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Graduated filters for landscape photography

David Rogers picture of a baobab and elephants in South Luangwa on a workshop


You need a graduated filters for landscape photography

Land is always darker than the sky and capturing the dynamic range (so you can keep detail in the sky and also in the foreground) is a challenge for photographers. Although modern digital technology such as Adobe Lightroom offers a host of tools to pull details out of the dark areas (shadows) and decrease the bright areas (highlights) and even offers pull down graduated filters, these do not offer the detail and quality of getting the information correct in camera.

Which graduated system to buy

I started using fairly basic graduated filters for landscape photography using a cheap Cokin plastic graduated filter set captured the image above. Since then I have used the much more sophisticated Lee and NISI systems. Lee is probably best in terms of build quality and easy of use but NISI comes with a polarizer, rings for several filter sizes and excellent pro quality.

Is the quality of the glass important?

It is very important to buy the best quality glass for your filters. Generally a single filter will cost $200 or so so they are a big investment if you want the best have optical coatings to reduce flare and reflection. Be careful of dropping them as they do break.

What colour graduated filters are best

There are all sorts of colours to choose from. But you can always add colours to sunsets in Lightroom. So always buy neutral graduated ND filters which darken and help saturate skies but do not change the colour.

Soft or hard graduated filters

Graduated filters are usually 0.3 (i stop) to 0.9 (three stops) and the transitions are either soft or hard. Soft filters are best for landscapes which have an indistinct formation such as where trees or mountains are included. Hard graduated filters are best for seascapes which are much more uniform. If using a tele lens its best to use a hard filter. Hard and soft filters are often combined to very good effect.

Reverse IR filters for landscapes

These reverse graduated filters have the darkest area towards the middle of the filter. I often use these for sunsets in combination with normal graduated filters. I find that reverse filters are really useful especially when shooting into the sun.

sunset photography at Klaserie Xananetsi by David Rogers

Big stoppers and half stoppers

If you want to create silky seas and waterfalls you need a big stopper. This is a solid ND and looks like a very dark bit of glass. In fact, they are so dark that you need to focus before attaching the filter. The 10 stop big stopper and the 6 stop half stopper are great choices. Exposure times must be done manually.  

David Rogers photograph of Muizenberg






When bigger is not better?

Everyone loves fast glass (lenses that go to f2.8 or f4), but for photographers that don’t want to carry heavy gear in the field and when weight limits are an issue, there is a great deal of sense in looking at lighter alternatives. After experiencing a bout of shoulder trouble, I have put aside my trusty 200 – 400mm F4 and worked with some of the excellent lighter but slower alternatives that are offered by Nikon. Now that I am feeling stronger again, it’s hard to ignore their advantages over heavier gear.

nikon-af-s-80-400mm-1Nikon AF-S 80 – 400mm f4.5 – 5.6 G ED VR

Orms R29,995

This lens has an excellent range, extremely fast focusing and quality. And at just 1,5 kg, it’s super light. Although the purists say that the quality drops off at 400 mm, that is probably to be expected with any long lens, and quite frankly, I did not notice it. The lens is super quick and a huge improvement on previous models. Also the Nano coating means that you can shoot directly into the sun with little lens flare. The lens has had a permanent place in my bag for two or three years, and my only criticism of the lens is that it’s not particularly strong. On a visit to Mashatu Game Reserve last year it rolled off the seat onto the road (ouch) and the bill to fix it was a whopping R20,000. That is almost the same price as the lens. I will be a little more careful in the future.

80-400 test shot 80-400 test shot carmine 80-400 test shot vulture


nikon_af-s_200-500mm_f5.6e_ed_vr_lens200 – 500mm AF-S f5.6E ED VR Nikon

Orms R21,995

This lens is really good value compared to the 80 – 400mm (apparently wider lenses are more expensive), and the build of the lens feels super solid. It is slightly heavier at 2,3 kg but is incredibly sharp even at full extension. I did not take it into the field but shot some great images of my kids playing sport. There was lots of lens envy from the moms and dads, and they also enjoyed the images that I took. Overall, I found the focus was not quite as responsive as the 80-400mm, and the fact that it does not have Nano coating will be an issue in certain situations. To get those closer shots of kids crossing the goal line, I had to run backwards into the parking lot. Overall though, it’s a fantastic lens and excellent value especially for long-range wildlife and bird photography.


Using a DX lens, photographers will enjoy X1.4 magnification. Both of these lenses work seamlessly with Nikon TC14E-III 1.4x converters.

It’s great to see that Nikon in South Africa is now supplying cameras at similar prices to US prices through Orms. The fact that Canon has been offering excellent rates and taking away market share could be part of the reason, and Nikon’s move out of their swanky downtown offices into more humble accommodation could be another. Either way, it’s great news for photographers like myself who have a long and lasting relationship with Nikon.

Selous – a long way from anywhere


20 years ago, while working as a photojournalist for Getaway, I had a chance meeting with aspiring American photographer Rob Ross. He had thrown in the towel with his busy life as a property developer in the USA and was making his home in South Africa with the idea of extending his real interest as a photographer. Over the years that followed, Rob and I travelled for months through Mozambique, Botswana, Malawi and Zambia having a set of wonderful adventures and established a very good friendship.

Rob always wanted to get his teeth into a project, and he saw the opportunity  with the Selous. The largest conservation area in Africa… and one that has been very poorly documented… this was an iconic project

Rob is, as Nick Nichols of National Geographic points out, an extremely “tenacious photographer”. Not only has he invested a great deal of time (more than 6 years) and expense in this life project, but he has had to deal with layers of bureaucracy in order to get the permissions needed to work in the Selous to create this book.

In these days of electronic media and instant gratification, the publishing of great books is rare. And Selous in Africa is a great book. It runs to 276 lavish pages and contains more than 400 magnificent images that demand attention to Africa’s largest wilderness area. It comes at an important time when such wild places are increasingly rare and precious. Rob’s pictures are informative, and the book is infused with the writings of award-winning naturalist Peter Mathessen.

Art director Gregory Wakabayashi and Marco Jellinek of Officina Libraria also deserve credits for their part in the creation of this magnificent book. The fact that the book costs only $65 is largely thanks to the generous support of the Frankfurt Zoological society and a host of other beneficiaries.

Congratulations, Rob – this is a book to be extremely proud of and will be a gracious addition to any Africana collection. The book is available through Amazon. If you want to get a copy I suggest that you move quickly.  You can see more of Rob’s work on

Rob and I are planning a photographic trip to Tanzania and the Selous in November 2017. We are aiming not only at photographers – but also anyone who wants to come and enjoy this wonderful wilderness with someone who has spent years documenting its many seasons and moods. It will be an exceptional trip.

20120623_Selous_0656201604_Aoba_0032 20120621_Selous_0059

Nikon or Canon – the debate continues

canon_or_nikonThe best camera is the one that you have with you when something happens! Others will say that all cameras are good as long as they are black! Then there is the endless debate about whether Nikon or Canon are top of the pile. Having used Nikon for the past 30 years starting with the EM, I have a natural affinity for the gear. Nikon has always been strong and robust and survived a great deal of punishment from a very hard user. Over the years while working on photo trips, I have been very impressed with certain aspects of the Canon system. These two brands are still the only two that I would recommend.

Having just drowned a considerable amount of gear in the Zambezi, I am having an interesting debate. Is it time to consider a change?

I  did extensive tests with the Nikon D810 and the Canon 5DMark 3 as well as the Canon 5DSR.

Given the really easy functionality of the Canon Q button and the C1 – C3 function buttons, I started off heavily in favour of the Canon. Plus Canon really do offer great service and good value in South Africa. But, what really sealed the deal for me to stay with Nikon was not price or service, but for the dynamic range that their images provide.

As a photographer that works a lot with low light photography and depends on great shadow detail, especially for my lodge work, the dynamic range on the Nikon is impossible to beat. I am able to haul out so much detail out of the shadow areas even at fairly high ISOs. The images are cleaner and crisper than those offered by Canon with the similar offerings. The focus on the D810 is also a huge improvement on the D800 with cluster focus giving lots more intuitive and easy to use focus. I was also blown away by the ability to shoot at extremely high ISO levels with virtually no noise.

So for now, for me, Nikon remains a very solid choice. But with the launch of the new Canon 5D Mark 4 (or will it be called something different) in August of this year the game could change again very quickly. The Canon 5D is almost 4 years old and its going to be very interesting to see what comes out next with the newer processors.

Incidentally, Nikon recently announced the D500, which offers 10 FPS in a crop sensor with astounding high ISO shooting. This camera again is a leader in its class exceeding the ability of the very remarkable Canon 7D in this department. Noise is virtually not an issue, which is unusual for this sort of camera.

So it’s off shopping I go for a D810.

Incidentally, I buy all of my gear from Orms in Cape Town. Owner Mike Ormrod sold me my first camera when I was 18, and despite having moved up and up in the world of photography in South Africa, he remains a real photographer’s friend. All of these deals are published on Orms Direct, but the best road to good deals is to pop in for a coffee and chat to see if Mike or someone in the team can sweeten the rates still further.


What to wear on safari

My top tip for what to pack safari travelling gear are as follows

1. Pack quick-dry light weight fabrics.

2. Long sleeves and long pants are best for all round wear.

3. Take a wide-brimmed hat — it must be able to pack flat in your bag.

4. Shoes that cover your feet properly are best to keep away insects — especially at night.

5. Go to sleep in your t-shirt and underwear that you are going to wear as a base layer next morning.

6. A thin fleece is usually ideal but you should also take a thin windbreaker as a top layer.

7. Its going to be much colder than you expect from April to August especially before dawn on the back of the open game drive vehicle.

8. Use a duffel bag that is compact and squashable. Small aircrafts do not like hard corners.

9. Most safari camps offer a good laundry service so you can travel very light.

10. Khakhi and bush coloured clothing is best — blue attracts tsetse flies and they bite!

11. If you are wanting to travel light, remember most safari companies have warm, waterproof ponchos on the back of the vehicle.


My thanks to Cape Union Mart for supplying the images. This wonderful South African company has been producing safari gear for more than 50 years. They have a shop at Oliver Tambo International Airport and in all major shopping centres.