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.
Every October and November, polar bears congregate in the Churchill area to await the return of the sea ice and access to their preferred prey: the ringed seal. We headed up in late October, which is the middle of the aggregation of the bears and usually before the ice forms and they head away.
We traveled by way of Winnipeg and a flight up to Churchill. Our group stayed inside the Churchill Wildlife Management Area at he Northern Studies Centre, a research facility that houses those conducting research. Each year the Centre welcomes a few visitors such as our group. While at the Centre we were introduced to ecofriendly facility, learned of the current research, and had a thorough orientation to polar bears in this region from the researchers. We enjoyed the observation deck and night observatory dome.
Our first two outings were on “Tundra Buggies” or “Bear Buggies”; specialty build vehicles which can travel the roads and overland in the Wildlife Management Area with minimal impact to animals and environment. I dare say we would not have been able to reach the remote areas had we not been on such an accomplished and purpose built vehicle.
The back of the vehicle is an open deck from which we could photograph the bears and scenery. It was also possible to get shots out the open window, but we spent most of our time outside.
Our bear sightings started right away on our way form the airport. Our first two days yielded some very nice encounters with a male polar bear along the water and napping in the snow.
It snowed these first days decorating the rocks and scrub bushes. The snow actually made spotting the bears easier as they appear yellow against a new snow. They seemed to be getting excited and energetic feeling that ice and seals were getting closer.
One curious male came to check out our vehicles one at a time. He peered up at us in curiosity and gave the vehicle a good smell underneath.
We encountered a female escorting her two cubs at the edge of the Bay – perhaps checking to see if the ice was formed yet, or just looking for a meal. The cubs were very full of energy and roaming all over not following mom. It was difficult to get a nice family shot, but fun to see the young ones out learning how to survive on their own.
The bears were hungry as they have not had a good meal of seal since coming to shore last spring. We spotted them eating kelp and browsing berry bushes.
For our last day we used a different mode of transportation: a private van tour with a local expert. He spacious vehicle was comfortable and his knowledge allowed us to find bears but also other wildlife such as a snow owl, ptarmigans, and fox. Though outside the Wildlife Management Area, we had excellent polar bear sightings. A young female came toward us then thrilled us as she picked a nice patch of moss among the rocks and took a nap just meters from our vehicle.
We tracked a male polar bear for some time. We were out of the van photographing at photographing something else when the bear snuck up behind us and came toward us. We quickly got back in the vehicle and when he arrived at the vehicle we had some very close shots of him as he checked us out.
The private van was a great way to enjoy all the wildlife and scenery. Our guide showed us a couple of abandoned structures and other sites that illustrate life in Churchill and its history.
A fox follows a bear at a safe distance hoping to get some scraps
Though short, this was a very successful and fulfilling opportunity to photograph polar bears and their arctic landscape. It was both exciting and educational; I feel a deeper understanding of the polar bear’s lifecycle and how the climate impacts them in very significant ways.
To join a future Polar Bear Trip – Join our mailing list by using our contact form – Our mailing List members will have first access to the limited spaces on this trip (6 guests only)
A South Africa photo safari will be full of opportunities to photograph animals at close distances. These images have all the details and interesting poses found in modern (human) portraits. You can apply current portrait processing techniques to your wildlife portraits. This technique gives the image added depth and dimension and adds the illusion of the face coming forward.
The key characteristics of this technique are Light, Contrast, & Sharpness
Areas with contrast and sharpness draw the viewers attention and lighter areas seem closer to the viewer building intimacy and connection between subject and viewer.
Begin in Camera Raw or Lightroom
Start with a basic White Balance adjustment if the image is too warm or cool.
Also quickly adjust the tone for good exposure and add some contrast. We will add more contrast later and do further work on the overall Tone.
You can also add punch to the eyes now, but I like to leave this as the final touch.
Dodge and Burn
Dodge and burn will increase contrast and bring out specific details that you think are important. Details around the eyes and character features on the face are good targets. For animals with facial markings, it is good to bring these out.
This step is done in Photoshop since it will be achieved using a layer mask. Switch To Photoshop from Lightroom by accessing the left click menu and selecting Edit In – Photoshop.
Create a new Layer with blend mode of Soft Light
Fill with 50% gray
Choose Dodge tool
The Dodge/Burn tool has controls which limit the effect to specific tonal ranges: Highlights, Midtones, and Shadows
Start with the Dodge Tool: Set range to Highlights with Exposure between 5 – 10% Paint over areas on the face to brighten highlight areas and other areas you with to appear closer to the viewer. Repeatedly go over areas to make the effect stronger or raise the Exposure setting higher.
Switch to the burn tool and darken midtone and shadow areas in the same way.
It is a bit of a pain, but try to burn and dodge in the whiskers and eyelashes: they are unique to the animal and thus important to present to the viewer.
Contrast and Sharpening
If you are familiar with using Smart Objects, you can duplicate your image layer and convert it to a Smart Object. Then choose Filter – Camera Raw Filter.
The alternate method is to run the Camera Raw Filter on the layer. The difference is that with the Smart Object, you can go back and fine tune your Sharpen and Clarity values.
In the Camera Raw tool, choose the Adjustment Brush, then set Clarity to around 25 and all other sliders to zero. Check the Mask at the bottom of the dialogue box and paint over the face where you want the effect. Click it off to see the effect, then also increase the Sharpness around +10 – +25. Press Ok to return to PhotoShop.
Press D to set Foreground and Background to default colors of black and white.
Create new Adjustment layer and choose Gradient Map Adjustment Layer . In the properties panel click on the gradient ramp to open the gradient editor
Drag white color stop left toward the center to intensify the highlights.
Drag midpoint slider to the left or right a small amount. ( you might want to try midtones both to the left and right on separate layers to see which you like best.) Click OK . Reduce layer opacity to 30% or a percent that gives the look you want. You still want a hint of color instead of a completely monochrome image. The amount that looks good to you will vary depending on the image.
Add some Fake Depth of Field
If the image could use more depth of field, this step will add some.
Add another merged layer to the top of the stack
Use the Filter Blur Gallery Iris Blur and place the oval over the face
Adjust it to fit and so none of the sharp areas are covered
Increase the blur amount. Since animals do not have oval shaped faces (ears etc. ) you can add a mask to the layer and paint black to remove blur from these areas.
Make a merged copy and name it Sharpen. You can make this layer a Smart Object f you wish. Choose Filter Other Highpass. Add radius of 1 – 5 pixel: enough to be able to see the hairs and whiskers, but without a large halo around edges. Change the Blend Mode of the Sharpness layer to Overlay. If the effect is overdone you can reduce the layer opacity or adjust the radius.
At this point you can also add a layer with texture to add a gritty effect. Use a mask to block the texture effect from the eyes so they stay sharp.
Adjusting the Light
The idea here is to darken the background and leave the face bright.
There are several ways to achieve this. One way is to add a curves adjustment layer then mask out the areas you want to remain bright.
Another method is to add another Merged layer to the top called lighting
Do a Camera Raw filter and choose the Radial Filter tool to draw oval to encircle the main part of the face. Adjust Exposure to darken outside the oval. Alternately use the Adjustment brush to navigate the non oval face.
Add punch to the eyes
If you have used all Smart Objects and Adjustment Layers, you can go back to the Dodge and Burn layer and add some contrast to the eyes. If you have used stamped layers, you simply add a layer at the top, fill with 50% grey and set the Blend Mode to Soft Light. Use the Dodge and Burn tool.
A vignette or cropping might also be a good edition.
Use this series of adjustments on several images to give a consistent look to a collection.
I hosted 2 wonderful photo safari groups in May 2016 . We had fun and adventure among some really great wildlife sightings. My guests returned with many great action, predator, and close up shots. One guest told me he had over 3,000 photos to sort through.
After each series of safaris, I reflect back on the moments that made the most vivid memories while I sort through my photos. Each moment spent out in the wild spaces of South Africa is special, but I have selected a few to share that stood out for me.
The majority of these images were shot with my Canon 70 – 200 lens on a 5D MK3 – this is my workhorse setup for safaris in South Africa
Burchell’s Coucal in Kruger National Park
I had had a great and active morning in Kruger, but things were slower in the early afternoon. This coucal brightened things up by landing on a branch near my vehicle and stayed in a perfect pose. I was even able to move the truck to get shot from different angles and sun exposure. This species of cuckoo does not deposit eggs in another species’ nests.
Leopard Cubs at Play
We were lucky enough to find these cubs and their mother on a morning game drive with perfect weather and again on other drives. They played with each other and often their mother would join in the fun.
Every so often they would sit to rest and survey their surroundings as young predators in training.
Then the fun would erupt again for another round of pouncing and wrestling
Rhino Establishing Rank
White rhino are usually pretty stoic when we encounter them: they keep at eating or close ranks to stand in an alert defensive position. This group of 3 males and one young (probably) male were agitated and active when we found them. The 3 older rhinos were engaged in some intense battling with their horns with one male defending his dominance in the herd. The youngster was quite stressed by the whole affair and ran around in panic.
Very Young Hyena Puppies
This is a very large and active den site for spotted hyena. On this visit there were several adult females around and some adolescent and older pups. Out of the den came 2 very young pups. These are the youngest I have ever seen. The female in charge (not sure if it was the mother) kept them close to the den by picking them up in her powerful jaws using a gentle touch.
Lions with their Kill
This was one of several very good sightings we had through the two May safaris. This time the females were resting nearby and the male was there too. The buffalo meal was mostly consumed, the previous night, but this male lion was still hungry and working with the carcass to get all the meat he could. It is hard work for the lions to pull the meat apart and they frequently take a rest in the shade.
Mother Leopard Having Fun
It must be stressful to try to feed, train, and defend two active cubs. This is why it was so delightful to be there to see the mother leopard play with her cubs. No of them took any notice of our vehicle and cameras and just stalked and mock attacked each other in the open and right in front of us.
Antics in the Mud Bath
As the rainy season water drys up and becomes mud, these spots become a favorite place to visit and photograph. When elephants come by it is a funny mud flinging spectacle with bodies rolling and splashing. One elephant pushed his younger sister in the mud. Rubbing follows the mud bath. At this water hole the favorite rubbing tree had become very short and elephants had to contort to funny positions to use it – such as this youngster doing a face plant in order to get a rub.
Moving Herds in Kruger
Parts of Kruger National Park open up into wide vistas where you can see far into the distance. This herd of wildebeest was on the move and created a nice sight line and vanishing point for my photo.
Game Drives in the Dark
I enjoy the end of our afternoon game drives when we return to the lodge after dark using spot lights. This time we found a bush baby. I am still hoping to see a pangolin or aardvark by night. We also find chameleons , small cats, and hear the night calls of birds and herd animals.
Lions Seeking Shade
This kill was in a great spot for feeding at night, but as the morning wore on it was getting hot out in the open defending the remains of the meal. The female lion – who was covered head to toe in blood and guts – tried to drag the carcass to a shady spot. It was a bit too heavy for her and the other lions just watched from the shade.
Drama in Kruger – all in the first 10 Minutes
This was the start of one of our all time best days in Kruger. A hyena chased after a leopard cub while the mother fought to defend it and this black-backed jackal stood at the ready to take advantage no matter who won. The jackal was probably following either the hyena or leopard to wait for chances of stealing a meal. We also saw elephant, lion, and rhino all before the welcome center.
We also had beautiful and interesting skies that day. Sometimes you forget to take some wide shots to illustrate the vastness of the park.
Safari Story: An Afternoon at the Elephant Mud Bath
We are on a game drive in the Balule Game Reserve in the mid afternoon. We had just left a very nice leopard sighting and we were now in search of our next wildlife encounter. Our driver took us to a favorite spot for rhino, elephants, and buffalo to have a mudbath. Today a family of elephants was enjoying the baths.
The season has become dry early this year so a good water hole and mud have been a rare find for the animals in the area. Here there is a small area where the water is still at the surface, but elephants can find water by digging.
As we arrive, two juvenile elephants are digging in the small pit to enlarge it. Their sides are caked with fresh mud and dried mud covers their faces and trunks. You can see the enjoyment as the two use their front feet to dig deeper and bring up more water which they stir into mud.
Nearby, a mother elephant and her infant calf eat leaves and rest together in the shade.
Now the juveniles have had enough mud and turn their attention to a tree stump which functions as a favorite scratching post. Each has a go at it displaying crazy poses as they maneuver their bulk to reach the short stump. Each has a try at pulling the stump out in hopes of making it taller and a more excellent tool.
Meanwhile, the baby and mother have a go in the mud followed up by their turn at the scratching post. The little elephant is completely covered in mud and very pleased with her adventure in the mud.
The juveniles have gone back to eating and two older males, still juveniles practice some mock sparring. These playful fights and twisting of trunks is also a bonding and an exercise is establishing and acknowledging rank in the group.
The elephants had some good fun, but they never stop eating for long, so soon they return to eating.
We continue on to watch the sunset and prepare for the wildlife action after dark. We had several encountering on our way back in the dark including a bushbaby (a type of subprimate) and a chameleon.
If you would like to join us on a photo safari visit our safari webpage or check out other posts and links on this blog site.
Our tree house lodge enjoys comparatively great cell phone coverage from two local carriers: Vodaphone and MTN. The signal is usually 2G while in Johannesburg you may get 3G.
Manage your expectations: Outside of Johannesburg, the coverage will be spotty and vary by time of day or weather. There will be many dead spots such as the whole of Kruger Park. There will be times when you will not be able to connect, perhaps for most of the day.
Make sure you contact your phone carrier to get a global plan before travel and follow instructions about setting for roaming etc on your phone. Not all phones are capable of picking up signals outside of the US and Canada so please check this too.
South Africa Networks are GSM networks. Many cell phones are using CMDA networks; their carriers are Verizon, Sprint, and US Cellular. A smaller number of service providers are on the GSM standard: Tmobile and At&T.
An advantage of a GSM network is that changing carriers is as easy as buying a new SIM card for their device. This makes them great for international travelers. If you phone GSM or operates on both networks, you can get a local or international SIMM card with pay as you go service.
Check that your phone is compatible with the networks in Africa – almost all of which operates GSM digital networks running at a frequency of 900mhz and some 3G networks.
A few phones sold in North America operate on both networks.
You may also have to “unlock” your phone to be able to switch cards
Check that you phone will be able to work in South Africa, then sign up for your carrier’s international plan
Get a local SIMM card for your phone with a pay as you go program. This can be done in South Africa, but will probably be easier done before travel.
Rent a “global phone” from your carrier
Rent/Buy a “global phone from a provider such as www.Cellhire.com They have phones for around $50 and SImm cards starting at $9.00
Internet and Data
Manage your expectations: South Africa is not the land of free WiFi, great coverage, and high speed internet. You will be time-warped back to dial up type speeds, outages, and pay per use – if it is even available.
The best solution for internet access it through a smart phone or wireless device that works through the phone signals.
Just as with the Global Phones discussed above, you can rent or buy a WiFi device (sometimes called MiFi) equipped with a SIMM and data plan. With the device you can connect your laptop, tablet, or phone to a signal and send / receive data.
Cell Hire rentals and sells WiFi devices. I have used this option before with great success. Cell Hire
On our safaris, the tree house lodge does not offer wifi, but the other two lodges we visit have internet available for a fee.
Enjoy being unplugged with the knowledge that if someone really needs you, they will be able to get a message to through us.
Be mostly plugged, but check in a few times through your pay per use Global plan or if we find an internet cafe or connection.
Get a WiFi device with local SIMM card and data bundle
Learn about our Photo Safaris on our Africa Wild Safaris Website
Travel Insurance is an Important Addition to Your Safari Plan
Please Consider Travel Insurance
Because of a recent incident I want to stress the importance of travel insurance. Twice in less than a year we have had 4 guests on two different trips cancel very close to there travel dates. None had travel insurance.
Because of the way things work in Africa, all of our group’s safari expenses are booked and paid for well in advance and refunds and credits are not offered by our contractors, so when the trip approaches it is impossible for us to refund money. Many safari companies require guests to have coverage. Africa Wild Safaris does not make it mandatory at this time, but please understand that we will not be able to refund any money. Some money might be refunded if we can replace you , but it is most likely not going to be the full amount you paid.
Get Trip Cancellation, Curtailment, and Medical Coverage
Travel insurance with a cancellation coverage is really import. One of the guests had a near fatal heart attack 1 week before travel and in the other case the spouse died. While these seem extreme bad luck, more likely cancellation reasons could be a car accident, illness of parent or family member, house break in, work emergencies, surgery, or court appearance. When looking at policies please check cancellation reasons carefully. Also good to have is the usual trip interruption (cancelled flight), lost luggage, and the less likely illness on the trip so great it requires evacuation.
See Details about our Safaris on the Africa Wild Safaris Website
Trip Cancellation and Curtailment
This incorporates cover against trip interruption or travel delay, loss or theft of luggage, or if you must cancel.
Typically this incorporates cover for medical expenses, transport to medical facilities expenses for travel partners, evacuation. Most also come with an assistance hotline support. They may also work with your medical insurance for follow up care once you are home or if you have coverage while overseas.
Travel insurance offered by credit cards may not be comprehensive so check the policy fine print.
These websites might help you get educated and give a start to finding a good company and comparing their products
Each year I pull together a collection of images that summarize all of the wildlife photography and wildlife encounters I had this past year. This year I thought I would try a theme of Black and White / Monochrome.
There are many tools that will help you process your digital images into monochromatic images; Photoshop, Lightroom, and numerous third party and plugin softwares. Even within Photoshop and Lightroom there are dozens of ways to achieve the black and white look and spirit.
For this collection of images I challenged myself to use many of the different techniques available to me in the Photoshop and Lightroom toolset.
The first challenge was which images to choose: not every image is powerful in monochrome / Black & White. Contrast, range of tonality (black to highlights), sharpness , and separation of subject and background / features are all important for making a successful monochrome image. Color can be necessary to understand the subject and the setting, but sometimes it is just a distraction. It is these times when the image can be elevated by removing the color (or most of it)
Here are the highlights of my year and a bit about how I processed the images.
March: Tiger Sharks and Caribbean Reef Shark, Bahamas
Processed in Photoshop: I want to use Quadtone: 4 colors assigned according to tonal range Black, shadows, whites, highlights. First change to 8 bit and Greyscale mode. Then choose Duotone Mode. I set 4 colors all in grays and browns and set the curves of each to assign them to a tonal range. I then used a Highpass filter to sharpen. Convert back to RGB before saving.
April – May: South Africa
June: Wild Dolphins in the Bahamas
July: Whale Sharks in Mexico
Sept – Oct: South Africa
I hope this has sparked your creativity and you will start to experiment and explore ways to enhance your photos in the monochromatic realm.
Some other posts about Post Processing and Black & White
9 Day Photo Safaris in 2019 – Best of Limpopo & Sabi
May 4 – 12
May 13 – 21
August 27 – Sept 4
September 10 – 18
9 Day Photo Safaris in 2020 – Best of Limpopo & Sabi
May 2 – 10
May 28 – June 5
Sept 1 – 9
Sept 15 – 23
Sept 29 – Oct 7
Gregory Sweeney hosts affordable 9 day photographic safaris on private reserves in the game rich area of Limpopo, South Africa. During the safari we stay at our own tree house lodge as well as in the famous Sabi Sands reserve. We visit Kruger National Park and many private reserves seeking all of the great wildlife. Small groups of 6 -8make this an exclusive and personal experience.