Born to be wild, wildlife photographer
Nico Smit, or Ecophoto, joined our community in 2006 and his is one of the most impressive African wildlife portfolios around. Living in South Africa and in an outdoor loving family set Nico on the wildlife side early in his life. When he's not photographing wildlife, Nico teaches Wildlife Management at the University so we could say that wildlife is his life. He's truly passionate about it, he studies it, he knows it and most of all, he respects it. He is an educated explorer of the great outdoors, with a thorough knowledge of nature and of the wild animals' behavior. As photographer, he is responsible, patient, well-informed and focused. Let's join Nico on a virtual safari and see what his shooting sessions are like as he shares some wildlife photography tips with us. No worries, his 4x4 is equipped with all the necessary for a photo ride into the African wilderness. All aboard please:
I am fortunate to live in South Africa and was raised in a family who loves the outdoors. The opportunity to visit some of the great wilderness areas has been available since childhood. I started photography more than 33 years ago at an early age and it naturally evolved as an extension of my love for and interest in nature and the great outdoors. I am proud to say that the vast majority of animals and birds in my Dreamstime portfolio were shot in the wild and not in captivity.
Do you have any favorite wild animal? What about a favorite for photos? Which animals are easiest to photograph?
I would say I rather have favorite wilderness areas than favorite animals. The semi-desert Kalahari region is on top of my list and photographing a Kalahari lion is just so much more exciting and enjoyable than photographing a lion in other wilderness area. Of course, the larger the animal, such as elephants, the easier it is to photograph. Smaller animals and birds are more difficult because you need to get closer to fill the frame and they are often hyper active. Technically they are also more difficult because of the limited depth of field. I often pursue rare species of animals and birds and it gives me great satisfaction when I succeed in photographing species I have never photographed before.
What is your favorite camera/lens combo when shooting moving subject, such as birds flying, or wildlife running?
I have owned and used a large number of cameras and lenses over the years. Currently my favorite camera/lens combo is a Canon 1DmkIV and Canon EF 500/4 L IS lens, paired with a Canon 5DmkII and 100-400 /4.5-5.6 L IS lens. The tracking ability of moving subjects of the 1DmkIV is phenomenal and coupled with a frame rate of 10 f/s this camera is ideally suited for flying birds/running wildlife.
I have equipped myself with all the essentials such as a 4x4 vehicle and camping equipment to undertake extensive tours to remote wilderness areas. Camping in the wilderness without any fences between you and the African wildlife will invariably result in memorable encounters. Primates such as baboons and monkeys often raided my camp, damaging equipment and stealing food. They surely fall in the not funny category, while a nightly visit by lions or other dangerous animals to your campsite may be scary at the time, but changes into a fond memory afterwards.
Your work seems to be governed by a very simple principle: catching the perfect moment. Does this perfect moment come easy or do you have to shoot a lot to get it? And, how long do you wait for it?
Being a good wildlife photographer requires that you have first hand knowledge of the wildlife species that you photograph. My knowledge of animal behavior often gives me an advantage since I am often able to predict or anticipate certain behavior of an animal which helps me to prepare for that one moment. Catching the right moment requires keen observation and fast reflexes. Fortunately, I also do quite a bit of sport photography and that helped me develop my reflexes, while thorough knowledge of my camera equipment ensures that I don't miss a unique opportunity.
During my many visits to National Parks and wilderness areas I observed people arriving at a specific camp and spending only one or two nights before moving on to the next camp. This is not the way to do it. I prefer to stay at a specific location for a week or more. It often takes days to learn where the animals are and which waterholes they prefer. Many species, especially lions, are very territorial and observing the whereabouts of specific groups of animals can be invaluable in getting the shot you want.
When I go on a photographic safari I do it with total dedication. Over the years I have equipped my 4x4 vehicle with all types of gadgets to make photography from the vehicle more effective. On such a trip I shoot with a minimum of four camera bodies, each fitted with a different lens. When an opportunity presents itself there is often no time to change a lens. I also prefer to go on my own, because most people find it tiring to sit for hours on end at a waterhole or animal den, often under unpleasant conditions such as extreme heat.
We noticed that you also make superb use of that tiny little Fuji. How far away from the meerkat den do you hide with the remote? And to stay on the same line, how close do you actually get to your photo subjects?
Yes, despite all the well known problems associated with small sensor cameras (excessive noise, purple fringing and chromatic aberrations) they do present unique opportunities, which is not always possible with a camera with a large sensor. The most notable of these is their ability to focus extremely close, coupled with an extreme depth of field, even at moderate apertures. This allows for unique and different perspectives of animals and plants, provided one can get close enough to fill the frame at the wide angle side of the zoom lens. Another key element of the success of this approach is to get low down on the same level as the animal or plant. Opportunities present themselves in camp sites where animals such as ground squirrels became habituated to people. These animals often allow people to approach them closely. Many of these animals are extremely curious, and by lying completely still they often approach you. This is my favorite technique to get these types of close-up shots. The Fuji camera served me well, but I have since replaced it with a Canon G11 camera.
Foremost is the welfare of your wildlife subjects, which is more important than the photo. Never do something that may harm an animal or damage the environment. Secondly, being a good wildlife photographer requires that you have first hand knowledge of the wildlife species that you photograph - learn and understand more about your subjects. Another essential requirement is patience. Unfortunately there is no substitute for patience.
If the animal or bird does not cooperate there is very little that you can do, other than to come back another time and try again. It is also a fact that wildlife photography requires good equipment. Unfortunately there are no cheap options when it gets to super telephoto lenses. However, owning the best equipment does not imply that you will be successful. You still need to learn the skill and that takes time and practice.
If you weren't a photographer, what would you be doing?
I am also an academic that hold a PhD and in addition to my photography I lecture Wildlife Management at a University in South Africa.
Hope this has been fun. Nico has been a wonderful wildlife photo guide and we thank him for the useful insights and advice.
Photo credits: Ecophoto.
Camera equipment: New and Old