Out of Africa with David Noton
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.
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.
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