Against the light

From the corner of the hide, you looked out across the water, directly into the light, where the coots were squabbling and giving chase, and I knew at once that this was an image made for black-and-white. I took several photographs, aware of how tricky the light was, and struggling with the heavy lens to keep the birds in frame. This one came out best.

Against the light

Photography Analogue and Digital

The world I was born into was analogue. That meant film: in my case, mostly Kodak Tri-X, or Ilford FP4. Tri-X for when you wanted to “push” the film speed, where the light was low, or where you wanted a contrasty, journalistic effect or – I shall come back to this in a moment – to go for something even more granular, pencil-like, ‘artistic.’ Ilford for when you wanted something subtler, more fine-grained, and richer.

Analogue generally meant black and white, at least for those of us who wanted to develop our own film and print our own photographs. Hardly anyone worked at home in colour. Black-and-white meant having a darkroom, or in my case, a bedroom taped over with black velvet and blinds. It meant chemicals and water, bathing trays and tongs, your fingers physically touching and rubbing the paper or burning and dodging with a home made tool.

When my eldest daughter was born, I went to the hospital with my Nikon FM and exposed a spool of film, one frame after another, right through labour and the very moment that Kathy slipped out on the end of her knotted and veined and muscular lifeline. I went home afterwards and developed the film, and printed the instant of birth – my child, a living creature, her feet towards the lens, face blurred and yelling in the distance, the umbilical cord trailing into the corner of the image – and rushed back to show her mother.  Later, I took a photograph of Kathy lying wrapped in a towel, her face inclined slightly towards the camera. I knew what effect I wanted – I loaded the Nikon with Tri-X, pushed the film speed, put the film into a fast developer – and emerged with a high key, grainy, sketch-like image of my daughter and firstborn, an image whose memory enchants, delights, and fills me with tenderness still.

Having Kathy, of course, meant giving up the darkroom and turning it back into the bedroom it had always been. The photographs that followed, over the years of her childhood and the childhood of Jonathan and Eve, were almost all in colour, 6 x 4 or 5 x 7, processed in a lab, stuck into one of those photographic binders or albums, or left to yellow slowly in their envelopes. Photography still interested me, but I was busy. I kept the enlarger lens, but got rid of the enlarger and the developing trays. I took ‘happy snaps,’ family snaps, travel snaps, and made the occasional foray, usually unsuccessful, into image making that aspired to be but seldom was more creative. Or, if not creative, at least technically more proficient. And I continued to look, with admiration and envy, and something akin to love, at the deep, sensual, forbidden blacks and subtle tonal gradations of the silver gelatine prints made by the masters.

And yet, much as I love analogue, digital has liberated me. While I might miss, in some abstract sense, the physical, tactile, almost magical experience of analogue photography – from the moment of snapping the image through to the final print – it’s simply not practical or realistic any longer to dedicate all that time and all that physical space and all the infrastructure – tanks, trays, bottles of chemicals, running water – to making images. Digital means I can process and print both black-and-white and colour, at home on my computer, while the latest cameras and sensors can handle a much wider dynamic range and far more challenging lighting conditions than the old analogue equipment ever could.

Of course working within the constraints of analogue was part of the creative challenge, and I am glad to see that – like vinyl – it is enjoying something of a resurgence. But there is so much more you can do today with modern equipment, and so much more you can do – without the hassle and unpredictability of chemicals and a darkroom – in Lightroom and Photoshop, that I can’t say I have any unfulfilled longing to go back to the old days.

I do find though that the modern tools and equipment bring with them a different kind of challenge: the risk that tools and technique trump vision and imagination. You see it, again and again, in the over-sharpened images and garish colours that flood social media – the pumped-up world of selfies and self promotion, the temptation to glamourise rather than observe, the obsession with a glossy and soulless technical ‘perfection,’ leading to a visual and aesthetic wasteland.

Finally, printing an image, which not many of us do any more, remains for me an important form of expression. Paper – the size, weight, luminosity, surface texture and tonal qualities of it – bears powerfully on the image and expresses it differently. I print in colour, but I still love black and white photography, and enjoy making black and white images and prints, on a dedicated Epson photo printer, mostly in larger sizes – A3, 11 x 14, or even 13 x 19 on occasion. I find the Hahnemuhle Silk Baryta captures a good deal of the tonal depth and nuance you would expect from the old processes and seems to work especially well for me, though I use other papers also.

Yellow-Billed DuckHere, to round off this digression, are two images from my recent field trip to the Marievale Bird Sanctuary: a yellow-billed duck, and a Hottentot teal. The duck is just a portrait, though nicely lit, but I do rather like the almost painterly qualities of the teal image.


See? You can do it in digital.

Hottentot Teal








Nikon D500 and 200-500mm lens. Processed in Lightroom and in ColorEfex 4.

Squacco Heron lift-off

Now here’s a thing.  Going through my photos from Marievale, I came across a nice sequence of images of a squacco heron marching through the reeds. You can almost hear the martial music – tum ti tum ti tum ti DUM – as it crashes onwards and finally, clumsily, launches into the air.

I was going to say something also, tongue in cheek, about the perils of anthropomorphism, and how, Once Upon A Time As A Young Man, I would have scowled and protested at this characterisation. Animals are animals, I would have stated, with self-possession and authority. Don’t confuse them with humans.

One grows gentler, perhaps as one grows older, a little more tolerant. And I am able to laugh now at that righteous young fellow, and enjoy, without guilt, that marching band accompanying the heron. The point is, I do know better. And it doesn’t matter.

But then I came to this image, the last of this particular sequence, and realised it was in a different league altogether. Out of the window went the photo-story, the sequence of images going tum-ti tum-ti-tum through the reeds, and instead here is simply the one particular image I want to present to you. The chosen one.

Squacco heron # 5

White-Throated Swallow

This little fellow, I think, has the confidence to speak for himself.

Photographed from a hide at Marievale, with the Nikon D500 and Nikon 200 – 500 mm lens. The more I shoot with it, the more I love this combo!

White-throated swallow # 2

Life goes on, and then it gets better

It has been a busy week. Last weekend we were in Cape Town, Rob and I, staying in Constantia with my mom: high tea at the Cape Grace Hotel, on a perfect afternoon at the V&A Waterfront, was a treat for us all. Sunday it was brunch with old friends Ian and Pam at the Gardener’s Cottage in Newlands – golden sunlight streaming through oaks, the blue outline of Devils Peak giving way to the bluer sky beyond.

Monday was business: meetings with colleagues from UCT and the Harvard Kennedy School, decisions to be made with a provincial government department. Then a flight back to Johannesburg, on Tuesday night, to finish writing up a six-monthly report on our programme for a steering committee meeting next week.

And then, late this morning, after I had sent off the agenda and report and various other docs came a message on WhatsApp: the Madikwe gang has secured a booking for our next safari (as our overseas friends and family like to call it) for next year, for four days in October.

I didn’t consult with Rob – I simply replied ‘we’re in.’ And here are some photos from this year’s visit to Madikwe to celebrate.

Life goes on, and then it gets better.

Spotted Eagle Owl

We were returning from the far side of the Madikwe Game Reserve, after dark, after a long drive to see the wild dogs. As we neared our lodge the ranger shone his light on this owl – a Great Eagle Owl, he said.

I checked the SASOL Birds of South Africa yesterday, after processing this photo, and (bird expert that I am not) thought it was a Spotted Eagle Owl, not a Great – though still great to observe, in the darkness, staring down at us with those huge yellow eyes.

So I posted the image on the BirdLife South Africa FaceBook page, with a request for help with identification.

‘Definitely a Spotty,’ was the birding consensus.

‘A blinded owl,’ said some wag.

Point taken.

Eagle Owl

Rhino Scatalogical

From the sublime (black-shouldered kite stooping, early morning, sunlit) to the frankly scatalogical: rhino pooping.

Like many of us, I have seen more rhino poop on my many game drives over the years than you can shake a stick at, as the saying goes – but I have never actually caught one of these beasts in flagrante. Madikwe, of course, with its many treats and surprises, would be the place to do so – and indeed, we came upon this leviathan on the job, one sunny afternoon, and I simply had to take photos.

Kite Stooping

We were out early one morning, in the open Landcruiser, on a game drive in Madikwe, when suddenly I saw this black-shouldered kite stooping, hovering over one spot, then moving away a bit and stopping once more to hover, the rising sun under its wings – a moment of real beauty, edged with menace.

I grabbed the Nikon, with the still somewhat unfamiliar 200-500mm lens, and fired off a series of shots – handheld, from the back of the safari vehicle.

Would like to do better, but ok I hope for a first effort.

Cheetah hunting – twenty one images

We spent about two hours, I guess, that bright winter morning in Madikwe, waiting our turn to see the two cheetahs, and then moving with them, in careful stages, as they worked their way through the tall grass in an easterly arc around the flank of an approaching herd of grazing zebra.

It seemed at one point (I think I have said this before, in a previous blog) that they would make a run at a young one, but they gave it a pass. And then, finally, they saw what they wanted – a young zebra foal with its mother. We watched, as the cheetahs watched, the foal feeding from its mother, and then trotting after – and suddenly the cheetahs were off, and we were off too, crashing through the grass and thorn trees in a wild, careening blur of sky and foliage.

By the time we came across the pair of hunters the foal was already dead, the cheetahs at its throat, making sure of it. It was all very intense, both the still waiting, and the mad chase, and then the kill and the aftermath. These twenty one images – both individually and in their cumulative effect, I hope give you some sense of it.