Out of Africa with David Noton

March 24, 2009 | Mark Goldstein | Photography Techniques | 8 Comments | |
Out of Africa with David Noton Image

We spend a day in the bush with David and Wendy Noton, following the life of a pro photographer from dawn til dusk on a recent adventure to South Africa.

It’s not taken us long to settle into a daily routine. The alarm goes off at 4am but I’m awake, listening to the sounds of Africa awaking. We crawl out of our scratchers, gulp down a coffee in the half-light and saddle up; Wendy in the driver’s seat, me behind with the camera and long tom on a monopod. Just as the gates to the camp open at 4.30 we trundle between them, out and into the wilds of Kruger National Park. Where are we headed? Don’t know. We’ll set off on one of the game drives but it’s a lottery what we will see; it could be nothing. Gorgeous light could be backlighting the Mopani trees and dry riverbeds beautifully but the wildlife may be elsewhere and we’ll sit, watching and waiting in the gathering heat before returning deflated for breakfast. Or we could witness a family of Vervet monkeys frolicking, or lions stalking, or giraffes bonking. We have surrendered our destiny to the rhythms of nature. It is such a different way of working to my normal routines. Search, previsualise, wait, and finally, when the light is right, shoot. That in a nutshell is the checklist for a landscape shoot. Here, playing at being a wildlife photographer, I’m going with the flow of nature, working with what we’ve got. It’s great fun.

David Noton

We drive along the dirt road slowly, scanning left and right. Being confined to a Land Rover has taken a lot of getting used to. I never really twigged how much wildlife photography and filming is done from vehicles. For me part of the great joy of photography is being part of the landscape, striding across it in search of the ultimate vista. Try that here and you’ll end up as breakfast, quite apart from being deep in the elephant poo with the park wardens. But in fact it’s not just about protection. The animals aren’t fazed by cars, but a human figure in the bush will send them scarpering. We’ve done bush walks with armed guides, but it’s a simple fact you see far more animal activity from a Land Rover than you do on foot. So we’ve adapted, and that’s what this trip is all about; pushing the boundaries, getting out of my professional comfort zones and trying something new.

There’s impala to the left, with a calf so young it’s still wet. I swivel the camera round, bashing Wendy yet again on the back of the head with the lens hood. Not more bloody impala. The first afternoon out shooting from Punda Maria camp they seemed an exotic novelty, and I was so, so glad to get underway with some full frame wildlife exposures after all the planning and travel to get here. Now though they have become an every day sight and I’m trying to ration myself with an impala quota, only shoot them if it’s a truly unique situation. But its tough to resist that addictive pressure on the shutter release, and its not as if I’m spending on film and processing. Memory space is however an issue. I started this trip with 23 4GB cards and 80GB of backup space available on my Canon M80 hard drive. Both are filling up alarmingly quickly. I’m rapidly realising that shooting wildlife with a 21MP camera puts heavy demands on memory space. Five weeks of this lie ahead, so I have to edit in camera as I bounce along on the back seat, deleting images off the card to save space. I’ve never done that before and it feels all wrong, but needs must.

David Noton

There’s an elephant crossing the road ahead. We inch closer, as I become a contortionist trying to lock on with the 500mm out of the window. These super telephotos aren’t exactly nifty. There’s a trumpeting sound and out of the bush charges the bull, head up, ears forward, trunk raised; definitely in a huff, not having a good day. Wendy’s into reverse and backing up as I try to frame the stroppy bull from a bouncing vehicle at the wrong angle. There follows a full and frank discussion about what our priorities should have been; our lives or the shot. It’s clear to me; some people think photography is a matter of life or death but I take it a bit more seriously than that. Strangely, Wendy doesn’t quite see it that way. That’s the second time this has happened. We’re still alive and incredibly still married, but maybe we should get a bit better at reading elephant body language.

Off to the right there’s a buffalo grazing. Biff goes the lens hood bouncing off Wendy’s crown yet again as I switch sides. Want to know something seriously sad? I love this lens, physically, carnally, love it. I want it, but it’s not mine. I’ve rented it here in South Africa and will have to give it back. I don’t think I can. It’s the Canon 500mm f4 IS L. It’s big, heavy, cumbersome, and a superb optic. Now I own the 100-400mm, but I can tell you that the extra 100mm and a full extra stop of maximum aperture make all the difference. So far, every shot I’ve done in the Kruger has been with this lens, mostly wide open at f4. Quite apart from the exposure considerations of trying to keep everything sharp with a fast enough shutter speed the out of focus fore and backgrounds and minimal depth of field give a wonderful feel to the shots, dropping out annoying and distracting detail. Oh, and I do have to admit it’s a great lens to pose with.

Entry Tags

travel, landscape, David Noton, wildlife, nature, Africa, safari, Out of Africa

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8 Comments | Newest Oldest First | Post a Comment

#1 Mark Olwick

Outstanding article!  Please do more like this, if possible.

2:22 pm - Tuesday, March 24, 2009

#2 Atanas

Nice article.
It is really good to see D. Noton writing here.
I can not see the jpeg images in the article!?
Even when copy/paste the address of pictures in the browser I got this: 403 - Forbidden
Any advice?
winXP; IE

2:52 pm - Tuesday, March 24, 2009

#3 Mandeno Moments

A very interesting article.

David said I want to use details, graphic shapes, backgrounds and movement, just as I do in the Scottish Highlands or on the streets of Hanoi. I want to produce wildlife art. I don’t think that David is up is Khyber Pass in saying that. Using details, graphic shapes, backgrounds and movement is an approach that can be successfully applied to virtually all, if not all, forms of photography. Reportage photography can necessitate sacrificing art to get the story.

I very much like the shot of a buffalo with a bird on it’s face. I also like the close up of the elephant but, with respect, it looks unbalanced. A safe option would be to put the eye on the top left intersection of the rule-of-thirds grid. It might also work well having the eye nearer the top left corner.


6:05 pm - Tuesday, March 24, 2009

#4 digital photography

Intriguing article, I’m really impressed with the experience of the author… it had been my dream to photograph in the wilds, but never had opportunity to shoot animals. My pro career involves shooting cars only, mechanical animals I would say :)

This photo with lions is amazing, with interesting light hitting on the stomach, amazing! I can imagine how interesting and entertaining it is to work in wild environment, apart from the dangers of course!

9:38 pm - Tuesday, March 24, 2009

#5 hkki

beautiful shots

11:02 pm - Tuesday, March 24, 2009

#6 flemming rasmussen

Great shot and a wonderful story, regards flemming .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

7:42 am - Wednesday, March 25, 2009

#7 Ludi Lochner

David has captured the atmosphere of the Kruger National Park.  I say that having visited the Park for the first time in 1956 and too many times since then to mention.  I would make these additional points.

First, for anyone seeking to visit the Kruger, there is no need for a Land Rover.  Far cheaper transport in the form of a “car” is more than adequate.  The roads between the camps are tarred and consist of two wide lanes.  The dirt roads are all well maintained.  You are not allowed off the roads.

Second, a bean bag may be more useful than a monopod.  There would be less bashing of the driver!  In fact, I would recommend two “H-shaped” bags of the kind sold by Speed Graphic.  Fill each bag with 3Kg’s of rice, a cheap and very effective form of filler.  At the end of the trip, hand the contents of the bean bags to someone who may appreciate the food value thereof.

I suspect that bean bags provide a more stable support for the camera/lens. BB’s are more manageable - you can quickly adjust the height for birds high up in a tree and tortoises on the ground by simply changing the height of the window - with the load of the lens/camera off the window!

Third, if you are not into camping and carrying all the cooking, bedding etc with you - and they will take up valuable space in the car - consider accommodation which works out at about £50.00, depending on exchange rate! - per “cottage” per night.  Booking well in advance is advisable, particularly in the cooler months and over the South African school holidays.(During the months of December to February, the colourful migrants are in residence and there is much less traffic, particularly north of Satara.)

All the camps have “restaurants”, which provide adequate meals, and shops that provide basic foodstuffs and other items. 

Barbies are, of course, de jure!

I hope that is a useful information to add to David’s excellent article. Happy shooting!

10:24 am - Wednesday, March 25, 2009

#8 David Noton

Thanks for these comments gang. I’ll be writing monthly now for photographyblog so watch out for more despatches from around the world. All constructive comments are welcome. Keep exposing! David Noton

8:33 pm - Thursday, April 2, 2009