The Story Behind Morkel’s Painted Wolf Image

Gerry van der Walt All Authors Leave a Comment

Looking at other people’s images and learning how they captured the image is not only a great way to improve your own images but also stimulates loads of ideas and inspiration.

One of the new Wild Eye Ambassadors, Morkel Erasmus, recently did a trip to Mana Pools where he captured some amazing image of the critically endangered African Wild Dog, also known as the Painted Wolf.  In this blog post Morkel shares some thoughts and the story of how he captured this great image. Even just a quick look through Morkel’s images from Mana Pools shows why it is such a fantastic destination.

If you are keen to join Morkel on a trip to Mana Pools… you are going to want to stay tuned.

I give you, Morkel Erasmus.

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First off, let me start with the following announcements.

1. Since I already had a winning image in March, I have decided to follow in Mark Dumbleton’s footsteps with the gesture he made when he won a second time. I will keep the memory card (always need those) and the coffee table book (to complete my Hannes Lochner collection), but I want to pass the Clik Elite Pro Body Sport backpack down to Hendri Venter who won 2nd place, and by definition his Clik Elite prize will go to Albie Venter.  I then took the liberty of choosing one of the commended images that would receive Albie’s third prize Clik Elite products.  I selected Ruby Wolff’s image, “Keetman Nights”.

2. With the announcement of the Wild Eye Ambassadors, of which I am one, you will see on an earlier blog post by Gerry that we have taken the decision not to enter any more of our own images into this competition. This was thus effectively my last entry into the Wild Eye Gallery Photo Competition.

Now – to the story behind this shot…

Wild Dog by Morkel Erasmus

Painted Wolf Alpha Male

Nikon D3s, Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II, Nikkor TC14E 1.4x teleconverter, F6.3, 1/320, ISO 4000

So where do I begin to describe the experience behind capturing this image of mine?

Do I start with the serious lack of African Wild Dog images in my portfolio and my bad luck in having good sightings of them when I do visit areas with good populations? Do I start with an image that has brought me many accolades and favor (and has now run its course I believe), among which was the trip to Mana Pools I was fortunate to win as 2nd prize overall for the 2011 Getaway Gallery? Well, it’s this and a few other things. I’ve found time and time again that getting a good or noteworthy photo is often the result of many things falling into place. Some of them are a product of chance or good fortune and others of preparation and perseverance.

This image was captured in Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe. What a revelation this place was to me and Marlon du Toit!

So primal, so beautiful, so entirely breathtaking! It’s like being transported back to the Africa of Hemingway and Livingstone just for a few days…a place where you are the privileged visitor, trespassing in an ancient land of giant elephants and even larger trees.

We heard about the location of the Wild Dog den from other tourists staying in the Nyamepi campsite, and made sure we went in search of them that afternoon. We found them exactly where the kind tourist described – lying next to the den on the opposite side of a dry sandy riverbed. The den was hidden in the bushes on the opposite bank, and we had no intention of disturbing the den as this would make them move the den site. A large part of wildlife photography rests upon knowing your subject and also interpreting the signs of the bush.

We noticed a whole bunch of their tracks in the sandy riverbed and deduced that they probably spent a lot of time here. When they eventually got up from the road and moved into the bushes in the general direction of the riverbed, we got out of the vehicle and positioned ourselves in the riverbed, on our bellies, and waited.

About 5 minutes later we heard a short growl – and the alpha male appeared!

He gave us one look, and proceeded into the riverbed, followed by the rest of the adult pack – but no pups. We got some nice images on this first afternoon, and they didn’t seem to mind us. We were not as close to them as we would have liked to be, though. When they eventually scuttled back up the bank and to the den which was in thick foliage, we returned to camp, vowing to check the site out again on our last afternoon.

The next afternoon as we came into the riverbed (the road crosses through the riverbed), we saw the entire pack in the riverbed, and the puppies playing! We now had to approach them on foot in full view of the pack, hoping that they would not run away.  We walked slowly and in a zig-zag pattern so as not to appear confrontational, carrying our cameras and watching them carefully. All went well, until a dog that was in the bushes came into the riverbed, saw us, and barked a warning to the pups, who scurried back to the den. There goes the chance of getting photos of the youngsters!!

Still, the rest of the pack seemed quite relaxed, and we put down the majority of our gear. Armed with just one camera-and-long-lens-combo and a beanbag each, we decided to minimize the risk of them bolting away and leopard-crawled on our elbows and bellies for about 40m through coarse river sand in order get into a more favorable position. Still, they were very relaxed, and we proceeded in getting some amazing images.

The light was average to poor, with it being slightly overcast and late in the day. The riverbed was also a bit sunken which meant that whatever light came through the clouds was blocked by trees and foliage in any event.

They were totally relaxed with our presence, and we came close enough for some great shots, so we didn’t want to push closer and make them uncomfortable. It’s always important to read the behavior of wildlife when on foot. With Marlon being a FGASA Level 3 qualified guide, I felt safe and knew we would not place the animals under undue stress and also be able to adapt to a sudden change in the situation. If only I knew what would come next!

We thought that we had gotten the best out of this sighting, and time was ticking over, when it happened. The alpha male got up…marked his territory while looking straight at us, stretched himself and then proceeded to walk purposefully right down the barrel of my lens as it were. I caught my breath and quickly checked my settings.  I was using the Nikon D3s, Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II and a 1.4x teleconverter.

The light was low – ISO ran up to between 2800 and 7200 (I use the D3s on auto-ISO and manual mode), I knew DOF was at a premium so I tried to at least stop down to f6.3 (with the converter on, f5.6 was my wide-open setting). I had to steady the camera carefully on the beanbag, since I was using a shutter speed of 1/320 on an effective focal length of 700mm. My Vibration Reduction function was also engaged because of this low shutter speed (you need to try to stick to a minimum shutter speed of at least 1/<focal length> ie for me 1/700 for sharp shots if the light allows it).

The Alpha Male came right at us. This frame was captured during his approach. I got a bit anxious but Marlon reassured me that he was more curious than anything else. Eventually he ended up too close for our focal lengths, so both Marlon and I removed our teleconverters and used our prime telephotos “bare”.

Even then he was VERY close. He growled once or twice, took in our scent, and then lied down again, totally relaxed, about 5 to 7 meters away from us! We took a few more shots, but as he got up and sauntered off and the pack started to follow him, we knew there and then that our afternoon of shooting, and by definition our trip (as this was our last session) was over, and it was over in emphatic style.  We didn’t even want to take any more photos.

I will be going back to Mana Pools!!

Morkel’s Links:


500px Gallery

Facebook Page

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Morkel on Twitter

Morkel Erasmus

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