In the Dark Room: Looking through the lens of an expert photographer


Cape Town - Morkel Erasmus, a wildlife photographer from Pretoria with a passion for Africa, was recently commended by London's Natural History Museum (NHM) in the 2015 Wildlife Photographer of the Year (WPY) competition for his black and white photograph (seen below) capturing an elephant calf perfectly framed between its mother's legs. 


Though Erasmus' photograph will not be considered for the WPY grand prize (only category winners proceed to the final stage of the competition), his photograph was one of about 100 photos out of 50 000 entries to be commended by the NHM. 

ALSO READ: Natural History Museum's 2015 Wildlife Best

The winners for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year will be announced on 13 October this year. 

Traveller24 caught up with Morkel Erasmus (M.E) to hear about his favourite photography moments, as well as his tips on how to get noticed as an amateur photographer on the international spectrum. 

Here's what he had to say: 

Traveller24: What’s the best gadget(s) a photographer can have?

M.E: Trick question? I think the best "tool" a photographer can have is his/her brain. Develop it - develop your creative eye for composition and develop an intuitive understanding of your gear so you can get the shot in the instant that it appears before you.

As far as "gadget" - perhaps just a very versatile lens in your arsenal. For wildlife that would be typically a 70-200mm lens as it gives you so many options to get a variety of images. For travel/portraiture I think a 24-70mm lens is very versatile and useful.

Traveller24: What’s the best tips in terms of lighting you can give amateur photographers?

M.E: Learn to understand the properties and characteristics of light...especially natural light. Study what it does to your chosen subject at different times of hte day - how it shapes and defines and gives context and depth. Learn how to expose properly in a variety of lighting conditions, and how your metering modes can support that objective.

Traveller24: Please name/show the three favourite photographs you’ve ever taken? Why are they your favourites? 

M.E: That is very hard. Photographers are by nature emotionally connected to many of their images and each stands out in its own way. For me - my favourite wildlife photos are not necessarily my "best" (whatever that means, art is so subjective) but they connect me nostalgically with a specific moment I witnessed in nature...they take me back to the sights, sounds and smells, the thrill of tripping the shutter and knowing I have captured something special, and also to the memories of the people I was sharing the moment with. My wife and kids have been with me on many memorable excursions to the bush and it makes it special to share these moments with them as well.

Here are 3 right off the top of my head that come to mind:

1. "Eyes on the Prize"
Our family had seen this pride of lions lazing around the previous afternoon in the Kgalagadi, and my wife's premonition (she's usually right) was that they would kill during the night. The next morning we found them on an open pan and saw them killing a young eland - intense sighting for sure! But this moment will stay with me for a long time - I pre-visualised the shot, pre-focused on the lioness, and waited for the right time to trip the shutter...

2. "A Fine Balance"
My first visit to Mana Pools was an overwhelming experience. Walking around amidst lions, elephants, buffalo and wild dogs (responsibly and with respect to the animals) really opened my eyes to a different way of safari. We'd seen this big elephant bull stand on his hind legs the previous afternoon, but the setting wasn't as photographically pleasing. When we found him the next morning in a mystical forest in magical light, it all came together for two hours of photographic bliss. I shared this sighting with a very good friend whom you've featured before - Marlon du Toit. We have both been captivated by Mana Pools ever since that visit.

READ: Gonarezhou National Park: Zimbabwe's best kept secret for SA bush lovers

3. "The Promise of Rain"

This is from another family trip - we had driven through Botswana to Etosha with our kids who were then only 1 and 2 years was our first visit to this park as a family and we arrived just as the rains started. It cause a decline in the amount of animals around the waterholes BUT it provided amazingly dramatic scenery over the vast landscape - and dramatic scenery is my bread and butter much more than what sheer animal numbers would be. This herd of Oryx walking into a storm on the vast Etosha Pan is one of my favourite photos taken to date, it just encompasses so much of what I believe my photographic expression is about.


Traveller24: Describe the three best photographic experiences you’ve ever had (what happened and what did the photographs end up looking like)?


There is a lot of photographic satisfaction that comes from pre-visualising a result and actually getting it or at least getting very close to it - especially because it's nature and things don't always go as we would like them to go.

WATCH: Drama of the wildebeest migration 

1. The Great Migration
Nothing can prepare you for the sensory overload of sight and sound and smell that is the Migration at its peak. Hundreds of thousands of wildebeest and zebra all around you as you drive through the plains of the Mara, dramatic and tension-filled river crossings, and predators lurking around every corner and being overly opportunistic to grab a meal. The crossings can be anything from docile, single-line strolls through the Mara river, or dust-filled binges of chaos with animals flinging themselves off steep edges and clambering over each other to get to the other side.


2. "The Climb"
My wife and I sat at this tree for over 5 hours in central Kruger National Park (with our 6-month-old daughter in the car as well) in hopes of the leopard returning to climb up to his stash. It almost didn't happen in time (we had to leave to make the gates of Satara)...but then it did. The light was poor but I pushed my gear to its limits and got images that still make me smile today.


3. "Smiling Wolf"
One afternoon in Mana Pools, Marlon and I were lying in a dry riverbed photographing a pack of African Wild Dogs (Painted Dogs) as they were relaxing. We needed to leopard-crawl for more than 20 meters with our cameras and beanbags to get into a good position without disturbing the animals. After about an hour of photographing them totally at ease, one of them (which we presumed to be the alpha male) got up, looked directly at us, and started walking towards us with intent. We remained calm, and he ended up no more than 7 meters from us. He took in our scent, gave a soft growl, then relaxed and lay down within 15 meters of us, totally at ease and accepting our presence. It was a moment that changed our outlook on wildlife photography for ever!


Traveller24: Who are your mentors or which photographers inspire you most? 

ME: I have to say in South Africa, the photographers that inspire me are guys like Greg du Toit, Hannes Lochner and Peter Chadwick. Internationally I really enjoy the work of Nick Brandt, Frans Lanting and Jasper Doest.

HAVE YOU SEEN: A visual wildlife journey with Greg du Toit

Traveller24: Where is your favourite place to shoot in SA? And also internationally?

ME: In SA it has to be the open spaces and red dunes of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park - but don't discount the classic Kruger National Park (I keep to the Northern reaches these days as far as possible). The Mountain Zebra National Park is also a hidden little gem providing great photo opportunities and a lovely experience overall. 

Internationally I enjoy our neighbouring countries a lot as each provides its own allure - Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe. Kenya is also a must for avid nature photographers. I would say my two favourite international spots are Mana Pools in Zimbabwe and the Mara Triangle in Kenya.

Traveller24: What’s the best advise you can give amateur photographers who want to get their work noticed?

ME: Don't be afraid to share your work with people who can give you constructive critique. Sharing on social media is nice, but you won't grow your craft from the type of feedback people give on those platforms. But do put it out there - if you like it, share it, and be a nice guy other words comment on the photos of others that grab your attention, and acknowledge the feedback/comments you are given.

Traveller24: What’s your opinion on Instagram photography? Is it honest?

ME: Another trick question, haha. Well, there are people on there who are being honest and authentic, and then there are people (just like on other social media platforms) who go out of their way to fabricate a version of reality and make their lives sound way more spectacular than they actually are. I follow a mix of people from wildlife photographers sharing their work and behind-the-scenes stuff to people who only use their phones and do a very good job of keeping it interesting and creatively challenging. IG makes it easy to decide what you want in your feed. If something seems fake to you - simply unfollow...

We'd love you to share your travel experiences with us, or you can connect with us on FacebookTwitter or Instagram
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