Category Archives: Photo Safaris

Posts about our safaris, preparing for your safari, African wildlife, and safari guide reports.

2013 Photography Tours & Safaris: My Favorite Moments

2013 was very busy and full of great moments presented here are some of my favorites

safari_with_lions

 

These lion cubs were resting with their mother and aunt on some rocks along the bank of a dry river bed. Though the guests and I were a bit fearful of getting stuck in the sand, our expert driver navigated our vehicle up the riverbed and through some areas of drifted sand to get a good view.  It was a delightful family scene which we watched and photographed. Soon the cubs became restless and bounded down the rock to play. As one headed straight for our vehicle, I was swept over with fear that he would jump into the vehicle and the mother would soon follow. By some strange natural lion instinct, the cub was more intrigued by a nearby stick – his intended target – than our truck full of strange beasts.  Respect for our status as alien observer was newfound in all of us that morning, especially when the cub looked us straight in the eye, then went back to his stick.

 

leopard_safari

On the Sabi Sands Reserve, our trackers found this female leopard still napping on a cool spot of sand. Her napping was not as it seemed because she was intently listening to a herd of impala up the hill.  While she laid silently, she was beginning to plot her strategy. She knows the layout of this territory and when she heard the impalas moving, she sprang awake and quickly yawned away her sleep and prepared to set up her ambush. What a privilege we had to follow her on her evening hunt. She came up the hill  with our bulky vehicle following, but she paid no mind to us. She paused to  figure out where all the herds were located and what direction they were moving. You could almost see the strategizing on her face. As she cautiously pushes into the grass, we leave her to wait until twilight to spring the trap.

 

Its not all serious photography on my safaris - we make sure it is fun as well. 2013 had groups of friends and family on safari which always elevates to fun
Its not all serious photography on my safaris – we make sure it is fun as well. 2013 had groups of friends and family on safari which always elevates to fun
It is always so much fun to watch each guest's reaction when we can get close to cheetahs and experience their morning routine (hunting of course) with them. This walking with cheetah program is a great way to learn about this endangered predator the message goes straight to your heart
It is always so much fun to watch each guest’s reaction when we can get close to cheetahs and experience their morning routine (hunting of course) with them. This walking with cheetah program is a great way to learn about this endangered predator the message goes straight to your heart

 

cageless_tiger_shark_dive photograph_tiger_shark

 

Again this year I hosted the cageless Tiger Beach shark cruise in the Bahamas. We always have a great group of people so together with the terrific crew, the topside is always fun and convivial. Underwater, the shark action is great, but doesnt really hit a level until the Tiger Sharks show up around the 2nd day.  When they do it is thrilling and since the guests are acclimated to sharks already, they can be brave enough to get some really close shots.   I love getting portraits of each of them with a shark.  I have many people who do on this trip each year and it always is a sellout  because it is unique, thrilling, and fun.

photograph_great_white_sharks great_white_cage_dive

 

These South African great white sharks of Seal Island near Simon’s Town are famous for a reason: this is one of only a few places in the world where they adapt their behavior to do an attack from below which often propels them out of the water. They do this no where else in their yearly travels.  One of my briefest, but most memorable moment of the year was the great whites launching up to take a seal. It is a challenge to photograph, but I did get a few. After watching the crazy (and sometimes bloody) action, they ask “who wants to go in the cage?!!” You are so pumped up you say yes and stay in there despite the rolling swells and cold water. Face to face with the worlds apex predator is an apex experience and I have some images to remind if I should ever forget. Cant wait to go back again with my safari guests in June 2014.  

 boulder_beach_penguins

Also in Simon’s Town South Africa,  the South African Penguin (formerly jackass penguin) has a rare land based colony at Boulder’s Beach walking distance from town. It is a beautiful beach and they have some really great blinds and boardwalks to photograph from.  I wanted to see the beach so I went there before going on the boardwalk.  I was having fun finding my way through the maze of boulders when suddenly I found myself astride with these 3 penguins. I followed their path through the boulders (well, some passages were too small so I had to go around) and followed them to where they cut up the hill through the vegetation to their nests.  At night the penguins walk around the seaside restaurants (they food was also a highlight!) and you have to check under your car for resting penguins.  One penguin came up steps into the our restaurant – the staff was unfazed as he does this most nights.

 

Guest enjoying the whale sharks whale shark photography by Gregory Sweeney Photography tours

 

Last but not least in my memory is my second trip to Mexico’s Cancun coast in July for the whale sharks.  I planned the trip to be at the peak of krill activity during full moon. The whale sharks were abundant as we expected and the weather was sunny, warm, and flat calm. What we didn’t expect was for hundreds of giant manta rays to steal the show.  They were immense in size and swam either at the surface or in graceful loops.  I had 2 weeks of wonderful guests and I was so happy to be able to place them each day with both mantas and whale sharks. Though always a moving experience swimming with giants, this year in Isla Mujeres was a special memory.

Whale Sharks and Manta Rays Isla MujeresHope you 2013 was full of good memories and my you have a great 2014 full of adventure

A Parting Shot

giant_mantas

Scan my blog for more images from all of the mentioned trips also see these posts

 

Dung Beetles: Astronavigators and Climate Change Warriors

GS_7789_120331

Dung beetles use their acute sense of smell to find a fresh pile of dung. Then they form it into a ball and start to roll it a safe distance away so they can eat it in an underground storage den.

 

This humble act helps reduce amount of methane released into the atmosphere  making them a surprisingly effective weapon in the battle against climate change.  According to a recent study, they do it by just digging in and around the dung which helps aerate the turds  reducing the amount of methane formed and released. 

The journey away from the dung pile  is not without drama.  Dung beetles prefer to roll in a straight line else they risk deviating in a circle and ending up back at the pile where another beetle will undoubtably steal their ball.

Studies had previously shown that dung beetles were able to keep a straight line by taking cues from the Sun, the Moon, and even the pattern of polarised light formed around these light sources, but it was the animals’ capacity to maintain course even on clear moonless nights that intrigued the researchers. To answer the question, dung beetles were treated to a night at the planetarium where the researchers could control the type of star fields they see.  In a blackened container to eliminate any landmarks on the horizon such as trees, they were confronted by different conditions.  The beetles performed best when confronted with a perfect starry sky projected on to the planetarium dome, but coped just as well when shown only the diffuse bar of light that is the plane of our Milky Way Galaxy. They think it is the bar more than the points of light that is important.

Dung beetles climb on top of their balls periodically. It is thought this how they take their bearings. It has also been shown that the beetles will climb on top to cool their feet on very hot days.

Dung beetles have preferences for certain species’ dung so when species such as rhino and elephant decline, so do the beetles.

 

Funny video:  True Facts about the Dung Beetle

 

 

 

 

First Days of African Safari “Exceeds Expectations”

photo safari group-1
I received the best news and highest compliment from our guest Linda this morning.  She told me that everything has exceeded her expectations: the tree houses, the food, and the wildlife – and it is only their third day!

photo safari group-4We started off their adventure at our lodge with game drives on a very scenic reserve.  Right away we show ostrich and white rhino.  Among the small herd of rhino was a baby rhino with his mother.  As many are aware, rhino are under great threat from the rhino horn poaching industry and these rhino have been dehorned as a deterrent.  This reserve has foiled a few poaching attempts in the past.

photo safari group-2

Home to not just the white rhino, we came upon the resident black rhino. These guys are a bit more aggressive and gave us some seriously challenging stares.

photo safari group-1-2We returned to the lodge for a big breakfast and had the mid day to relax, nap, and enjoy the pool and scenery.  After an afternoon tea we returned to the same reserve again for more rhinos (cant get enough of that baby rhino!).  This time we found an ostrich with chicks in tow and many of the antelope species endemic to our area.  We had a beautiful example of a male kudu  and nyala.   We enjoyed wine as we watched the sun go down then returned in the dark spotting with the torchlight.  We encountered some of the small nightime critters such as the civet and a white tailed mongoose.  Another wonderful dinner under the stars and we were ready to turn in.

photo safari group-3

Today we are half way through a day in Kruger.  October gets pretty hot so we will continue to watch the action at the watering holes where we have already seen giraffe and elephant.  You never know what will show up!

 

Boosting Color using Split Toning in Lightroom

 

Lion cub image as shot in the late afternoon in on a shady rock
Lion cub image as shot in the late afternoon in on a shady rock

There are many ways in Adobe Lightroom & Camera Raw (not to mention Photoshop) to correct or adjust the color of an image. Here I will show you how a tool you might not have used before can boost or correct color.

The Split Tone tool adds a specific color to the values defined as “highlights” in the image and another to the tones defined as “Shadows”. It is easiest to see how it works when it is applied to a black and white image.  Split Toning gives a sepia or tinted effect and adds interest even to the extent of adding opposite tones to the highlights and shadows. Applied to a full color image it can correct color casts or intensify color.

This lion cub image has great qualities, but is lackluster in the color.

 

Image after curves adjustment for contrast and a white balance adjustment
Image after curves adjustment for contrast and a white balance adjustment

First things first. I have made adjustments to sliders to bring out proper balance in the midtones, shadows, and highlights. To do this I used a combination of the sliders in the Basic Panel and under the Curves. I also added a touch of Clarity, but not too much now: I can always add more later. As for color, it does pop a little more with the added contrast. I moved the Temperature slider under White Balance to add a bit of warmth and to bring out the yellow and orange tones.

 

Image with Split Tone adjustment
Image with Split Tone adjustment

In the Split Tone tool I selected a light yellow orange color for the Highlights and a more burnt orange tone for the shadows.  In choosing these colors I was thinking what tones the darks and lights of the lion’s fur should be. I  used the Balance and saturation sliders to adjust to my liking. The tool takes all the light tones and applies the chosen color tempered by the Saturation value.  Balance changes the definition of what is light vs dark.

 

The Split-Tone tool settings
The Split-Tone tool settings

 

The final treatment would be a bit of sharpening and some dodge and burning of the eyes.

These settings also make a good sepia black and white.  To see, leave everything and  push down the Saturation Slider in the Basics panel to remove all color leaving only the tones from the Split Tone tool.

 

a monochrome version with tinting from the split tone tool
a monochrome version with tinting from the split tone tool

 

 

Great White Sharks of Seal Island

cage diving with great white sharks
A great white eyes me through the cage
underwater view of a great white shark
great white underwater from inside the shark cage

 

Seal Island which is in False Bay near Simon’s Town South Africa is home to 50,000 + Cape fur seals during the winter months (May – September). The seals are there to breed and raise their young. The great white shark is attracted to Seal Island because of the young and inexperienced fur seals who are on their first forays off the island.

Seal Island at this time of year is the place to witness the great whites breaching out of the water as they hunt the seals from below. During my trip to Seal Island I saw many natural predation events including a few breaches. The boat also carries a decoy shaped like a seal which we tow behind the boat and hope to see a breach up close.
After witnessing the morning predation, we get into the cage to watch for the great whites to pass by the cage underwater. It is awesome to see this huge shark up close. A great trip which I will do again.

dive with great white sharks
a shark swims by the cage
Great white shark diving
Shark diving boat arrives at Seal island at sunrise
breaching great white shark
Great White Shark breaches out of the water to catch a seal
great white shark cage dive
Guests in the shark cage with is suspended over the side of the boat
breaching great white sharks of South Africa
A crew member poses with their most successful decoy
seals on Seal Island
Seals rest at Seal Island

Enhancing Wildlife Eyes

A little enhancement to the eyes of your subject adds a little extra pop and elevates the whole image.

Whether using Lightroom adjustment brushes or Photoshop, the basic principle is to add contrast, brighten the iris and perhaps add some spectral highlights.  Professional retouchers have a detailed process for this, but simple edits have good effects.

This image was taken with a flash so there is the added problem of the cat equivalent of red – eye.

eyes

I will be using Photoshop to make the enhancements. It is possible to make these changes in Lightroom, but the adjustment brush is a bit awkward for me so I prefer the fine control possible in Photoshop.

Replace the Red Eye caused by flash

Open the image  and make a  selection of the the pupil.  You can start with a circle selection, but it may not be perfectly round so add to the selection if necessary.

Fill or paint black into the selection.

select-fill

The black looks a bit flat  so mix in a bit of dark gray to help give a shiney, reflective look.

Eyes usually have a white spot reflection in them called a spectral highlight which gives a lifelike effect.  Add a dot of white off center in the pupil.   Place the highlights in the other eye as if it is made by the same light source or the eyes will look a bit crazed.

 

highlight

Now we can add some pop.  For those not concerned with non-distructive techniques (because you have the original raw file or another copy), you can use the Dodge and Burn tools.  If you are less confident and want to make the changes on a separate layer(s) that it can be adjusted, use  a layer and a paintbrush.

This image shows areas to dodge (lighten) start very lightly and build up the contrast .

The next step is just a tiny bit of color. The eyes are such a

burn

dodged areas
dodged areas

match to the color of the fur,  a slight shift in hue will help them stand out.  I added a bit of green to the eyes to set them apart from the color of the fur.

final

Other species have different shaped eyes, but the same principles can be used to enhance their eyes.  Because careful not to overdue this technique because it can look fake and odd if too heavy handed: better to understate the enhancement than to overstate.

Morning at the Hyena Den : A Safari Story

The oldest checks us out
The oldest checks us out
The pups play with a stick
The pups play with a stick

While on our morning game drive, our guide had the suggestion , since we were near by, to swing past a den area known to be used from time to time by hyena. Sometimes we forget about the hyena as an interesting and fierce predator. It often acts as a scavenger, but it can hunt and kill on its own and it has a fascinating pack social structure . We approached the den and could see immediately that it was active. There was one pup exploring around the den. We watched it wander around looking like it wanted to play with a stick. Then we noticed a small head peaking out of the den: a second pup probably curious at the new noises. We watched them play together for a while.

 

Curiosity draws the youngest pup out of the den
Curiosity draws the youngest pup out of the den
two cute hyena pups
two cute hyena pups

I don’t usually think of hyenas as cute, but these two had all the appeal of any young and fuzzy animal. It seemed strange for them to be all alone and running amok, but we soon learned that the “babysitter” was near by and ready to intervene if the pups got too out of control. The dominant female who is the only hyena allowed to breed, will appoint a juvenile subadult to watch over the den while the mother hunts , This guardian did her duty that morning and made sure the pups did not stray into trouble.

 

photo-safari-hyena-4
The Oldest pup greets the babysitter

Hyena pups

Safari Camera Support Systems Recommendations

camera support on safari

 

Our safari guests often ask me for a recommendation on how to support long lens in safari vehicles. The options out there range from simple to complicated and from cheap to outrageously expensive Over the years I have tested many methods, some worked and other didn’t. I like multitasking products that are simple, effective, and easy to travel with -inexpensive doesn’t hurt either.  A few basic support items in my travel bag can be used singly or in combination to support my camera while allowing for necessary tracking.

My Photo Safaris

Safari vehicles are usually custom made and no two are likely to be constructed the same. On the typical safari you will be in many different vehicles and one system may not work for all of them: the more complicated the system the more likely it will not work in all vehicles.  Most support systems are bean bag supports, tripod or monopod with heads allowing pivot and movement, or a combination of tripod/monopod rigs and various clamps to secure it to a spot in the vehicle.

Bean bags – These come in many shapes and sizes with some made for specific lenses and vehicle situations. When empty, they are easy to travel with. Upon arrival at your destination, stop by a local grocery store buy a bag of rice or beans, put the fill into a zipper plastic bag then into the bean bag, and you are ready to go.  In a pinch you can use sand. When you are finished shooting, donate the beans or rice to a local family.  Also Birdseed works quite well and the birds get a happy meal after your travels.

I like bean bags because they provide a significant amount of vibration isolation compared to a hard mount and can be used in multiple situations not just safari vehicles.  Beanbags work best in pop-top vans (the photographer is standing in this type) or open-roof vehicles that would be found in Kenya and Tanzania. For the standard open safari vehicle they do not work so well due to the lack of doors, window frames, or other resting point. Usually you will get just a pipe-type arm rest or seatback to attach to; nothing to obscure the view of the animal, but not enough surface for a beanbag to function.

Tripods – Usually a photographer’s best friend, they unfortunately do not work so well in safari vehicles. They are difficult to set up and keep secure among the vehicle seats and passengers. Tripods are not recommended in vehicles because they take up precious space.

Monopods – A good monopod will be  lightweight, compact, and easy to travel with.  I have found them indispensable when shooting wildlife from a safari vehicle.   They carry the majority of the weight of long lens to save your arms and provide stabilization.   Combined with a ball head the monopod can be very versatile in capturing images on safari allowing you to swivel and adjust. The single leg pivot point makes it easy to turn and shoot out the opposite side of the vehicle with minimal body shifting and rearrangement of equipment. It is comfortable  and safe to hold the camera on the monopod while the vehicle is in motion.  I found that monopods work very well in the game drive vehicles in Botswana and South Africa.

If there is a down side to monopods it is that they are not secured to the vehicle.  Really Right Stuff (www.reallyrightstuff.com) has designed a clamp system specifically to clamp the monopods to a support in the vehicle. I have not tested out yet and am not sure about loosing all the mobility advantages of a monopod  by clamping it to the vehicle.

safari-camera-clamp-1

I have been experimenting with my own camera / lens mount system for safari vehicles.  My goal was to create one with a secure mounting system that was affordable, stable on a vehicle, and all its components could be multitaskers used in other photography settings.  I sourced out 3 components from different manufactures then MacGyvered then together.  The combined system came to about $155 USD before shipping costs.

My system starts with The Impact Super Clamp. This is a lightweight, inexpensive clamp that is easily attached to a strobe unit or ballhead. It can then be attached onto a pipe, table, stand, game drive vehicle seat back, or anything stationary. This thing is so handy; it is a must for your camera bag arsenal. At $20 it is a solid product that outperforms more expensive versions.

It can clamp onto an object ½ in to 21/8 in diameter and has a weight capacity of 33lb (15kg)

http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/371927-REG/Impact_KCP_700B26_Super_Clamp_with_Standard.html

The second component is a Mini Gimbal Mount Sidekick for Large Telephoto Lenses that I procured on Ebay from India for $110.00 USD.

http://www.thecinecity.com

To attach the super clamp and the Mini Gimbal Mount together I used a Manfrotto 208HEX Head Mounting Plate with Hex Stud – 3/8″ Thread

http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/307472-REG/Manfrotto_208HEX_208HEX_Head_Mounting_Plate.html    $20.51 USD

I still like to have the freedom of the camera on the monopod but the clamp rig will give me a more stable option.  With this system I can have the clamp set up on the safari vehicle ready to go then quickly switch from a monopod  rig to the full support clamped rig for a longer distance and stationary subject such as a lion on a kill.  So far I have had good success with the Frankenstein clamp rig and it works in most safari vehicles.  Unless you know your safari vehicles well it is best to choose support systems that are simple and offer options.  My best advice is still a nice ball mount attached to a good monopod.

safari-camera-clamp-2

What is the Best Season to go on Safari in South Africa?

See our Current Safari Schedule

New Tree House added to our Lodge

Photoshop: Using the Shadows/Highlights Command to Improve and Image

 

 

 

 

 

 

Using Photoshop to make a Super Sharp B&W Portrait

I wanted to create some portraits of big 5 animals that show the unique characters of the animal in sharp detail.  Buffalo are maybe the most difficult of the tbig 5 to make look unique – they have many similarities to cattle.   To me it is their massive horns  that make them unique and I wanted to make and image that shows off the impressive size of a good rack.  I selected the starting image because it shows all the important features of the face: both eyes, ears forward, nose , mouth and both horns.

 

photoshop-sharpening-before

 

BW sharpening photoshop-sharpening-final

 

 

Crop for drama

At this point the composition is not too exciting; it is centered, colors are muted and boring, shadows are distracting, etc.   A crop with add drama by making the horns act as sight lines from one corner of the image to the other.  Unnecessary space is eliminated.  The perspective even works in my favor here making the right side horn feel closer to the viewer like it is popping out of the picture and saying “this thing is big”.  The horns are the star here.bw_applied

Switch to monochrome

The color does not work toward the goal of making a portrait of big scary horns attached to an exotic animal. They actually make the buffalo look too common and color patches in the ears draw attention away from the horns.   I will switch this to a monochrome treatment.

I have a favorite  preset in Lightroom “Creamtone” under B&W Toned Presets.  This is actually a duo tone treatment whereby highlights are tinted in one color and the shadow in another.  A balance control will set the “break point” as to whether the highlight color or the shadow color is used.  This preset also applies a high contrast  to the  image with bright highlights which works here because it simplifies the background detail.  I add a darkening vignette to burn the edges.  This concentrates the viewer’s attention onto the subject in the center and adds to the high contrast mood.

You can duplicate the effects of the Lightroom preset in Photoshop by using the Mode< Duotone command.  First the image must be converted to 8 bit grayscale.  Once this is done the command will be available and you will find many preset duo, tritone, and quad tone settings.  Go crazy picking from these or select your own color combinations.  Use an adjustment layer to increase the contrast.  Use a mask or other technique to create the burnt in edges.

At this point in the Lightroom workflow I switch over to Photoshop for fine details and the sharpening step.

I make a copy tweaks to the image such as a touch of brightening just under the chin to bring out some detail there and using dodge and burn techniques on the eyes.

Make the Details Pop

Now the image is ready to add the sharpening that will make details pop right off the page.before-sharp

 

after-sharp

If you have made multiple layers in your document, create a flattened version by  pressing Shirt-Option-Command  – E  ( or Shift-Alt-Ctrl) to create a new flat version of the image and leave the layers intact.  Now make 2 more copies of the image by pressing Command-J (Ctrl-J).   Make a new layer group and place both of these layer copies inside.  The blend mode for the group should be set to Overlay.

Step 2:  Click on the top layer in the group and press Command-I (Ctrl-I) to run an Invert command.  This command basically changes dark shades to light and light to dark.  This will be used later to highlight edges of details and thus provide the sharpening. Change the layer Blend Mode to Vivid Light.

Step 3: The inverted layer will be run through a blur filter. Use Filter>Blur>Surface Blur.  Converting this layer to a smart object first will allow you to come back and adjust the settings later.  In the Surface Blur options, keep the Threshold low: under 25 and a Radius of around 50. Adjust to your taste.

screen-shotStep 4:  Use a mask on the group to limit the sharpening effect to just the face and horns.

This sharpening technique is not appropriate for every image. The high drama works particularly well with dark and monochrome images.  Keep this technique in your bag of tricks to create a dramatic look.  Also you may want to check out a more subtle but similar sharpening method using the High Pass Filter.

 

 

A Monopod: the Right Camera Support for your Safari

Choosing a support for your camera equipment to use while on safari is important especially if you are bringing large lenses of 300mm – 600mm image stabilization or not.

Over the years I have learned to streamline and keep my photography equipment light and versatile for use on my safari photography workshops in South Africa. For many years I used an aluminum monopod and a homemade mount. It had seen too many safaris and needed to retire. I replaced it with a new monopod  system.

The system is composed of

Really Right Stuff Monopod Head MH-01 and a quick detachable plate for my Canon 5D’s

Gitzo carbon fibre GM2541

monopods

 

The light weight and durability of these products were top criteria for me.  The plate on top is quick and easy to release so I can transition to handheld instantly.  The whole thing is less than 900 grams

I own a nice ball head that will fit on this monopod,  but I can get a great range of movement and angles just by twisting the monopod in my hands. By the way I also prefer a lighter camera without a bunch of bells and whistles that are impossible to use out in the field while the elephants are charging and the light is changing.

Tip:  When shopping for a monopod make sure it will be able to fold short enough to use from a seated position (not too tall)

Support Options for Safaris

For Southern Africa including South Africa and Botswana, the monopod is my best recommendation.  Bean bags work really well in Eastern Africa where the safari vehicles are either enclosed with windows or of the popup roof variety. Some photographers even use mounts that secure a Wimberly head to the window.

These solutions are not at all useful in South Africa where the vehicles are mostly open Land Rovers with no sides and in some places fitted with canvas roofs (required in Kruger National Park). The open vehicles are much more exciting to ride in and afford more unrestricted view as well as allowing riders to see well without standing.

 

safari-monopod-setup

The vehicles do not have room for tripods, so monopods or handheld are the way to go.  With a monopod your camera is supported and you are still able to move about, swivel the camera, and it is pretty easy to adjust the height. With the right mount ranging from a simple swivel with a tightening screw to a fancy ball head, you will be able to move and lock into any position.  Monopods are also handy for when you are on foot and are easy and fairly light to carry or strap to a pack when not in use.

My nice tripod and gimbal head will still travel with me for star photography and interior shots of the lodge

 

see our Current Safari Schedule