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Kruger National Park Revisited

Covid 19 has a lot to answer for. People have died or been very sick, and have taken huge strain from a financial, social and mental point of view. We all have had to change our attitudes, behaviour and, in many instances, change what we do work wise. If you’re lucky, you still have a job or clients (if you are self employed) but you may very well have had to do some re-inventing. I know, we have…

So, for the first time since lock down began in March 2020, with great excitement, we headed down to Cape Town International Airport to board Airlink’s EMBRAER RJ135 that would whisk us off to Skukuza in the Kruger National Park. Our destination? Jock Safari Lodge with their own 6 000Ha concession, hidden away at the confluence of the Mitomeni and Biyamiti Rivers about midway between Skukuza and Malelane Gate. We first visited the lodge in 2014 when we were working on our African Icons book and have been back a number of times since then to shoot the lodge, its commercial operation and wildlife for their publicity purposes.

(This feature  was originally written for Kruger Park Magazine, a glossy magazine available in news agents and book stores in South Africa or via their app. Download the iOS App here and the Android App here).

Hours of background work went into setting up this photo of the fire pit and dining area at Jock Safari Lodge. In the end it took just a few minutes to shoot . An HDR image created by blending 5 photographs shot at different exposures into 1 image. Sony A1 and Sigma 14 - 24mm lens.

Hours of background work went into setting up this photo of the fire pit and dining area at Jock Safari Lodge. In the end it took just a few minutes to shoot . An HDR image created by blending 5 photographs shot at different exposures into 1 image. Sony A1 and Sigma 14 - 24mm lens.

More Info:

Kruger National Park is situated in the north-eastern corner of South Africa, on the border with Mozambique. It's one of the largest game reserves in the world - at some 19 485 square kilometres, an additional 3 440 square kilometres of private land to the west of the park bringing the total to 22 925 square kilometres. It forms part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park that links the Limpopo National Park in Mozambique, Kruger National Park in South Africa, Gonarezhou National Park, Manjinji Pan Sanctuary and Malipati Safari Area in Zimbabwe, as well as two areas between Kruger and Gonarezhou, namely the Sengwe communal land in Zimbabwe and the Makuleke region in South Africa into one huge conservation area of 35 000 square kilomertres.

Jock Safari Lodge is located about midway between Shukuza and Malelane Gate on its own 6 000Ha concession at the confluence of the Mitomeni and Biyamiti rivers in the Kruger National Park.  Superb comfort is matched with delicious food and wonderful Big Five game viewing.

In addition to being our first trip to Kruger in quite a while it would also be the first “proper” shoot on our new Sony cameras - the A1 for me and the A6600 for Pat. Changing camera systems had been a monumental decision. We have been using our Micro Four Thirds system ever since the Panasonic GH5 first put in an appearance early in 2017. They have provided great service in some pretty difficult conditions, but time and technology march on, and after some serious soul searching and research we decided to make the change. Sony's autofocusing, image stabilising, pixel count and colour science were ultimately the deciding factors and, on this trip, it became very clear that we had made the right decision.

We arrived at Jocks early enough to be able to to head out for a game drive in the late afternoon and almost immediately found our first leopard - a young female chillin’ out in a tree just a few hundred metres from camp. Relaxed hardly does justice to her state and we spent a good hour with her, shooting from a variety of positions. The lightning fast autofocus was a joy to work with and combined with the wonderful image stabilisation resulted in a previously unheard of percentage of “keepers”. The Sony’s we were using have a very useful feature where you can set a maximum auto ISO level and a minimum shutter speed and, as far as possible the camera attempts to work within these parameters. In the fading afternoon light, we relied on this feature to ensure that the shutter speeds were sufficiently high to avoid camera shake when using that long 200 - 600mm Sony lens.

The first game drive and we picked up this gorgeous female leopard. Sony A1 and 200 - 600mm lens. 1/250 sec at f6,3. ISO 1000.

The first game drive and we picked up this gorgeous female leopard. Sony A1 and 200 - 600mm lens. 1/250 sec at f6,3. ISO 1000.

We shot a whole bunch of pics using different compositions and framing and, importantly, remembering to shoot vertical compositions as well. So often, with picture researchers and designers, we hear “great pic, but do you have a vertical version (portrait) or vice versa. It’s best to shoot both as far as possible and then you can say, “actually, we do…”

Man, the sun rises early on the eastern side of South Africa (we’ve become used to the situation in the Western Cape where it rises at a more sensible hour) and so we crept out of bed at 4:15 every day for the length of our stay to catch that wonderful early morning light that takes a photo from great to awesome. We soon fell into the rhythm of the bush, heading out in search of photo opportunities in the early morning and again in the late afternoon. Traversing the concession over a period of 7 days we came across great sightings of elephant, buffalo, a fair bit of general game - impala, waterbuck, kudu, giraffe and zebra - and as luck would have it a pack of 16 wild dogs. First morning out we photographed a lion pride of 3 adult females and 9 cubs, joined a bit later by 2 huge black maned males. We blazed away, the cubs providing many photo opportunities before they did what lions do best - fall asleep in the shade.

The Sony 200 - 600mm lens at its widest focal length but even then the lens is on a beanbag on the side of the game viewer - one cannot be too steady. 1/500 sec at f5,6. ISO 100.

The Sony 200 - 600mm lens at its widest focal length but even then the lens is on a beanbag on the side of the game viewer - one cannot be too steady. 1/500 sec at f5,6. ISO 100.

Sometimes one has to look a little further than the obvious to tell the story. Sony A1 and Sigma 24 - 70 Sigma lens. 1/259 sec at f4,5. ISO250.

Sometimes one has to look a little further than the obvious to tell the story. Sony A1 and Sigma 24 - 70 Sigma lens. 1/259 sec at f4,5. ISO250.

Well, we thought, that’s that for the day and started the game viewer, preparing to go in search of new subjects. As we began moving off, all 9 cubs roused themselves and headed down into the river bed to drink in a nearby pool, before engaging in some marvellous roughhousing and playing, providing another bout of feverish photography. Lesson learnt: don’t leave the sighting until you’re absolutely sure that it’s done. And even then, keep that camera fired up and ready.

But we were not at Jocks just to spend the entire time shooting the incredible wildlife (as much as we would have loved to) but also to shoot various aspects of the commercial operation - the lodge, its rooms, game drives, sundowners, coffee stops etc. Invariably these are the aspects that take the time - the setup. Whether we are doing the rooms, fine dining areas, river dining or, indeed, just the evening sundowners, it all has to be managed and coordinated, the wonderful staff of Jock Safari Lodge helping in no small way to make the shoots possible.

HDR images ensure that there is detail in both the highlights and deepest shadows. A merge of 3 images shot on the Sony A1 and Sigma 24 - 70mm lens.

HDR images ensure that there is detail in both the highlights and deepest shadows. A merge of 3 images shot on the Sony A1 and Sigma 24 - 70mm lens.

This is where the Sigma 24 - 70 and 14 - 24mm ART lenses shine and, while they are absolutely brilliant lenses, moving from the Micro Four Thirds eco-system to full frame, cognisance needs to be taken of the fact that what is a wide angle lens (say 24mm) on the FF camera effectively becomes a “standard” (48mm) lens on the M43 camera. The DOF (depth of field) is linked to the focal length of the lens, so the wider lenses used on the M43 cameras mean that you have a greater area in focus on these bodies for any given aperture at the same angle of view. This has considerable implications and so we found ourselves having to shoot at much smaller apertures (around f11 or f16) to achieve the required range of sharpness. These small apertures result in correspondingly longer shutter speeds so a tripod is a must in most cases when shooting interiors.

Photographing interiors is often problematic as the contrast range between the interior and exterior of a room can be extreme and coping with this in 1 frame (even for the Sony A1 - a camera with an incredible dynamic range) is difficult if not impossible. HDR (high dynamic range) images to the rescue. Depending on the situation we shot either 3 or 5 frame sequences to ensure that we have a full range of brightness levels and will then blend these into 1 HDR image in Adobe Lightroom that will ensure detail in the interior and exterior areas in the frame.

The cutest and smallest of the litter. Patience is required - don’t leave the sighting until you’re absolutely sure that it’s done and dusted. Sony A1 and 200 - 600mm lens. 1/500 sec at f6,3. ISO 800.

The cutest and smallest of the litter. Patience is required - don’t leave the sighting until you’re absolutely sure that it’s done and dusted. Sony A1 and 200 - 600mm lens. 1/500 sec at f6,3. ISO 800.

A1R421104. Need a long lens for wildlife photography? Not really… This was shot with the Sigma 24 - 70mm lens at 24mm. Do not attempt getting this close to an elephant without a very experienced guide! Thanks Estiaan. 1/250sec at f6,3. ISO160.

A1R421104. Need a long lens for wildlife photography? Not really… This was shot with the Sigma 24 - 70mm lens at 24mm. Do not attempt getting this close to an elephant without a very experienced guide! Thanks Estiaan. 1/250sec at f6,3. ISO160.

A week later we arrived home, a tad sleep deprived but happy to have been back in the bush, shooting again. We’d forgotten how fabulous the early morning light was, the smell of dew soaked grass, the look of back lit lions, waterbuck and tamboti leaves. We’d missed the sounds of daybreak in the Kruger, the excitement of shooting a large pride of lions, of seeing a leopard chillin’ on a branch in a Mopane tree and, believe it or not, the musty smell of a pack of wild dogs!

As always, drop us an email if you’d like me to cover any particular aspect of photography, hook up on Instagram at @RogerdelaHarpe (wildlife photographs) or @BackroadRambles (travel and scenic images) and we’re on Facebook as well. There are a whole bunch of photo tutorials and tips here.

The most amazing animals and so very endangered, wild dogs can make for some great pics but you have to be fast. Some would say that they should be on Ritalin. 1/250 sec at f6,3. ISO 250.

The most amazing animals and so very endangered, wild dogs can make for some great pics but you have to be fast. Some would say that they should be on Ritalin. 1/250 sec at f6,3. ISO 250.

In amongst shooting the guests and game viewing vehicles we managed to get some shots of what all the excitement was about. Sony A1 and 200 - 600mm lens. 1/500 sec at f6,3. ISO 200.

In amongst shooting the guests and game viewing vehicles we managed to get some shots of what all the excitement was about. Sony A1 and 200 - 600mm lens. 1/500 sec at f6,3. ISO 200.

Just some of the images we shot while staying at Jock Safari Lodge.

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