A year in photos

With a new year comes new opportunities to make and capture memories. Marette Bennett of Refined Edges Wildlife Photography and Training gives us some tips and tricks to make the most of every season’s photographic journey.

Sizzling summer

Summer is the perfect canvas for exceptional nature photography, with its long, lazy days, migratory birds, beautiful sunsets and lush green fields and gardens. As the season is synonymous with beach time, it’s my moment to photograph the surfers, kite surfers and windsurfers racing the wave crests along our long coastline. Yes, you can find these athletes all year long playing in the waves, but summer gives you generally good weather and long days to capture the action. To capture these incredible acrobats, you will need a long focal reach. It’s best to stay out of direct
ocean spray, so the longer the lens, the better. A shutter speed of 1/2000s will freeze the action and produce a beautiful water splash. I set a medium depth of field between F/9 and F/11 to keep the images sharp with the surfer and board all in focus. Set the ISO to the light available or fall back to automatic ISO option.

Use the highest possible continuous shooting mode on your camera to track the moving subjects without missing any action. Shooting at a high frame rate will fill the buffer on your media card very quickly, so it’s worth investing in fast media cards of 320MB/s and higher when photographing any action sports. They are also handy when capturing birds in flight, so that’s another way to put the expense to good use. Extra battery power is also a must, either in a battery
grip or in extra fully charged batteries.

These action shoots will give you good practice in panning and focusing. Using the back focus button on your camera
is the best way to focus shooting action, and I like using a large dynamic range focus area when shooting the surfers.
After warming up and shooting for a while, you will be able to anticipate where the best action will take place during a
run. Most photographers shoot with a tripod, but I still find I capture the action quicker shooting out of hand and have more freedom to move around on the rocks. I suggest trying both and seeing what works best for you. If you can’t get to the beach, find the paragliders and windgliders in your area. Hot air balloons against the morning sun also make incredible photographs.

Golden Autumn

Autumn is one of my favourite seasons – it’s not too warm and not too cold, which means you can sit around a campfire till late at night. Hiking in autumn is a great activity and a chance to photograph nature up close. Your photos will be filled with deep colours and bright blue skies without the harshness of the summer sun. Before heading out on a hike, I decide what I want to focus on and pack my gear accordingly. If I want to concentrate on birds, I will take suitable lenses, while for landscapes I will take the wide-angle lens. If I think it will be a great day to capture detail and
texture, I take the portrait or macro lens. I never go hiking with all my gear since I want to enjoy the hike too and not suffer under the weight of a massive bag of gear.

The changing colour of leaves and the veld during autumn add a special touch to any hike (and photographic excursion). For impactful landscapes, you will naturally frame wide and set a wide depth of field to convey the full story in front of you. When you focus on detail, set a shallow depth of field to eliminate the background with bokeh. Since you will most likely be shooting out of hand during a hike, you need a shutter speed fast enough to eliminate camera shake. Set your ISO between 100 to 400 on a bright day, and around 800 to 1000 on an overcast day (alternatively, use auto). Golden Gate National Park and the small town of Clarens is magical all year round, but it transforms into a wonderland of yellow and orange hues during autumn. The hiking trails in the park are at different difficulty levels and
distances, so it is essential to decide what gear you are prepared to carry. On a hike in the Kruger National Park, I took my long lens on the first day. After an elephant charged us and the guide instructed us to run, I realised that
a long lens slowed me way down. Needless to say, that was the last time I ever took my long lens on a hike.

Lastly, don’t forget to take a moment to photograph our country’s agriculture sights during autumn – the sunflowers
usually stand in full bloom around March and April, while the Cape Winelands start turning into a mixture of red,
brown, yellow and orange. For both these scenes, remember to shoot wide and to zoom in and focus on the detail.

Winter wonderland

Winter wonderland My absolute favourite photographic subject during the mostly dull winter months is the explosion of aloe flowers all around southern Africa and the sunbirds that can’t resist this feast. I covered the capturing of this
yearly delight in some of my bird photography articles), so here I’ll deal with another natural delight – snow!

I have been on a few snow searches over the years, and every time I say, “never again, it’s just too darn cold”. Until the
next snow falls, and I think: “Wow, I need to capture it!” You are pretty much guaranteed snow in Lesotho during winter, and with the approach to the popular Sani Pass now tarred, it is fairly easily accessible, though you will need a 4×4 for the still rugged 8km last stretch. The small village of Rhodes in the Eastern Cape and the Tiffindell Ski Resort (bordering Lesotho) are other popular winter destinations, while the Swartberg Pass and Matroosberg also offer incredible snow-capped landscapes.

These passes are often closed when conditions are considered dangerous, so check this before venturing out. Sutherland turns into a winter wonderland every year and offers some of the best stargazing sites during the winter months. With snow photography, it is crucial to view your images on the LCD and adjust as needed. It is easy to overexpose the snow and blow out the whites on a bright day. You can blur the background with a shallow depth of field or include the background with a wide depth of field. Set the ISO as low as possible according to the available light and then compensate with the shutter speed to get the correct exposure. Adjust the exposure compensation
to give you the image you envision when shooting in a specific exposure mode.

On overcast days, you want to capture the colder grey and blue hues. Again, choose the depth of field that will work for your image. Set the ISO on automatic but preset your ISO to max out before noise will become a problem. On older cameras, the maximum ISO before noise becomes unsightly is around 800, while newer cameras can handle an ISO of up to 5 000 and higher without much noise. Now set your shutter speed to manage the amount of light you want. If shooting in an exposure mode, view the image on the LCD and adjust the exposure compensation to the desired light you want in your image.

When the “Whale Crier” – a much loved tradition that originated in 1991 when local Hermanus resident Jim Wepener
decided to institute it in answer to tourists claiming Hermanus’ whales were the country’s best kept tourist secret – blows on the now familiar kelp horn to alert tourists of whales nearby, it is time to grab your gear and head out. These days it’s easy to find locations and operators, enabling you to hop onto a boat, travel a few kilometres out into the ocean and photograph humpback whales, dolphins or other types of marine life. Shooting marine life from land or boat will require a telephoto lens for reach – the longer the lens, the better (a focal range of 300mm to 500mm is ideal).

You should shoot in shutter priority mode, or, when you know your settings, shoot in manual mode. Set the shutter speed at 1/500s or faster and use a small lens opening to give a wider depth of field, in order to get more than just the eye of the whale in focus. Set ISO according to the light available or on auto, and white balance on direct sunlight or overcast/cloudy. Use continuous shooting mode on the highest frame rate to ensure you do not miss any action.
As with shooting the surfers during summer, your media card will fill very quickly and your battery will be depleted reasonably quickly. Many photographers use a battery grip to avoid the latter, but since I love shooting out of hand and prefer lighter gear, I have dumped my battery grip. I recently advised a student to ditch the battery grip, and the stability of her images improved dramatically. Men often find it easier to shoot with a battery grip as it suits their bigger hands.

Spring to life

Spring offers endless photographic opportunities. Since we have covered birds and flowers in previous articles, I decided to take it a bit further with the insects that you can photograph in your back yard, local park or plant nursery.
Spring blossoms bring out pollinating insects and an opportunity to practice your focus and tracking skills. Namaqualand comes to life with an incredible array of colour and variety, providing a feast for the insects. The same goes for the flowering fynbos around the southern Cape.

You can shoot insects with a telephoto, macro or portrait lens. I like to use a telephoto lens for bees and butterflies, a macro lens for spiders and beetles and a portrait lens for larger insects. Bees and butterflies move off the second they feel threatened, so a telephoto enables you to get up close without actually being close. A telephoto lens also lets you pan and follow the bees and butterflies dancing between the blossoms more easily than when using a short focal length.

I like using a spot focus area or a dynamic range focus area to hone in accurately on my subject. Bees and butterflies
are always on the move, so set shutter speed to 1/500s and higher to freeze the action and select a shallow depth of field to isolate the tiny subjects from the background. On a bright day, set ISO low or leave it on auto on an overcast day. A sunny day will produce vivid colours, but with dark shadows. On a cloudy day, you will get images with less contrast and more even tones. The point is, don’t stop shooting when the light seems to be not quite perfect since both scenarios appeal to the viewer.

As part of their camouflage, insects like beetles, spiders, moths and praying mantises will sit dead still on approach.
That’s when to use your macro or portrait lens to capture the finest detail possible. I prefer shooting out of hand since
I don’t like the restricted mobility of a tripod or monopod while shooting any sort of wildlife, including the creepy crawlies. This means I set the shutter speed fast enough to avoid motion blur (nothing less than 1/100s). A slower shutter speed lets in plenty of light. Depending on the scene, you can eliminate the background with bokeh (shallow depth of field) or include the background with a wider depth of field.

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