Out of Africa with David Noton

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

Quickly I go into panning mode. Shooting through the trees will confuse the Auto Focus so I switch to manual. Image Stabilisation to mode 2 (panning, where the lens movement is stabilised only in the vertical plane). Drop the ISO back down to 100 and dial in a smaller aperture. Logically I should go to shutter speed priority exposure control, but I’m rushing so I just dial in enough aperture (f16) to give me a shutter speed of about 1/6 sec. How do I know what shutter speed to use for a good panning shot? Well, it’s a function of the speed of motion and the distance from the subject. That’s all well and good in theory but in the bush it all comes down to experience. Of course you can do some test shots, look at the results on the camera display and adjust accordingly, but here and now there’s not time. These giraffes have their own agenda, I don’t think they’ll be up for a Take Two.

They’re loping through the bush at a nice steady pace as if they’re on parade. Wendy’s doing her best to keep us moving in parallel but the potholed track causes me grief, making a smooth tracking motion difficult. Panning, where the camera is rotated to keep pace with movement, is a basic photographic skill. Tracking, where both the subject and the camera are in motion is a bit more difficult especially on a bumpy trail in the Kruger. Through the viewfinder it looks hopeless, I’m bouncing all over the place but I stick at it, shooting some 50 frames as we and the previously horny giraffes move through the bush. I’m filling the frame with their bodies, forgetting the top bit. I don’t need to show all of them, do I? What is crucial is the fore and background; colour and motion blur will make this shot, distracting and annoying details will kill it. The giraffes peel off deeper into the bush and the game’s over. I quickly scroll through the pics; there’s lots of hopeless fudgy blur but one just leaps out. It’s a possible.

David Noton

Time is getting on. We need to be back in camp by dusk at 1830 or we’ll be shot. As the light fades, just a few hundred meters from the camp gates we come across an elephant munching as usual on what looks like a whole tree. They spend some 20 hours a day munching this stuff and get through six sets of teeth in a lifetime. When the last set wear out, they starve to death. Do you think they know when they’re on their last set?

Mindful of our last elephant encounter we approach gingerly, but we have to get past him, or her (I didn’t check!) to get back. Thankfully he/she is preoccupied with supper. Stop. The elephant face fills my frame in the cool, steely light of dusk. I dial in ISO 1600. The old film photographer in me screams at the prospect, I used to think of ISO 400 as high speed with horrible grain and contrast. But in this digital age, with this camera, it seems anything is possible. I have been amazed at the noiseless quality of pictures shot at these high ISOs. It’s liberating. It makes shots like this possible. Even at ISO 1600 the exposure at f4 is down to 1/100 sec; worryingly slow when using a 500mm lens. But the combination of a monopod and Image Stabilisation is a very powerful one. I compose, take up first pressure on the shutter and the focus locks on as the IS whirrs into action. Give it a second to engage, and shoot. Recompose, shoot. The textures of the elephant’s skin up this close are incredible, like the surface of the moon. The head comes up, ears flap; OK, we’ve seen this before, time to move on.

David Noton

As the African night settles on the camp we sit with a cool beer, scrolling through the days pictures. The barbeque is causing me grief, the combination of eco-briquettes so environmental they don’t actually burn and safety matches so safe they don’t light is not a winner. In the end I do what the South Africans do; stoke it up with wood and a bit of elephant poo and we’re away. From out beyond the wire strange tromping and wallowing noises can be heard. The sounds of Africa; snorting hippos, the odd roar of a lion, strange slithering noises. It permeates your soul; there is life everywhere. The T-bones are on the brai, the beer tastes the best ever. In the darkness we’re being bombarded by moths and beetles. A bat flies within an inch of my head. I’ve learned to love bats, nature’s best anti-malarials, with no gruesome side effects. Looking at the pics of the day on the monitor glowing in the dark I’m getting that exhilarating, mellow post shoot buzz. Coming here, as a landscape photographer dabbling in wildlife, tackling a subject I had no experience of was a big risk. But one thing I’ve learnt in 25 years in this game is that without fail the most adventurous trips are the best. With my traveling and photography I need to keep challenging myself to keep developing. It’s been another classic day in the Kruger.



Born in England in 1957, David spent much of his youth travelling with his family between the UK, California and Canada. After leaving school David joined the Navy in search of further travels and adventures – and it was while sailing the seven seas that his interest in photography grew. After several years at sea he decided to pursue his passion for photography and returned to study in Gloucester, England.  After leaving college in 1985 he began work as a freelance photographer specialising in landscape and other travel subjects, which over the last 25 years, have taken him to almost every corner of the globe.

David is now established and recognised as one of the UK’s leading landscape and travel photographers. His images sell all over the world – both as fine art photography and commercially in advertising and publishing. He has won international awards for: British Gas/ BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards in 1985,1989 & 1990 and also writes regularly about landscape and travel photography for a number of national and international magazines. David has worked for numerous clients including British Airways, Sainsbury’s, Geo, Toyota, Qantas, Sunday Times and the Telegraph.  During the last twenty years he has also worked extensively for the National Trust covering much of the UK’s landscape and coastline, which has featured in many high profile publications and several highly acclaimed photographic exhibitions. Most notably:

‘New Vision’ Contemporary Art Photography – AOP Gallery
‘The Coast Exposed’ – Maritime Museum Greenwich and the Lowry
‘Climate Change – in Britain’s Back Yard!’ – London, Nottingham, Wales, Belfast, Bristol

“l’m still passionate about photography. All aspects fascinate me; from capturing the first light of day on a frosty landscape or making the most of a bustling market in Vietnam to portraying the dignity of a wrinkled face in China.”

David spends much of the year travelling with his wife Wendy. When not travelling they live in England, near Sherborne in Dorset.

All images in this article © David Noton

Entry Tags

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