Bird Photography Behind the Scenes


Well it’s a hopelessly overcast and miserable
day. And I’m out in the countryside of South Africa at a place called Zaagkuilsdrift. It’s
not a place really, it’s road along the course of the Pienaar’s River and it’s famous for
its birding. Not so much its photography because it’s hard to take pictures here but the birds
here, especially in summer, are absolutely amazing. So the deal is, I’m going to be driving
down this road towards the floodplain of the Pienaar’s River at Kgomo Kgomo. I’m going
to be looking for birds on the side of the road, listening for birds on the side of the
road, hopefully, photographing some birds on the side of the road before checking out
the state and the condition of the floodplain at the village of Kgomo Kgomo because if it’s
inundated there can be great waders there and I might even get my own waders on and
enter the water. Which is quite a frightening experience because it’s deep, you don’t know
what’s there, there’s disease in it because of cattle, waste in the water, and there may
well be a few snakes to go with that. These Acacia Thron thickets that I’m driving through
at the moment are fantastic for things like waxbills. And other small birds. But, with
this weather, they’re all hiding and hunkering down trying to keep themselves to themselves.
I think if the sun came out suddenly, the song would break forth and they’d all come
out of their hiding places.I just felt compelled to stop here. Next to
this marshy area and listen. I can hear some fantastic frogs or toads or something. I don’t
know what they are but they sound great and I think that if you came down this road after
dark with a torch you could really take some stunning pictures of them. These marshy areas
are what the Pienaar’s River is all about. Just looking out over there, I can see Quelea,
flocks of Quelea flying. White-winged widowbirds, butterflies, and the Yellow-bishops that frequent
the wetter areas as well. Today I’m going to be using the 7D Mark ii which is a crop
sensor camera, quite an old one, from Canon. On a 100-400mm lens because it’s quite dark
at the moment I can’t put the 1.4x Extender on which I’d like to use for birding here.
I didn’t bring my big lens out today because it is hard to handle when you are walking
around but also I wasn’t feeling that comfortable with my safety out here. So, using this camera
setup it’s going to be light challenged and I’ve got the ISO set to 2500, I’ve got it
in manual mode, which I kind of like for this kind of condition because the only thing that
is going to blow out here is the sky. So, what we have to do is set that manual exposure
so that the sky, on the meter, is two stops overexposed which is about all the dynamic
range that this particular camera can handle. And what that will do is keep the highlights
from blowing in the sky in any photograph I take anywhere of anything on the ground
or anything with a bit of sky in it. So the birds should be well exposed in the bushes,
the bushes should be well-exposed everything else should be well exposed and the sky will
not be blown. It’s probably not fair for me to portray every outing in Africa as a wildlife
or nature photography click-fest. It’s not. Sometimes it’s a hard slog just coming out
day after day. Bad weather, when it’s unlikely to be good photography but just coming out
anyway. Especially at this time of year in summer when all the migrants are here to try
and scout, explore, learn, understand, so that when those brief windows of opportunity
do appear. In those moments of great light or great sightings, you’ve got that background
and knowledge to draw upon. You’ve been here before, you know where things are at. You
can come out and get the shot. This area is known as Crake road and it’s a good road because
it takes us off the main Zaagkuilsdrift road and in across the floodplains and the bush
is much thicker and closer around the track and the beauty of that is you can get much
closer to the birds on either side. You can walk or drive down here. The problem though,
being on the floodplain, is that this road is frequently flooded especially in the summer
months and in wet weather. So you need to come down here a little cautiously to make
sure you can get your car through the flooded areas. Note to self. Close the flaps on the
front of the car before driving through big puddles. All the water came in through here
on these special little Land Rover vent ports and soaked my phone, my wallet and my spare
batteries. Let’s hope we survive hey. What fun! On the Zaagkuilsdrift road. I think there’s
probaly some nice opportunities for photography along this road but it’s really awkward in
these conditions. It’s so wet. There’s so much water around you’ve got to be careful
where you stop. It’s quite deep mud. You get nasty stuff all over your clothes. But the
options are probably bird photography, albeit they’re a little distant and skittish. Wonderful
opportunities for macro photography I think and also at certain times of year, when the
rains come, flower photography. There are some gorgeous lilies just starting to come
up and some other flowers that I don’t know the name of. So, yeah, a bit light on photography
but quite fun, in terms of playing in the mud down Crake road. We see a lot of weavers
in South Africa there are a lot of different species but they are a colourful bird and
it’s a shame not to stop for them and take a picture to be quite honest. And they are
quite gregarious and energetic and they like to build their nests over water and when they
are in nesting season they’ll go back and forth with pieces of grass. So they are well
worth staking out and actually photographing because that repeated behaviour, flying back
into the nest, displaying, that kind of thing can make for some really nice shots. So I’ve
just been sat with these guys as the sun has started to break out. And I’m just enjoying
the ambiance, sitting in a big puddle on the Zaagkuilsdrift road watching weavers build
their nests. So this here is game fencing, it’s much higher than normal cattle fencing
and you can tell by the height that there is some sort of antelope in there behind this
fence because they like to jump over fences and they can jump very high. And I just spotted
them behind some Acacia trees. They are the Sable Antelope one of the most beautiful in
Africa. I haven’t seen them in the wild forquite some time but these are obviously farmed or
game ranched but they are still very beautiful and it’s great to see them on a day like today
when I haven’t seen a hell of a lot else. There is a very special time in Africa after
rainfall. It’s a short window when all sorts of things happen. As the roads dry out and
the bush dries out butterflies come and land and look for moisture and at the same time
the landscape seems to come alive. The insects start buzzing. The frogs stop! The birds start
chirping. It’s a whole changeover that happens. It’s a wonderful thing to try and capture
that because, here, we only get rainfall in the summer months and sometimes we have drought
for years upon years. So this is the famous floodplain at the village of Kgomo Kgomo just
north of a town called Hammanskraal and about a hundred kilometres norht of where I live
in Johannesburg. Every summer in around November, December, January, February, if the rains
come, there is an inundation and these meadows fill with water and the cattle walk across
them, and the birds come down and the migrant birds come down to feed on the abundance in
these waters. It’s a great time of year if you are a birder, to come here and check out
what species you can find. If you are a photographerr it’s also good to come down. But it’s difficult.
It’s difficult photography. It’s not easy to get out into these marshes. I do have some
waders with me but I’ve never really felt comfortable about that. So, If I did feel
comfortable about that, I’d probably wander off in there and catch Bilharia or some other
horrible disease in the quest to phoitograph some birds. I’m at the eastern end of Zaagkuilsdrift
and it’s late afternoon, there’s fluffy white clothes ovehead and the landscape is green
in every direction. Although I would describe today as a photographic bust, I don’t feel
it’s been a bust from any other perspective because wildlife photography is more than
just photographs. It’s also about being here. It’s about experiencing things, it’s about
seeing things, it’s about being a witness and part of the environment and I think from
that perspective, this day has been spectacular! I’ll see you, next time!

9 Replies to “Bird Photography Behind the Scenes”

  1. Hey Will
    Awesome vlog. Like the way you described camera settings, showed map of where you went, nature notes re animal behaviour and what to find this time of year. Just brilliant.
    Definitely not a failure, and best of all it is about being in nature for the experience, not just the photography.
    See you out there!

  2. Hi Will
    Thanks for an awesome vlog! I'm an enthusiastic amateur and trying to learn from experts like you. How do you think one would experience this area in the winter months? Also how did you feel traveling through this area in terms of safety? Really appreciate the material you provide for us, keep it coming!

  3. Wow looks like an amazing place if the time is right. Why don't you show the photos you took like you always do? Or was it realy that bad that nothing came out of your camera?

  4. This must have been a lot of work to put together, Will. It's a wonderful vlog, so much information and incredible films of so many different species. The pressure to get a good photograph is great these days, especially when the weather conditions and light are not ideal, I find myself having to wrestle with the facts and understanding more and more that I have to be satisfied with the experience itself and not to feel defeated if I just can't get a great photo. I try hard to put myself in the mindset I once had as a beginner, where the awe and wonder comes from just being out there in nature and if I can find a photo out of it, I'm lucky! I think part of it for me is that years ago, I thought I was taking an abundance of amazing photos all the time, but now when I look back I judge those photos harshly and they are not as good as I thought they were. So now I know so many things have to fall into place to get a good photograph and it's a massive challenge. I can only imagine how it would be for you out there. I think that's why it is good to still share a vlog even if you aren't satisfied with the photography results because this is reality, it is just not always possible to get great photos every time we go out. I enjoyed the vlog, thanks for sharing it!

  5. Superb video. Great attitude to a less than perfect photography day – still a Defender with a snorkel and lots of muddy water is fun in its own. I am glad you didn’t don those waders – sounded like too many reasons why that water isn’t somewhere to get up to your butt in. Look forward to the next video, but not at the expense of your own photography.

  6. Great video Will. Great to see an area at different times of the year. Yes, getting out isn’t always about getting the shot. Being out is the most important to me. Thanks for sharing.🙂

  7. Some days are diamonds, some days are stone………always the expectation of something special presenting itself. Even forays into the bush that fail to delver what you hope for are not wasted, it's all stored in your memory for that next visit….a great upload portraying the "reality" of bird photography….

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