In Prep for Africa at the San Francisco Zoo

In case you missed it, I recently announced my plans to take some extended time off of work to travel the world and practice photography. 

My first trip brings me to Africa for safari with Intrepid Travel. I'll be practicing wildlife, cultural and travel photography in ways I’ve never done before.

There’s a reason why photographers tend to specialize in one area - each type of subject requires a masterful understanding of very specific requirements.

For wildlife, I need to work with a super telephoto lens - one that’s also light enough to carry along with me. Telephotos are heavy, enormous beasts! So, it’s key to be realistic and decide what's most important: choosing the best possible lens out there or one that’s good and manageable on the road.

A majority of my time will be spent rattling and bouncing around a safari vehicle and a big piece of expensive glass is even tougher to deal with in that kind of precarious situation.

With all of that in mind, I decided to go with Canon’s 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II weighing in at 3.5 pounds and fitting snugly into my backpack.

  • Weight: 3.5 lbs
  • Rental Cost for 10 days: $135
  • Retail: $2,199

I’ve also decided to rent from BorrowLenses - an easy choice for those who aren’t committed to own. (For the curious, I am shooting with a Mark IV.)

For comparison, if I was a pro, had assistants and was setting up for the most idealistic shot, I’d probably go for the 500mm f/4L IS II. Prime lenses are always better.

  • Weight: 7.03 lbs (!)
  • Rental Cost for 10 days: $540
  • Retail: $10,500

Kind of a no-brainer when income is being reduced to zero.

Before leaving for Africa, I had to get out there and try this new-to-me telephoto lens to get a feel for its weight, quality, distance, and to get an overall understanding of how the lens works. So, I rented it for a weekend and took it for a spin.

What better place to go practice photographing wildlife under known conditions than the San Francisco Zoo? (Author’s Note: Zoos make me feel sad).

I’m really excited about the images that I was able to create. The lens was smooth and wasn’t terribly heavy. By the end of the day my arm was sore, but not painfully so. The image quality was superb as well. 

I am concerned that the max focal length of 400mm won’t be enough to capture animals in the wild at greater distances, but now I have proper expectations set and am ready to face whatever this safari gives me.

I call this series: Animals in Captivity, 2016


For these shots, I went with a high shutter speed for these fast moving animals, a wide aperture to minimize detail in the already dark cage backgrounds and a low ISO to get the least amount of noise. I used only natural light - the afternoon was soft, darkish and cloudy.

All the shots were intentionally underexposed to bring out some drama and slightly edited in Lightroom to make the shadows darker and the highlights brighter.

I had the most fun with the birds, of course.

Can’t wait to get my hands back on this lens and get out there to Africa. Follow along with me as I head out on January 13th.


Practicing for Antarctica: Photography Edition

My trip is coming up fast -- 14 days, fast! I'm still in practice mode, switching focus from the kayak to the camera.

Part 1: Travel Photography & Storytelling
To start this phase, I enrolled in Travel Photography & Storytelling with Bob Krist put on by National Geographic at the San Francisco Art Institute (not to be confused with the more generic Art Institutes).

This was a four-hour, indoor, no-window lecture session where he simply talked about photography. This event could have been totally boring, but it was an absolute joy. Bob was hilarious! I learned the basics of what kind of pictures and themes make up the best kind of stories -- all drawing from cinema.  

The lecture was designed to help transform my travel photography from “first I did this and then I did that...” to a narrative that says something about me and my journey. He shared tips on how to step away from the expected and the linear and focus on finding the thread that brings it all together. I can’t wait to put this into practice!

Travel Photography & Storytelling with Bob Krist

Travel Photography & Storytelling with Bob Krist

Part 2: Landscape Photography Workshop in Big Sur, California
Next, I wanted to get out in the field and learn more technical aspects of photography, so I joined a landscape photography workshop in Big Sur, hosted by the Aperture Academy. We drove from iconic location to the next, photographing the gorgeous California coast.

I let go of my Av crutch and embraced manual mode, learned how to use ND graduated filters, and got even more comfortable with polarizers, tripods and all the gear that makes landscape shots shine. What a blast!

Planning and prepping for this trip has been amazing -- I get excited about all the pre-travel details and have been so proud of everything I’ve learned and practiced leading up to the big departure. (I’m even ready to dedicate a blog exclusively to planning trips! Maybe even plan for others?) 

All that’s left is to pack… repack… and do it again a few more times, and then I’ll be on my way.


Can I take Underwater Shots from a Kayak?

Last weekend, I designed another kayak practice session and gear test for this trip. The biggest question to answer was: Can I take pictures in my underwater bag from a kayak? 

I’ll set the stage:

I’m paddling along in my kayak. I’m wearing a lot of *bulky gear and look pretty ridiculous. (Spray skirt, PFD: aka life jacket, a drysuit, winter parka, hat and gloves).

I’ve got a DSLR inside an ewa-underwater bag around my neck (or resting atop the skirt), a protected point and shoot and/or an old iPhone shoved into my PFD and a lens cloth -- also jammed in wherever it makes sense.

Then, I'm dipping the camera in and out of the water from the side of an unstable boat...

So, can I manage all that stuff and take a decent picture? 

The short answer is a resounding, YES!  
The long answer is… it’s complicated.

Here’s what I learned:

  1. You get wet. Which is fine in the warm California waters… but in the ice? Hmmm...
  2. The kayak is wobbly! It takes some getting used to, but manageable with time.
  3. Getting a shot is a big guess. You stick your camera in the water, fire the shutter and hope for the best.
  4. You’re constantly in motion. Between the kayak and moving subjects, I’m not sure I’ll get anything…
  5. Shooting pics on the left side is impossible since I have to cross my body in awkward ways. All the cool stuff better happen on the right, Nature!
  6. It’s much easier to shoot in portrait since I have easier access to the shutter this way.
  7. The big neoprene gloves make it awkward, but it still works!
  8. Paddle management is also super awkward and laughably inelegant. Like eating spaghetti on a first date. It’s all doable... Albeit very dorky.

In sum, I’ll keep practicing! Though, I’m sure I’ll just forget everything when I get there, fumble like crazy and just wing it. Isn’t that how it always goes?

*Note: I didn't actually wear all the warm weather gear for this test. It was 80 degrees out and I just wasn't up for excessive sweating.

Test shots with my DSLR inside an ewa-marine bag from the side of a kayak in Tomales Bay, CA.

Test shots with my DSLR inside an ewa-marine bag from the side of a kayak in Tomales Bay, CA.

Not Dying in Antarctica Step 1: Learn to Kayak

I've never properly learned to kayak... didn't even realize there were multiple types of kayaks that require multiple types of skill and safety knowledge. Apparently, you can't just get in any ol' kayak you want and go off on your own.

Which brings me to my first practice session, Introduction to Sea Kayaking class. I learned the basics of traditional sea kayaking (these are sit-in kayaks that have a spray skirt overtop) including wet exits, how to get back in if you fall out and how to rescue someone else if they fall out. Simple enough here in California. Maddening to think about doing in Antarctica.

Some lessons:

  1. Voluntarily flipping yourself upside down into the water while strapped to a kayak is terrifying.
  2. After a few times, it's pretty easy. More practice means more confidence.
  3. Kayaks are heavy. In the assisted rescue scenario, it's tough to flip these guys over and make sure they're not full of water. All with a freaked out person in the water (and most likely, you freaking out as well).
  4. Developing upper body strength is a must. I'm very sore.
  5. Managing gear is a awkward! I can already see how hard it will be to manage my huge camera and underwater bag. I used an underwater case for my iPhone during class and it definitely took some getting used to. More practice required!
  6. Paddling is straight forward. Torso rotation is critical to proper form, speed and efficiency.
  7. I had naive ambitions to go from intro class to advanced class pretty quickly. Turns out, this is a bad idea. My instructor told me I could probably "get by" in the upper level, but really, I need to be clocking more hours covering the basics, getting used to wet exits and getting back in the boat, and developing strength and confidence to paddle in scarier waters.

In sum, I'm sticking to the basics over the new few months. I'll go out and practice, flip myself over a few hundred more times, work on dealing with my camera(s) in context and generally hope that none of those rescues will actually be needed in the icy Antarctic waters.

Kayak basics class at Sea Trek in Sausalito, CA. 

Kayak basics class at Sea Trek in Sausalito, CA. 

Antarctica Practice Schedule

The whole point of going to Antarctica (aside from just going to experience Antarctica), is to take pictures. Amazing, spectacular, incredible pictures of ice and penguins above and beneath the surface! This means taking pictures from an unsteady kayak, from a rocking ship, in cold climates, with super thick gloves, focusing on subjects near and far that are moving fast or hard to get.

And I have no real idea what I am doing, to boot. All the quality shots I’ve have taken in life so far have been purely by accident… and because I take thousands of awful pictures for every good one.

Anyway, in an effort to get comfortable with these unusual circumstances, my plan is to learn and read, test and practice, and willingly make a fool of myself in the months before so that when I finally get there, I can be cool and composed (at least in theory) as I create the shots I long for. 

Here are some of the things I’ve got planned:

September 6: Intro to Kayaking Class 
I have to learn to be comfortable (and safe) in a kayak before I can start getting crazy and shooting from one.

September 19 - 21: Kayak Weekeend
Time to test those skills on a weekend of unsupervised kayaking. First, a night-time bioluminescence tour — which is just plain cool and less about specific practice.

Then, it’s a day of full-scale simulation. I’m bringing my DSLR, underwater setup, lenses, point-and-shoots, big ol’ neoprene gloves and winter parka to see what it might be like. Can I manage all of this from a kayak? Can I avoid tipping? How much stuff can I actually bring in one of these things? This weekend is the big test.

October 18: Advanced Kayaking Class
Time to up the ante! I’m going pro here. This is practice for Antarctica after all. 

UPDATE: Just got back from the intro class and... I'm not advanced enough for the advanced class.  I'll be using this time in my schedule to practice my basic skills again.

November 9: National Geographic Photography Lecture in San Francisco
Time to focus my attention on general photography practice! I'm heading to a lecture to hear about ways to go beyond the linear "here's my trip!" experience and tell better stories and moments in my travels.

November 16: Landscape Photography Workshop in Big Sur
I'll be heading south to work with several photographers on tuning my landscape and wildlife skills and get acquainted with any special equipment and gear that might help me on my adventure.

Of course, I’ve got a library filled with a ton of antarctica-specific podcasts, articles, books and stories to help ensure that I am totally prepared for the unexpected.