Learning how to take pics like a pro

2011-07-25 00:00

ROGER and Pat de la Harpe of African Imagery are known for their dynamic pictures of wildlife and for their popular glossy conservation books that show animals in their natural environment. But for most of us it is a dream to be able to produce those quality images that inspire the imagination.

As a journalist, I have worked with press photographers for many years and they have always driven me quite mad with envy. What I spend hours trying to capture in words, they manage to do so with a single image that seems to say so much more.

Of course, those seductive images make my black-and-white words look so much prettier on the page. But who am I kidding? There has to be an art to taking the perfect picture. I have got better over the years at taking my own photographs and the advent of digital photography has decreased the number of bloopers I make. But when I had the chance to attend a photographic workshop by the De la Harpes, I was thrilled.

“Don’t be intimidated,” Roger said on the phone, speaking from some exotic location in the bush. “If you have a digital camera, come along and have some fun.” I think I heard the sound of a lion in the background but I couldn’t be sure.

They hold their photographic workshops a few times a year in different locations. Our venue was the charmingly picturesque conference venue at Yellowwood Café, a restaurant that gives a magnificent view of the Howick Falls from another angle. As with all workshops there is the theory part first.

Roger is charming and one realises that his early days as a KwaZulu-Natal game ranger are still embedded in his personality as he regales us with tales of animal action shots and glorious moments. Looking on, Pat is a quiet observer, interrupting occasionally with a perceptive comment.

I initially looked around at the other gung ho participants with their top-of-the-range cameras and laptops and wanted to flee. As the debate raged about which camera boasted the best picture quality, my humble little Olympus nestled incognito in its bag. Eek — this was like taking a Suzuki on a Harley-Davidson rally. I did feel a little defensive as my little camera had taken some brilliant images in the past. But it soon became apparent that skills were just as important as camera quality.

Roger has used both premier brands, Nikon and Canon, and believes that both have their own advantages. He promotes the Nikon brand as it is the sponsor of his new project which is a book that focuses on the conservation of African lions.

He talks a lot about the importance of light in taking pictures. If you look at any postcard rack at any stationery store you will notice that most postcards will have a sunrise or a sunset postcard. That glorious rosy orange glow gives any ordinary scene a magical quality.

Soft light in the morning or at dusk is preferable to the hard light at midday. Teaching amateurs like the eight of us to adjust our settings to accommodate difficult light settings was a tough task for Roger, who has been using photo speak for decades. Soon we were getting to grips with the terminology and learning how aperture and shutter speed work together.

He patiently explained that a large aperture allows more light into the camera which would usually mean a corresponding quick shutter speed. Depending on the situation, one would set the camera for shutter or aperture priority for depth of field.

“Get out there and show us what you can do,” he instructed. We fled the room into the early morning light with our cameras, our creativity freshly inspired, pointing our lenses at everything that moved.

Yellowwood Café is an old farmhouse and its old stables and assortment of farm animals give great visuals. Even humble lemons hanging in the fresh morning light can look beautiful. An aloe bush contrasting against a crisp frosty field made a nice picture.

Choosing three images for analysis by our experts was hard and we waited for Roger’s stinging criticism, but his comments were instructive and useful. “Crop your photograph for better emphasis and remember the rule of thirds,” he would advise.

The rule of thirds is a famous rule for composing a better photograph. It means not placing the subject of your photograph dead centre as one is prone to do, but rather dividing your view finder into thirds, either vertically or horizontally, and placing your focus point into one of these thirds. The corners are the best. The result is that the eye is led into the picture and the options for cropping your picture to give emphasis are much better.

By the second day we were more comfortable offering our images for inspection and we anticipated the comments. But a challenge awaited us — to photograph a waterfall that showed the moving water as a silky smooth veil.

The final challenge was to take a portrait of African Imagery production secretary Sarah Caithness. The young beauty is naturally photogenic, but Roger showed us some tricks with Adobe Photoshop . Freckles can be removed and lips can be darkened and teeth whitened. For amateur photographers’ flaws, this program can enhance imperfect images. “Don’t become sceptical about the talent of photographers, just realise that almost every woman in magazines almost certainly doesn’t look as good as that in real life,” said Pat.

Roger assured us that he did not give his wild animals any face-lifting gimmicks as they are too beautiful. But he said that one of the tricks in wildlife photography is patience. He said that he has spent many hours waiting for the right light, the right moment and the right composition, and sometimes when it all came together it was a sheer fluke.

• The De la Harpes’ next photographic workshop is running from July 29 to July 31. If you would like to participate, look up the details on their website: www.africanimagery.co.za or call 082 829 5852.




• Remember the rule of thirds when composing photographs.

• Watch for bright spots when shooting and rather underexpose than overexpose.

• Make sure your camera equipment is in working order, eg batteries charged.

• Use a tripod for slow shutter speeds.

• Have fun.

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