Aug 27, 2013

joBerg2c. Mountain Bike Challenge

On a trip to the Kwa Zulu natal coast earlier this year I was lucky enough to attend the finish of the annual joBerg2c mountain bike race. This a grueling 900km race from South Africa's Johannesburg all the way down to the coast to finish at Scottburgh. There is only an esitmated 10km of tar on the entire race and 99.5% is off road.

The event organizers don't make it easy on the riders and throw in a 800m ride over the beach sand then a 30m or so lagoon crossing at high tide. This adds up to great spectatorship but something tells me the race's other 899km carry far greater stories of turmoil and triumph. Enjoy the collection!

Aug 16, 2013

Thanda and the new Tamron (SP 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD)

EOS 7D; Tamron 70-200mm @200mm; 1/350th; f/2.8; ISO 200
In June I decided to buy the new Tamron 70-200 f/2.8. Clearly I had agonised over the decision for months. As alway when buying more equipment, the key governing factors can be broken down into three categories. First is always budget. Second is need, and third is performance. It is a three-way seesaw.

EOS 7D; Sigma 18-50mm @40mm; 1/90th; f/11; ISO 100
Budget is self explanatory so I'll move right onto need. As photographers we are a very needy group of people. The manufacturers love us. We are so easy to hook into upgrading, expanding and spending. Need is not the same as want. I want a EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM. Can I continue to work as a professional photographer without one? Of course! When you have sorted out your budget, buying a new lens is all about balancing the budget against what serves you and your photography best. As an aspiring sports photographer, a 10-20mm lens might not be your best choice if you lack a lens with a bit of reach. Would the 10-20mm be nice? Yes! Would you probably get some decent sports images to expand your portfolio. For sure! But a longer focal length, given your aspirations and dominant type of photography will probably prove to be a better investment.

Thirdly, you have to balance the performance of the lens against your type of photography and shooting conditions. If you are even a little bit aspiring, lens performance and quality are important. Personally I do a very mixed bag of work from journalism and editorial type shoots to fine art and commercial photography. A relatively generous share of work is under poor lighting conditions. I do a lot of theater and performance shooting and other work in poorly lit galleries and in-doors. So fast lenses are important as is quick and responsive autofocus. IS/VR/VC/OC (image stabilization/ vibration reduction/ vibration compensation/ optical stabilizer) is also a must and (budget aside) you would be silly now days to consider anything less.

So it was with some concern that I read reviews on the Tamron SP 70-200mm f/2.8 that suggested that the lens' focus was a bit slower than its twice the price canon counter part. From what I read quality was on a par, even better some people suggested. For some 'commentors' the slower responsive time was unnoticeable or negligible. Nobody, from what I read, came out particularly strongly against the lens' supposed slowness. I am a canon user and was spoilt back in the day when canon cleaned up the competition gamboling faster focus against changing their lens mount. So I gamboled a little too. I reasoned that the 'less responsive' tamron, when compared to the canon would be negligible. If the argument is merely a matter of hundreths of a second then it is marketing hoo haa and would bring little to bear to the detriment of my photography.

So I got the Tamron. And was I right? The answer is no. Having used the Canon 70-200 f2.8 II and now the Tamron I can tell you that the Tamron's slugishness is indeed noticeable. Not all the time, but in bad light, which is when I do quite a bit of photography (and when you need the rapid responsiveness the most) the Tamron takes a bit. In good light it is, in my opinion, on a par, but with strong back light the lens hunts far more readily than I am used to with the Canon version.

So what is the verdict? Do I regret buying the lens? Absolutely not. Do I wish it was a little quicker and a little more responsive? Yes I do. Will I still be able to work professionally and capture quality images that my clients love? Absolutely. I am a HUGE believer in working within your means. Too many photographers are too quick to blame their equipment (or lack thereof). Students of mine constantly claim to not be able to shoot sport or theater because they don't have an image stabilized lens. So I see red and remind them that the dawn of sport and theater photography did not begin when manufacturers brought in IS/VR/VC/OC or the like.

Below are some images taken during a recent wildlife and landscape photography workshop conducted in the Thanda private nature reserve in Kwa Zulu Natal, South Africa. Thanks to team 'Girl Power' for their enthusiasm, eagerness and humour.

Team Thanda- June 2013, 'Girl Power'. Light painting with fill-in flash and torchlight. Canon EOS 7D; Sigma 18-50mm @ 18mm; 30 sec; f/5.6; ISO 200

EOS 7D; Tamron 70-200mm @200mm; 1/350th; f/4.5; ISO 100

A particular highlight of this photo workshop was meeting up with two, otherwise shy male Nyala antelope. Normally the males are solitary and retire in thick bush. During territorial disputes males engage in the most beautiful high-heeled, circular dance, heads lilted, fur fluffed and horns ready. EOS 7D; Tamron 70-200mm @152mm; 1/180th; f/2.8; ISO 800

EOS 7D; Tamron 70-200mm @152mm; 1/1000th; f/4.5; ISO 400

EOS 7D; Sigma 18-50mm @20mm; 1/45th; f/4; ISO 100


Further to my previous post about a visit to the depths of the Bulawayo Natural History Museum in Zimbabwe, I thought I'd post some of the images from the entomology section.

Stick Insect now called Ischnaphasma leopoldi (changed from Palophus leopoldi) Collected from Zambia in 1968. These stick insects are also common in Zimbabwe and measure about 40cm head to tail (excluding out stretched front legs).

At one point, if I remember correctly it was in the mid-1980s, the Museum, boasting one of the biggest collections of insects traded roughly a quarter of it for two carved soapstone birds recovered from Great Zimbabwe, an historic site thought to date back to the 11th century. Nevertheless, the trade still left the museum with an impressive and scientifically significant collection. 

A mantid (Pseudocreobotra wahlbergi) collected by a 'Mrs Noble of Salisbury'. Collected in Ramsgate, South Natal coast on 12 November 1979

Included in in the collection are a number of type specimens. Type specimens are those individual specimens from which further specie descriptions originate. Thus the type specimen is like an anchor or prototype that helps to centralise the defining features. Although the scientific name of every taxon is almost always based on one particular specimen, or in some cases specimens, it is important to note that there is no requirement for a "typical" individual to be used. Thus, the term 'name-bearing type' or onomatophore is sometimes used, to denote the fact that biological types do not neccessarily define "typical" individuals. Mimacraea neokoton is one such specimen, a type specimen collected in December 1955 from the Chirinda Forest, NE Zimbabwe.
Type specimen of Mimacraea neokoton from the Chirinda Forest in Zimbabwe

Goliath beetle (Goliathus meleagris). Collected in Elizabethville, Congo (Zaire) in January 1912.


Aug 15, 2013

Invasive birds in Bulawayo: Then and Now

I've always been fascinated by museums, their specimens and their collections. I've also always been fascinated by history and loss. So I was excited to spend a morning in the depths of the Natural History Museum, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, earlier in April this year.

As a young child (probably too young to be surrounded by so much death) I nagged my parents to take me to the museum far too frequently. As a teenager I'd wonder around imagining all the hands that the specimens had passed through and all the eyes that had seen the living animals before they were taxidermied. You'd think the exhibitions would have changed since then but they haven't. Not even since my earliest memories of the place in the early 1980's.

As an adult I now walked the corridors remembering, reminiscing and thinking about that child who was me. But that's a whole other story... .

What brought me into the catacombs of the museum was pure interest, but I did want to try photograph some of the early collected specimens. It is a sad reality that many of Africa's collections struggle against little to no government funding. This means the museums are poorly staffed and their operations, from administration to field trips, are severely hamstrung.

The following incident illustrates this point well, and also illustrates my fascination with history and loss, as alluded to above.

Walking into the ornithology section, order and meticulousness were not immediately apparent. Neither did they become so. On a side board, next to a plate of chicken bones and a mealie cob lay a great and dusty White Backed Vulture. It was thought to have been collected in the 1950s, but the tags had come off (or not been put back on) so who was to know now? Next to it lay a small brown wreck of a bird amongst its attendant debris and dust.  Soon after, or perhaps sometime during the first world war negotiations had begun between Germany and what was then Rhodesia. The cause of the collaboration was a species of bird recently arrived in Bulawayo bearing a striking resemblance to a native from Europe, the House Sparrow (Passer domesticus). I immediately recognised this specimen, despite its poor state, as a female of the species.

The bird's tags said it was collected in April 1913, almost 100 years ago to the day, and belonged to "Museum A. Koenig Nr." So what was it doing perishing in the corner of a crumbling museum? I thought I'd ask. The response was straight forward and matter of fact. The curator had no idea. Nothing else was offered. I asked where she had got it from and she said "Germany".  I needed to be more specific so I tried to ask the right question. "Why do you have it? She replied helpfully that it wasn't hers, it was the museum's, and that museums sometimes collected specimens for science." (Sigh!) "Where did you find it?" I asked, trying not to sound desperate. And then all was revealed. She was sweeping a few months back, she said, and had found it behind a cupboard. Clearly she didn't know what to do with it, which is why it still sat on the side board. I wondered how long it had lain there and if "Museum A. Koenig Nr." had a blank space in one of their 'Passer domesticus' drawers. Trying to find out was too much to bear so I moved off to another section.

On top of another set of collection drawers I noticed a strangely out of place specimen. It was out of place, not because it was a brilliant Norwegian Blue in a dusty African Museum that had seen its heyday, but because this bird was neat and new. It almost sparkled it was so new. I flinched as I recognised it as an Indian or Common Myna (Acridotheres tristis). These birds began to proliferate and spread in Africa, it is thought, after aviary birds escaped in 1902. Fast forward to about 1980-something, where, if you were attending the monthly Matabeleland Wildlife Society meeting, like I was, you would have heard the energetic young Doctor of ornithology, Kit Hustler warning "They're coming. Make no mistake they're coming!", a finger stabbing toward the audience in  emphasis.

And he was right because now in front of me lay one of the first recorded specimens from Zimbabwe, collected from Gwanda about 120kms south east of Bulawayo. Common Mynas have now been declared  by the IUCN Species Survival Commission as one of only three birds in the world's 100 worst invasive species. House Sparrows on the other hand have the honour of being the most widely distributed wild bird in the world.

One hundred years, almost to the day separated the deaths of these two specimens and I wondered. I wondered whose eyes had seen these two birds flapping about. I wondered whose hands they had passed through and where they might be in 100 years time. I wondered what titles their species would hold a hundred years from now....

Then I saw the chicken bones and wondered if it was chicken after all.

On the left, a House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) collected in April 1913 and used to help describe the new arrivals in Bulawayo at about the same time. On the right, another invasive species, the Indian or Common Myna (Acridotheres tristis) collected in November 2012. This is one of the first specimens to be collected in the Bulawayo area and continues to signify the ever expanding range of the species.