My whale shark season started down in Xcalak, Mexico just south of Cancun where I did something really unique: got in the shallow water with American Crocodiles.! We survived and some of us came back north to Isla Mujeres for an opposite experience swimming with gentle giants in the open water.
Isla Mujeres is fun as always with some new restaurants to try and all the old favorites. It seems like there is a new whale shark or marine conservation themed mural going up each year.
The weather was settled with clear skies and beautiful water conditions for photography. Each morning we would board the boat and head out to where the captains estimated the aggregation would be – it can move overnight depending on wind, currents, and activity of the plankton food mass. We had no trouble finding them in short order.
This year I photographed with my Canon 5D IV and EF 15mm Fisheye f2.5
We would have several good “drops” into the water by mid morning. Often we could follow one individual and when they got ahead of us just stay in place because another whale shark or two was on its way straight to us. If none where nearby, the captain would come pick us up and take us back into the action and drop us again.
Occasionally we would get into an area with other boats of guests taking turns at swimming. No matter, because we could take a break while they had their chance then soon packed up to return to the mainland. We were out early and would stay late so we had plenty of time. By mid afternoon we were usually the only boat remaining. Some private time!
Giant Manta Rays
We would keep watch for mantas and would devote some time to looking for them either on our way to and from or when we needed a break form the whale sharks. We found them several times and had a good in water session with one of the groups of mantas. It is always harder to find mantas since they do not always feed on the surface and they do not have the large fins showing above water like the whale sharks to give them away.
A Great Trip Out of the Water Too
We would return to the island in the late afternoon. It was great to relax in or by the pool before changing and having a bit of technology time. We had so many nice places to choose from for meals, all a short walk from the hotel.
The food and atmosphere on Isla Mujeres is wonderful and really makes this a great getaway. It all ended too soon: this was exceptional season for the whale sharks.
I want to thank all of the wonderful and interesting people who were my guests this year. They made it so much fun and I enjoyed conversations with them and helping them with their photography.
Elephants are frequently our photo subjects while on safari. Their size, shape, intelligence, and trunk are just a few things that make them great subjects and very interesting. There are many opportunities for unique, beautiful, and descriptive images of elephants.
Elephants are very unique in shape and texture. Images showing the whole elephant(s) are great to show the elephant in its environment, but can not describe the all the unique features and details of an elephant. Taking close up images of the trunk in action, tusks, skin, eyes, and ears gives your audience a chance to focus in on details and discover shapes and colors and learn about elephants in more detail.
Using perspective and symmetry
Elephants come in all sizes and travel in herds so highlight these different sizes and ages in a way that gives geometric order and symmetry to your image. Contrast of size creating perspective lines vanishing into the horizon is a pleasing effect. Elephants will often line up and if you are patient you can grab moments when trunks, ear, etc are pleasingly arranged symmetrically.
Interaction with other elephants
Elephants are social animals and this gives many interaction moments to photograph. Sometimes the golden moment is a hidden detail in a wider image. Cropping can highlight this “picture in a picture” moment between two elephants. Elephants also have greetings, reassuring gestures, and rank showing moves that you can watch and wait for then highlight through cropping and framing the images
Interaction with other species
Showing how elephants interact with other species is capturing their role in their environment. Other species feel safe near elephants and trust their strength, awareness, and intelligence. You can photograph mixed herds, birds that groom elephants, and when they assert their dominance.
Obviously their size is a major feature of elephants. Showing large and small elephants together is not always enough to communicate their size. Try to show other animals such as zebra which are a familiar size to your audience to show how large they are. Manmade objects like vehicles are a good contrast as well.
Movement / Behavior
With their unique body form and parts, photographing how the elephant and its parts moves adds another dimension to your illustration of elephants. Also try to isolate and highlight unique behaviors of the elephants such as mock fighting, and the million ways they use their trunks for different things
Take the usual front view and side views to new levels
Front and 3/4
¾ is a flattering angle that has been drilled into us for portraits, but a straight on frame filling front view is eye catching. A creative crop creates interesting negative space and also increases the impact
Elephants have an interesting shape so a side view shows off this shape. Think about negative space and other elements to contrast the rounded lines of the elephant such as straight trees or grass
Elephant rears are unique and large with great tails. A nicely framed rear shot shows the elephants in and interacting with their environment. Walking off “into the sunset” communicates that these elephants are wild and free.
Personality / Cute Babies
Elephants appear to have individual personalities and we often can see some of ourselves in their movement, behavior, and interaction. Anytime we can photograph this connect to ourselves it makes a more impactful image. They show happiness, companionship, nervousness, and aggravation through their actions and interactions. Capture moments of joy when they are in the water or doing something crazy.
Elephant babies are very cute and are well looked after by their mothers and other herd members: it is not hard to capture intimate moments between mothers and babies.
Sometimes lighting on a safari is challenging, but taking bad lighting and turning it into a silhouette shot can give you a special image. Elephant’s unique shape works very well against a sunset.
When you get out on safari and see elephants, get to know them and capture some images that illustrate everything that is fun, interesting, and unique about them. There are not many subjects so expressive and charismatic.
Isla Mujeres is a great base for your Whale Shark Adventure
After a day out on the water with the Whale Sharks and Mantas, it is great to relax and dry out with a walk around through the streets of Isla Mujeres. Lined with fun shops and great restaurants, it is safe and full of the festive feeling of Mexico.
Great Places to Eat
After many years of leading Sailfish and Whale Shark trips to Isla Mujeres, I have found some really great restaurants both formal and hole in the wall. I think I can say I have never had a bad meal here and in fact had many great ones and all at a great or reasonable value.
Here is a few of my favorites:
Olivia (Mediterranean and Vegetarian)
Count the Whale Shark Murals
In the last few years, murals of whale sharks, sailfish, and mantas have sprouted up all over town. It is a great street photography outing to find and photograph the best all over town.
Unique Shopping – Bazaar and High End
The colorful shops are full of handmade Mexican items ideal for souvenirs and gifts to take home.
For a day off, there are beaches perfect for swimming and sunning: there might even be a hammock with your name on it. Picture a pool with a view of the beach. A ride to the south of the island takes you to a park and ruins. Numerous dive shops will give you opportunities for diving around the island. The Underwater Statue Museum is a unique experience.
Most come for the unequalled marine wildlife encounters, but Isla Mujeres is a holiday destination by itself.
This year I lead 2 groups down to Isla Mujeres for the Sardine Run. Each group was on our charter boat for 5 full days on the water.
This year’s experience demonstrated to all of us how the sardines and sailfish are just two pieces of a larger ecosystem in the Gulf of Mexico. We encountered Whale Sharks, Giant Mantas, Sailfish , and Dolphins all feeding in food rich waters. The sardines are there to feed on the plankton and krill and they attract all the species that want to eat sardines such as the sailfish and dolphins. We were excited to see so many different species out in the open blue water.
On our first day when we found the dolphins we thought we had found a pod feeding on sardines and perhaps the same bait school that some sailfish were working, but this was not the case. In fact the encounter was more unusual: this was a pod in the act of mating. The frenzied males were chasing the females and competing with each other to dominate her. They paid no notice to us as we swam along and photographed them.
Over the next few days we found some sailfish. The captain and crew must look for frigate birds diving into the water. This is a sign that sardines or other food is near the surface. Spotting the surface disturbance of the sailfish or sardines would be impossible so the birds are the best method to find Sailfish. We are very lucky to work with experienced and patient captains for have loads of experience in these waters. They found us several chances to “drop” us in the water with sailfish.
Once in the water it is some fast surface swimming to catch up to the moving baitball. I have found that it is easier to keep up with a group of sailfish who are managing a smaller baitball. The large schools of sardines move and break apart to rapidly.
The sailfish work together to trap the sardines near the surface. The birds are diving down to grab fish at the same time as sailfish take turns running into the baitball and swatting at the fish to stun them. They then eat fish that are stunned and separated from the ball. Then a another makes a run. The sailfish flash colors and their “sail” fins as a means of communication. This action makes for great video.
It can be a long day of searching for sailfish so on a less productive day we tried a different area and were excited to find feeding whale sharks and giant mantas. These two species are known to aggregate in these waters in the summer months, so it is unusual to find them in the winter. We had nice long encounters with the whale sharks. The giant mantas swam in loops while they fed. I was able to take many images of their individualized markings. I submit all my manta photos to the local Manta Trust . They confirmed that these are mantas that have been documented in the area during summer concluding that there is a resident population – very exciting!
All of my guests had some great images and were pleased with the surprise species encounters and with the fact that we were able to find sailfish. I wish to thank all of them for making this an enjoyable trip for everyone. I hope to see them on a future trip.
I was very conscious of baggage volume and weight when I made my equipment choices. My biggest decision was between my 16 – 35mm lens and the fish eye. I have used both before for sailfish. While the images with the fisheye were nice, one drawback was how close you need to be to get a good shot. Also if you get too close, your subject gets distorted at the edges of the image. I did not want to bring both or switch my equipment halfway through, so I opted for the 16 – 35mm.
I have a Nauticam housing with my best glass dome port. I also had a 2nd 5DMKIII as a backup and set for land images. No strobes as they would just slow down my swimming.
I have had my housing from my old Canon 5DII converted to fit my 2nd 5D III or a future RS. I like things to be interchangeable and to carry less equipment.
My initial setup was thus:
Canon 5D MKIV with a 16 – 35mm lens ISO 400 1/320 and f5.6
When conditions were cloudy or if the action was further below the surface, I stayed in the ISO 400 – 640 range, Shutter priority. For the sunny days and surface shots, I would dial things down.
The subjects are alway moving so a center weighted autofocus mode is important as is keeping the shutter fast enough to get crisp images.
You can enjoy my sailfish images from past seasons in my online gallery
As always, Isla Mujeres is a fun and comfortable home base for this adventure (and our whale shark trip in the summer). Our hotel is close to the dock and restaurants, while being a quiet place to rest.
There is a nice pool which leads down to the beach. The rooms have AC and many have a balcony facing the water.
There are many good restaurants in town and food is very economical (average of $30 total for dinner) . We feasted on fresh fish, Mediterranean dishes, local tastes, and Cuban. I have been going so many years now that I have a list of the best places to please all my guests.
The shops are colorful and the people are friendly and we enjoyed just walking around town. The guests and I had happy hour around the pool with great conversations .
I hope to share another adventure with each of them and I am already looking forward to my next visit to Isla Mujeres.
A Special Opportunity to Join a Most Exciting Marine Wildlife Encounter
Sailfish Hunting Bait Balls in Isla Mujeres
Our next adventure will be January 2019
5 boat days for sailfish
Limited to 5 guests
Photograph and free dive with sailfish hunting sardines in the blue water off the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. Our private charter leaves daily from the docks of Isla Mujeres for an 8 hour day of maximum time in the water photographing and enjoying this incredible encounter.
Only snorkeling gear is required and the action happens at or a meter or two below the surface. We charter the most experienced sport fishing guides who know the water and patterns of the sardines and predators.
Limited to 5 passengers on boat plus guide and crew. This is an excellent opportunity for photographers to capture dramatic images and video. Freediving and excellent swimming skills are recommended in order to enjoy this athletic experience.
“The trip was fantastic. Excellent itinerary and well organized. I saw way more sailfish than I ever expected and was much closer than I thought possible. My friends are amazed by the photos I took. I got a really good shot of you that I attached. Many thanks to you and Karen. Michael and I are spreading the word about a trip to Africa. Great trip and hope to see you again” ——- Kurt Bitters
“Had a great time in the water and topside. And, I salute your restaurant selections! I’ll be back for more… you’re a topnotch guide and host. I will be back for more.”
— Bob Pooley
The hotel has a private beach with pool and deck. The rooms are ensuite with a balcony, AC, and wifi. Upgraded rooms are available at extra cost. The town of Isla Mujeres is safe and features many great restaurants, shops, beaches, bars, and a park. It is an easy ferry ride from Cancun.
I will need a minimum of 4 guests to make this trip happen and a max of 5 to allow for uncrowded boat and encounters.
Please contact me soon with your interest so I finalize bookings and make sure I get space on the fleet’s and hotel’s busy in season schedule. Contact Me
Last year Adobe released a new version of Lightroom CC which contains their newest adjustment tool: The DeHaze slider. It is found in the FX menu of the Development module (way down toward the bottom of the list).
You must have the CC version of Lightroom to use it, but if you have Photoshop, there is a way to access the tool and take it further using a few medium/advanced PS techniques. (see at the end of this article for details). Also this tool works on the entire image – in Photoshop you can target the area where the effect takes place.
The purpose of the Dehaze slider is to either add or remove atmospheric haze from a photo. In Adobe’s words:“The Dehaze technology is based on a physical model of how light is transmitted, and it tries to estimate light that is lost due to absorption and scattering through the atmosphere.” The obvious use is for adjusting landscape images, but I have found it useful with safari images where there was quite a bit of dust in the air and even for some underwater images where the water was not clear. (the underwater equivalent of dust)
For me, it is a tool that combines Contrast, color saturation, and midtone sharpening into a single tool. Using a combination of tools it is possible to achieve similar results to the Dehaze slider, but if time is an issue, you can get great improvements with just one adjustment. Investing a bit more time you can build on the improvements Dehaze adds to your images by combining it with further adjustment tools.
Here is an example of how I used Dehaze for an image that was not a landscape.
The drought has made everything very dusty and it really effects this image taken in the mid morning light.
With just one adjustment, the colors pop and the contrast is greatly improved.
Now I experiment with doing some Exposure adjustments first before applying the Dehaze.
My method for this is to temporarily Desaturate the image so I can analyze it without the distraction of color.
I used the Tone Curve tool (you can also use the 4 sliders under Exposure) to add contrast by darkening the Shadows and Darks and lightening the Lights. I left the Highlights as they were since there is a bit of bright light in the mane and sky. I then restored the color to see the following improvement.
Now I add the Dehaze adjustment – a little bit less than I used when it was my only adjustment.
Dehaze has taken the image a step better than exposure adjustments alone.
Looking at the results in detail, I want to bring some lightening back to the Shadows range of the midtones. I go to my Darks slider in the Tone Curve tool (or the Shadows in the Exposure section) to lighten these tones up. I can now see the details in the lion’s face better.
Now my image is acceptable or I can add details such as small color adjustments (to saturation or hue) or some targeted sharpening or highlighting on places like the eyes.
Here are a few other images with a simple Dehaze adjustment.
For those without Lightroom CC who have Photoshop or those who take the technique further with more targeted results:
Open the image in Photoshop.
Make a duplicate of the background layer.
Go to the Filter Menu and find Camera Raw Filter
Dehaze appears under the FX tab
Make your adjustments and choose OK to return to Photoshop.
Now you will make a Layer Mask which will hide the effect where you do not want it. – in my example I will mute the effect in the background.
Add the layer mask to the layer which has the Camera Raw Filter adjustments. Use a paintbrush and black color to mask out the effect. You can soften your brush and/or lower the opacity at the transition points.
If I had turned my copied layer into a Smart Object, I would be able to return to the Camera Raw adjustments and amend them as I wish.
The Dehaze tool is now my go to tool for images that need contrast boost – especially if it was taken in dusty conditions.
During our small group photo safaris we travel an hour and half south of our Tree House Lodge to the Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve. This is a very old reserve (one of the first to be decided as a nature reserve) and we stay in the section which is bordering the Kruger National Park. There is no fence so wildlife is free to range into both areas.
We come to Sabi because they have the rivers and tree conditions that leopard prefer and thrive in. They also have a long history of tracking and knowing their leopards very intimately so the rangers quickly find the leopards and can tell us each animal’s story.
We had many wonderful leopard moments over the course of our 3 September 2016 safari groups. This evening game drive was especially nice: we tracked a male leopard named Tingana while he went on his early evening rounds
We catch back up to our leopard after the sun has set. There are lions moving through near by. A leopard can be harassed or killed by lions so he is becomes very alert and circles back to his tree where he had a kill stashed away.
After a snack in the safety of a tree he goes back to resting.
The next morning we catch up with Tingana and he is on the ground under the tree still guarding it from lions and others who would steal it.
On a previous visit to Sabi Sands we saw Tingana with a zebra kill up a tree. It is amazing to think of the strength this animal must command in order to drag a small zebra high up a tree.
See our photo safaris which include a visit to Sabi Sands in 2017 & 2018 on our website Africa Wild Safaris
Though there is no hiding the stress of the long drought on the animals and plant life of the bushveld, we had excellent wildlife sightings. The predators thrive during these conditions with so many herbivores loosing condition to lack of food. There was hope in the first good early rains. We enjoyed the cooler than average temperatures and watched the drama of nature unfold. These are some of ours guests and my own favorite moments from our recent 3 safari groups.
I use a Canon 5D MKIII and most of my images are shot using a 70 - 200mm lenses, sometimes with a 1.4 teleconverter. I also use a 300mm lens for the long shots in Kruger - this also with a teleconverter. I use a monopod as stabilization as this method works in all vehicles, is light, and versatile.
I have now upgraded to the Canon 5D 4 and look forward to its first trip to Africa in April 2017
Martial Eagle Makes a Large Kill
Martial eagle has made a kill
Most of our large raptor sightings are of the bird of prey scouting from the top of a tree or involved in a crowd of birds on a scavenged carcass. The eagle was able to take down a steenbok. The bird plummeted with enough force to knock the weakened antelope to the ground then held it in a choke hold.
Following a Leopard on His Rounds
In the early evening we tracked a leopard as he surveyed his territory and looked for hunting opportunities…and took a nap
Our trackers knew where to look for this male and we found him early in our game drive. He is a very robust male who has obviously had success hunting lately. We had a wonderful time seeing the daily life of this predator.
Leopards love warthogs and this one spent some time checking likely dens while listening and watching for some to return for the night.
It is possible this leopard has a recent kill stashed up a tree (his stomach does look a bit big) and thus he is only surveying territory tonight and hunting only what is easy to get.
Most times we see hyenas at the kills made by lions, or harassing a cheetah. We had a chance to see a more sympathetic side of hyenas at a den sight with multiple pups.
The den had several cute puppies and the dominant female (mother) was very attentive and affectionate to them. The usual subadult den assistants were also there keeping the bold puppies close.
Seeing and photographing lions is always a thrill. We have seen many different lion kills and pride groupings this year. Observing the social dynamics of the group at feeding times is very revealing. The physical demands of eating a carcass is surprising as is the effort put into guarding the meal from vultures and scavengers even after all the lions are so full they can hardly move. We can get very close and see every detail for different positions.
Learning about Conservation Efforts
We are lucky to have many wildlife conservation and rehabilitation centres near our lodge.
It is always an educational experience for first time guests and repeat visitors like myself. We visited an orphaned baby rhino, the raptors recovering from poisoning, and other permanent and temporary species.
Great Wildlife Moments at the Lodges
Often we don’t have to leave the lodge to have great wildlife encounters: it is all around us. The night skies are magnificent in the near total darkness and the sounds are exotic.
One hot afternoon our guests were relaxing in the pool when giraffes came to eat buds off their favorite trees.
Our safaris are full of wildlife which will thrill photographers and those without fancy cameras. We also believe that all the wildlife needs to be presented within a context of current conservation efforts, successes, and challenges. We celebrate and appreciate each species of bird, insect, plant, and animal for its role in the whole ecosystem of our corner of South Africa.
Our safaris are educational, fun, exciting, surprising, and fulfilling – and some say life-changing.