How the August Competition Winner Was Captured

Gerry van der Walt All Authors Leave a Comment

Chobe Ballet - Frist Hoogendijk

Having been on quite a few photographic safaris I am always amazed at how we are not able to leave the hustle and bustle of the rat race behind. We bring a shopping list along and tick off every item on the list, getting more and more anxious and frantic as the end of the safari draws to a close, because we couldn’t find the shelf the leopard with a kill in the tree was stored on. So often do I sit on a vehicle (or boat) with fellow guests wanting to rush from sighting to sighting because we might miss an opportunity at another sighting, and end up missing all the real opportunities at both locations! The safari this image was taken on was different, lots of waiting, probably missed a lot of other opportunities, but got the shot!

It took two trips to the Chobe River, the border between Botswana and the Caprivi strip in Namibia, to get a decent image of an African skimmer, Rynchops flavirostris, currently listed as near threatened.  I visited Chobe the year before with an image of a skimmer skimming over the surface of the water high on my wishlist. During this safari however, only a few skimmers were seen, and the opportunities of capturing these ballet dancers of the waterways while “skimming”, didn’t present itself. Chobe being what it is, did however deliver many other photographic opportunities but it would only be a year later that I would be able to capture the image I wished for.

On the first afternoon of the second trip to Chobe, a year later, it was clear that the number of skimmers present in the area was much higher than on the previous safari. We spent an afternoon with a number of these beautiful birds on an island where they were nesting, photographing them from a boat. I was able to capture a good number of in-flight images but the birds were not feeding in the vicinity and I was optimistic that an opportunity will present itself at a different location during our visit. The following morning when we set out, my wife and I were the only two photographers on the boat accompanied by our photographic guide and the question came from him: “So where do you want to go?”, my answer was: “where would you go?”. This was the first important decision in getting what I came for, not knowing the area that well, I left the decision to somebody that have been there numerous times and trusted his knowledge of the Chobe River to get us in the correct position.

We scouted the area and found the skimmers regularly skimming at Elephant Beach, a shallow bay with high, white colored, west facing river banks and I immediately realized this would be a fantastic location to photograph the skimmers in the afternoon as the light would be reflected off the river banks facing west, and it was decided that this would be where we would spend our afternoons. And so we did spent all our afternoons during this safari at this location, probably losing out on many other opportunities to photograph other subjects, hopeful that we would get that unique shot. On the first afternoon at our chosen location I was delighted to have skimmers exactly where we hoped they would be, skimming right up to the boat, and the colors from our natural “reflector” (the river bank) was just amazing. Having the subjects there and the setting just right, it was our turn to do things right, and this proved to be difficult, the skimmers makes for a very small subject viewed head on and this makes focus tracking really difficult. We got a few decent shots of skimmers on the first afternoon but nothing that shouted out: “unique!”.

We went back to the same spot every afternoon and increased the number of good images of birds skimming over the liquid gold of the Chobe River, but that one shot eluded me. We were also fortunate to photograph other subjects while waiting for the skimmers in-between feeding runs; elephant drinking, baboon and little white egrets feeding on small fish in the shallow water of elephant bay. Eventually after a skimmer’s feeding run I looked at my camera’s LCD screen and there it was, my heart skipped a beat, a truly unique image of a skimmer that personifies something of the grace and elegance of these birds while they are hunting for fish, that was what I was looking for!

I positioned myself as low as the boat would allow to get the low perspective of this shot, It was shot with a 600mm lens and I would normally have this mounted on a tripod with a Whimberley head, for this shot I just rested the lens on the edge of the boat to get really, really low. I started out with the Nikon D3x every afternoon for as long as the light would allow me to obtain a high shutter speed, the D3x does not have the ability to shoot at high ISO values, and therefore this image was shot with an ISO of 400.

The other camera body I had available was the D3s and I switched to this camera the moment the light deteriorated. I started out at a f-stop of f8.0 (My initial settings was ISO 400, f8.0 with the camera set on Av mode) and would decrease the f-stop as the light faded to f4.0 in order to obtain a sufficient shutter speed, and then change to the D3s after that, which would then allow met to push the ISO up to 3200 during the very late afternoon. I started out with the D3x because of the higher resolution images obtained with this body as opposed to the D3s.

Apart from the technical aspects of taking the photograph there were two other key decisions that resulted in the taking of this image: trusting somebody with local knowledge to find the right spot, and patience – sitting at the same spot over and over, waiting for the right opportunity, if we had left after the first one or two successful images of the birds skimming, this image would never have been taken. It is often crucial to leave the city behind, sit back and tune into nature’s clock, like all good things…. it takes time. This gives you the time to sit back and observe, listen, experience and take nature in, the small things happening around you, notice behavior, appreciate nature and ultimately enjoy nature.

Here are the four factors that I believe has played a major role in the taking of this image:

1. Knowledge of the area, in this case someone else’s knowledge

2. Scouting and planning

3. Knowing my gear’s capabilities and limitations

4. Having the patience to go back for that unique shot and sacrificing other opportunities

For me it is often more rewarding going home with a single exceptional or unique image than going home with a large number of good images that have been taken many times over.

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Frits Hoogendijk

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