A quick guide to better photos

Text and photographs: Trevor Butler

When considering a camera, many people say you should buy the best you can afford. There’s a lot of merit in that, but my consideration is: what do you want to achieve with your photographs?

In some instances, a mik-en-druk will suffice, but, dear readers, if you are going for those prize-winning shots, here are some points to consider.

With a single-lens reflex camera (SLR) you look through the lens at what you want to photograph, but the more important advantage over a fixed-lens point-and-shoot is that the SLR has interchangeable lenses.

Cameras are often sold with what they call a “kit” lens (normally an 18mm to 55mm zoom, but this differs enormously from one manufacturer to another). This lens is fine for everyday type of shots – kids, pets, or family, but for those LEKKER wildlife shots, you will need to get yourself the best telephoto lens that your budget will allow.

(Here’s another tip. Go shopping for this without your wife…)

Let’s say you have bought your camera and a telephoto lens. Now what? Get to know your new equipment well, by experimenting at home in the garden BEFORE you go to that game reserve or wherever.

Take for example the shot of the South African monarch butterflies that I took in the camp at Mata Mata. I donned my sun hat, sat down on the sand and waited for the butterflies to come to the flowers.

Try different apertures (or F-stops, which changes the depth of focus, and the amount of light coming into the camera) and different shutter speeds to get the best results. Digital cameras have made “trial and error” shooting SO much easier. Use the “erase” button often!

If your budget allows, buy an Image Stabilised lens. This helps so much to eliminate camera shake, and also allows you to take sharp pictures without the use of a tripod.

But, without wanting to contradict myself, I like to use a single-leg “monopod” to support the weight of the camera and lens.

Taking shots from your car is another ballgame altogether. To help steady my lens and camera, I have made a wooden platform that fits onto the car’s window, on top of which is a beanbag to act as a dead rest for the lens. It helps a lot, especially when you’re parked at a waterhole and waiting for game to come along.

Don’t be afraid to use your camera’s flash as a fill-in to lighten up those dark areas. Have a look at the photograph of the crimson-breasted shrike on these pages sitting in the shade on top of a fence pole, as well as the one of the glossy starling having a bath under a tap.

How did I do that? This is where knowing your camera comes in handy! On my camera, I selected the “P” programme (one up from fully automatic) and pressed the flash button. The Auto setting might have decided that there’s enough natural light and that the flash would have been unnecessary.

You hear people talking about the GOLDEN HOURS. They are referring to the softer lighting that you have from sunrise to about 9am and from 4pm to sunset. Make use of this wonderful lighting by getting into position early. Anticipate where the subject matter might come from and what the animals will most likely do. Get you camera out, take light readings, and select the F-stop and shutter speed that you think will best suit the conditions.

For fast action shots like the sand grouse arriving at Cubitje Quab watering hole in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, I pushed the ISO film speed setting to 800, which gave me a shutter speed of 1/3000 seconds at F8.

Select the manual function to pre-focus on the predicted landing spot, as there won’t be time to get an incoming sand grouse in focus.

Taking shots in the camps at most game parks is most rewarding – the birds and animals are used to people coming and going, so close-up shots are there for the taking.

Take a look at the ground squirrel pictures. They were so busy feasting on a tsamma that they were not at all concerned when I lay down on the sand and took the shots! Here I selected the “AV” setting on my camera, which allowed me to manually select a large aperture opening (small number, like F2.8 or F4), because I wanted the background completely out of focus to bring out the subject.

Be aware of the background. An otherwise wonderful shot can be ruined by an unsightly object in the picture! Classic examples are a child on a lawn with the garden hose visible, or a portrait of someone with a telephone pole sticking straight out his head!

Try and reposition yourself to eliminate the unwanted object. In game reserves, this could be a car, fence, or road sign that could ruin an otherwise lovely shot.

Static portraits of animals and birds are nice to look at, but for a winning shot you need action! This is not easy. At a spot where bee-eaters have made nests in a riverbank, for instance, manually focus on the branch that they like to come back to after foraging for an insect, and wait. Take the shot just before it lands on the branch with the insect in its bill. That’s action. Of course this is not easy. But, if you get it right, what a wonderful photograph you will have!

A camera that shoots 10 frames a second will be very helpful here, but they’re expensive. The top photographs are those that tell a story, for instance a bird feeding a chick, a fish eagle taking a fish, perhaps a lion or cheetah catching a warthog.

But hey, these shots don’t come easy! I know of a professional photographer and his friend who sat at one particular waterhole for 12 hours a day, and only after a full month were they rewarded with a winner. This happened to be a perfectly in-focus shot of a lion in the air, about to bring down a kudu!

I’m also disappointed when, spending a few days in an affordable park, I don’t see anything like this! But remember, you must be there and, with luck and patience, you will get that WINNING shot!

In this regard, perhaps the biggest advantage of being a pensioner is that there’s no rush to get there and back. On our recent trip to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park we stayed over at Die Eiland in Upington, leaving us with an easy run of about 260km to Twee Rivieren.

We camped at Mata Mata for four nights. There is a small shop at this camp, but you better take luxury goods with you. Supplies are somewhat limited. The campsites are all level and there are many shady trees under which to pitch your tent. The ablution block was in good nick when we were there. Like other camps in the Kgalagadi (I still think of it as the Gemsbok National Park), there are many ground squirrels to entertain you.

More importantly, the birdlife is prolific, especially in the warmer months.

Early morning runs to watering holes were the order of the day, until – of course – reports of a lion sighting reached camp! As a birder, I often smile to myself when I hear people complaining on having such a “rotten” time, because they didn’t see lion.

Shame, and all those birds they drove past? And the squirrels, snakes, springbok, gemsbok?

Although, I must confess that we hit the jackpot while in Nossob. Going on a night drive with a ranger, Francois Deacon, we happened to come across a female lion with her cubs at “Marie se Gat”. Seeing them just about within touching distance was the cherry on the top!

Obviously the saddest part of such an enjoyable holiday is packing up. In a way, it seems to undo those magnificent sightings and calm, still nights that you experience in the Kalahari.

Thank heavens we have some nice images recorded to re-live those moments over and over again!