Mar 132015
 

Our new book (African Icons), when opened, is very much a panoramic format (it measures 27 X 74cm across the spreads) and so when we were shooting it we did so with this format in mind. As a result there are a pile of panoramic images in it. Heres how I create them:

A panorama of 8 images of Rhodes' Baobab at Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana.

A panorama of 8 images of Rhodes’ Baobab at Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana.

  1. Set the camera to manual mode in pretty much everything – exposure, white balance and focus (with focus, auto focus on your subject and the switch off the auto focussing so this doesn’t change while shooting) and then capture a series of images, creating the panorama. I find that you don’t want to skimp on the number of images you shoot – mostly I’ll allow about a 60% overlap.
  2. Import these (preferably RAW) images into Adobe Lightroom and select the series if images you wish to create the panorama from.
  3. Do all the necessary edits and enhancements but do not do any cropping, local (Brush, Radial Filter, Spot Removal…)  or lens corrections like “Auto”, “Level” “Vertical” etc. This gets done after you have created the panoramic image.
  4. Sync the settings across all the pix, making sure that all of the sync options are set in the sync dialog box.
  5. Right click any one of the series of images (mage sure that are still all selected) and go to Edit In > Merge to Panorama in Photoshop. This will open Photoshop (preferably CC2014)  and open the Photomerge Dialog Box.
  6. Now, there are a whole bunch of options here and a whole pile of views on which one of the options is best to use, but I’ve found that “Cylindrical” works well for images I’ve shot with a longer lens and “Spherical” is the way to go when I’ve used a wide angle lens to shoot the panorama.
  7. Select go and, if you’ve shot the series on something like the Nikon D800 (very high pixel count), you may like yo go out for a coffee while the computer churns away at all those pixels…
  8. Eventually Photoshop will  create a layered panoramic image and in most cases get it perfect. Occasionally you may need to do a bit of work using the Layer Masks to get the blending perfect but this doesn’t happen all then often.
  9. Flatten the image
  10. At this stage you may end up with a weirdly distorted image (not always – it depends on what you’ve shot, with which lens).
  11. Go to Filter > Adaptive Wide Angle, and Photoshop will recognise the panorama and open the image in a dialog box.
  12. Click and drag across the horizon which should straighten it. Doing this while holding the shift key will also level it. Do the same (without the shift key) to other horizontal lines that should be straight and (with or without the shift key) to vertical lines.
  13. When everything looks great, click OK.
  14. Crop and fill as necessary, flatten, and save and close the image.
  15. It will open in Lightroom. Group the images into a Stack. Now is the time to tweak the images settings and also fix any dust spots etc.

For those that are interested I shot the pic above with the Nikon D800 and 14 – 24 lens. Camera settings were 1/40 sec at f16, ISO 400 and this resulted in an images that was 9492 X 3965 pixels. We teach this technique on our photo workshops.

Mar 082015
 

I have a love/hate relationship with camera straps. They are the most useful of camera accessories at times, yet a damn nuisance at others. A few weeks ago we were shooting the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco for our African Icons Book and on one of the days, did a 10 hour hike across snow covered peaks, shooting pix as we went. Here a strap was invaluable making the camera easily available as we hiked.

On the other hand, when we are working from a vehicle in game reserves, camera straps are just a huge pain in the, er, neck. They catch on things, get tangled up with camera gear and are simply not necessary. The problem is that attaching and removing them from camera bodies is fiddly and time wasting.

I recently discovered the Peak Design Slide Sling Strap. What a pleasure. Clever little dongles attach to the camera and these, very easily and quickly, clip onto the rather substantial strap. The length of the strap can be adjusted just as easily, making it suitable as a neck, shoulder of sling strap. And, if you have more than one body you just need additional dongles and you can then move the strap between them. And if you want to remove the strap it just unclips.

If you are keen, check them out. There is also a list of dealers that stock them.

Peak Design Camera StrapPeak Design Camera StrapPeak Design Camera Strap

Feb 072015
 

What a brilliant day! After a breakfast of yoghurt (the genuine stuff – not out of a factory), dried fruits, freshly squeezed orange juice (like 2 minutes before it landed on our table), amazing bread spread with local honey and coffee to die for, we headed out for a short walk with Abdul, our guide. Down into the freezing cold valley, the Kasbah du Toubkal where we are staying, highlighted by the early morning light, high above us. Our route was to take us to a Mosque high on the slopes across the valley and then onwards to Imlil for a spot of shopping, up another mountain for tea and walnuts at a Berber home, down into another valley and up to the Kasbah.

A view of Imlil, the Kasbah du Toubkal in the distance and the snow covered Atlas Mountains

A view of Imlil, the Kasbah du Toubkal in the distance and the snow covered Atlas Mountains

 

The walking was along well trodden paths established over centuries. Pretty easy going, sometimes a little steep. Friendly locals greet in the local dialect or French so it does help to have a smattering of this language. English too is quite common and so when we met up with Albaz Fattah at his carpet shop we got on like a house on fire. We also ended up buying a beautiful silk mat and a leather and fabric travel bag. Lovely stuff indeed.

Albaz Fattah in his carpet shop in Imlil. Some awesome product to tempt even the most blazaise of travellers

Albaz Fattah in his carpet shop in Imlil. Some awesome product to tempt even the most blazaise of travellers

Our short hike took just over 6 hours and we had a wonderful time. Tomorrow we are in for something a little longer and higher as we head into the snow en route to a small lodge in the village of Azaden. quite looking forward to that.

We are here shooting pix for our new book called African Icons. Please click on the link to see more about it and drop me a line if you’d like to order a copy.

Feb 062015
 

We are on the last leg of our shoot for our  African Icons book and find ourselves staying at the lovely Kasbah du Toubkal in Morocco while we shoot the Atlas Mountains. It’s lovely! A great location and even more spectacular food – tagines, soups, dates, coffee, breads. You!

The real reason for this post though is to show you the location:

Stunning views of the Kasbah du Toubkal and the Atlas Mountains in Morocco

Stunning views of the Kasbah du Toubkal and the Atlas Mountains in Morocco

Dec 152014
 

Pat and I are taking a few days off to celebrate her birthday and, as a treat, are staying at a wonderful KwaZulu Natal Drakensberg family hotel that goes by the name of The Cavern Berg Resort. We love it here. Very comfortable, reasonably priced, comfortable rooms and really great “home cooked” food. The ice cream and chocolate sauce alone make it worth booking a stay.

We’ve been taking it pretty easy, doing some short walks around the hotel when the guilt of those lovely lunches became too much. This afternoon we decided on a slightly longer one that took us across a small stream and into the thick indigenous forests that occur on the southern mountain slopes. Interpretative signs mark the way and it’s all very pleasant and soothing, the forest birds overlaying the sound of the river flowing in the valley. (Well, it was pleasant and soothing until that clap of thunder and pouring rain, but that’s another story).

Anyway, the point of all this is that we came upon the most magnificent cabbage tree (Cussonia spicata). It was huge! Below a sign had this to say:

“This is the biggest cabbage tree in the ‘Berg, probably in all of Africa and is at least 150 years old. Branches form only after flowering and this only happens in full sunshine. So when the tree was young, and making its first branches this spot must have been at the very edge of the forest”. It is now right in the middle of the forest and this got me wondering what it had seen while standing there for those 150 years – since the middle of the 1800s…?

And that pretty much occupied my mind on the way back to our room, the pouring rain, wind and thunder blotted away completely. But what a magnificent tree it was!

The iPhone battles a bit with the backlighting but this vertical panorama photograph gives you some idea of the size of this Cussonia spicata or cabbage tree.

The iPhone battles a bit with the backlighting but this vertical panorama photograph gives you some idea of the size of this Cussonia spicata or cabbage tree.

Oct 052014
 

You may ask what a golfing estate and resort have to do with one of Africa’s most prominent features, the Great Rift Valley. Well, it’s in the Rift Valley for a start and, if you think about it, it actually makes sense to stay there, especially if you are a golfer. The Great Rift Valley is one of the icons in our African Icons Book and we stayed there while shooting photographs of the wildlife and scenery of the area, thoroughly enjoying it.

The Great Rift Valley Lodge and Golf Resort near Lake Naivasha in Kenya

The Great Rift Valley Lodge and Golf Resort near Lake Naivasha in Kenya

Continue reading »

Oct 042014
 

So, here we are, sitting in the Wild Frontiers‘ stretch Land Cruiser with our guide John Letara who is doing some serious networking on the shortwave radio so that we are kept up to date with the congregations of wildebeest along the Mara River. Across said river are some 300 or 400 wildebeest that we are hoping are thinking that the grass is greener on our side, and are willing to risk drowning, crocodiles (very large crocodiles) and broken legs.

Wildebeest and Zebra gather on the Northern bank of the Mara River while crocodiles wait below. Serengeti National Park. Tanzania.

Wildebeest and Zebra gather on the northern bank of the Mara River while crocodiles wait below. Serengeti National Park. Tanzania.

Continue reading »

Sep 222014
 

We had a really great time at Jaci’s Lodges while on our latest Wild Dogs of Madikwe Photo Safari. Service and food at the lodge were up to their usual very high standards and the lodge itself is looking lovely after recent upgrades and decor tweaks. Madikwe Game Reserve is capable of producing some really fine sightings and it didn’t disappoint this time – we had wonderful experiences with lion (numerous sightings) elephant, wild dog, giraffe, black and white rhino and many others, and all of us gor some really great images. Have posted a small gallery of some of the mages I got.

Sep 032014
 

We’ve been here a week now and as I sit on the deck of our chalet overlooking Lango Bai in Odzala-Kokoua National Park in Congo Brazzaville, it is all just a little surreal. I think that surreal is the right word.  There are, I feel, 2 things that contribute to this feeling and the first is that this is Africa and I am pretty used to the African bush, the plants, animals and birds so it all should be familiar and normal. But there is nothing familiar or normal about the view over the Bai.

View from our room at Lango Camp. Odzala National Park. Congo

View from our room at Lango Camp. Odzala National Park. Congo

I simply don’t recognise so many of the plant and animal species at all. If you travel in East and southern Africa as we often do you, one gets to know the different species – lions, cheetah, wildebeest, acacias, flamingos, various bee-eaters, weavers and so on – but so little here in the Congo Basin is similar to what we’re used to, and even if you know the species (African grey parrots for example) one is generally used to seeing them in cages instead of flying overhead in large, screaming, whistling, chirping flocks. The green pigeons too were a surprise: we’re used to seeing them in ones and twos, flapping about the figs and other fruiting trees in Zululand, not in their hundreds, whirling and swirling about the evening sky.

And the vegetation is so very different to the savannah and other veld types we are used to. This is more akin to walking around a vast botanical garden where you recognise not one of the trees or ferns or flowers; where everything is huge and lush and green, and where the frog, insect and bird sounds are all new and different. It’s exciting and unsettling all at once – a wonderful place to be.

Lango Bai at Odzala National Park

Lango Bai at Odzala National Park

The other contributing factor to this feeling is the level of comfort, food and service that we’ve experienced at the Wilderness Safaris’ camps of Lango and Ngaga while working on our book African Icons, with friend and author David Bristow. The camps are remote, to put it mildly. The only way to get the meat, cheeses, fresh lettuce, tomatoes, wines, actually, provisions in general, is to fly them in from Brazzaville. In short, the quality of food and creature comforts is nothing short of astounding. It shouldn’t be this good, this far from anywhere. Sure the rooms are made from palm fronds and local timbers but they house a huge, comfortable double bed and an en suite bathroom that would not be out of place in any premium establishment. We were thrilled that we didn’t have to put up with the same conditions that Michael Fay and Michael (Nic) Nichols did when they did the MegaTransect. Well done Wilderness Safaris.

Ngaga camp is situated to the west in the Ndzehi area adjacent to Odzala and is set in a small clearing in the rainforest on the side of a steep valley. This is where visitors to Odzala meet up with western lowland gorillas and what a profound experience it turned out to be. There are 2 species of gorilla in Africa and each comprises of two subspecies: The eastern gorilla (Gorilla beringei) that is classified  as endangered by the IUCN, and includes the well-known mountain gorillas of Rwanda and Uganda, and the eastern lowland gorilla found in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The other species is the western gorilla, (Gorilla gorilla) which is listed as Critically Endangered and includes the western lowland gorilla, found pretty much exclusively in Congo (Brazzaville) and Gabon, and the Cross River gorilla of Nigeria and Cameroon.

A western lowland gorilla keeps an eye on us from the thick undergrowth in the View from the deck of our room at Lango Camp in Odzala-Kokoua National Park.

A western lowland gorilla keeps an eye on us from the thick undergrowth in the View from the deck of our room at Lango Camp in Odzala-Kokoua National Park.

While doing an in-depth story of gorillas, scientist, Dr Magda Berrnejo and her partner German Illera have successfully habituated the western lowland gorillas in the area to humans, enabling small groups of ecotourists staying at Ngaga Camp access to the animals under the guidance of astoundingly skilled trackers. These remote northern forests of the Congo have the highest known densities of the western lowland gorilla as well as good populations of forest elephant, forest buffalo, bongos and bushbuck.

Forest Elephant in the Rain-forests of Odzala National Park.

Forest elephant in the rain-forests of Odzala National Park.

We had excellent sightings of gorilla on 2 separate days. It seems we were lucky in that the animals were pretty close to camp and we found them on both occasions without much of a walk – it took and hour or so I suppose. The going was pretty easy until we needed to leave the trails and head into the Marantaceae or arrowroot undergrowth, our tracker and guide carefully cutting a path through the thick undergrowth. We did get quite close to the gorillas – about 10m or so at the closest but generally had very good sightings (See below under camera gear for information what photographic equipment to take).

Our time at Ngaga over, we made the 5 hour journey to Lango. It’s not all that far – about 70km I would imagine – but, well, it’s the roads. You’re basically driving along forest tracks so it does go quite slowly which is not bad at all. We stopped for birds ( a few black-headed bee-eaters and a African fin foot being among the more interesting), a huge mass of safari ants, some fascinating plant shots and various other bits and pieces.

The main road between Ngaga and Lango camps at Odzala National Park

The main road between Ngaga and Lango camps at Odzala National Park

Lango is stunning, perched on the side of the Bai. From the deck, wonderful views and a small herd of forest buffalo greeted us. There is good news and bad news about Lango. The good news is that it’s brilliant – boat rides down the Lekoli River (we had superb sightings of forest elephants), walks through the Bai and adjacent forests, and game drives in the savannah areas. The bad news is that you are going to get wet and muddy. Actually, it’s not that bad really – takes one back to ones childhood, you know…. The views across the Bai from Lango’s deck are magical, particularly in the very early morning and evening and just sitting there offers great game viewing – forest buffalo, bushbuck, huge flocks of green pigeons, green squirrels, palm nut vultures and, at night mainly, forest elephant.

Our time in Odzala was too short really but c’est la vie. We loved it. It was a very profound experience for us and can sincerely recommend a visit to Odzala-Kokoua National Park with Wilderness Safaris. Follow us as we put African Icons together: Facebook and our Blog

Advisor.

Camera Gear.

Light and portable is the key here. This is what we took:

  • Nikon D800 camera
  • Nikon D7100 camera
  • Nikon P330 camera
  • Nikkor 10,5mm Fisheye Lens
  • Nikkor 24 – 70mm f2,8 lens
  • Nikkor AF-S 80 – 400mm lens
  • Nikon SB-900 flash
  • Gitzo Traveller GT1542T Carbon Fibre Tripod
  • Gitzo GM2541 Carbon Fibre Monopod
  • Manfrotto Tri Backback L

A lot of thought went into the selection of the above. I love the D800 with it’s superb image quality and, as a result of all those 36 million pixels, it’s possible to shoot it in DX mode and still have about 16Mp to play with. In DX mode the 80 – 400 (light, quick to use, great VR and incredibly sharp) turns into the equivalent to a 120 – 600mm which is incredibly useful. The images produced by the D7100 are also stunning and it is possible to shoot this 24.5Mp DX camera with a 1:3 crop (you still have about 16MP available) and this produces an 2X increase in effective focal length – 160 – 800mm on the above lens. This is brilliant! We used this on a number of occasions very effectively.

Conditions can be wet and humid and there is not much light filtering through the rainforest canopy. ISO 800 and 1600 were the order of the day and often i needed to push things to ISO 3200. The small, light and very stable Gitzo tripod and monopod were fantastic. Both strapped easily onto the front of the Manfrotto backpack and I used the monopod when shooting wildlife with the 80 – 400 lens. It made all the difference in the dark rain forests and combined with the excellent VR made for sharp photographs using impossibly low shutter speeds. The tripod was used for shooting twilight shots of the lodges and when doing forest scenes, allowing long shutter speeds at low ISOs.

The Manfrotto backpack was a bit of an experiment and I loved it. The two compartments are great and it’s design allows access to the lower compartment without taking the pack off – very nice when on the move and it fitted easily (with the tripod and monopod attached) into the overhead lockers on the flights to and from Congo.

(Have a look at the camera gear we use generally here)

Clothing and other goodies.

Odzala is not the easiest destination – but it’s not that bad at all… It’s just that luggage space is limited and you are operating in conditions a little more difficult that the savannahs of east and southern Africa. To complicate matters I’m allergic to Tsetse Fly bites (read more here) and we needed to deal with this as well. So, this is what we did:

Our clothing consisted largely of Columbia Sportswear Omni and Techlite shirts and longs although there are other pieces of quick drying, high tech fabric items as well. When choosing what to bring, you are looking for long sleeves (very long) and long trousers (very long, so that they cover your ankles even when sitting down). In the worst Tsetse areas (on the boat ride and on the Bai walks) we doubled up – 2 pairs of socks, 2 pairs of trousers and 2 shorts with the outer garments soaked in a Dettol solution. Works like a charm – tsetses hate it!

Pat filming in the Bai at Lango Camp in Odzala-Kokoua National Park.

Pat filming in the Bai at Lango Camp in Odzala-Kokoua National Park.

To complete the ensemble we draped head nets over our hats and I wore Dettol soaked cotton cloves from time to time (remember, my allergy). I didn’t get bitten by anything! The others were a lot less precautions – some even wandering around in shorts and sandals. You are going to encounter insects – blighting flies, tsetses, stingless bees – but it really is manageable and not all that bad.

Other items we found useful are: A small LED touch, binoculars, 2 pairs of shoes (one for the wet work and another, dry pair for around the camps etc. We simply took an old pair of running shoes that got wet on a daily basis, which we left behind at the end of our stay. These are then given to needy locals), antihistamine tablets, Dettol (for the tsetses), Insect repellant (mosquitoes etc).