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10 things to know about Astro-photography

 

What camera equipment do you need for star photography?

You will need a tripod, a dSlr camera and a wide lens.

Good gear does help to get great results.

Important to understanding is that stars will start to show movement in the sky if you leave the shutter open for too long. In order to calculate this maximum distance you can use the 500 rule

 

The 500 rule

The 500 rule for shutter settings says divide 500 by the focal length of your lens to get a star setting which is long enough to let in the light but short enough not to show the trails that are captured as the earth turns in its orbit . So for a 14-24 mm lens set at 14 it will be 500/14 = 35. For a 20mm lens it will 500/20 be 25 seconds and so on. Remember if you are using a crop lens camera you will need to multiply the camera focal length by 1.4 or 1.5 depending upon your make of camera

The Galactic Centre and timing your shot

The most prominent part of the Milky Way, called the Galactic Centre and is usually at a great angle and not too high in the sky in the winter months in the southern hemisphere. Plan your shoot for the new moon when there is least ambient light and head to a place such as the Karoo where you can be assured of clear skies and very little ambient light.

Using an app like Photopills or the Photographer’s Ephemeris you can predict the exact location of the sunset and the moonrise and also the position of the milky way and also where the sun will rise or set. It will also help you find a strong foreground and plan any special lighting effects you might plan.

 

What sort of shot are you after

Generally there are 3 different approaches to star photography. Lets call them standard milky way shots, star circles and time lapse. The first is the creation of an image that shows the stars as pin pricks. This is the kind that I like most — as its the most realistic — and luckily its also the most straightforward to accomplish with an exposure time that is as short as possible. As explained above I have a wide 14mm lens and using a setting of 30 seconds at 2000 ISO I am going to get a pin sharp image at the correct exposure. Or that is what I hope! There are still quite a few issues to consider before getting the shot.

First you need to line up your shot and in the dark it’s not that easy to achieve. So generally I will do my setup during daylight hours and then be ready to fire off the shot, or sequence of shots, using the in camera timer or manually. If you end up doing the setup after dark it’s useful using a flashlight or focus at 100% in live view. The point just short of infinity usually gives pin sharp stars and a sharp foreground. Once I have set my focus I often tape the focus ring so it does not shift.

There are plenty of ways to add creativity to this sort of image. The most common technique is to create a strong foreground. We often use boabab trees, windmills or rocky outcrops but anything will do as long as its graphic and forms an outline against the night sky. Building on this technique you can decide to do a composite image to give foreground detail (often shooting the first shot in daylight will allow this) or you can even do some light painting with a torch. Light painting is lots of fun and you will be surprised just how little light you need to illuminate things in darkness and at such high ISO settings. Often just a second or two of painting will do the trick. Or use a really dumbed down light source.

The images can be combined in photoshop or stacking software.

 

Star trails 

If you want to get star trails you can lower your ISO right down to 100 and then shoot images of anything from 2 to 20 minutes or longer. Of course you will get noise on these long exposures and so the best way to get star trails is to shoot a bunch of images and then combine them in star stacking software. Do remember to turn off noise reduction between the shots or you will get gaps between the trails as the camera records the second NR image.

It’s easy to create a dramatic time lapse movie which will track the movement of the stars which can then be turned into a dramatic movie with sound. The most popular video making app is called Premier Pro from Adobe but download Da Vinci Resolve a free app which is really terrific. All you need to do is copy the images onto your timeline and it will create the movie for you. When creating time lapse stills you need to set your camera to intervals and then shoot images of a time period of some hours.  A movie will play at around 25 frames per second so if you need a 30 second video you are looking at 750 images which need to be combined.

Star circles

If you want to create star circles you need to focus on the southern most point in the sky. This can be calculated using your photo app or by using the old technique which is by using the Southern Cross. Draw an imaginary line from the top of the cross to the bottom and extend it 4,5 times. Drop a vertical point from here to the South Celestial pole which is due south. As mentioned If you want stars to appear as sharp, individual points, your shutter speed needs to be faster than 500 divided by your lens focal length. Stars start to blur over longer periods. 20 minutes will give good star trails, but a single 20 minute image can be noisy. Rather, stack multiple exposures together. Use manual settings to get a good exposure at 30 sec. Continuously take 30 sec exposures for 20 minutes or longer using remote release and camera set to continuous drive mode. You will get 40 to several hundred photos to stack in software such as star stax. 

If you want to find some terrific places to stay to practice your star photography contact David Rogers on the contact form.

Read some other creative photography ideas for your next holiday 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

10 tips to turn your holiday into a creative experience.

creative photography on safari is easy if you look beyond the obvious.

I often suggest to clients to imagine that they are working for a magazine and photograph and document the full experience of the safari so they can be more creative with their photography while they are on safari. I did the sort of work for many years as a photographer for Getaway, Travel Africa and Africa Geographic and learned to photograph not only the obvious but also the details, the people, the big things, the small things, the landscapes to communicate the fuller experience. This can then be turned into a book, a slide show, or even a video that is full of punch and interest.
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Creative photography stars with the following tips

 
 

  1. Don’t just point and shoot Seeing a great subject is just the start of the journey. Make sure you get the angles and the foreground and the background to make the most of your subject. Can you get eye to eye with an animal, or catch the light in the eye? Can you improve the foreground, the background by moving your position or waiting for the animal to be in a more interesting position. Keep your style loose and flexible and look to create interesting images. Sometimes you can great a great shot using a mobile phone.
  2. Go wide Look for leading lines, foreground interest, big clouds and work on your landscapes. Also consider stitching images as panoramas to get an even wider effect. Sometimes wide shots can communicate so much more than going in close.
  3. Stay with the action The slightest flick of a tail can make or break a shot so remember to keep your camera on high speed continuous and keep your shutter speed high enough to catch the movement. Autofocus, aperture priority, ISO settings, exposure compensation are there to help you to create interesting images so make sure you understand how your camera works.
  4. Make the most of the weather It does not matter whether the conditions are sunny or cloudy,, there are always great images to be had. In fact, its gloomy, cloudy and rainy weather which often produces the most interesting images. Look for colourful subjects, interesting skies, graphic shapes.
  5. Variety. Bat eared foxes, owls, birds, flowers, insects… all have a place in your publication. Photograph everything that moves. If you are on safari with no moon, or full moon, then use the experience wisely. Light painting, long exposures, combining elements can make wonderful images that give the feeling of night time. Also photographing some of the nocturnal animals on night drives will add to your book.
  6. The safari experience. Camp staff love posing with food and helping you get the shots. When taking pictures of the food itself feel confident moving items and generally styling your shot. Its amazing how much you will add to your story by photographing a freshly baked loaf of bread or a smiling waiter carrying a bowl of fruit. There are great opportunities here to experiment with lighting, portraiture and also composition. People add amazing interest.
  7. The wish you were here shot Get a model to stand on the balcony and shoot for the view especially if you have an interesting background. Finding a balance between interiors and exteriors light can be done at very low light or by using HDR (high dynamic range) techniques.
  8. Get the facts Find out The size of the area you are visiting, the names of the people, the local dialect, the correct names of the birds. All of these are important facts to note and use in the end as captions for your book or publication. Interview your guide, the chef, the camp manager. find that they relax and you will get better pictures.
  9. Shoot with the end in mind Stitching, HDR, black and white processing, cross processing, hi key, and cropping can be done in post production but planned during the shoot. The end results of your work does not need to be what you see in your viewfinder In fact some of the most interesting and artistic shots are remarkably different.
  10. Selection Remember the wise words of Blaise Pascal. I would have written a shorter letter but I did not have the time. Its all about distilling your experience down to a few great images. Photography then becomes as much about what you don’t show as what you do show. The same is also true for your composition. Get in close, cut out unnecessary detail and show only the part of the scene that conveys your message most effectively. Less is almost always more

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If you would like to subscribe to our 10 tips newsletter please sign up here. We will send our tips every week. Good luck with your creative photography.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Zambia’s Secret Season

Zambia’s Secret Season

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David Rogers article about travel in the Emerald Season to South Luangwa

Safari rules say the dry season is best for spotting game. But if you visit the Luangwa Valley when it rains, you can explore by boat when the river is high, the flowers are blooming, the wildlife teeming and there’s no one else around.

By David Rogers published in Getaway Magazine, 2017

When it rains in eastern Zambia, it rains properly. Voluminous cumulonimbus clouds build tall above the landscape and unleash deafening cracks of thunder and flashes of lighting that explode across the wide African skies. With up to a billion litres of water in a single cloud, the deluge is tremendous, filling tributaries and grassy plains that all drain into the Luangwa River. These rains transform it overnight from a dry stream into a torrent that sweeps for 800 kilometres along the southern arm of the Great Rift Valley and into the Zambezi.

 

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For most camp operators in South Luangwa National Park, the rains mean the end of the season. It’s not that it rains all the time (the storms are short-lived and there are plenty of sunny days) but the rains turn the hard, sun-baked black cotton soil into sticky mud, which makes it impossible to drive and sludgy underfoot. Most lodges and all the bush camps close at the end of the dry season (October). However, there are two operators that celebrate the coming of the rains in style, launching their boats so that guests can explore the flooded lagoons and waterways and reach some of the most remote areas of the park. Along the river, with its textbook meanders and oxbow lakes, there are only two bridges and landscapes that have changed little since the first travellers set eyes on them in the 1800s.

For the past 12 years, I have led photographic trips each wet season. It’s possible to shoot right through the day, as the clouds act as a diffuser of light, highlighting the green landscape at its lushest best. The air is clear of dust, and the vivid outline of the Muchinga Escarpment forms a dramatic backdrop. It’s fascinating how much more relaxed animals are at this time of the year. The impala and puku are fit and strong and have the upper hand against the predators. And then there are the birds. Many of the little brown jobs become resplendent in colourful feathers for the breeding season, and migrants flock in from all over northern Africa and Europe.

From the gateway town of Mfuwe, its an hour’s drive to get to Nkwali Camp. It’s just what you would expect from an old-school safari outpost: the bar is built around an ebony tree and the open-sided thatched rooms all have spectacular views. Anyone who has been here in the dry season, when the Luangwa is a mere trickle, will be astounded by the flooding river, which is 150 metres wide and four metres deep. It moves past the camp silently carrying its load of orange mud, fallen trees and foliage washed out from the channels. At night, we lie awake listening to the grunt of hippos and barking baboons, a sound that suggests big cats are on the prowl. Days at Nkwali begin with the rhythm of a drum

at 5.15. As the skies start to reflect orange in the river, we head out on a drive. Guests are ferried by boat directly across the river to the vehicles, stored at a small natural harbour inside the park. We explore the network of all-weather roads that stretches for about 30 kilometres from Chichele Hills to the Luangwa Wafwa. Usually we will see our first lions, leopards and wild dogs as well as the endemic Thornicroft’s giraffe, the pale Cookson’s wildebeest, which occurs nowhere else, and the vividly striped Crawshay’s zebra.

After two or three days at Nkwali, we set off on our river journey, heading north-east. I tend to keep the group small, five people max, which leaves space for the boatman, my guide Jacob Shawa, and the fundi, an armed scout from the Zambian Wildlife Authority who keeps us safe from dangerous game. After bumping around on a vehicle, it’s blissfully relaxing being on the water and watching spectacular scenes flashing by. The river flows at nearly 10km/h, and its power is evident from the scores of century-old trees that lie fallen in the water. Some of their relatives teeter on the banks, holding on by just a few exposed roots. As we proceed upriver, we are heading into an area that has been entirely cut off by the rains. The only other people we see are weather-beaten local fishermen in dugout canoes.

I advise photographers to use fast shutter speeds when in the boat. That way they can capture the rush of hippos heading into the water and the massive crocodiles that slip off the banks. We also follow the path of black-headed egrets and fish eagles with our

cameras, trying to capture them in flight. This is the very best time for birding in South Luangwa, with summer migrants that include white-bellied Abdim’s storks, red-winged pratincoles and woodland kingfishers. Thanks to keen-eyed Jacob, we alwaysspot lions on these river trips too; seeing their wideeyed expressions, we realise they’ve probably not seen any humans for several months.

At Nsefu Camp, we are greeted by the same friendly team of cooks, waiters and staff that have met me here year on year. Nsefu dates back to 1952 and was started by the late Norman Carr, ‘godfather’ of Zambian conservation. The rondawels are on one

of the broadest sweeps of the Luangwa overlooking an elephant migration route. Sitting here beneath the thatch, you can almost sense the pipe-smoking explorers of yesteryear. On this most recent visit, I am surprised to note that the simple dining room where we’d had such fantastic meals and conversations over the years was gone. Nsefu is not immune to the erosion of the river; who knows how many years it will be before the camp is lost forever?

Fortunately, the bar is intact, the fridge is filled with cold Mosi beers, and a table has been set beneath the sprawling African ebony tree. We sit in the dappled shade and tuck into fresh salads, just-baked bread, cold meats and chilled white wine. Guests don’t need to go far to enjoy the wilderness here. While in camp we’ve seen elephant, buffalo,

lion, baboon and leopard. As the temperature cools in the afternoons, we gather for tea and delicious sticky cake before heading out. We potter up the Mwamba River, a narrow tributary of the Luangwa on the edge of the famous Lion Plain – always a magnet for animals. Cameras at the ready, we capture images of sunlit puku, zebras, giraffes and

elephants posing perfectly against the dark grey clouds, which often start to build at this time of day. It’s also possible to explore the Kaingo Forest, and driving our boat between the dark trunks of drowned African ebony trees is a haunting and awesome experience. At sunset, we park near a pod of hippos to enjoy our sundowners as they yawn away before emerging to graze at night. The highlight of a visit to Nsefu is the stork colony, one of the largest in southern Africa. It’s an awesome spectacle to watch hundreds of these large birds fly in with nesting material. It’s sometimes possible to

boat right into the colony, but mostly we make our way in on foot. If it has rained it can be a pretty muddy experience. I remember one woman who sank so deeply into the sludge that her shoe was lost forever. We always take it slowly, and on our last trip we were joined by an octogenarian – Jacob held his hand the whole way and carried a chair so he could take a breather.

After a few days at Nsefu, it’s hard not to leave a bit of our hearts behind, but as we boat downstream with the current, there is more excitement in store. We spend our last two nights at Luangwa River Camp, which has a pool, a wide deck and a taste of luxury after the remote experience upstream. It’s back into game-drive vehicles here to explore the extremely productive Mfuwe sector, including the Luangwa Wafwa (wafwa means ‘old’ and is also the local name for oxbow lakes). On our last visit, we saw 31 wild dogs in this area. The sighting took place after some heavy rain. That’s the thing about Emerald Season – when it’s very wet, the predators tend to stick to the high ground,

so their movements can be predicted. My movements are just as predictable – I have returned to this entrancing place, taken this journey into a forgotten part of Africa, in spring, summer, autumn and winter, more than 30 times. It’s my second home.

 

WHEN TO GO

For a boating safari, late January to early April is when the river is high enough to explore upstream and into flooded lagoons. June to October is the dry season, and high season. You can get good deals in November and early December at the lodges that are still open – incidentally, this is a great time, just before the rains, for predator action.

 

We can recommend travel in the Emerald Season to South Luangwa as this article about travel in the Emerald Season to South Luangwa featured in Getaway magazine reveals

The whales have arrived: First hand account from underwater specialists

It’s August and southern right whales (so named because they were the right whale to catch) have arrived at the Cape coastline and may be viewed and photographed in Cape Town, Hermanus, Gansbaai and De Hoop and further up the coast at the Garden Route. While most photographers take their images from land and from boats, two intrepid friends of mine, Derick Burger and Jean Tresfon recently had the privilege of photographing them from the air and underwater too. And as you will read from their account, this requires special permission as well as a great deal of fortitude. There are also plenty of great things to do and places to visit in the Cape when conditions are not ideal for viewing whales–see our recommendations at the end of the post.

jean tresfon(1)

1 August – “Two days into our southern right whale expedition in Hermanus and some good results so far despite challenging conditions. It seems the weather here doesn’t bother with reading the forecast and rather just makes it up as it goes along! The cut-off low pressure system brought totally unseasonable howling easterly winds to the area which trashed the visibility except for a narrow band right up against the shore. We started yesterday in the shallows and soon spotted a large black silhouette against the sandy bottom, but this turned out to be a big great white shark, not quite the large creature with which we wanted to share the water! Close by we found a single southern right whale and with the Jaws theme tune still playing in the back of my mind I slipped into the water and had a magical encounter with a very relaxed whale. Later in the day a strong westerly wind whipped up the sea and sent us back to shore. Then today our Czech friends arrived and we headed back to the shallows only to find a large period swell had churned up the sandy bottom turning the visibility to pea soup. We headed out deeper and found a beautiful white (brindle) whale and a patch of slightly cleaner water and once again had the opportunity to be eye to eye with one of the ocean’s most graceful giants. Such a wonderful experience and with a tangible sense of a connection between sentient beings. All images shot under permit from the Department of Environmental Affairs.”

jean tresfon (4)

3rd August – “The southern right whale expedition continues… Tuesday was not a good day in terms of equipment. The day started with the carry handle on Mark’s camera breaking due to metal fatigue and R1mil worth of camera and housing bouncing onto the concrete from almost 1.5m up. Fortunately those Nauticam housings are tough and despite the massive impact there was no damage to housing or port! Then on the last drone flight of the day I was tracking baitballs and sharks in the surf and let the battery level drop too low. Realising that the drone would not make it all the way back to the boat I elected to land it on the beach rather than have it give up halfway back and fall into the water. There followed a two hour adventure consisting of map reading, GPS tracking, 4x4ing and hiking which ended in a successful recovery of an undamaged drone! Late in the evening it was back to Cape Town, waking up to make my vote count this morning and then back to Hermanus to find the ocean had become a blown out frothy seething mess. Derick and I headed up the mountains behind Voelklip instead and enjoyed some spectacular views of Walker Bay.”

jean tresfon (3)

5th August – “Two days of strong westerly winds combined with very large swells has now resulted in zero visibility conditions in the waters around Hermanus. There is not even a pretense of any visibility, the water is a lovely pea-soup green and I’ve seen dams with clearer water. Since we are here to film southern right whales underwater obviously this is not ideal! Arrived back at the harbour at midday after a few hours of being bashed around by the ocean with the shutter count the same as when we departed and decided to walk off the frustration by hiking up to Galpin Peak in the Fernkloof Nature Reserve. Stunning route with amazing vistas! Balance and perspective restored, now to formulate a new plan of action…”

jean tresfon (2)

 

Facts about the southern right whale

They were hunted mercilessly but have been protected since 1934, and there are now more than 4000 of these, most of which visit the South African coastline between June and November. The feeding grounds for Southern Right whales is in Antarctica, and they come to the sheltered waters of the Cape to breed, calf and suckle their young.

Whales give birth once ever three years. The gestation period is 12 months, and the suckling period is 6 months during which time the calf consumes up to 200 litres of milk per day. In the breeding season, cows and calves can be seen breaching together, which suggests this may be a learned activity.

Booking a charter to see southern right whales

If you have special requirements then get in touch with a specialist operator. Generally all boats will have 50 meter viewing limits but there are times when the whales will approach the boats. This is winter in the Cape and weather can change very quickly from clear, windless days with crystal clear visibility to storm conditions churned up by westerly cold fronts. I suggest having an open plan for arrangements.  I would avoid going on one of the large whale watching boats, and if you are prone to being seasick then start a regimen of anti-nausea pills at least 24 hours before setting off.

Other photographic highlights at this time of year

There are plenty of great photographic opportunities in the Cape, and we can offer some good suggestions for photographers in the region. Of course, this is also the time when the Cape Floral Kingdom (the smallest but most diverse of the 6 Floral Kingdoms) lights up with flowers and attracts myriad birds and insects. The flowering season starts in Namaqualand at this time too.

Read more about photographing Cape Town from the air or from the sea or join us for a Photos & Africa Cape Town tour or workshop.