions, to show us - through their photography and cinematography - nature the way it has never been seen before. They are my true masters of the art and in this section, I share some links to their inspiring websites.