Out of Africa with David Noton

March 24, 2009 | Mark Goldstein | Photography Techniques | Comment |

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.

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