South Africa - "scenery, scenery!" (+ animals!) / by Giacomo Cattaneo

Hello people,

I've had the luck to travel for 2 weeks to South Africa recently, and wanted to share some photo-stories with you. SA is, as my friend Hennie from Cape Town said, "scenery scenery scenery". And indeed it is - I basically have no shot of people. When looking at my folder, I only see landscapes and wildlife. This allowed (or forced?) me to experiment a bit more with two more technical aspects: the first, is composition; the second, camera settings. 

1) Composition + landscapes: 

The rule goes that for a landscape not to be flat, there should be some guiding lines and perspectives leading you into the picture. Not finding that many "physical" lines like railways or streets, I tried to give a sense of depth by including an object in the foreground of the picture, that would give a sense of space and distance from the object that is the landscape behind it. The main challenge was for me to decide where to put the focus, even though through the concept of hyperfocal distance, which defines a focus distance for a defined aperture that leads to the longest depth of field (i.e. "everything is in focus"). I did not manage to get it often, also because I did not know that by not using the "preview" function the viewfinder will show you the shortest focal length (i.e. not everything will be in focus, despite small apertures and hyperfocal distance). So I kind of decided every time if I wanted the foreground to be in focus, or the background - not very professional. And I always went for the foreground on focus. These are two examples:

ISO 200, 18mm, f 9.0, 1/160 sec - probably the loss in sharpness in the background is a bit too much. Here clearly the focus should have been a bit beyond the white flowers in the foreground. 

ISO 100, 18mm, f 14, 1/160sec - photomerge of 4 vertical shots that did not work well: look at the sea right above the white flower, it's split. and overall the horizon is not straight. 

2) Camera settings + landscape

When it comes to camera settings and landscape, I had to focus on two things: ultra-bright clouds, and landscapes against the sun, but with a foreground to be visible. When it come to ultra-bright clouds, the problem is that no automatic setting in the camera will be able to step down the exposure enough, so the clouds will often be pure white shapes. No editing will be able to recover the details, and so the only way is to go full manual and hope that the shadows contains enough details to be recovered. Same goes in the case of shots against the sun, for which one would like to recover the foreground in the shadows. 

ISO 100, 18mm, f 11, 1/250 sec - this was a real challenge. I wanted to keep the camera open as long as possible to give a sense of movement in the clouds, but the light was just too bright. My ND filter was... down in my room at the hotel. Moreover, despite the great landscape, it was very difficult to find a spot that would give a proper sense of perspective as discussed above, so here the rocks do not really lead into the picture. 

ISO 400, 32mm, f 10, 1/800 sec - I've tried an HDR, but the "fake" feeling that it gives really does not match the natural scene. So I've had to rely on the shadow recovery, which is still ok-ish. Still, I cannot go above ISO 400 with my camera (Nikon D90), so this is the best I can get. 

3) Composition + wildlife

When it comes to wildlife, life isn't easy in my opinion. Because we've seen thousands of pictures of the same animal, and he probably won't do a backflip right when in front of us because we're special. So one needs to experiment a bit more than just taking a frontal shot, and try different angles, crops... experiment. Often the result is still lame, but sometimes one can get a shot that even if little, captures our attention. Let me show you a few examples where I tried to experiment more: ostriches and elephants are animals that despite being quite interesting and beautiful, are not very "active" when it comes to taking pictures. In the case of ostriches, I found one that was wandering by itself around the Cape of Good Hope, and I won't try to answer the question about what he was doing there: 

ISO 250, 44mm, f 5.0, 1/640

That is an ostrich. Nothing less, but also nothing more. There is no need for a second look to this picture, or the other 50 that I shot of it when there. Back home, I was partially disappointed that I had had an ostrich as a subject, and did not pull off anything better. So a few days later, while driving down the Garden Route, we passed by an ostrich farm, and though I could experiment a bit more. Getting so close to them made me realise how funny looking they actually were, with their dull expression and the long neck. So I focused on that, or the fact that they only acted as a group and never individually, so I laid down on the ground to give them the look "you've come to the wrong neighbourhood mothaf****". Not that these pictures are great, but I definitely prefer them over the one above!

ISO 200, 200mm, f 14, 1/80 sec - no idea why I used f 14, while a larger aperture would have decreased the risk of a blurry picture with faster shutter speed. Mah.

ISO 200, 18mm, f 5.0, 1/250 - the great risks of a photographer: using your finger as a tasty worm-ish bait to lure their heads closer to the camera. 

ISO 200, 18mm, f 5.0, 1/160 - the one in the middle clearly suffered from a sore throat, but also the bossiest. 

Similar goes for the elephants. We had the chance to go on a small safari in Addo's National Park, where elephants despite being quite wild have been better protected from poachers, and so are less aggressive towards humans. Here again, shooting something original is practically impossible. Especially if you are forced to remain on a small jeep with other 6 people that are fighting for a space on the side of the car where the elephants are. This is one of the first pictures:

ISO 200, 90mm, f 5.3, 1/400 sec

Yei, elephants! Probably everybody that came to the national park has this picture. I don't think I've succeeded in shooting something original, but maybe a few less did take the following shots...? Who knows. I still think that focusing on the details of such a large animal and giving up having it wholly in the picture made sense. 

ISO 200, 200mm, f 5.6, 1/800 - dumbo!

ISO 400, 150mm, f 5.6, 1/1000 sec

BONUS! Giraffe matryoshka =)

4) Camera settings + wildlife

What I struggled mostly during this trip was the encounter with the lions. We found them later in the day, behind a hill while the sun was setting or was already gone. This implied very low light availability. This led me to have a picture that despite being one of the greatest moments of the trip (the "family reunion" of the pack, with the male finally awake) had extremely dull colours, and a potential I could not really bring out through the post-processing. I think I've played around with all the sliders of Lightroom, and still I am not very satisfied. So I think that either one is a master in editing, or not even Photoshop will save a picture that was taken wrong. I want anyways to share it, as the waking up of the big male was a moment that will stay impress in my mind for a loooong time. 

ISO 400, 80mm, f 5.0, 1/100 sec - please note the paw of the cub. I never felt as much in a documentary as in this moment. Still, due to the light conditions I had to go full manual, and hope not to shake too much given the slow shutter speed. 

The other challenge of dim light is the balance between high ISO, long focal length (200mm) and shutter speed. Despite loving my dear Nikon D90, I know that if I go beyond ISO 400 with low light, I get too much noise for my taste. On the other hand, I needed to get as close as possible to the male lion, because I had this "close-up" shot in mind, so I needed fast-shutter speed. Waaaaah, I was really struggling. So I put all my faith in my dear camera, and shot very dark pictures, so dark that I could barely make out the lion in the preview of the camera, and hoped to recover enough details from the shadows. It required a bit more of editing, and to cover some faults in the recovery process I played around a bit more than usual with the colours and saturation, but It proved to be the right choice, as I managed to get an acceptable result, at least for my taste.

ISO 400, 170mm, f 5.6, 1/125 sec - His majesty the King. 

I put here two additional pictures for which i don't have any particular comment. Just pictures I guess ;)

ISO 250, 90mm, f 5.3, 1/200

ISO 100, 55mm, f 9.0, 1/250 sec

This was my South Africa - I was happy to have the camera back into my hands as months had passed since the last time. Maybe I did not get so many pictures that are for me "memorable" (despite the holiday itself being memorable!), but for sure I had the chance to experiment a bit more than usual and get better with techniques (mostly by failing), even though there is still sooo much to learn... will have to travel again soon I guess ;)