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Elliott Neep on Safari with David Lloyd

Top Camera Gear Essentials For The African Photo Safari

In conjunction with this article on camera gear, I’ve also penned a 4-part series – The Essential Guide To African Photo Safaris. Over time, both these articles will be edited and refreshed, so bookmark them [⌘+D] so you can refer to them when you prepare for your own photo safaris. Any major changes are announced to subscribers.

What camera gear do you actually need?

I’m frequently asked for my advice and recommendations for what camera gear to take on African photo safaris. I’ve been travelling there for my private work and leading groups for over a decade and have garnered a great deal of experience, to say the least. Below, you’ll find key nuggets of advice regarding essential camera gear – not the detritus that many photogs collect in their camera bags.

Camera Gear: Digital SLRs

I always recommend at least two camera bodies – one for a telephoto lens plus another as a grab camera/backup with either a mid-zoom or a wide-angle lens – for when the wildlife gets VERY close or you want to shoot with context. Having a second body means that you can grab fleeting landscapes and contextual images without the need for swapping lenses. Changing lenses takes time and increases the risk of damage to your contacts and dust on your sensor – an ever-present risk on African photo safaris.

It does not matter whether it is a crop-sensor or full-frame camera, as there are pros and cons with both. Not everybody can afford state-of-the-art flagship Nikons and Canons that shoot 12+fps and have a 4 billion ISO sensitivity rating. What is essential is that you know your camera like the back of your hand and put the practice in before you reach the airport.

Even if it’s only the weekend before, get down to the park and re-familiarise yourself with the controls – photograph dogs running about, moving traffic, your own kids running about. If you’re familiar with your camera, you can hit the ground running when you arrive on the savannah, rather than spending the first few days re-learning what you’ve probably forgotten from before.

Camera Gear: Lenses

Telephotos

Super-telephoto (300mm+) lenses are the lens of choice for most African safaris. For ‘crop’ sensor cameras, with a 1.4x, 1.5x, or 1.6x crop factor, a 300mm lens is spot on for the big game. I recently used a Nikon D500 with the Nikkor 300mm f/4 Pf and it was a superb combination. If you want to mix things up with birdlife, then the longer the better.

A good option is something like the Canon 100-400 f/4-5.6L IS or the Nikon 200-400 f/4 VR. It may be tempting to hire 800mm monsters, but make sure that if you’re hiring a lens, that it’s something you can physically handle. Many clients hire ‘big glass’ without never having used it before and find these heavy lenses too unwieldy.

The latest Canon and Nikon lenses are much lighter than their weighty descendants, but the length can be just as unwieldy, especially in the confines of a Toyota Land Cruiser or Land Rover Defender. The view through a 500mm+ lens also takes some getting used to and if you’re not accustomed to it, you actually might find it surprisingly limiting – remember these are prime lenses without a zoom.

Full-frame cameras will need lenses of 400mm+. During my last safari with David Lloyd, we discussed what lens you would bring, if you could only bring one. The conclusion was a 400mm f/2.8 with teleconverters, as this gives you three lenses in one: A 400mm f/2.8, a 600mm f/5.6, an 800mm f/6.3.

Remember, you can also crop into your images, if you have a large enough image size. When I say ‘crop’ I mean 20% max. Maybe 30%, if it’s something exceptional. Please don’t be one of these photographers than crops down to a thumbnail!

If you do not own a telephoto lens, you can hire them from LensesForHire and Fixation (both in the UK). If you’re hiring, consider the following options: 300mm f/2.8 with 1.4x and 2x teleconverters, 400mm f/2.8, or 500mm f/4. The Canon 200-400 f/4 with switchable teleconverter is another excellent choice.

“I’m now working with my friend and fellow wildlife photographer, David Lloyd, co-leading his migration safaris. David has 400mm f/2.8 and 300mm f/2.8 Canon and Nikon lenses for hire on location, saving you the need to hire them where you live and travelling long-haul with these expensive lenses. Please be aware, that when travelling to airports such as Nairobi, that these airports are not secure and thefts are commonplace. Always carry-on your telephotos and camera bodies – do not check them in, even with a Pelicase (as these just shout ‘Expensive items inside! Please steal me!’)” Check out our Masai Mara Migration photo safaris here.

A quick note on lens hoods. Use them! They’re essential for minimising lens flare, when the angle of the sun is low – think Golden Hour. They also do a fantastic job of protecting your end element from scratches and knocks. Once the sun has set (or before it has risen), remove the hood and you can gain up to one stop of light. Just make sure you put the hood back on before you start moving again.

Much of the savannah wildlife is more active in the early morning and late afternoon/evening, when light levels are lower. A fast lens, like the f/2.8, is a fantastic choice, giving you that critical larger aperture, allowing more light into the camera, so allowing a faster shutter speed. It’s a luxury. Certainly. The viable alternative is to increase your ISO setting on your camera and just accept you will have a bit more noise in your images – something that is easily rectified in RAW processing and practically vanishes during printing, so please don’t worry about cranking up your ISO.

Other Lenses

A short-zoom lens in the range of 24-70mm or the 24-105mm, is a great option for contextual wildlife and landscapes images. If I can get close enough, I prefer super-wide lenses like 16-35mm or 14-24mm. With my medium format system, I have a 90mm equivalent and a 24-50mm equivalent. It’s the 90mm that I use most, as it’s rare to get close enough with the super wide without the subject appearing to be a mile away. Another option is to shoot a ‘stitched panoramic’ with the short end of a 70-200mm. This way, you can capture the vista but maintain the closer perspective.

In essence, I shoot “All the way in. All the way out”, using a 400mm or 600mm for close-up portraits and details and the short zoom for the wider context and living landscapes.

Opportunities for macro work are limited but still possible and very much dependent on your location. Some camps and lodges have a wealth of flora and micro-fauna to entertain macro-photographers.

Camera Gear: Filters

I only recommend two types of filter – a circular polariser and ND filters. Polarising filters reduce glare and saturate colours, as well as deepening blue skies. As they minimise glare, you can over-expose with a polariser and retain a wider tonal range in the shadows. Contrast can then be finely tuned during RAW processing.

The downside to using a polariser is that you lose 2-stops of light, slowing your shutter speed. And, one could argue, that if you need to use a polariser, then the light is too harsh and you shouldn’t really bother with photography. Easier said, by those who frequent the plains several time a year, not so easy if this is your one and only trip of a lifetime.

Graduated neutral density filters help to correctly expose bright skies and preserve exposure for the ground/foreground. The typical setup is with using square 100mm filters in a slot-in holder by Cokin (cheap and good) or Lee Filters (expensive but better). As an alternative, you can shoot multiple exposures (bracketing) and blend them in Photoshop using the HDR Photomerge feature. I wouldn’t recommend this for wildlife when the subject is moving around, but fine for static subjects.

Impala Motion (March 2008) - motion blur of leaping male impala

Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and 600.0 mm lens at ¹⁄₂₀ sec at ƒ / 8.0 on ISO 200

Screw-in non-grad ND filters are a great option when you want to slow the shutter-speed to capture motion. If you want to capture a slow motion pan of a running animal in bright daylight without a filter, you’d need to drop the ISO to its expanded minimum (L.03) and close the aperture right down to f/22. Consequently, you’ll capture every single dust spot on your sensor and because of the fine horizontal lines, cloning-out all the dust spots is massively time-intensive and a total pain in the butt.

A 6-stop ND filter is just sheer enough to see through and compose your photograph, while dropping the shutter speed 6-stops. As a result, you don’t need to close the aperture down, saving you from the plague of dust spots. A 10-stop ND is practically opaque and not recommended for this application. Screw-in filters come in a range of sizes to suit the filter thread at the end of your lens and work especially well with the ‘nice and bright’ 70-200mm f/2.8. Obviously, the faster the lens, the brighter the viewfinder, the more you’ll see through a 6-stop filter.

Camera Gear: Flashguns & Speedlites

Flashguns can be used to relieve contrast, or add punch in overcast conditions. You will need a booster with a fresnel lens to reach the same distance as your telephoto. The inbuilt flash you may have in your camera body will not make any noticeable difference. Again, you can hire this additional kit.

A word of caution with flash: If you are sharing a vehicle with other guests, you’ll find yourself very unpopular if your flash is ruins the exposure of your fellow photographers.

Personally, I rarely bother with flash as I don’t like effect. It’s been years since I’ve even brought a flashgun on safari. If it’s twilight, I want to capture that blue light and darkly moody atmosphere. If the light is poor with overcast skies, I shoot high key against a white sky or drag the shutter and shoot motion blurs.

I do not feel comfortable with the use of flash on nocturnal animals or in twilight/crepuscular hours. Life is tough enough on the savannah, without blinding the animals.

Clients on a photo safari photographing wild African elephants

Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

Camera Gear: Support

Beanbags

In short, you’ll be resting your lens on window frames, door sills (with window wound down), the roof and roof rails. Therefore, beanbags are quite simply the best and most practical support solution.

They pack light (fill them on arrival at your camp with rice or beans), can be moved about easily, stuffed on the door frames and draped over roof bars.

The double ‘molar’ style beanbags are extremely secure and provide a solid platform for your kit. Any quality photo safari operator will provide these for you, but it’s always worth double-checking. At some point you’ll probably find yourself kneeling on them or even standing on them. You can never have too many.

The only drawback to beanbags is the tendency for the camera to ‘roll over’ when you’re panning. Here, I advise handholding and generating a smooth supported pan, elbows tucked into your ribcage, slowly and smoothly rotating your torso from the hip. Or, you can buy a panning plate that acts a smooth surface between lens and beanbag, enabling smooth lateral movement.

Tripods

Neither practical nor advisable within the confines of a safari vehicle, unless you have exclusive use and are on your own. However, there may be opportunities for tripods outside the vehicles for landscapes, around the camps, and at specific picnic or viewpoint locations. Please just consider your gear options and baggage weight allowance before you pack the scaffolding.

Monopods

Good photo-safari vehicles will have shelves or bars bolted to the door frames to support a beanbag. However, there are occasions where you may find yourself in a vehicle without them.

Here, is where the monopod shines. You can adjust the height and the better ones have a large supporting foot – for greater stability.

I’ve recently bought the Gitzo Carbon Monopod Series 4 6S. I needed something to support my 600mm, while guiding in the small Gypsy Suzuki jeeps in India. If I’m guiding, I can’t just throw my beanbag wherever I want. The Gitzo monopod gave me eye-level support from a fixed seated position. It worked a treat! The Gitzo Carbon Monopod Series 4 6S has a maximum working-height of 154cm and a maximum load capacity of 30kg. This monopod packs small with a minimum length of 44cm, nice and light (670g), strong, with a large stabilising foot.

Canon DSLR and 600mm f/4 mounted on a bullhead and SuperClamp

Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Masai Mara, Kenya

Super Clamp

An alternative to the beanbag is the Manfrotto 035 Super Clamp. It’ll bolt on to almost anything. With one or two in place, you can screw-on your favourite panning head and leave it in position.

For less than £20, you have a solid, mobile tripod-head. With its large lever, you can detach it and move it around the vehicle. They sound good, but the significant downside is that they are slow to move. I would always use them with beanbags that can just be thrown about.

Camera Gear: Image Storage & Backup

Most photographers take a laptop/notebook with portable hard drive or a downloader for storing and reviewing images. For example, I work on a 15” MacBook Pro™ and always travel with two card readers and LaCie “Rugged” 1Tb drives that mirror/backup each other’s content. You always have to consider weight when travelling to these destinations.

Memory Cards

You may shoot more than 300 images during one sighting alone. Even 1,000 per day is not uncommon, for those with a happy trigger finger. If you don’t want to be swapping cards every hour, consider high-capacity cards of 32GB or more.

One word of caution: Large capacity cards can store hundreds, if not thousands of images. This is a huge amount to lose if the card is corrupted. I have been lucky with my SanDisk cards and rely on them exclusively. Everybody has their own history and preferred brand.

It’s a good idea to clearly number each card for when you wish to ‘keep it safe’. I do this after a particularly amazing encounter. It’s also useful if you accidentally erase the images (software is available that can retrieve accidentally deleted files).

If you do not have a ‘downloader’ bring a memory card reader to connect to your computer. Some of my clients bring dozens of memory cards and cache them like film. Then, they edit the images when they get home, without the fear of having to ‘format’ and reuse a card.

Camera Gear: Miscellaneous

  • Smartphone for quick ‘behind the scenes’ Instagram snaps and video clips;
  • Quality binoculars as you are just likely to spot something as we are;
  • Healthy batteries, chargers and power leads;
  • Connectivity cables for camera and laptop;
  • Lens cloths, alcohol wipes, sensor cleaning kit, puffer;
  • Small MagLite™ or head-torch.

Safari Clothing

Zip-off trousers and T-shirts are great for daytime, as long as you are diligent with the sun-screen. A shirt with long sleeves and a collar will protect your arms and neck under the fierce equatorial sun.

A windproof jacket/fleece is recommended for the cool mornings. Driving along with all the windows down can be pretty chilly. Rain is certainly a possibility. You might want to consider a light shell jacket that can protect you from the odd shower.

Jacq enjoying the cold of the Masai Mara rainy season

Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Masai Mara, Kenya

Long sleeve shirts and trousers for night-time are a must. Although I rarely see mosquitos in the Masai Mara, it only takes one bite to contract malaria. There is no cure or 100% proof against malaria. FACT!

There is usually minimal walking, so light footwear is fine. I spend my time very comfortably in light waking boots or trainers. A wide-brimmed hat and sun screen are another essential, especially if you are out for an all day safari. Baseball caps do not protect your ears!

There’s no need to wear head-to-toe khaki or camouflage, but do try avoid very bright colours and whites. In areas with tsetse flies, avoid dark blue and blacks as those nasty little buggers are attracted to those colours.

Fitness & Health

Traditional African photo safaris do not require a high level of fitness. Nevertheless, participants should be in good general health. Rattling around inside a vehicle for a week can be quite punishing.

For most safaris, you will be in remote locations, well away from modern medical facilities. Kenya and Tanzania are malaria risk areas, so please consult your doctor about the right medication. Always ensure your travel insurance is up to date and caters to your needs. Some travel insurance policies list ‘African safaris’ as an additional cover and not as standard.

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The world’s biggest ever Wild Tiger photographic exhibition

Saving Wild Tigers

A date for your diaries!

As you probably know, I am obsessed with wild tigers. They are my all time favourite animals and the subject of my very first international safari. An impulsive decision on the back of watching Mike Birkhead’s tiger documentaries: Land of the Tiger, Danger in Tiger Paradise, The Tigers’ Fortress, Tiger Crisis. I’ve visited India’s National Parks, multiple times over my career and spent thousands of hours watching and photographing wild Bengal Tigers.

Tiger Face (December 2006)

Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Bandhavgarh National Park, India with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and 300.0 mm lens at ¹⁄₁₂₅ sec at ƒ / 5.6 on ISO 400

I am extremely proud to be apart of the world’s biggest ever WILD TIGER photographic exhibition: “EYE ON THE TIGER”

Save Wild Tigers Ambassador Jaime Winston with "Tiger Face" by Elliott Neep at the Royal Albert Hall

Save Wild Tigers Ambassador Jaime Winston with “Tiger Face” by Elliott Neep at the Royal Albert Hall, London

The ‘Eye On The Tiger” photographic exhibition will showcase over 30 of the world’s best wildlife photographers, all in aid of raising awareness for wild tiger conservation. This Save Wild Tigers initiative will begin from September 18th to October 14th, 2018 and will take place in the iconic Royal Albert Hall and can be viewed when attending performances or on the following free open days:

Saturday 22 September, 10am-4pm
Sunday 23 September, 10am-4pm
Friday 5 October, 10am-4pm
Sunday 7 October, 10am-4pm 
Friday 12 October, 10am-4pm 
Saturday 13 October, 10am-4pm

 

International photographers from the USA, UK, Germany, Czech Republic, Sweden, Australia, Russia, Japan, Germany and India have all very generously donated their time and photographic rights to exhibit these beautiful photo`s at “EYE ON THE TIGER”. Photographers include:

  • Michael Vickers (UK)
  • Steve Winter (USA)
  • Michael Nick Nicols (USA)
  • Anup Shah (India)
  • Suzi Eszterhas (USA)
  • Steve Bloom (UK)
  • Andy Rouse (UK
  • Theo Allofs (Germany /USA)
  • Thorsten Milse (Germany)
  • Toshiji Fukuda (Japan )
  • Nick Garbutt (UK)
  • Elliott Neep (UK)
  • Vladimir Medvedev (Russia)
  • Tony Heald (UK)
  • Anish Andheria (India)
  • Mike Birkhead (UK)
  • Brunskill (UK)
  • Vladimir Cech (Czech Republic)
  • Iain Green (UK)
  • Robin Hamilton (UK)
  • Roger Hooper (UK)
  • Paul Hilton (Hong Kong /Australia)
  • E.A.Kuttapan (India)
  • Misha Masek (Canada)
  • Latika Nath (India)
  • Baiju Patil (India)
  • Bjorn Persson (Sweden)
  • Aditya “Dicky” Singh (India)
  • Shivaram Subramaniam (India)
  • Kim Sullivan (USA)
  • Jami Tarris (USA)
  • Satyendra Tiwari (India)
  • Theo Webb (UK)

For more information on these artists, please click here.

Unlearning what you have learned…

Every now and again, I take a step back from wildlife photography. A sabbatical, if you like. I go away and I watch the latest wildlife documentaries (sometimes really old ones), read and research subjects, and I visit art galleries and antique emporiums. I’m seeking inspiration. Looking for a fresh approach to photograph wildlife, differently to what I have done previously on any photo safari. Although, admittedly, it’s near impossible to do anything original these days.

In my early years I was rather one-dimensional. A product of shooting stock images for so long. Fitting into a construed format that allows space for headlines, copy, cut-outs, etc. It has been difficult to break away from that commercial mindset. To throw off the manacles and compose photographs with complete freedom. Photographs for me. However, over the past two-years, I have successfully turned away from stock and now focus almost entirely on ‘fine art’ photography, (selling prints and contemporary wall art) as well as working as a photographic tour leader.

Supine Tigress (December 2006)

“Supine Tigress” (December 2006) Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Bandhavgarh National Park, India with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and 300.0 mm lens at ¹⁄₁₆₀ sec at ƒ / 4.0 on ISO 400 | Click to buy print

As my previous posts will explain, I have recently returned from one of these sabbaticals. It was a time of emotional upheaval, so there wasn’t a great deal of inspiration this time. Just pain. I unplugged in February, photographed a little in May (Skomer puffins) and then went straight into a co-leading role with David Lloyd on his Great Migration Photo Safari. In the weeks leading up to the tours, I was keen to see what my new colleagues have photographed in the Masai Mara. I looked at the websites of both David Lloyd and Richard Peters. It’s impressive stuff! Both are superb technicians and accomplished artists.

Richard favours dramatic light and I think it’s fair to say that David prefers the classic monochrome, with a contemporary twist and a healthy dose of motion panning. I’m summing up their work horribly so please go and view their websites for yourself – click on the thumbnails below. Crucially, I was keen to see what had been achieved during previous outings in order to a) gain some inspiration, b) avoid duplication.

David Lloyd's website Richard Peters Website

Before the photo safari

Seeing as I’d just sold my Nikon DSLR system, we decided it would be a far better experience for our clients if I used a DSLR camera body and lens. I could better articulate my approach to wildlife photography. Rather than solely using the medium format and focussing too much on Living Landscapes.

David loaned me a Nikkor 300mm f/4E Pf (an exceptional lens) and his original Nikkor 400mm f/2.8 along with a Nikon D500 – an extremely generous gesture. It’s worth noting that David has several lenses for Masai Mara clients to hire, including both Canon & Nikon 300mm f/2.8 & 400mm f/2.8 lenses, saving clients the worry of transporting heavy and valuable equipment.

A complimentary style

Historically, my photographic style is quite simply ‘all the way in, all the way out‘ and it has served me very well over the years. By this, I mean that I have usually shot with either a 600mm f/4 or my wide-angle, occasionally the short end of a 70-200mm. I shoot for high-impact portraits and I always have an eye on the wider context, with animals in their environment – what I now call Living Landscapes. I think my style compliments David’s and Richard’s extremely well. Our über-keen clients would be able to learn something new, no matter which one of us was in their vehicle or co-leading the group… and that is exciting!

Forward to the photo safari

I swapped over with Richard on the Saturday, met with David and the new group on the Sunday morning. After a day or two in the Mara, it was immediately obvious that David hasn’t updated his site in a long time 😀 David was showing me shot after shot that just dazzled me. Abstracts of big cats, elephants, and giraffe that were simply superb.

David is an extremely talented and clever photographer and he has a great motto: “There is always a photograph out there.” David really impressed me with his opportunistic style and an array of techniques that enables him to capture truly beautiful photographs. Especially, in situations where most other photographers put down their equipment, or don’t even lift the camera to their eye.

A fresh perspective

Most enlightening, a high-key but detail-rich approach to photographing wildlife with washed out skies and/or high-contrast light. Just as intriguing, the use of ND filters to slow the shutter and capture motion-blurs in bright daylight. And I’m not just back-slapping. I told him so. He did look a little stunned. But credit where it’s due, David’s real talent is with strong, unorthodox, dynamic, and challenging composition with any subject – lions, leopard, cheetah, elephants, zebra, wildebeest herds, and giraffe.

Giraffe, especially, is a subject that I have ignored for too long, simply because I couldn’t work out how to photograph them well. In many ways, it was easier to simply ignore them, call them ‘boring‘, and keep on driving. Pretty shameful really. However, this time I was determined to right this terrible wrong. I think giraffe are extraordinary animals and very beautiful, just frustrating! I always make time for the stunning zebra, so why not giraffe?

Examples of my old giraffe photographs….

I put my previous failings down to impatience and a legacy of my stock photography rut: everything in frame, everything well exposed, space for copy, bla bla bla. The thing is, giraffe are just so tall and perpendicular, to photograph them in frame with space, means they just look lost.

Unless you can find them on a ridge and silhouette them, they become nothing more than a record shot. And this is key. The difference between a wildlife photographer and a photographer that takes wildlife is artistic interpretation. This is what frustrated me. I felt that I couldn’t seem to get an artistic angle on the giraffe.

Enter David Lloyd

During every David Lloyd Photo Safari, we host an image review session, affectionately labelled ‘Camera Club’. Clients bring two images on a memory card or USB stick: One image they love; One image they wish to discuss – because they found the subject challenging or want tips on how to crop/edit/process the image in Lightroom. It’s a positive space full of useful constructive critique and suggestions.

It’s actually a fantastic concept that has morphed organically into the present format. There are two per week for each photo safari group, timed just before the afternoon game drive. Most telling, there is always a marked improvement between the first and last session images.

Clients take on board a huge amount of knowledge by seeing everybody’s images, including the tour leader’s photographs, all from situations in which they were actually present. So it’s relevant! They then have the rest of the week to put what they have learned into practice.

I have no shame in admitting that I found these sessions equally inspiring – for the same reason I enjoy my Instagram feed – a range off familiar subjects (including the giraffe) captured in a myriad of differing styles. One sentence from Mr Lloyd did it for me:

 

“You don’t have to see the whole animal to know what it is.”

 

And there it was. Because, I was trapped in my literal way of thinking, I’d totally missed a concept that I’d happily apply to practically every other animal. You can shoot figuratively and just capture the ‘impression’ of the giraffe. It’s such an iconic animal with such a familiar pelt pattern. You can photograph any part of it and the viewer still knows exactly what animal this is. It finally clicked. Brain fart, cleared!

Latest giraffe photographs… A marked difference!

Using the 400mm, I revelled in a new passion for details. My medium format Fujifilm GFX50s with the 110mm f/2 was always on my lap to capture the wildlife in its savannah habitat. In between big cat encounters and waiting for crossings, we always looked for zebra, elephant, and giraffe. It was brilliant! Why hadn’t it clicked before? Who knows!? I’ve led tours for over a decade, but this was the first time that I had worked with another professional photographer on safari. It was both energising and extremely motivating.

Living Landscapes with the FujiFilm GFX50s

Another aspect I found surprising was how well my Living Landscape approach was adopted and interpreted by our clients. It’s a fantastic feeling when, at the end of the safari, your clients come up to you and say they “will never look at the savannah the same again” and that “you’ve opened my eyes to a wider world” with all the emphasis on ‘wide‘. [smiling]

So I owe a huge “Thank you” to David for inviting me to join his Photo Safaris, for loaning me his kit, and frankly inspiring me to be a better photographer.

Returning to work… after six months in darkness

Well, hello there! Now, do I start with an apology for my absence, or do we just accept that sometimes life throws you an especially slippery banana skin? 

If you didn’t know already, I have lived with chronic/clinical depression on and off since my late teens. I’m not ashamed of it. (Why would you be!?) I’ve never shied away from it. And I openly talk about it. However, it took many years before I decided to visited my GP, to discuss a persistent low mood and have a diagnosis. For years, I just assumed this was simply ‘who I am’. I was given a questionnaire by my GP, diagnosed with severe depression, put on standard medication and largely forgotten. That was about 8 years ago…

OK, let’s take it back a few months…

Early into the New Year of 2018, my mood began ‘to slide’, progressively and inexorably. I recognised the signs and as usual, I ‘battened down the hatches’ and prepared to wait out the low mood. But this was different. With a frighteningly rapid descent, depression took hold of me in a way I have never experience before. Something happened inside my head. My mind broke. I was locked-in with only my absolute darkest thoughts. An impenetrable emptiness. No hope. No joy. The worst memories on permanent loop. The worst experiences of my life, regurgitated and ruminated, over and over. The shock descent was terrifying. Within days, I was suicidal.

 

Damn, that is hard to read

 

Thankfully, before it was too late, a memory of Jacq and my ‘dog family’ popped into my head. That millisecond of light and warmth was enough to trigger a response. A few moments later, I called a support help line and spoke of my ‘crisis’. The positive action was enough to turn a corner. Within the week, I met with a counsellor. The following week, I met with a psychiatrist and was diagnosed with a Major Depressive Disorder and provided with new medication that actually works.

Sadly, most GPs, just throw Citilopram or another generic
well-tolerated drug at patients battling depression.

It’s the medicinal equivalent to throwing mud at the wall and hoping something sticks…

[danger signs] In the grips of this depression, I felt the need to isolate myself and cut ties feeling that “People are better off without me!” I left social media. I shut down accounts across the board. Turned my back on critical sources of income. Fighting my way out, I felt the need for change and to take control – to make positive steps. Slowly, the days ticked by and through the support of Jacq, my friends and family, I was beginning to heal.

Then my fragile world imploded…

I don’t have children. Just two four-legged furry kids. A brother and sister flat-coat retrievers. It’s no exaggeration when I say ‘I would do literally anything to protect them.’ Anything. In February, Mara, my little girl, was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma – an aggressive bone cancer in her front ‘shoulder’ joint. It was advanced and there was nothing we could do. It was utterly hopeless.

Within a month, my best friend, a boundless shaggy ball of wagging fun and energy was reduced to a curled limping shadow. We took the only action that was available and put her to sleep to save her from the excruciating pain [tears rolling down face]. She died where she loved to rest and cuddle. In the same week, my ****** was diagnosed with ******* cancer. I won’t go into detail about this. It has a much happier ending – 7-months later, all is well and another Neep gives cancer a good kicking!


The sight and sound of Mara’s last breath ripped my world apart.
It’s a memory that will haunt me to my very own last breath.
I still cannot talk about it out loud.
Believe me when I say it’s hard enough typing out these words…
…the pain is still so raw.

Mara. Rest in peace my beautiful little girl.

Mara. Rest in peace my beautiful little girl.


So, what have I been doing?

I’ve spent the past few months simply healing – repairing mind, body, and soul. Apart from answering the odd image request, I haven’t worked at all. I unplugged from photography, almost entirely. I’ve spent the time reading, researching, and most surprisingly gardening (yes, you did read that right) which I have found extremely therapeutic. Our 17th century cottage also needs an awful lot of TLC and that means good banter with builders!

Up until August, the only photography that I’ve undertaken has been a light-hearted two-night stay on Skomer Island with my friends, Richard Peters and Drew Buckley.  Then, with boundless enthusiasm, I officially returned to work, co-leading two Great Migration photo safaris with another photog chum, the outrageously talented, David Lloyd – more on that in the next post.

Why am I writing about Depression!?

 

Quite simply, it helps me

 

…maybe, it could help others.

 

As I write, I am reflecting on all that has transpired this year. The tumultuous life-ripping events. As painful as it is, writing and talking about such matters is a positive exercise of will – a will to heal and to move forward. This is also a letter of thanks and gratitude. I have family and friends that genuinely care. Between them, I was never alone.

Every day, someone would be in touch, whether it was a phone call, a text or email, or an offer to meet for lunch, or quick pint. It meant I was connected to a world beyond my home-office walls and that is essential. Now, I make the effort to go out of my way to meet with real people, in person, in the real world. The life of a loner, is not a happy one, no matter how much you’re invested in it! We humans are a sociable animal… And I forgot that.

I am also writing this as a warning

If you have friends or family that suddenly switch off and go quiet, do not, under any circumstance accept the standard “I’m fine!” response that you’ll get. Meet them. Take them out. Ask them to their face – not online – but to their face. If you are worried, ask them out loud:

“Have you had suicidal thoughts?”
“Are you thinking the worst? Thinking of ending it all?”

However you want to phrase it. Even if sounds preposterous. Even if that person is the absolute last person on Earth that you’d think could do something so extreme. You could save their life and this is no exaggeration.

The biggest killer of men under 50 is SUICIDE.

FACT: More men die from suicide and attempted suicide than from cancer. Even more women attempt suicide. If you haven’t seen it already, Horizon produced a documentary that aired on BBC 2, called “Stopping Male Suicide”. Please do watch it. Even if it’s not for your own benefit, but to recognise the warning signs in others. The link below is a great short film explaining the terrible effects of depression:

I had a black dog, his name was depression

Thank you for reading and for watching. I do appreciate it.

Normal photography blogs will resume momentarily…

First impressions of the FujiFilm GFX50s

A quick heads up… This is not a full review of the FujiFilm GFX 50s. It’s a first/early impressions look at this impressive digital medium format, mirrorless camera. I will do a complete review on a similar lines to my D8XX review that proved immensely popular. Just so you are aware, I don’t write ‘technical’ reviews. There are plenty of pixel-peeping ‘nth degree’ examinations out there online already. I write usability reviews, with a user-focus, user experience, etc. You won’t find charts, scales, micro-comparisons, etc. Thanks, EN.

I took delivery of the FujiFilm GFX 50s on the 13th March. I’ve had some heavy, heavy stuff going on outside of photography, so getting out there with wildlife, has been put on the back burner. I spent the first afternoon unpacking (sorry no unboxing videos – truly didn’t know that was a thing – thanks Rich & Nikki), charging two batteries, as well as huddling over the 15mm-thick manual while modifying settings, etc. Yes, long gone are the days where I may have set cameras up on the fly. Regardless of experience, you cannot just pick up these cameras and run.

 

GFX50s front and rear viewsOut of the box

Out of the shiny white Apple-esque packaging, the camera feels really solid, heavy, and refreshingly old-school. The retro impression is further enhanced by the inclusion of two massive dials on top, actual switches and, big buttons. Love it! All great stuff for when you don’t want to pull your eye from the viewfinder, work in the dark, or you spend a lot of time wearing gloves. Check, check, and check.

I read somewhere that it’s “surprisingly light for a medium format”, but ‘weight’ is a subjective term – you know how ‘the mind’ can effect subjective impressions like weight. I’ll say that, when it sits in my hand with a lens on, it doesn’t feel cumbersome or unbalanced. I certainly didn’t have that feeling like I did when I first hauled a 600mm f/4 from its box and thought “Oh Shit!!!”

My hand, wrist, and arm remember the Nikon D800 plus grip, with the 70-200mm f/2.8 or the 600mm f/4. So, with muscle-memory, the weight really is surprisingly modest. Basically, if you’re used to shooting with pro 35mm DSLR gear, this won’t feel any larger or heavier – a surprising feat considering the monster spec that lies within.

Medium format scale

This is a digital medium format camera. Even though FujiFilm have succeeded (quite incredibly) in repackaging this into essentially a full-frame (35mm) magnesium alloy DSLR body, everything that goes with this is going to be LAAAARGE! Coming from 35mm, the wide and standard lenses look immense – not in length but diameter. Even so, they fit in the hand surprisingly well and the FUJINON GF range is again surprisingly light on weight, but not on quality.

Some numbers for you… The GFX 50s produces a 14-bit, 51-megapixel RAW file measuring up to 8256px x 6192px on 4:3 – averaging 62MB (lossless compressed) or 121MB (uncompressed). Even if you are shooting RAW only, the camera records 12-megapixel thumbnail at the same time. So, continuing on the theme of LAAAARGE! scale, you’re going to have to invest in larger memory cards and potentially new high-capacity hard drives, faster and more powerful computer, etc.

A note on the FUJINON GF32-64mm F/4

I’ve invested in both the FUJINON GF110mm F/2 portrait lens and FUJINON GF32-64mm F/4 wide-angle zoom. For the purpose of this blog post, I’m using the GF32-64mm. Again, Fuji have worked their weight-saving magic on the lenses too. It’s physically large, yes, but not top-heavy so really balances well on the GFX50s. There’s a monster zoom ring, a substantial focus ring with elegantly smooth buffering at either end, plus a silky aperture dial that just begs to be used and moved (rather than setting to A for control in-camera). Ergonomics aside, the most important thing is that this lens is razor-sharp. And it needs to be – FujiFilm have already roadmap a 100MP version of the GFX.

Ergonomics and usability

The FujiFilm GFX 50s is a really solid piece of kit. I cannot emphasis that enough. I’ve used pro 35mm DSLR bodies since I started with a Canon T90, EOS 3, etc., right through to my latest Nikon D800 bodies. The FujiFilm GFX 50s just feels substantial, imperishable, durable but refined. It’s not an easy quality to describe, but the GFX50s has it.

Physical size

There’s no denying this is still a sizeable camera, equivalent to a pro full-frame DSLR, measuring roughly 147mm x 140mm x 91.4mm. Compare that with the Nikon D850 at 146mm x 124mm x 78.5 mm the main differences are a greater depth in the FujiFilm GFX 50s and height with the EVF and EVF/TL1 adapter fitted.

It feels similar in bulk to the D8XX series bodies, but more comfortable. My hands aren’t large and I have relatively short fingers (I’ll be no pianist, alas), but the shutter grip feels like it was made-to-measure – of more slender design than most DSLRs, meaning my index finger isn’t stretched and free to operate other buttons with comparative ease. One thing I always found in the Nikon Dx pro series is that the large grip stretched my reach uncomfortably – hence opting for D800 plus vertical grip, over the D4.

Accessibility

With the GFX 50s, all the essential buttons are within easy reach of my digits, but there are still two that are a little awkward: The [+/-] exposure compensation for one is set just back from the shutter release (toward your hand) and it feels a bit unnatural, but I’m sure time and use will alleviate this; The other is Fn3 [number 12 on the pic below], a customisable function button on the rear shoulder of the grip – again it just feel a little weird having to really draw the thumb back so far.

Note: I am coming from a Nikon user perspective here. The combination of movements is challenging my dexterity at the moment. I’m sure it’ll be fine once my muscle-memory attunes to the new layout. If not, users can customise the function of almost every button available, so you can relocate functions if required.

shutter speed and program mode dial on GFX50s

The combination of settings on the Shutter Speed Dial, ISO Dial and Aperture Ring allow you to switch between four different exposure modes: Aperture Priority AE (A), Shutter Speed Priority AE (S), Program AE (P) and Manual. © FUJIFILM Corporation

 

One item that I’m not immediately keen on is the positioning of the rear command dial [number 11 below]. It’s very close the (rather sharply cornered) rear shoulder of the grip and not particularly easy to manoeuvre when you’re hand is in a shooting position. To use the [+/-] exposure compensation, you need to activate it first by pressing the button with your index finger, then use the rear command dial.rear view of FujiFilm GFX50s

Safe, secure, easy to use

I love that all the various panel covers – battery, SD cards, connections, etc. – are secured with button-latches. You can’t accidentally open any of them. Same goes for the satisfyingly chunky shutter-speed and ISO dial’s on top, they both have locking centre buttons to prevent accidental changes. The formidable-looking dials on top are large and pronounced with a micro-studded texture that makes operation a joy, even with gloves it’s a breeze. All the buttons, except for maybe a couple of custom function buttons, are large and pronounced. Again, great for use without having to look for them, or when wearing gloves.

GFX50s rear LCD

The FUJIFILM GFX 50S features a smart touchscreen display, which makes it easy to select an AF area, bring up an RGB histogram, display the 3D electronic level and enlarge the Live View. © FUJIFILM Corporation

Flexible rear LCD

The FujiFilm GFX 50s sports an 81mm/3.2in LCD colour monitor with ‘touch screen’ technology. It is incredibly clear, displaying 2.36million dot resolution. But there’s more. Behind the screen lies genius in the form of the 3-way adaptable mount. You can release the monitor and extend it away from the rear of the camera body. With a click, you can rotate it 90°, so you can shoot using the monitor in portrait mode. A simple concept, but a well-conceived piece of engineering.

The electronic viewfinder (EVF)

The EVF is an entirely new experience for me. I have always liked big bright 35mm viewfinders and I use fast lenses to maintain that brightness. Looking into a super-bright EVF for the first time – in effect staring at a tiny screen – does take some used to from traditional SLRs. Thankfully, there’s no lag, when I pan the camera, nor is there any flickering.

3D virtual horizon

This electronic level uses a 3D system and is highly effective for architecture or landscape photography, when the accuracy of horizontal and vertical lines is crucial © FUJIFILM Corporation

histogram display with GFX50s

The FUJIFILM GFX 50S can display four types of histograms: RGB and brightness, each with or without highlight warnings © FUJIFILM Corporation

I’m genuinely impressed by the 3.69million dot resolution and the high number of display options within the EVF: 3D electronic level and virtual horizon, histogram, highlight warning, focus threshold display. You can also set the camera to display the menu within the EVF and, when you take a shot, display a review of the image – in essence you never have to take your eye away from the viewfinder.

Focus points

My most commonly used focus points (on every past camera) have been those in the furthers corners. It’s how I shoot contextual wildlife photographs. I want the animal in the extreme corners or at the bottom, so I can include the environment or a big sky in a dynamic space.

Annoyingly, all my old cameras had, at best, elliptical-shaped focus-point arrays. [I remember staring in disbelief at the Canon 5D mk1 when I saw it had a rhombus-shaped array… What use is that!?] When I want to focus on a subject outside of the focus-point array, I’ve resorted to back-button focussing or single-shot focus and reframing.

GFX50s focus point array

TTL Contrast AF is available in Single Point, Zone and Wide/Tracking modes. In the Single Point mode, the camera offers 117 points or 425 points and six different Focus Area sizes. © FUJIFILM Corporation

Without the confines of a mirror and prism, the focus points are spread edge-to-edge, fully covering the entire viewfinder area and right into each corner of the viewfinder. Marvellous!!! The GFX50s offers 9×13 (117 points – which is plenty!) or 17×25 (425 points – just plain crazy!) and six different Focus Area size. Focus point / focus area selection is controlled with either the multi-directional focus lever or the thumb-pad selector buttons, both on the rear of the camera. Options include single focus point, adjustable focus zone (collection of focus points), or wide tracking, i.e. full automatic focus.

The GFX50s only uses Contrast AF, so it’s never going to be at the same standard as pro DSLRs like the D850 or D5. Saying that, I was focussing on my black dog (during my first walkout) and it performed surprisingly well. To bolster the focus system, the GFX50s also employees face/eye detection and a visual depth-of-field indicator scale.

EVF ergonomics

The EVF extends some 60mm from the back of the camera, 40mm clear of the rear monitor. Not only does this look damn cool, it feels soooooooo much better when wearing glasses – a real-life consideration for the spectacled photographer. I’m no longer squashing my face against the rear monitor, creasing my noise and twisting my glasses. Even better, I can keep my cap/hat on, even while shooting in portrait mode, because I can angle the EVF round with the EVF/TL1 adapter (see below). With clear separation between eyepiece and nose, there will hopefully be far less fogging up.

I purchased the EVF-TL1 Tilt and Swivel Adaptor for the GFX 50S viewfinder, enabling the whole viewfinder assembly to be reoriented (see above pic). This adapter fits between the camera and the viewfinder, and affords a lateral (side-to-side) range of movement from +/- 45° and a vertical range of movement of 0-90° to suit eye-level shooting, from a variety of working angles.

In essence, you can angle the EVF straight up for ground level work and avoid sinking your chin in the mud or guano. Bonus! Technically, you can achieve the same with the very flexible rear monitor but this keeps everything cleaner. Be aware that most of the GFX50s publicity product shots (like the one above) include this adapter.

Okay, so there are my first impressions of the FujiFilm GFX 50s. Feel free to ping me any questions.

EXPLORE WITH ME

Photographic career began in 2002, freelancing as a commercial photographer. In 2005, I turned full-time 'wildlife pro', winning my first award and gaining agency contracts. Since then, I've travelled the world, photographing in the greatest wildlife hotspots.

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