Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Elephant Holds up Cars for Food

It is not quite as dramatic as the title might sound but this little fella was standing in the middle of the Yala National Park approach road - effectively blocking most of the road. He has learned to beg for food from passing traffic - we saw several small trucks pull up and the drivers passing over a banana or two - clearly he'd done this before. By the time we got close he was sort of shuffling back and forth into the shrubbery, all the while keeping an eye on the people in the bus. As you'll see in this very short clip, he was almost touching the vehicle - we saw a couple of other elephants doing the same during the drive into the park. Interestingly the guide reckoned this fella had been shot sometime ago because you can see the circular wounds from shotgun pellets that seems to have healed over nicely. Elephants can flatten an entire field or rice in one night and destroy a lot of crops like maize and fruit so unfortunately, even though it's entirely illegal, farmers still take pot shots at their invaders. Luckily for this guy, he lived to tell the tale.
  Yala Elephant from Robin Nichols on Vimeo.

Friday, 23 March 2018

Shooting Tip: Lighting Problems in Galle's Fishmarket

We have all visited a fish market at one time or another - our plan in Sri Lanka was to get to the early morning markets in Negombo after arriving the night before.

That plan failed because most of the fishermen in that part of Sri Lanka are Christian so, it being a Sunday, nothing was open.

We eventually found a much smaller local fish market in Galle, two hour's drive south of the capital. It was much smaller (than Negombo) and a bit late in the day (after 8:30) so half the stalls had already packed up - and by the smell pervading the beach along which the market was assembled, things were already going off.

Still, it was a great experience - photographically tough because: it's a busy place, the light was coming from behind the stall holders and of course, they were more interested in us buying fish, rather than posing for photos with fish.

Here's a small selection of snaps taken along the beach and some suggestions on how to deal with extreme back lighting...

Fishermen's nets litter the beaches up and down the coastal areas of Sri Lanka often making for a great shot, with and without the rubbish...
Angry Birds!
Shooting Tip: Lighting in a place such as this works against the photographer - you have to effectively shoot into the sun and, as it wasn't appropriate to start using flash (because it draws attention to what you are doing) the order of the day was to slightly over expose the file (shoot using an exposure compensation setting of around +1 stop) to try and retain a bit of detail in the darker tonal areas. Because of the extreme contrast this is never going to work very well - because you end up losing a lot of detail in the brighter areas of the sky. The banana prawns were going for $5 a kilo...
I usually bracket scenes like this (+/- 1.3 or 1.7 stops), because the light is very tricky and I might want a range of exposures to choose from later - or indeed, process a multi-file HDR picture.  On it's own, this two-stop underexposure frame is useless...
But then, if this dark underexposed frame is processed in either Camera RAW or, better still, an HDR app like Photomatix Pro or Aurora HDR Pro, you can reveal an astounding amount of detail in the shadows while holding the tones in the highlights - you can even get a blue-ish sky. 
I use Canon lenses and all of its (expensive) wide angle products seem to suffer really badly from Chromatic Aberration - a very noticeable colour fringing along areas of contrast in the frame - here it''s particularly noticeable between sky and the fish stall roof (previous version). Drop it into Lightroom or Adobe Camera RAW to remove this and you get a significantly better, sharper-looking result.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Take your camera for a Walk in the Garden

Because of an early flight out of Colombo I had to spend the night in an airport hotel next to the airport.

The Gateway Hotel is set in a large expanse of garden two kilometres from the airport so, with a few hours to kill, I wandered though the gardens to see if there were many birds about. As it happened it was great with more than nine species of bird seen - and a palm squirrel - in the space of only a couple of hours. Here are some of the pictures...

Common Kingfisher
Layard's Parakeet
Green-billed Coucal
Palm Squirrel
Yellow-billed babblers
Golden Oriole
Indian Cormorant

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Seema Malaka Temple, Colombo

Seema Malaka was originally constructed in the late 19th century. The original structure slowly sank into the water in 1970s. In 1976, Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa was brought in to redesign and construct the temple.
Statue of Vishnu in Seema Malaka temple
Though Buddhist, this temple is designed more for meditation than prayer, with an interesting mix of obviously Buddhist statues and those from Hindu religions
More statues inside the temple are mostly gifts from other Asian countries including Japan and Myanmar.

Dambulla and Sigiyria

Dambulla from Robin Nichols on Vimeo.

Monday, 19 March 2018

The Frustrations of a Wildlife Photographer or, the Elephant in the Room

On many occasions I've been lucky to have experience a safari - looking for animals and birds - for the pleasure of seeing a varied range of wildlife, and of course, to try and take a great shot of the subject.
In Sri Lanka most people that head to one of the excellent wildlife parks want to see the biggest mammals - this includes leopard, sloth bear and elephant.

The latter isn't hard to spot, particularly in Udawalawe, Minneriya and Kaudulla National Parks but, because of its natural cunning, leopards are significantly harder to detect. 

This shot of elephants in Kaudulla national park was particularly hard to get - I really wanted to see more of the baby elephant but as the mother and aunties in this group were very protective this was the only real glimpse I got before she was ushered back into the middle of the herd and out of sight. If you are not quick enough it's another photo opportunity lost.

On this photo tour we did find one leopard and it was up a tree. This is one of the 'Holy Grails' of leopard photography - but luck was against us - the tree was about a hundred metres away, in a forest, with dense ground cover.

After 20 minutes gesticulating on the part of our naturalist we eventually saw what looked to be a leopard, or rather a bit of a leopard obscured by leaves and branches. We took a snap for a record and moved on. 

Although our guide made a tremendous effort to point us in the right direction up the tree, it was almost impossible to confirm what we were actually seeing a leopard.
Everyone else in the vehicle said they could see it.
I wasn't convinced but took a snap anyway, just in case
On a safari this tends to happen again and again. You 'think' you see it, you take a snap hoping to capture at least a glimpse but find, once it's downloaded to the computer, it's just a bunch of leaves or twigs. That said, even though the professional guide can see it, and the use of a good telephoto lens, isn't a guarantee of getting the shot. 

And then there are the places where, despite the guide's excitement, you see absolutely nothing, and the record photo you take reveals even less, leaving you wondering whether the spotters are just making it up to look like they are doing their job, or perhaps you need a new prescription.

One instance was the sighting of a fishing cat and a cub - this was exciting as it's a
very rare find, but ultimately disappointing, as I could see nothing in the dim recesses of the shrubbery. The photo revealed something else.

And as if animal camouflage and cunning wasn't making the photographer's life hard enough, there are those critters that have the uncanny knack of always keeping a bush or tree between it and the lens, no matter how careful, and quiet you think you are.

A good example of this would be the very exotic Asian Paradise Flycatcher - a small light grey-coloured bird with a long white tail stretching more than twice its length (this was the white morph version). Whenever we saw one of these beautiful creatures is was just for a fleeting moment before it shimmied into dense undergrowth to disappear in a flash.

Just trying to follow this elusive bird is an exercise in frustration. We moved back and forth for 15 minis as this tiny flycatcher flipped back and forth in the dense undergrowth each time we tried to get a clear shot.
Here's one of the many outtakes with a perfect capture of the tail while its body is already out of sight behind the branches. This male is the unusual white morph version with a grey back and dark head
After some 15 minutes it was clear that this little bird was not going to play ball. It was like trying to photograph smoke, a will 'o the wisp in the forest. Almost impossible.
This was the best shot I got - you can clearly see how small the bird is in contrast to its fantastic tail feathers but, like most of my other shots, it wasn't sharp.
In this location there were just too many branches in the way which confused the camera's AF system. I also tried manually focussing the lens (an EF300mm f2.8 telephoto) but the bird never stayed put for longer then a few seconds and I was not not fast enough. Maybe next time.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Photographing inside the Weherahena Poorwarama Rajamaha Viharaya temple, Matara

This is one of those really curious temples that you can find in different places around Sri Lanka - hundreds of panels or cartoons depicting the life of Buddha in all its complexity - but illustrated in a form that people with little education can still grasp. There are so many stories - but as you can see from the twin picture - that I call heaven and hell, the message is clear. Behave, and you are 'in the clouds'.
'If you don't, well, it looks like you suffer some sort of painful compulsory foot surgery. Most of the shots here were triple exposures and processed using Aurora HDR Pro using a 'realistic' HDR preset.

View looking down from the top of the statue
Buddha's footprint
Seems he was a bit flatfooted?
Underneath the Buddha platform there are many more cartoons lining the sticky finger-stained walls of the tunnels running underground.
Some also show pictures of the people whose money has been used to paint the illustrations.

Heaven and hell?
Topless Yoga perhaps?
I don't get the chicken feet...
Although this place was only opened to the public in the late 70s it's illustrations have faded badly. Some of the steps towards to top deck of the four-story Buddha look as though the builders just ran out of money before it was finished: hand rails are missing, there are piles of building refuse that have petrified into solid piles of junk on the roof, and the concrete floor underfoot is lumpy and unfinished. Thankfully the cartoons in this entrance hall have been repainted recently so look as colourful as they might have done when I first visited back in 1983.

Crow Island from Flagrock Bastion, Galle Fort

Indian tourists taking a selfie from Flagrock bastion, Galle Fort

On my photo tours I always try to get everyone into shooting at night with a tripod. Unfortunately there were no stars last night because the sky was 9 tenths cloud cover - but there was some illumination provided by the lighthouse beam sweeping out across the sea.

Here are a few shots taken late in the evening from the most southerly part of Galle Fort, looking out to sea
. Night time exposures were around 160secs at f4, ISO 800. (Interestingly these files required substantial retouching to remove/retouch the blank pixels - these appear in the file as white or coloured specks - in my case, the EOS 5D MkIII produces a lot of these 'dead' pixels - you don't see this in daylight, only in long, nighttime exposures in the darker areas of the file).

Crow rocks in the distance illuminated by the beams from Galle lighthouse - and some larger rocks in the foreground illuminated with Ian's LED flashlight. The lights in the distance are container ships off the coast and local fishing boats.

Surf breaking over rocks immediately in front of Flagrock bastion - the lights from a passing ship somewhat overpowering the view on the horizon
Here's the original RAW file with some 'dead' pixels circled in red. It's something you'll find in all cameras with varying degrees of intensity. The only thing you can do about this is to retouch the spots using the Clone Stamp or Spot Healing brush.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Feeding Time at the Elephant Transit Camp in Udawalawe

What seemed like hundreds of local schoolkids turned up to witness the 9am milk feeding time at the Udawalawe elephant transit camp. I hadn't originally included this place on our photo tour because I'd read a lot of criticism about another popular tourist destination: Pinnewala elephant orphanage (near Kandy), which, by some accounts at least, was a bit if a tourist circus. Luckily one of our group expressed an interest and we had time yesterday to stop off here. I think we were all pleasantly surprised by the organisation at the camp - most of the inmates are looked after till they are old enough to take care of themselves in the main park (which covers more than 130,000 hectares). All the humans are herded into a small terraced viewing area under a flat roof and fenced off from the feeding area by about 20 feet.
One by one, or in small groups, the baby elephants, who by this time are queuing at the gate, come into the field and are fed - by bottle, or by simply pouring a few litres of milk into a funnel and a pipe. Crude but effective

Once fed the elephants move into the holding field right in front of the spectators to grab some leaves from branches left by the keepers.
This one ignored the leaves on offer and went straight for a watery mud shower.
The process lasts for about an hour and is 500rs well spent.
This little elephant is too young to cope among the 50+ older elephants at the camp so a gets special one-on-one feeding session.
He knows exactly where to go and which keeper to follow...