The Life of a South African Wildlife Photographer – Tim Driman

Source: The Luminous Landscape, 2 May 2019

“The mere thought of what this new mirrorless body had the potential to achieve for an action / wildlife photographer, became like a drug to me, and I had to know more…”

As a wildlife photographer I need, and use Auto Focus which must acquire focus fast, lock on and track a subject like a Rottweiler on a bone. I only also use Back Button Focus (BBF), and shoot 10 frames per second for regular movement, or 20 frames for second for fast action. In each case, I shoot in short bursts, enabling the buffer to process images without jammed, or stalling the next shots.

I only shoot in MANUAL mode as it affords me the most control over how I shoot, and to achieve the fastest reaction times, I set AUTO ISO – Capped at ISO 800, but occasionally set ISO 3,200, but only when really pushed; Auto White Balance, and RAW (compressed) which still produces very acceptable 12 Bit files.

Shutter speed: I won’t even attempt shooting birds in flight at less than 1 / 1,600th but prefer shutter speeds of 1/2,500th or faster to freeze action. I will also set +3 EV compensation in low light conditions, and even continue the +3 EV compensation in brighter conditions as it can give me four stops of faster shutter speed.

Frame rate: As birds and many animals have a nictitating membrane (False eyelid), I always shoot more than a single frame at a time. Rule-of-thumb: The faster the action, the more frames per second.

Aperture settings: Wide open at f5.6 on the 400mm f2.8 + 2x TC is very shallow with this new generation mirrorless lens, so I prefer to shoot either f6.3, or even f9 if the subject is a little closer, to achieve a reasonable DOF (Depth of Focus).

Changing lenses in the field is time-consuming, and invites dirt ingression, so I shoot with two separate rigs – One body attached to my 100mm – 400mm f4.5 – f5.6 +1.4x tele converter (Fully open at f8), and a separate, identical body attached to my 400mm f2.8 + 2x tele converter (fully open at f5.6).

Depending on the circumstances, my big combination is always used in conjunction with a bean bag, monopod, tripod, or a Gimpro Door Mount together with a Gimbal Head (Engineered in South Africa by Gimpro Gear).

I have shot DSLR since the late 1990’s, and loved my flagship models which could shoot a very high frame rate of 14 frames per second, track like a demon, and allow me to shoot fast shutter speeds, but early in 2017, an existing, but little vaunted, photographic brand announced a revolutionary, mirrorless camera body, with which they clearly intended to challenge the two major photographic brands in the market. I was always very comfortable shooting 20 megapixels, twin – side-by-side sensors at 14 frames a second, using 65 focal points, achieving quick focus acquisition / tracking at high shutter speeds, and it wasn’t too shabby in low light conditions either.

I guess I also just had to tolerate the 23 kilos mass of my laden photo bag, containing my three DSLR bodies, three lenses, spare batteries, bits and pieces etc, and just accepted that was what you got when thought you were using the best photographic equipment in the business, even though it caused me problems when flying. (Maximum of 20 kilos of luggage). I still needed clothes, which meant that I had to beg my wife for about 6 kilos of her luggage allocation, or just pay for an additional seat, which wasn’t cool!

Nobody could ever accuse me of sartorial elegance, and fortunately fashion statements don’t apply to any sub-Saharan African wilderness areas. The alleged specifications of this new “space-age wunderkind” camera body were so outrageous, that I had to re-read the specification sheet over and over again, in a concerted effort to get my head around what the manufacturer was really claiming! If the manufacturer’s claims were true, and it could actually deliver 20 frames per second, 693 focal points, 24 Megapixel, twin, stacked sensor with a refresh rate of 60x per second (Insane!); Absolutely silent; IBIS (aka: In body image stabilisation), and nearly half the size of my top-of-the-range, flagship body, together with their range of mirrorless bespoke lenses (*Stabilised and controlled by firmware), this would surely become an emphatic game-changer, and an inflection point on modern electronic image capture, for sure!The mere thought of what this new mirrorless body had the potential to achieve for an action / wildlife photographer, became like a drug to me, and I had to know more…

The mere thought of what this new mirrorless body had the potential to achieve for an action / wildlife photographer, became like a drug to me, and I had to know more…

I researched, read and watched all the U Tube videos available on the Internet, and the only negative feed-back I could find, was only one person who claimed that the unit had over-heated once on a long shoot. There were merely rumours that the battery life was poor.

I never had a problem with the alleged, short battery life, as I have always carried a few spare batteries in my pocket, but the overheating did bother me, so I scoured the Internet and U Tube, but could find very little more on the over-heating claim. In fact, there were far more counter claims that the battery life was actually very good, due to a more modern type of battery, which had superseded the old models, so I was happy enough, and ready to purchase one of these new “space-age wunderkind” bodies, a native mirrorless lens, plus a tele converter.

As an old DSLR shooter, I was sceptical about using a tele converter on a zoom lens, but there were some very compelling claims that their new range of bespoke, mirrorless zoom lenses were built to accommodate their own native, bespoke tele converters, and worked very well, providing full functionality, and perfect image detail.

I initially struggled with the (foreign to me…) menu configuration, but soon got the feel of things, and was pleased with my results when shooting local surfing. However, the ultimate challenge for any gear, surely has to be photographing birds in flight, and especially the notoriously erratic and fast-flying African Carmine Bee-eaters.
In November 2017 we travelled to the Caprivi Strip in Namibia, and camped alongside the great Zambesi River right, near an iconic breeding colony of Carmine Bee-eaters.

Armed with my trusty DSLR rig, and this funny little mirrorless rig, which resembled a “toy”, rather than a professional camera body/lens combination, we sat for > 3 hours a day, over the next six days on the Namibian bank of the Zambezi River. I was careful to strategically position myself to take advantage of the wonderful, early morning light, and the head-wind, into which the birds would take off and land.

On the first morning, after 15 minutes of swinging the large, rather cumbersome DSLR equipment around, trying to follow those crazy little Carmine Bee-eaters, I discovered that Carmine Bee-eaters are far more difficult to photograph in flight than many of the professional bird photographers make out. For me, it was a total schlep, with very little success to show for my efforts.

I then picked up this funny little mirrorless rig, and swung it around effortlessly! But the most startling revelations were the results which I saw in the replay! *Reviewing through the viewfinder was a real treat, as the bright sunshine made it almost impossible to review any image on the rear monitor.

Capturing a Carmine Bee-eater flying directly at you, and a Carmine hijacking an insect against a very difficult back ground, simply blew my socks off! But when I managed to capture a sequence of 32 usable images, of two male Carmines in aerial combat, the hair literally stood up on the back of my neck! I knew that this was now looking more like the “real deal”!

On our return from the Zambezi, we undertook a quick, six day trip to a friend’s private concession on the western side of Kruger National Park, managing nine sightings of leopards in six days, but capturing a rim-lit leopard image, hand-held, with no flash convinced me that mirrorless technology was the future of modern electronic image capture…For so many great reasons…

A recent Firmware upgrade of my two main mirrorless bodies, has added 20 new features, upgraded speeds, added eye tracking etc, which, in any other DSLR, would have required an entirely new camera body. The firmware upgrade never cost a cent, and in mid-year, a further Firmware update will add eye tracking for birds and animals, as well as numerous other innovative upgrades, using AI (Artificial intelligence), and again all this will be supplied at no additional cost…

A few short weeks ago, Yvonne and I flew to the Okavango Delta ( Botswana) for 7 nights at , and then 7 nights at Tubu Tree…. *We love Botswana, and the ‘Delta, and know the area well.

Chitabe was gorgeous, very dry, but I managed to capture some really nice hippo action, leopards, cheetah, birds etc.

We then flew to Tubu Tree Camp, and as we came in to land, I could see that it was extremely dry, which really worried me! Clearly the annual flood (Ex Angola) had not yet arrived in the ‘Delta!

Once on the ground, I asked our ranger if there was any water around, and after much head-scratching, he remembered that there was a water hole, in the adjoining Abu Concession area, which we could check out.

On arriving at the innocuous-looking, drying up waterhole, I remembered the place from when I taught the Jao Concession game rangers back in 2016, so we just sat quietly to observe the 30mtr x 30 mtrs waterhole. In the middle was one forlorn-looking hippo bull in very shallow water, with his back out of the water, and we counted +/- 64 Nile crocodiles of varying sizes, ranging from about 5.0 mtrs long, down to youngsters of about 1.0 mtr… The surface of the shallow water was alive with catfish, boiling all around the hippo and crocodiles, which paid no attention to them at all!

We decided to spend the next seven days (morning and afternoon), parked just at that waterhole, as I knew it had to yield “photographic gold!” We were certainly not disappointed.

We witnessed a once – in – lifetime, massive, primordial battle, when a large 5.0 mtr long croc hammered a smaller, 2.5 mtr long crocodile!  We were mesmerised by the action, and blood-curdling sounds of bones breaking, teeth crunching, and the deep, guttural roars, as the action rose to a crescendo, then died down, and then started up again, and died down again, which lasted over 3 hours…

I shot one body attached 400mm f2.8 + 2xTC on a monopod, and my other body attached to my 100 mm – 400mm +1.4x which I used free-hand, just leaning my elbow on the door of the open game viewing vehicle…*Over those 14 days in the Okavango Delta I captured just over 16,000 images. Images. The crocodile war, and other random images from these last two trips can be found on my Instagram feed.

COMMENT: Wildlife photography requires careful selection of destination, and you need to place yourself in a position which will yield the best possible results. Careful observation of the surroundings and getting to understand behaviour of the subjects helps hugely for anticipating action. After that, it is all about patience and being alert, and being totally prepared for action.

Photography IMHO, is about lots of practice, and knowing your equipment instinctively, without having to think when that magic moment presents itself.

Author: Tim Driman

Tim is a South African who grew up in Africa, has been keen on nature from a very early age. He and his wife Yvonne, “retired” from commercial life at a relatively young age to pursue their passion for the bush and photography. They currently live in Ballito, 50 km north of Durban, on the east coast of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa), but travel extensively in and around sub-Saharan Africa, always in search of new and exciting subject matter to photograph, and also to learn more about their environment. Tim is a fluent isiZulu linguist (an indigenous African language from KwaZulu-Natal), and Yvonne speaks fluent isiXhosa (she grew up in the area close to where Nelson Mandela was born). They are both qualified FGASA rangers who enjoy camping and also, lodging in wilderness areas where they can be close to wildlife and nature.

Find Tim on Instagram: @timdriman

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