Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Canon Fires Another Shot: The 50D

As was widely rumoured - and apparently leaked by Canon themselves in China last week - we now have the formal announcement of the next in the x0D series of cameras to pore over, the 50D.

I won't go through the specs in any detail as others have already dissected these in minute detail elsewhere. However, I did read with interest the new advances being touted for the sensor technology debuting here for the first time.

At the end of the day, what really matters most is image quality. Everything else is largely window dressing at this point, at least until someone gives me the only new feature I really want which is a viewfinder graphic showing available depth of field at the chosen aperture setting for the lens currently being used. (It's just maths after all, all the parameters are freely available at least to some degree of accuracy.)

The interesting thing here is that Canon appears, at least on paper, to have managed to achieve the conflicting goals of increasing pixel density (15 mp on a 1.6x APS-C chip) whilst also improving sensitivity. If this brings with it a concomitant improvement in low-ISO noise performance, as well as delivering the extra headroom they list (ISO 12,800 anyone?) then this will indeed be a major step forwards, signalling a real step forward for the company.

In addition to the pure mega-pixel count, another thing that caught my attention was the statement that the sensor features gap-less microlenses. This could by itself significantly improve image quality, especially with older pre-digital lenses, by providing a light-gathering surface that acts more like film.

Light coming in through the lens, despite being focussed onto the image plane, is still hitting the surface from many different directions, especially towards the edge of the image circle. That's not really a problem for film because it's far less sensitive to the direction of incident light than digital, being as how it presents a continuous surface after all. Up until now, digital sensors have been pits, separated by some - increasingly smaller - substrate, into which light had to penetrate to register a signal. In order to avoid the sides of this pit casting a shadow, sensors have a microlens over then to help direct incident light downwards. However, there were still gaps between each individual site driven, in large part, by separation between the microlenses rather than what the substrate minimally needed to isolate individual photodiodes. This is a problem Canon appear to have solved as explanatory diagrams show each lens set right against the next, maximising the available density of photosites, potentially increasing the light-gathering abilities of each lens and now providing much more of a continuous surface to the incoming image.

Proof-of-the-pudding and all that will be in the first images from a production camera, something we might hope to see at Photokina in September. However, I was also interested to note that Canon have included a feature on here to deal with vignetting which might lead you to conclude that the resolution of this sensor is now revealing the shortcomings of lenses in the same way that the 5D started to do when going full-frame. (With the APS-C format, lenses designed for full frame should be outstanding as only the centre of the image is covering the sensor. It's generally the edges where things get trickiest.)

Tempted? Kind of, but really things are moving so fast in the camera world right now I reckon it's worth waiting to see not only what else Photokina brings but also how quickly both the new sensor technology and the faster Digic processors tear through the rest of Canon's line up.

Can't wait to see what the next salvo brings!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

B&W Technique for High Key

There's a great web site from Diane Varner that has some very interesting examples of toned shots she has done in CS3. Try as I might, I can never quite get this to work well for me, but will nevertheless keep struggling. I like to blame this on being colour-blind ... but that's not really quite fair! Being vision-challenged, yes, but not in that way.

Anyway, I was reading through her post there on post-processing technique and saw that she'd used a different B&W conversion approach that I hadn't seen before: the Gradient Map.

The advantage of this approach is that you can control the mapping between brightness levels in the original and the resulting grey-scale image. Furthermore, you can do very interesting things like such as black/white/black conversions, with the highest levels going back to black instead of blowing out.

The original (this one is close enough) was useful because it had a fairly constant blue background that could be reliably mapped into white in order to reset the feel of the shot, also allowing some leeway in transforming the real highlights to help add definition and delivering more of a high-key feel.

Detailed instructions? Alas, I can't give the full recipe for this one because I did it late at night and forgot to save the full layer set before flattening - doh! I think I first boosted contrast with USM at a high-radius/low percentage level before doing the gradient map. When converting, I used the "metal" preset because that had a good starting point for the black-white-black approach. And curves, I'm sure there was a curve in there to do some global contrast adjustment. Somewhere.

Anyway, give it a go, and if I can dial-things in a bit more accurately I'll post on this topic again. Please though let me know if you can craft a more reliable recipe and I'll repost it to everyone.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Google Greatness: Searching Specific Sites

Here's a tip I read on an Adobe blog that solves one of those niggling problems you have when searching the internal content of a site for something particular.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, you wanted to see how much secondhand Canon 500 mm f4 lenses were going for in the buy/sell pages on a large site such as Fred Miranda. You could a) use the search box on that site and find that it's largely worthless or b) type the following into a Google search box:

site:http://www.fredmiranda.com Canon 500

Note the "site:" syntax at the beginning because that's the magic sauce. And guess what? It works. Very well indeed. (Alas, resulting in the knowledge that they are still running around $5,000, or roughly 10% to 15% below retail.)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Pig - Lipstick Interface Scenario

Interesting article in todays San Jose Mercury News positing that Sun is takeover bait. Again.

Despite everything they have tried, including a stock split that was hoped to help the stock defy gravity (it didn't) and a change of ticker symbol to JAVA (blog title), the market cap has continued to slide. As of today, Wall Street values Sun at around $7.54 Bn, a figure less than the current assets value listed for the company as of the end of 2007. Oh, and their annual sales are running close to $14 Bn, which means they trade at barely 0.5x revenues.

Nothing new in the article, nor really much of substance it has to be said, the entire article stemming from a newly published analyst report, but it does remind you just how far and how fast tech giants can fall. Wang, Digital Equipment, Silicon Graphics, Cray, Apollo ... the list goes on, especially in the world of mid-range business & engineering servers.

This is one hell of an industry. Not only does it thrive by eating its own young, it also leaves its elders hung out to dry.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Pro Photographer - Dead Easy, Right?

Michael Phelps Celebrating after his 8th Olypmic Win, by Vincent Laforet for Newsweek

Wrong! I've been following Vincent Laforet's fascinating blog from the Beijing Olympics where he's there on the dime of Newsweek to capture both news and interest shots.

The posting linked to above is just one example but it covers how he went about trying to cover Michael Phelps and the relay team lining up for the final swimming event where he could make it 8 straight golds.

Never mind the two hours sleep after covering events the previous day or the 5:45 am start but there you are, on the hook to capture the crowning event as far as the US audiences are concerned and there to meet the needs of one of the icons of print-news coverage.

Despite claiming that there just wasn't one "defining moment", the shots taken are nevertheless remarkable. Indeed, if you think shooting sports events is nothing special then just take a look throughout his sequence of postings and see what he was able to achieve day-in and day-out.

Quite stunning, and every shot posted reminds me why I'll never make it as a professional!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Innovation or Deviation?

For various weak and not-worth-recounting reasons, I didn't make it to the Monterey Historics at Laguna Seca this year, but I wish I had. There was one car that I'd love to have seen in action that I haven't had the privilege of seeing run for almost 30 years.

Yesterday was a glorious day, and on the track were some unique race cars not seen in previous years that I wasn't aware in advance would be there. Chief amongst those for me was the 6 wheel Tyrrell P34. Not exactly sure which chassis it was but the livery was the right colour (blue all over) for the 1976 season and the car was wearing number 4, so I think that was Patrik Depailler's ride for that year.

(At the time of writing, D.M. Troutman had posted the first shots in a gallery from Saturday and the Tyrrell is on slide 63. Some very good shots in here and the gallery reinforces just what a great day it must have been. Note the shots of Mario Andretti in a period Lotus JPS!)

This design was a brilliant piece of lateral thinking: smaller wheels = less frontal area = reduced drag, but then how to make up for the now-reduced contact patch? Have four front wheels instead of two, of course! And despite the added mechanical complexity, it actually worked pretty well, leading to a couple of other teams starting to look along the same lines. Alas, because it required special tyres and rims,there wasn't the same level of tyre development for this configuration as there was for the more conventional approach, and other solutions were being found to reduce frontal area cross-section. Tyrrell redesigned the car for 1977, adding weight and further complexity, a strategy that works for OK road cars but not so well for racing machinery. Ronnie Peterson took over driving duties at Tyrrell from Scheckter but by then it was clear that this was now an engineering dead-end, leading to its overall demise by the start of the 1978 season.

As a result, Jody Scheckter is still the only driver in history to win a race in a six-wheeled car, and given that these days investments into other technologies - especially wind tunnel based aerodynamic testing and exotic suspension materials & design - have rendered such innovative mechanical solutions to the problem of front-end aero resistance largely obsolete then he's likely to remain so. Oh, and just in case there was any doubt then it's worth mentioning that the arbiters of F1 declared that race cars should have a maximum of four wheels after Williams tested another six wheel design in the early 80s, though this time with the much smarter configuration of 4 at the rear, that provided significant extra grip and in a place where the aero effect was easily managed and you didn't have to figure out how to steer the bloody things.

Of course, that begs the question of whether or not three wheeled design could ever work well enough to get raced, which holds out hope for the old Reliant Robin I suppose. Though not much ....

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Apple or Google: Who Rules Silicon Valley?

As of yesterday, the answer is Apple. Ever since Google IPO'd back in 2004, the market cap it attracted has exceeded that of any other Silicon Valley company. Sure, other tech. companies are larger, IBM and Microsoft to name but two, but Google remained top dog in the Bay Area ever since their birth as a public company. Or they did, until yesterday.

At close of business on the 13th, GOOG had a market cap of roughly $157 billion, while AAPL was listed at $159 billion. Sure, Google is more profitable but, in the view of the market at least, Apple seems to have the better business prospects going forwards.

Wall Street looks at Google and sees something of a one-trick pony. Sure, it's one hell of a neat trick, but it still only numbers "one", and as we head into a period of overall economic uncertainty then their absolute reliance on ad. spending starts to look like a riskier place to be than was the case just 6 months ago.

Apple, on the other hand, has grown quickly and grown consistently, two of Wall Street's most favourite things. Indeed, their top-line performance has been accelerating over the past year, something almost unheard of in a company doing around $30 billion in annual revenues.

The question everyone is asking is, of course, "can it continue?" The market thinks so at least, and Jobs looks to be on course to have a statue erected in his honour at the entrance to NASDAQ's corporate HQ. And this is interesting if only because overall domestic spending is down, the market is in a bit of a funk in general and the poor old US consumer is fighting a pitch battle against the twin evils of higher inflation and a dodgy housing market.

Wall Street clearly reckons that the market for iPhones, laptops and media players will somehow transcend a general budget tightening in families around the world, whilst advertising budgets inside large corporations will not. Me? No idea, other than to say they might be right. Apple sells adult toys that appeal to an incredibly broad demographic these days. And how better to cheer yourself up in the midst of all this financial gloom-and-doom than by buying a nice, new shiny phone to play with??

I'm not about to go and buy an iPhone anytime soon, but I have to say I'm probably in the minority. I might though be tempted by other Apple-goodness as and when they roll out their new offerings just in time to build demand for Christmas, particularly if they wheel out a competitor to this big hunk.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Canon 1D Mark III: Field Review

As previously reported, between the two of us we generated 35+ Gb of images over the course of our two week trip to Africa. That’s a result of shooting roughly 4,000 pictures between the Canon 1D MkIII and a Rebel XTi. As detailed here, the Mk III survived a bit of an accident, and pretty much on day 1 in Tanzania to boot, that my 70-200 L lens did not, so right off the bat I guess it gets good marks for ruggedness and dependability! I’d also have to give it high marks for the way in which it repelled dust. When we were shooting in Arizona with my (now) old 20D, sensor dust was a real problem by the end of the trip, resulting in frames towards the back-end there that were almost unusable thanks to the files showing dust marks all across the skies. The 1D was both a) better sealed and b) had Canon’s vibrating “shake ‘n clean” sensor technology This two-pronged approach of prevention plus cure seemed to do the trick better than, say, just the sensor-shake piece that is in the Rebel. And just to to be clear, Africa is a pretty stern test in this regard! Safari roads are no more than dirt tracks that are fast turned into airborne dust plumes by the many tourist vehicles plying back-and-forth, something that is especially evident when you are parked trying to photograph something and they are driving past you. Add to that a constant need to change lenses and you have a recipe for slews of images spoiled by specks on the sensor. A big win for the 1D here, then.

Over the course of the trip I got to really like the form factor, size and weight. The extra heft helped balance longer lenses and overall the body quickly felt familiar, despite my first impression of the whole thing being a bit too large and cumbersome. Coming from the Mk II, say, you’d have absolutely no issues adjusting and even my switch from the 20D ultimately went well. Indeed, about the only thing I wish they would to improve the handling is to differentiate the buttons a bit more. I like to use a separate focus button, and I’m pleased to say that this body now has one, but, it’s small, tucked round a corner and I can’t quite reach it comfortably. I’d prefer Canon provided something a bit larger and with more feel than just yet-another-button so I can be confident on what I’m doing without having to pull the camera from my face to check which button I'm about to press. And copy that comment too for the ISO button. On the plus side, Canon have finally included the ISO reading in the viewfinder; on the minus side I kept hitting focus lock or something else when I was quickly trying to switch ISO settings.

One reason in particular why the ISO button got to bug me was that the biggest change in this generation of camera was the noise performance of the sensor, and hence the way it really did allow you to use the ISO setting as a third dimension to get the settings you want for aperture and speed. On my old 20D, going above ISO 200 means you quickly start to hit the law of diminishing returns as noise quickly becomes intrusive and severely impacts perceived image quality. However, once you figure out that on the Mk III, ISO 800 is very acceptable from a quality standpoint then all of a sudden you have degrees of freedom not available to you before to get good DOF combined with a shutter speed that will keep things pin-sharp. This really was a revelation, and indeed it took me more days than it should have done to push the ISO to those rarified levels above 400 because I just couldn’t get my head around what it would mean in terms of the results.

The other big change for me is overall picture quality: right out of Lightroom the images look significantly better than I’ve seen before. Image files are clear, well defined and smooth, much more so in fact than I’ve ever seen with my own camera, confirming the notion that it’s not how many pixels you have but the quality of the data flowing from each of them that ultimately matters most. (Quick aside: I wish Canon would produce a black-and-white only version of this sensor. Quite makes me drool to think of what it could produce once de-Beyer-ed.)

OK, onto the more controversial stuff. To say that there have been a lot of reports about the auto-focus capabilities of this body, both good and bad, is the biggest understatement since the Captain of the Titanic announced that they had hit a small piece of ice but that the ship was unsinkable and so everyone should just keep dancing, having a good time and not worrying about it. Just for the record, the sample I used was a body reported to have had the mirror fix applied and was running the latest version 1.2.3 firmware.

In short, when it worked well then the Mark III's autofocus was very good indeed. Focusing was generally fast and accurate, results borne out by looking at the files afterwards and on the same day so that I had some recollection of each frame sequence shot. I used both one-shot and AI, each mode working pretty much as I expected it to. It took me a day or two to be able to convert how the image looked on the LCD into what that meant for actual sharpness when viewed in Lightroom, but it soon became clear when the image, err, wouldn't be. (The frame shown on those on-camera LCDs is, I assume, still a JPG constructed on-the-fly and hence is compromised even before you look at it. Add to that the fact that it's being displayed on a 3 inch square screen then there’s a limit to how critically one can judge things in the field on an absolute basis.) However, I could certainly see things well enough to know when shots were not in focus which is really all you can - and some would argue, should - be doing whilst out taking pictures. Remember the mantra, “memory is cheap, the shots you miss by playing with the camera are not”.

Throughout the trip I largely used just the central focusing point (with surrounding AF assist) and recomposed once I had lock. I did use the full-up pattern from time to time but mostly stuck to rifle-shooting rather than shot-gunning (if that makes any sense?) However, I did experience some issues when either the contrast was a problem or, quite frankly, I was in the wrong mode for the subject being shot. Not perfect, therefore, but way better than I was used to with the 20D and perfectly easy to figure out what was going on once you knew it was happening. Again, I got better at sorting this out as the trip went on and really the only time things were particularly challenging was trying to catch, for example, white birds flying quickly across grey skies (i.e. low contrast and fast moving subjects).

Speed shooting? 10 FPS? “Bloody fast” is the short answer, and in all honesty I had the burst rate dialed down to more like 5 or 6 FPS for the entire trip. Animals just don’t move that quickly, but having said all that I’d love to try it at Laguna Seca, the surf beaches or somewhere else where there’s fast motion because I’m sure the results would be very impressive indeed. Hmm, in fact I might think about renting one again for the ALMS meeting at Laguna Seca in October. Stay tuned ….

Other stuff: very impressive battery life, even with significant chimping of pictures just shot. (Great LCD by the way, though you have to keep brightness cranked up in order to see it in strong daylight). Didn’t try live view so no comments there except that I could see it being useful. Never got to try it in low light, with a flash or otherwise push it in areas outside of just shooting animals doing whatever it was they happened to be doing at the time we showed up, so nothing more to add really outside of the basics.

Value for money when figuring a price close to $4k here in the US? I’m tempted … very tempted, in fact, as reverting to the 20D to photograph the new dog this past weekend was a real comedown. But another $4k is hard to justify today, especially given just how much we dented our finances by being away on safari. Think I’ll wait and see what the 5D replacement looks like before deciding (to be revealed to the press on 26th August?), and even then may wait for the 1D Mk IIIN to see what the next generation brings. However, it was absolutely worthwhile spending the $630 for three weeks rental so no regrets at all on that front. I ended up with better quality files that can withstand tighter cropping and that show lower noise, and that ultimately do better job of bring you back to what was a wonderful experience each and every day we were in-country.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Kudos to Canon (Repair)

I thought I'd close the book on what happened to the 70-200 mm, 2.8L lens that got damaged at the beginning of the trip by letting you know the outcome: it's fixed, and based on my experience I'd heartily recommend Canon's on-line booking system for equipment repairs.

Total cost was just under $200, with postage to their facility running around $20 (USPS ground and insured for $1,000) and Canon's charge of $175, including postage back. The repair note said that the chassis was bent and in addition they clearly replaced the front ring as I know that was damaged by the fall as well.

I know none of the glass elements were broken (which you would assume constitutes a significant piece of the overall materials cost) but even so I was pleasantly surprised at the cost. I had steeled myself for more like $250 to $300, and the repair was even completed within three days of Canon receiving the lens despite this being the high season.

Comforting to know that this kind of back-up support is available to the average Joe with nothing more than an Internet connection to work with!

Friday, August 8, 2008

Beginner's Guide To African Safari Photography

Male Lion, Tanzania

As advertised, now we are back and have had some time to take stock, thought I'd post a few thoughts on safari wildlife photography and what I learned over the two weeks we were shooting.

Before jumping in, though, let’s begin by saying that whatever your level of experience the good news is that you don't need the best equipment possible, but as always you do need to make the best of the equipment you do have available! That’s more of the point here rather than focusing on specific lenses, cameras or accessories, but having said all that then it is worth looking at renting equipment to supplement what you may already have because the better your technique, the more benefit you will get from higher-end equipment. More on that below.

Firstly, for a more detailed summary of the itinerary we followed, see S’s post here. Posted on this blog (July 08 archive) are some more posts covering our trip accomodations, travel and experiences.

Secondly, run, don't walk, to Andy Biggs' site. There's more good advice in here than you even realize, especially on first reading when it’s hard to figure out what’s important and what not. Print out the relevant stuff and take it with you. I did, and I picked-up more and more from these notes on each subsequent reading, especially after a day shooting and hence better understanding all the great points being made.

Thirdly, here are a few shots from the trip just to give an idea of what we, as average tourists with some photographic experience at least, were able to produce.

Starting with everyone’s favourite topic, equipment, then for those of you with a decent entry level or above DSLR (e.g. Canon Rebel or Nikon equivalent, say) then buy or rent the best lenses you can. Having just one decent lens with reasonable reach will get you further and faster than anything else you can invest in. Although we were reasonably well resourced in this regard, we did rent a camera body from lensrentals.com where, as you might guess, lenses can also be found! This service worked well (there are several others out there on the web so you can shop around) and the price was very fair indeed; highly recommended, in short. Just using them as an example, three weeks for a Canon L 100-400 zoom will set you back some $150. Bearing in mind what you have just dropped on airfare, hotels etc. this is a small additional price to pay, and compared with the less-than-stellar kit lenses supplied with the Canon Rebel family, for example, you *will* see the difference. 100 to 400 mm gives you great flexibility and with current generation sensor performance being restricted to f4 or f5.6 as the widest aperture is really no big deal. Downsides? Weight is the only thing I can think of. If that’s a primary concern, look instead at lighter small aperture fixed lenses in the 200 to 400 range (yes, I think they rent teleconverters too so that can help deal with some of the loss of flexibility in going fixed.)

Key point: for those of you who bought a DSLR in the past couple of years, don't be afraid to push the ISO. My own camera is an aging 20D and I don't usually go beyond 400 ASA because I find the resulting noise is just too intrusive. On newer bodies (and here I only have experience with the 1D Mk III) however, 800 ASA looks like mine does at 200, a fact it took me quite a few days to get comfortable with. Therefore, and again following the sterling advice from Andy, try the following approach:

1) pick the required depth of field you want. I used anything from f5.6 up to f14 depending on how close/far the subject was and what I wanted to show. To help planning, I printed out a small set of example DOFs for 400 mm and kept those in my camera bag as reference. (Beats me why we need to do that and why camera manufacturers can’t just give the calculated answer in the view finder. They have all the necessary information to do the math after all.)

2) Since you are in aperture priority mode (right?), look at the shutter speed. If you are using a bean bag or similar then even with longer lenses you can get away with 1/100th if the subject is rock steady, but don't rely upon it, even when using lenses with stabilization. Reviewing my results, 1/200th upwards looked to be a more practical lower limit (except in limited situations) and that shutter speed + IS was able to handle both camera shake and the odd movements of the animals.

3) adjust your ISO setting to get within the above parameters while striving to keep it as low as possible.

While not foolproof, the above approach does get you some way there, and quite frankly I wish this had been my starting point from day one instead of having to learn the hard way, producing too many shots that were almost sharp … but not quite.

One other point: don't forget to constantly check all *3* parameters if you go down this road. Many cameras still don't show ISO in the viewfinder and I've lost count of how many frames I've messed up in the past with my 20D because I forgot to shift back from a high ISO setting I've used in poor light! (Kudos to Canon therefore for now including this on the 1D Mk III.)

It’s also important to watch your histograms and be prepared to regularly dial-in some exposure adjustment. There were a couple of days there where we were trying to shoot game that was set against a bright but grey sky. Getting anything exposed appropriately in those situations by just relying on the camera’s meter was very challenging, especially for high-contrast things like zebras and colobus monkeys!

If all these technicalities are more than you want to deal with then don't despair: Program or Auto Mode can work and work well, but again try to at least use the ISO setting to give youself the best chance of making the shot crisp and clear. (On some cameras you can set a range over which the electronics will use ISO settings to keep the other parameters within reasonable bounds.)

In very general terms, if the animal is in bright sun then 100 or 200 ISO is fine. For a beastie under a bush (or otherwise shaded) go to 400 ISO. If it's darker still or you are photographing a group of animals such as a pride of lions (where more depth of field is required to get the group sharp), move up to 640 or 800 in order to cause the camera to close down the aperture. Nope, it's not foolproof and it does require that 800 ASA is usable on your camera, but it should be better than just allowing the electronics to figure out all by themselves what it is that you are trying to do.

Only other thing to check out in advance and that is is what sort of focus mode your camera has. On Canon, it's basically AI Servo, which means the focusing will change as the subject moves, or Single Shot, where once set the focus stays where it is. More often than not, you want to focus on something and then recompose, especially if you want pictures that are something other than an animal front-and-centre of the frame, and trust me when I say "you do". Can you, for example, half-press the shutter to focus on something, move the camera to look at something much closer and see that it's not changing focus? You are in good shape if so, otherwise go back and read the manual until you know how to make that work right! Nothing, I repeat, nothing can really fix up a blurred photograph, and frankly getting the focus right is probably the most important thing you can learn even if the rest of shooting is done entirely on automatic settings.

One final recommendation: take something to back-up your files with. I carry a laptop to act as one place to cache pictures as well as a small Maxtor USB hard drive to provide a second level of safety. (It weighs just 5 ounces, has 300Gb storage and transfers data reasonably quickly.) We heard tell of someone who had been in Zanzibar coming back with some wonderful shots from a trip photographing the gorillas, who got their equipment stolen and lost the lot, pictures and all. Therefore, keep the back-up drive separately if you can, preferably in the room safe if you are out all day, and don’t take chances. Yes, many hotels have internet access in Tanzania but you will find it's a) relatively slow and b) relatively expensive ($10 for 30 minutes was the cheapest I found) so backing up to the net will not be a viable option. For a 10 day trip with two camera bodies, one each, we generated 40 Gbytes of still images, so at that level it’s also viable these days to buy extra memory cards and go that road, but frankly I just feel more comfortable with a layered approach of having files cached in more than one place.

On the creative side, try and think in advance what you want to show. Animals in their natural, enclosing environment or tight close ups? Action shots or posed stills? Take elephants, for example. After the first 10 shots of "large grey mammal standing in a field", try instead to photograph some impression of the animal you want to convey. Age and wisdom? Solidity? Family grouping? Candid? Alone in the wild? You get the picture ... (sorry, couldn’t resist). Take some time to browse the web and see what the pros have produced, and once more Andy comes up trumps with the galleries he has posted on his site providing a great starting point.

Lastly, have a great time, and don't forget to take the camera away from your face sometimes just to experience the magic of Africa! It's going to be a wonderful trip no matter how the shots work out so don't sweat-it unduly - it is meant to be a holiday after all!

Monday, August 4, 2008

Africa #14: Heading Home

We spent an hour in the morning at a local Maasai village that, unsurprisingly, was also the source of the dancers from the previous night. Not particularly my cup of tea but S was keen to go, and it was actually interesting to catch even a faint echo of how we all used to live, i.e. badly. This boma is still being finished off by a group of Maasai who have moved here explicitly to supplement their income with tourist dollars. Far enough, everyone has the right to self-improvement, and compared with other villages that were clearly constructed just for tourists, these Maasai are living there at least and not just showing up for tourist duty each day.

The women build their huts using no more than woven reeds, sticks and mud, each one taking only a week to construct, a fact that indicates just how basic these dwellings are (or “minimalist” in estate agent speak). Inside they keep a fire burning – it’s winter there now after all - but for reasons entirely unclear to me have never developed the concept of a chimney, resulting in an experience rather like sitting inside a large bonfire. Given that they manage to avoid dying of asphyxia, let alone first- and secondhand smoke inhalation, their diet alone would freak out your local MD. It comprises one principal thing: milk. No wonder they pay a lot of attention to meeting the needs of their cows, both as a measure of wealth and, of course, as a way of protecting their lunch. However, life’s not all plain milk with a side order of milk and some nice milk to follow for dessert, dear me no. Apparently, it’s milk occasionally mixed with cow blood, just to give it a bit more spice presumably, supplemented by the odd bit of meat and regularly interspersed with dollops of maize porridge. Fair makes my mouth water just to think about it.

And so now it’s finally time to head home. 36 straight hours of travelling, including a hairy transfer at Nairobi where some immigration official bent the rules a little to help us make the connection complete with luggage rather than without. The first problem we encountered was when checking-in at Arusha airport when we found out that the Precision Air flight was going to be delayed by an hour, cutting away all of the transfer margin we had cunningly engineered for ourselves at Nairobi. That would have just about been OK, except for the second problem: we couldn’t check our luggage through, despite PA claiming to have an interlining agreement with BA. That meant we now had to clear immigration and customs at Nairobi, collect our bags, go and find wherever it is that BA hangs out, most likely in a different terminal, and check-in again, all in a time slot that is now less than an hour ….

We hung around the departure area wishing fervently that we were instead on the KLM flight direct to Amsterdam which both left on time and avoided this additional transfer before reaching Europe, watching a huge cloud of bugs flying around the airport lighting gantry and trying to come up with a plan B, and failing. We would just have to leg it as fast as possible and hope the immigration line into Kenya was both short and the customs people understanding of our plight. We did have single entry transit visas for Kenya but those had been stamped to hell and back on our way in so unclear if they were still valid or not.

Fortunately, things went OK and we found ourselves with just over an hour to make the transfer. Let battle commence! Fortunately, the immigration line was short and S found a pleasant, official-looking chap who said “not to worry”, which was good, and “give me your passports, go get your bags and then you can come back and check-in at the transfer desk in the departure area” which sounded even better.

However, there you now are, waiting for the baggage to arrive and thinking a bit more clearly about the Faustian pact you just did with your passport. Hmm. He was wearing a suit but not a uniform. Didn’t have a badge but seemed to know what he was doing. Just who exactly have we given our passports to and how quickly do you think he’ll fence them to some Kenyan drug lord, leaving us with the lamest of story to keep retelling to anyone who will listen – which will be no one – in a Nairobi jail for the next 5 years?

Thankfully, it all worked out, despite being sent back and forth a couple of times to complete check-in, and we were soon allowed into the hallowed gate area. It just shows how mellow I was now feeling about life that I didn’t even complain when we and our hand luggage were screened and x-rayed twice with nothing between those two events except a walk of, and I kid you not, 10 feet. We could only assume that BA didn’t trust the Kenyan airports authority to do the job right and so just to rub their noses in it had their own screening right-slap-bang afterwards.

Only thing left now is a five-and-a-half hour layover in Heathrow before heading back to SFO. Definitely not looking forward to this last leg because it’s back to economy class and the plane is completely packed with holiday makers. And S is somewhat pissed-off because the security Nazis at T5 swiped her duty free bottle of stuff she bought in Nairobi because “the bag was insufficiently sealed, sir”, presumably because the Tig arc welder was out of commission in the airport duty free shop that day? Jeez.

It’s been a fantastic trip and very glad we decided to bite the bullet, spend the money and take the time to make it. I have to recommend Good Earth tours, the organizers of the whole thing and provider of our main guide, Paul, for doing an excellent job at a very fair price. S did a lot of comparisons in terms of itineraries and prices and these guys beat the competition hands down. All the luxury hotels we stayed at were very good, and even the more basic ones were clean and perfectly serviceable. We went with the goal of taking lots of photos, something which 40 Gb of resulting disk space consumption can attest to we succeeded in doing.

In closing, I’ll plan to do a post or two on thoughts around the 1D Mk III we rented and general tips on taking pictures whilst on safari. I’ll also, of course, start to post some more of the resulting images.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Africa #13: Tarangire National Park

Elephant Grazing, Tarangire national Park, Tanzania

Heading into the home straight now and Tarangire National Park is our last real stop on the tour. The terrain here is a mix of savannah, light forest and river plain; a bit of everything, in short. The day started out grey and chilly, with a stiff westerly breeze. That actually turned out to be a good thing as it meant that the hippos we found at this hippo pool, to differentiate it from the 4 other hippo pools we have seen, were out of the water and actually doing hippo-ish sorts of things above and beyond bobbing around in dirty water. Mostly, though, even these extended behaviours seem to involve a lot of standing around, bellowing challenges and having occasional fights. Think Brighton and Hove Albion supporters on a wet Saturday afternoon at an away game in Milwall, but with less drinking.

It was fun listening to the noises they were making and watching the young hippos undergoing training for adult hippohood. Basically, the modus operadi here was bite anything close to you, and if nothing was to hand then wander around until you bump into something you can bite and hope it was no bigger than you. Perfect grooming, therefore, for the young hippo eager to reach adulthood and to progress to, well, larger bouts of shouting and biting. The motto of the hippo SAS equivalent must be “he who bites best, wins” because it really was the only discernable core competency of the males with the most clout.

From there we headed off to see the flamingoes – enough were around to form a pink slash across Lake Tarangire – and watch storks and pelicans swooping around the shoreline. There were, as always, a few giraffes around, accompanied by zebra and impala. Throw into the mix various monkeys (baboons, vervet and blue), mongeese (is that the plural of mongoose?) and even a snake or two and you begin to get the African picture.

After lunch, which was a rather fine picnic hamper to make a change from the cardboard-box with sandwiches we’d experienced before, we found a lion that was busy lining up something for its lunch by stalking carefully through the undergrowth. Alas, we watched for a while but it decided to postpone anything too energetic, opting instead to fall asleep in the long grass. Lions really do spend much of the day time hours asleep or awake and contemplating falling asleep.

Time to head back to the hotel. Along the way we had several brief encounters with small herds of elephants, none of which were bothered or even swayed from eating the countryside by our presence. Sadly, we did however came across a large, dead male that was in the early signs of being eaten by the local scavengers, lions included. Little bush craft was involved in this discovery as the carcass was hard to miss given that there’s something about a couple of tons of rotting meat that really seems to grab the attention of one’s nostrils ….

Tarangire Treetops is indeed an interesting place to stay and strongly recommended. Remarkably, the food here was quite the best we’d found all trip and they do seem to work hard to harmonize with both the African environment and the local Maasai people, the aim being to have the hotel add, rather than subtract, from the pristine nature of the place. For example, although there was the inevitable evening show of Maasai dancing, it was actually done well and the guys involved did seem to be genuinely enjoying themselves as they tried to outdo each other on who could jump the highest, a measure, it seems, of Maasai manhood. Wonder what they’d think of the Olympic high-jump contenders?

Friday, August 1, 2008

Africa #12:Lake Manyara

Tarangire Treetops Hotel, Tanzania

We now find ourselves back in more verdant forest once again, echoing Arusha more than, say, the Serengeti. This area has plenty of sub-surface water meaning that trees and other vegetation can grow easily, even outside of the two brief rainy seasons that Tanzania typically experiences. I’m also minded to report that they have very good bathroom facilities at the entrance to the park! In fact, facilities of the toilet sort have been pretty reasonable all across Tanzania, at least compared with what’s to be found in places like India, for example. Most welcome.

This park is famous for two things: elephants and flamingoes, though not in the exact same spot at the same time, obviously, what with one being a wading bird found of water and the other, well, not. When we were there, at least, elephants seemed to outnumber flamingoes, but it’s fair to say that there were also numerous other birds to be seen including pelicans, storks, cranes and waders. We also saw baboons (again) plus blue and vervet monkeys, all hanging around and doing simian-ish sorts of things. Amazing how blasé one gets about wildlife after a few days on holiday in Africa, eh?

Lunch was from a hotel-provided lunch-box, taken while sitting on a bench overlooking the lake. We had the place to ourselves for a while until being joined by another tour vehicle, this time an actual Land Rover. Nice to know that Toyota haven’t completely cornered the market, except … this one, apparently, wouldn’t start with the key anymore, relying instead on the tourists it was carrying getting out to give it a push! Our guide recommended in this case reversing up a termite mound in order to park on a slope, thereby giving the occupants a rest and using gravity to do the hard work of bump starting. This turned out to be a trick that worked wonderfully for the Land Rover, likely less well for the termites whose home was now a casualty of 1970’s UK labour relations strife combined with shoddy engineering.

We spent most of the day exploring alongside the lake as well as further into the surrounding lands before heading off again to the last hotel stop of the trip: Tarangire Treetops.

For a while there, more miles on tarmac seduced us into believing that dirt roads were the exception rather than the rule in this part of the country. The last 30 km of the journey put paid to that notion, taking over an hour to traverse, the last few clicks of which were done behind a water tanker that is part of a constant delivery service the hotel needs during the peak season. This was the most rutted, rock-strewn thing we’d driven on to date, which believe me is saying something! However, it really was worthwhile when we arrived at the eponymous Treetops hotel.

As you can see from the image above, the hotel is themed, if that's the right word, through it's connection to nature, quite literally given that the bedrooms are all constructed around trees dotting a ridge line on one side of the Great Rift Valley (the edge and floor of which comprises the Tarangire preserve). This was a completely unique property when first constructed and still quite an amazing place today despite a couple of equivalents now popping up elsewhere in Africa. And yes, the rooms do feel a bit rickety as they are supported platforms sitting at the end of some long - and poorly braced - poles! Treetops also has an adopted elephant who, so they say, has failing eyesight and hangs around because it's safe and there's food readily available. I think they meant "natural vegetation" and not "green building materials already in use" but you are never quite sure, especially when you hear him wandering around outside in the middle of the night ....