Behind the Image: Waves of Feathers

Thick dark grey-blue clouds started to hug the horizon as we made our way to a nearby tree for sundowners on the plains of the Mara North Conservancy. The guests and myself hadn’t passed or seen another vehicle since departing from Ngare Serian Camp for the much anticipated afternoon game drive. I could vividly see on the Serian guests’ faces that they were soaking up the intimacy of this knowledge and experience that they were each having with this special destination. It was their last night and Francis, our wonderfully knowledgeable and always smiling guide, was taking us towards a beautiful Balanites tree.

There was very little light available that the storm-soaked clouds allowed through when we came upon a male ostrich, seemingly standing still for no apparent reason other than to very warily watch us as the road started to take us within a couple of meters away from him.

Francis pointed out that this handsome male did indeed have a reason for standing so still – he was standing over and protecting his eggs. Approaching him slowly, all the while ensuring that we kept a respectable distance from him as in no way did we want to cause alarm and impose on him, the ostrich started moving his beautiful black with white-tipped wings back and forth, mimicking the crashing and receding movement of the ocean’s waves upon the shore.

That is when the magic started.

I knew there and then the specific image that I wanted to create. The specific image that my photographic voice called out to be captured. With the low light available, it all came together.

In order to capture the movement of the wings and to draw out that motion of them coming up and crashing down, I proceeded with the following steps:

  • To blur the Ostrich’s slow-moving wings, I dialed in a shutter speed of 1/30s in order to accentuate the movement.
  • In order to avoid camera shake due to the heaviness of my lens and the show shutter speed I dialed in, I securely rested my lens on one of the photographic beanbags that Serian provides in each of their vehicles.
  • With my shutter speed decided upon and my camera’s stability assured, I composed my image in mind of the final image I wanted to create. As the ostrich was facing towards my right, I placed his long body predominantly on the left side of my frame in order capture the lifting movement of his wings whilst allowing space on the right side of my frame for the downward movement.
  • With my shutter speed decided upon and my camera’s stability assured, I composed my image in mind of the final image I wanted to create. As the ostrich was facing towards my right, I placed his long body predominantly on the left side of my frame in order capture the lifting movement of his wings whilst allowing space on the right side of my frame for the downward movement.
  • I moved my focus point to the neck of the Ostrich – the most static point within my frame.
  • Holding my focus button down, I waited for the circular motion of the wings to happen again.
  • I released my shutter.

Thus the concept of Waves of Feathers was created.

By visualizing the type of image(s) you want to create when approaching a scene and taking account of the environmental factors surrounding you and your subject (the type of light, if the subject out in the open or surrounded by foliage, etc), it will help you engage with what you can create and the type of settings you need to dial in to capture it.

Photography is such a powerful medium with endless potential of what you can create and capture. Explore and play with different settings. There is no need to hold back. You may find yourself delightedly surprised with what your final image shows.

Keep passionate!
Penny Robartes

Photographer in Residence at Alex Walker’s Serian Camps in Kenya from August to mid September 2016.

Photo Tour Leader at ORYX – Worldwide Photographic Expeditions and Craghoppers SA Ambassador.

My life in the Mara: A Day with the Offbeat Lion Pride

 

Karibu Sana! My name is Penny Robartes, and I am a professional Wildlife Photographer and Photo Tour Leader. I am currently writing this post from Serian Camp in the Mara North Conservancy, with a view of the magnificent Mara River stretching out before me. The chirping of abundant birds, the breeze caressing the leaves of trees and hippos laughing at a secret joke shared amongst one another makes up the ambient music to my musings.

This specific scene is just one setting that you will find me working at for the next 30 days. Earlier this year I had the privilege of being personally invited by Alex Walker to spend time at his intimate, luxury tented camps in Kenya as the Photographer in Residence for the month of August to mid-September. Venturing out into the diverse habitats of the Mara to master your camera, explore your artistic and photographic vision, and then create those images are examples of what we will delve into whilst on game drives together.

I have had a love affair with the Maasai Mara National Reserve since my initial exploration of the Mara Triangle a few years ago. Since then, I have returned multiple times to share my knowledge and passion for wildlife photography with my guests, as well as for this destination that can be accurately described as a true wildlife Eden.

 

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I welcome you to join me as I take you through my day with the lions of the Offbeat Pride from the Mara North Conservancy.

We were on the road at 06h30 sharp. The thought of all the photographic possibilities that awaited us during this Great Migration season positively whet my appetite. I couldn’t wait to explore the concession with the guest I was sitting next to – who was as eager and passionate about wildlife photography as I was.

The light was just magical. The sun rose and kissed the land and wildlife as they fell under its golden touch. Spotted Hyaenas were the first subjects that we came upon and we couldn’t have asked for better! We spent a while with them as we touched on different compositions and techniques while they dedicatedly made their way towards a hippo carcass, which smelt pretty horrific. The stench was unbearable, so we departed the scene and headed instead in the direction of a lion sighting.

 

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The Mara North Conservancy has 3 main lion prides that are named based on the location where their territory lies; the Cheli&Peacock pride, Offbeat pride and the River pride. We were exploring the territory of the Cheli pride, where a sub-group of 4 females and 8 sub-adults have been seen frequently. We made our way towards 2 sub-adult lions that were staring fixatedly at something in the distance.

Something was very wrong. These particular lions were incredibly uneasy and you could almost feel the tension in the air.

 

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Looking in the direction of their stare, we realized why they so anxious.

2 sub-adult Offbeat males were making their way steadily towards the Cheli lions.

Making their steady and direct approach into a territory that was not their own. Making their steady and direct approach to confront the Cheli lions.

 

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It was such an overwhelming and humbling experience to be within touching distance of these powerful apex predators. One of the Offbeat males glanced up at the Serian guest I was with before continuing on his march past our vehicle to the Cheli lions. Then the intense growling started, however it was in thick brush and we couldn’t drive in to see what was going on. Putting his camera down, and with a smile on his face, our guest looked at me in utter awe at the incredible experience he just been privy to! It is an experience that I am sure will forever stay in his heart.

Fortunately for all the lions involved, nothing came from this feud – apart from angry growls emanating from the dense bush, and after a short while, the Offbeat males made their way back to their territory.

 

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It was a magnificent encounter and one that I will cherish. It was incredibly special to see the raw power of lions, and to be able to appreciate it in such an intimate way. There is nothing like the authentic and private safari experiences that Mara Conservancies offer.

For more information on Alex Walker’s Serian Camps, please click here

 

Stay Passionate!

Penny Robartes

The Land of Ice and Magnificent Creatures

 

Going far back into history and historic accounts, it seems that we as a race, have long been wanderers. From desert landscapes to icy mountain slopes, from vast grasslands to thick forests, people have carved a life for themselves in every habitat on Earth.

The need to discover new destinations, explore the unknown and experience the diversity of our Earth’s natural heritage seems to be ingrained within us. With this in mind, it’s little wonder that our progression is to continue this exploration to destinations that have always captured our own imagination, this time with camera in hand.

Between mainland Norway and the North Pole you will find one of the world’s northernmost inhabited areas – a group of islands that until recently, have only been accessible to travel in summer. Towering glaciers and dark-coloured mountains break up and surround this frozen tundra, making this Arctic world one filled with scenic mysteries and visual delights.

 

Sheer-sided blocky iceberg, with reflection, Peter I ?y Island, Antarctica

 

From the deck of our expedition ship, the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, we will be taken on a Svalbard photography adventure that connects us with our history as explorers as we discover sights and sounds that we have heard about, but have not had the thrill to experience. Aboard this ship, we will be taken close to the frozen Islands that shelter the winter-white beasts of the Arctic; the Polar bear.

Our zodiacs will take us even closer, and where safe, onshore.

Roaming, sea-swimming Polar bears, cunning Arctic foxes and Svalbard Reindeer are just some of the few quintessential mammals that are sheltered in these Islands. And that is just  what we see on land during our Svalbard photography tour.

 

Passengers looking out over melting fast ice, from bow of Akademik Sergey Vavilov, Svalbard, Norway

Eco-tourists in zodiacs exploring fractured terminus of Monaco Glacier, Spitsbergen

Polar Bear, Storøya, Svalbard Archipelago

Female Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) entering calm water, Liefdeorden, Spitsbergen

Male Arctic Fox (Vulpes lagopus) in summer coloration, licking muzzle, Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen

 

When breeding, Brunnich’s Guillemot form clouds around cliff faces on a scale that truly needs to be seen to be believed. These seabirds breed in dense colonies all over the Svalbard Archipelago, and a total 142 colonies are known there. Searching through flocks of Common Eider, one is sometimes fortunate to catch sight of the spectacular King Eider – a large and exquisite duck of Arctic coastal waters. And then there are the lovely Ivory Gulls.

The Ivory Gull is distinctive not only for its smaller stature relative to other gulls, but mainly for its striking, brilliant white plumage. Indeed, the adults are at their most impressive when they are on land and blending beautifully into their icy, Arctic habitat. Photographing these gulls is always entertaining; from fast shutter speeds to ‘freeze’ the motion of these birds in flight, to slow shutter speeds for a more creative interpretation. This species has a habit of attending Polar Bear kills, and it is at such a time that we become privy to a scene where fearsome hunter and dainty scavenger can been seen side by side in a juxtaposition of raw power and elegance.

 

Brünnich's Guillemot (Uria lomvia) perched on sheer cliffs of Alkefjellet colony, Spitsbergen, Svalbard

Ivory Gull (Pagophila eburnea) perched on ice floe close to Monaco Glacier, Spitsbergen

 

The ocean and its mysteries are, and will always be, intriguing and captivating as it is one of the many habitats that we haven’t fully adapted to. It is only through the advancement in technology that we have been able to explore some of its vast depths, and even then, there is so much yet unexplored and undiscovered. As is often the case with exploration, we can never be certain what the ocean will turn up. A Polar Bear is hoped for, and certainly Svalbard is the best place to photograph wild Polar Bears.

White-beaked Dolphin, Harp and Hooded Seals, and the long-toothed and whiskered Walrus are other spectacular marine creatures that contribute to the faunal interest in this Arctic world, and it is the latter that is a perpetual favourite amongst photographers.

 

Atlantic Walrus (Odobenus rosmarus), Storøya, Svalbard Archipelago

Bearded seal (Erignathus barbatus), resting on fast ice, Spitzbergen, Norway

 

With such beauty, and richness of photographic opportunities underlying every facet of the Svalbard, it is no wonder that we, as wanders, are continuously pulled back to these Islands of ice and magnificence.

Photo Tour: Spitsbergen Encounter – Photographic Symposium 2016

 

Stay passionate.
~ Penny Robartes

Shooting with a Prime Lens

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This isn’t to say that I feel that prime lenses far out-weigh zoom lenses. Not at all. This is not a prime versus zoom post. I do find the set field of vision of a prime can inhibit me from capturing certain images from specific scenes that I would have loved to have captured. Zoom lenses enables you to look at a variety of interpretations of a single scene. Just remember – powerful images are created because you have found something worth shooting, not from the feeling that there are pictures to be taken.

But before you ditch your zoom lens and get ready to welcome a new member into your lens family, below is a list of pros and cons that will help you understand prime lenses more:

Pros

  • The obvious would be quality. Prime lenses produce exception image quality as they have lens amount of glass inside in order to get a variety of focal lengths.

 

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What does this mean?

Basically, in order to zoom in at different focal lengths, your lens with have a certain amount of glass elements within it in order to achieve the variety your zoom lens allows. A higher number of lens elements inside will increase light diffraction and record a softer image due to the waves of light entering the lens being spread out as it passes from one element to the next.

  • Bokeh. Depending on the magnification of your lens, prime lenses generally have wider apertures ranging from f/2.8 to a whopping f/0.95. Not only is this pure beauty regarding blurring back with your shallow depth of field, but it also renders well-defined specular highlights wonderfully diffused and soft without having a ‘smudged’ appearance.

 

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  • Fast Autofocus. As mentioned before, having less amount of lens elements means that autofocus is wonderfully fast. Need I explain more why this is so important in wildlife photography where subjects can move at speed within moments?
  • Wide aperture. With the wider aperture letting in more light, this will enable faster shutter speeds to freeze motion, which is a true dream when shooting in low-light situations. By using a higher ISO and your wide aperture, you will be able to achieve sharp images without camera shake entering into the equation.

As we know, a wide aperture allows more light to enter the lens. A by-product of this is that more light is seen through the viewfinder, allowing focusing to become a much easier task as it is easier to confirm focus.

 

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  • Creativity. In a world where we are inundated with images at every given second, it was be very straining in creating images that stand out. As I have also experienced, sometimes we just hit a creativity slump, and a prime lens is wonderful in getting over it. The fixed focal length will really make you pay attention to what you want to capture and how, as well as encourage you to look at everything from a different perspective. No longer can you zoom in and out until you settle on a frame that you like. You have to create with what you have.

 

Cons

  • Fixed focal length. Many battle with this as it does limit the variety of images you can capture at a specific scene. In wildlife photography, we aren’t always able to move closer or further away from our subjects, so we are very limited to a certain perspective. To this I say, let creativity flourish! Or put your camera down and enjoy the fact that you are out in the bush, and enjoy the moment that is happening before you.

 

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  • Price. You are paying a price for the wide, fixed aperture, and quality of elements within the lens. In order to achieve the tack sharp image quality, professional prime lenses have complex optical designs. These lenses are also made with special lens coating and lens elements than that of consumer lenses. This adds dramatically to the price of these lenses.

I personally prefer using a prime lens when I am out photographing wildlife, but I will always ensure that I have a trusty zoom lens, generally a 70-200mm or wider, so that I can capture the bigger picture should I envision the shot I want.

 

Keep passionate!

Penny Robartes

The Hunt at Leopard Hills

Destination: Leopard Hills in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve

We arrived to a scene where chaos reigned.

A healthy pack of wild dogs were in a heightened state of excitement. They were everywhere you looked, running around and constantly interacting with on one another.

It was magnificent.

Within these moments of constant activity between the pack members of these painted dogs, I looked to single out moments to capture that would highlight the scene before me. I noticed an adult dog galloping over a ridge toward one of the juvenile pups where it proceeded to lower its head, its eyes fix on its point of interest, and its big rounded ears forward.

 

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A play-fight ensured that the rest of the pack where enticed to the interaction and the tension within the pack further accelerated.

Within moments, it seemed that a sudden calm and intent fell upon the dogs. The air switched to a stillness and anticipation of what was to come.

In unison, the dogs started off in a particular direction at a steady pace. The relentless fall of the rain was unnoticed as the dogs kept up their pace.

The hunt had begun.

 

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Moving into an open plain amongst the woodland thicket, we waited in anticipation for the dogs. Suddenly, two magnificent Kudu bulls and a group Impala rams darted towards the thickets in alarm. There were the dogs! Streaming around our vehicles, the dogs split up into roughly two groups; one heading for the Kudu and the other for the high-jumping impala.

A few minutes later, the dogs started banding back together after the unsuccessful hunt and made their journey back into the thicket for shelter.

 

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It was an incredible sighting to be witness to! Although we didn’t see more hunts from this pack, we were lucky enough to spend more time with them and I was able play around with different photographic techniques as they rested.

 

Stay passionate!

Penny Robartes