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Successful Outdoor Photography

To be a successful outdoor photographer, you need only two things: the will to do it, and some money.

A bit of obsession also comes in handy. For outdoor photography is nothing more than mix of time spent in the outdoors, the will to be there, good equipment and the experience you get from photographing there.

Zebra by Heinrich van den Berg

I grew up in a family that spent all their spare time photographing as a hobby. We mostly photographed wildlife, and drove around in national parks in a small VW Jetta, with four people, each with about three lenses on our laps, because there just wasn’t enough space. When something happened, the two on the right side of the vehicle would photograph, while the others would change lenses and films. And when something really good happened, all four would photograph.

When we were not in a national park, we would get up at four in the morning on weekends, to go to a little game reserve at Midmar Dam (close to Pietermaritzburg where I grew up) to photograph. There were not many different animals to photograph, and only one circlular road about 5km long. So we would do about 10 circuits, hoping that one of the zebras would venture close enough for us to photograph it.

Blue Cranes Dancing at Midmar Game Reserve

We succeeded in getting some very spectacular photographs of some very unspectacular animals. After seeing some of our images, people would ask us where we took the photographs. Some would not ask straight out, but would look at our slide mounts to see how they were captioned.

After I gave a talk at the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year congress in London, a photographer from Germany wanted me to organize a trip to Midmar. I tried to discourage him, as I did with all the rest. I told them that it was only a piece of grassland with a few boring animals scattered around. But a few of them didn’t listen, thinking that I wanted to keep the secret place to myself, and they organized extended trips to Midmar, only to be very disappointed when they arrived there.

There was nothing special about Midmar, but we knew it so well that we ended up getting much better photographs there than in any expensive game reserve a thousand miles away. No matter where you live, there is somewhere close by where you can do much of your photography. In 1996 and 1997 I won the Eric Hosking award in the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. It is an award for the best six images of a photographer younger than 27. Of the 12 images I entered for the two years, eight were taken within 100km of our home. The Eric Hosking award launched my career in professional photography.

Goliath Heron on Umgeni River

Another place close to my home where we often photographed was at the Umngeni River mouth close to the centre of Durban. We would build a floating hide of polystyrene, hessian and tent poles, fasten a very expensive lens onto the front of it with a tripod head, and manouevre this hide around in the smelly waters of the Umngeni. We had to wear waders to protect us from all kinds of infections that we could have caught in the very polluted river. We would often see a little bowl containing human bones and ashes, drifting down the river from a ceremonial Hindu cremation upstream.

Because many canoeists used this stretch of river, the birds were much tamer than in any other place I tried the floating hide. Ducks and pelicans are clever, and were suspicious of the floating object, but herons, darters and dikkops were not, being either braver or less intelligent! Kingfishers would even use the hide as a perch to fish from.

One very lonely Goliath Heron would actually come towards the hide, and dance around it, picking up sticks and throwing them towards it. It was a unique experience to be so close to the birds, and it would have been even more enjoyable if it had not been for the hard work of carrying the hide around.

White faced whistling ducks at Durban Botanical Gardens

Another place in Durban where we often photographed was the Botanical Gardens, where there were so many white-faced whistling ducks that they seemed to be permanently involved in territorial fights. The overpopulation was a result of people feeding them and the good supply of fish in the dam. The fish also attracted many herons. So we would go there, offering bread to a grey heron, who in turn fed it to the fish, getting a better meal for itself as they came up to take it.

That is the best way to learn photography. Get a subject close to your home, photograph it until you have exhausted all its possibilities.

Equipment

The problem with outdoor photography, however, is that you need good equipment. You can save money by doing photography close to home, but you should not save it by buying inferior or unsuitable equipment. If you do that, you might just as well stay at home.

Here is a list of equipment I frequently use. There are three photographers in our team and we share equipment, so it is more than one photographer would normally need: Several digital camera bodies e.g. Canon EOS 1ds mark 2, Canon EOS 10D, Canon EOS D60 and several good film cameras, all Canons e.g. Canon EOS 3’s. For the digital cameras we have 16 Gigs worth of flashcards, an 80 Gb Flashtrax, a 60 Gb ipod with camera connection.

If you buy inferior equipment, you might just as well stay at home…

Lenses include the following: 15mm fisheye, 17-35mm f2, 8 L, 20-35mm f2, 8 L, 20-35mm f3, 5-4,5, 35-350mm f5,6 L, 70-200mm f2,8 L, 70-200mm f2,8 L IS, 300mm f4 L IS, 300mm f2,8 L, 600mm f4 L. We use several converters, but only those of the highest quality. We only use carbon-fibre tripods from Manfrotto and Gitzo.

Our flashes are used with flash transmitters, cords and softboxes, and the only filters we use are polarizing ones.

With the arrival of the digital era, unfortunately, the expenses do not stop there. Nowadays you must have good computer equipment to do editing and colour corrections. I work with an Apple Mac G5 1,8Gb dual processor desktop computer with 3,2 Gb ram and a 20 inch monitor, and an Apple mac G4 1Gb 17 inch powerbook with 1 Gb ram. I have about 1500 Gb storage capacity in internal and external hard drives. For slide scanning I use a Nikon Coolscan 5000LS with a slide feeder. I use the Epson 1270 printer.

My photography is no longer a hobby, so I do need extensive equipment. The average outdoor photographer, however, will not need so much. For the ambitious amateur outdoor photographer, the ideal camera bag would contain the following:

  • A good digital camera of at least 8 megapixels (depending on what you want to use the images for. For high-end publication you need more megapixels).
  • Lenses: a 16-35mm f2,8L lens, a 70-200mm f2,8L IS lens, a 300mm f2,8L IS lens, one 1,4 times converter and one 2 times converter.
  • Two strong flashes with off-camera ability.
  • A 80 Gb storage device for backups.
  • A laptop computer with a good screen and a lot of RAM and at least 100 Gb of free hard-disk space.

If you can’t afford all the equipment immediately, start with one good lens, rather than two indifferent ones. Be careful of pirate lenses – there is a good reason why they are cheaper.

If you have this camera bag, and you concentrate on photographing a subject close to home, going back to it in all light conditions and photographing it until you cannot imagine another way of doing it, then you probably have the best possible images of that particular subject .

There are obviously many different tricks and skills you will need to know to be able to make the most of the opportunities and of your equipment. And after you have done the photography, there is much to learn about working with the images on the computer to make them look as good as possible.

This article was written by Heinrich van den Berg


Photo of Heinrich van den Berg

Heinrich van den Berg is a working professional who has won the Getaway Fuji Wildlife Photographer of the Year. If you are a keen photographer and wish to see more of his work and read about his latest book, visit Heinrich’s  website.

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