The drama of the season is building every day at Rietvlei nature reserve!
It’s spring in the southern hemisphere and that means things are getting interesting! The swallows have come south, along with many other migrants, the rain has started to fall and the thunder has started to, well, thunder.
I love the edges of things, especially in photography. After all, most of photography is about edges; edges define the shape of things.
But I’m not really talking about geometry and shapes, more the edges of the natural world; seasons, times, storms, coasts, sky, earth, dark, light, warm, cool...you get it.
Edges are where all the fun things are and it just so happens that we are at an edge now.
Spring is here and, at the edge of summer, the animals of Rietvlei Nature Reserve are starting a new year.
In the Zebra world that means fights as the young stallions jockey for position and start to challenge for their own harems.
But Zebra’s are fighting all over South Africa - so why is Rietvlei special?
Many of you will know that I am a believer in targeting photographs. That means I like to specifically plan and seek out my shots. Rietvlei and the Zebra behaviour I have noticed there are just the kind of things I like to target.
Rietvlei is excellent for photographers because it is a grassland reserve, protecting the endangered Bankenveld grassland of the Highveld. It is unusual, in a South African context, because it has very few trees obscuring the backgrounds.
In addition to the lack of trees, the reserve has soft rolling hills. These provide wonderful backgrounds to images. They slope gently upward just like the roll of paper one might use on a product shoot; perfect for isolating subjects!
Rietvlei has more though! The dense road network means that you can position yourself very effectively near the action and at the right places to take advantage of background and light. This is something one shouldn’t underestimate. Too often, for example in the Kgalagadi, where one road leads up or down one side of a river valley, you are on the wrong side (either the subject is far away or in the wrong light).
During the winter this year, the Rietvlei management set fire to various parts of the reserve in controlled burns. They need to do this because Rietvlei is a grassland reserve and grasslands are preserved and renewed by fire.
The happy thing, for photographers, is that the fresh grass acts like a magnet, drawing in a wealth of game to feed on the succulent shoots. Why is that happy? Because the zebras come together into larger groups in close proximity to one-another - perfect conditions for a battle!
It was a stormy day with thundershowers that were due to clear as the afternoon cooled. I prefer these stormy/sunny conditions because the light can get very, very good.
I stayed in the same spot the entire time, three-and-a-half hours and all I did was photograph Zebras. The herds did not disappoint!
Renoster vlei was awash with antelope. The ground was muddy and beautiful yellow flowers had pushed up everywhere in the green grass.
The light settled and intensified as the sun sank lower, reflecting beautifully off the soft cloud base to yield wonderfully tempered shadows.
Most of Rietvlei’s human visitors were clustered around the thick grasses near Acacia Loop where the Cheetah’s had been sighted and I had the sunkissed vlei largely to myself.
As the Zebra’s fought for me, I felt the tensions of city life slide away. There is no place I would rather be, than at Rietvlei, in the late afternoon, in the sun.
Perhaps I'll bump into you out there :)
Behaviour to Look For
Look out for one or more Zebra walking or trotting purposefully towards another.
The animals will congregate in groups and usually one or two will make rapid flicking movements of their tails or heads. This might be accompanied by a quick stamping motion with their front legs.
Often the aggressor will start pushing the rear part of his body into the other Zebra sideways. At this point some nipping and kicking might start along with vocalisations.
Often the animals will try to bite each others hind leg on the ankle or to grasp the tail of their opponent. You will note that the tails are carefully tucked away over the genitals.
This attempt at ankle biting generally devolves into rapid, body-to-body circling, often to the point where one or both animals is kneeling. Pretty soon a full fight will develop, often one animal will try to hold another down before rearing up spectacularly on their hind legs.
Equipment and Shooting Tips
The road network at Rietvlei often lets you get very close to the action so you don't necessarily need a huge telephoto lens to get the shots. However, a lens of 300mm plus would be very useful.
It's also important to note that Zebra are big animals, so you actually need a good depth-of-field to photograph the action (it will be fast!). This works in favour of less expensive zoom lenses, many of which have higher apertures of F5.6+. If you are shooting at F8, as we probably are with these Zebras, then these lenses are fine.
For close action use F8 and focus on the closest animal, don't worry too much about focussing on the eye, F8 should give you a sharp enough image.
If the action is filling the frame then I suggest you move back, further away, to ensure you capture all the extremities of the fight.
Further away, you can drop your aperture to as low as F2.8 if you wish as the depth-of-field will be quite a bit larger at distance.
Aim for a shutter speed of 1/1250th plus in order to freeze the rapid movements during the fights.
In these conditions, F-Stop and Shutter Speed are more important than ISO, so just crank this up to whatever is necessary to achieve the shot. In Canon camera's you can use 'Auto' mode if you prefer. In the relatively constant light I experienced, I prefer to use manual mode and just dial in the necessary settings and leave them (unless a cloud rolls over).
Positioning and Backgrounds
I don't really mind what direction of light I get. I'd be delighted to shoot a pair of fighting Zebra against a sunset in silhouette or use flare on a low sun, however, with the sun higher I like side light or front light. You can move around to achieve this.
Backgrounds look stunning if you can place the Zebras against a softly rising slope and exclude the sky.
For more photography tips and information about Rietvlei download a copy of my eBook. Join our Photography Facebook Group, visit the website or enter the Rietvlei Photo Of the Month Facebook Contest for cash prizes.