Photography in the Pantanal
With its tropical landscapes, spectacular sunrises, and diverse wildlife, the Pantanal is a photographers' paradise. With preparation, practices - and a bit of luck - you can capture stunning images as the perfect souvenir of your trip. You'll also find lots of serious amateur and professional photographers, as well as organised photography tours.
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The tips on this page will hopefully help you capture memorable images of your time in the Pantanal. Getting stunning images involves a significant degree of luck - but it is possible to stack the odds in your favour.
Gear Choice and Planning
Research and planning is your most critical starting point. You should have a clear idea about what you want to see, the best time/place to see it, and a reasonable idea of how you want your photographs to look. This will let you plan your travels accordingly, as well as choosing the companies/guides you will use, and equipment to take.
This site should help you with some of the research but sites such as Google, Wikipedia and Amazon.com are other invaluable resources. If you're interested in a particular animal then try finding out about their behaviour and biology so you know where to find them and what to watch out for. Also check out travel programs or wildlife documentaries. Some video previews are available below.
Pantantal Photography Video Links
Pantanal Wildlife Video Links
Research Photographic Possibilities
Try trawling through Flickr and other Google Images searching on the name of the place or subject that you want to photograph.
Hone your photographic skills before you go. Unless you photograph regularly you can't expect to turn up at a place and have your photography technique and equipment mastered. Practice by taking photos ahead of time, getting experience with your camera settings and composing shots. If you're interested in Pantanal wildlife photography then start by visiting your own local parks using the wildlife there, or even your family pets, as subjects. This gives you invaluable experience getting close to animals, and trialling different photographic techniques. If you can take decent images of common animals it gives you a head start with the less common ones.
3. Pack the Right Camera
Most photography books are written for DSLR cameras. This is the recommended option for anyone serious about their photography due to the features and wide range of lens choices available. However, these are big, bulky and often inconvenient to lug around.
Another good option in is the mirrorless interchangeable lens (MILC) format - also known as the DSLM or "mirrorless" format. There are several different sensor size formats - but they're all fairly comparable. The essential fact is that they're much smaller than conventional DSLR cameras but still retain many of the same features, including interchangeable lenses. This is a great choice to take with you for general travel shots. It's also a great backup option for serious photographers wanting something smaller and more discreet when they don't want to be carrying around a full DSLR.
The particular brand and model of camera you choose isn't such an issue. In the DSLR market, Nikon and Canon reign supreme (albeit with strong challenges from Sony and Pentax). In the MILC/DSLM format the race is more open. The deciding factor is likely to be budget, ease of use, and available lenses. Once you're already using one brand then it's likely you'll stick with this moving forward (as it means familiarity with controls, plus changing brand means not only changing your camera but also all your lenses).
Also note that when starting out you don't need to spring for a top of the range camera. All the wiz-bang fancy features of high-end models won't contribute to better photos for most photographers. Entry-level or mid-range cameras are perfectly cable of taking spectacular images. Truth is that the camera is secondary - the really important important place to investing your money is the lens.
4. Pack the Right Lenses
When photographing wildlife you generally need a good telephoto lens. A 300-400mm lens is a good choice - but you ideally need to step up to 600-700mm when photographing birds. However, given that a 600mm lens costs as much as a small car (and is about the same size) many professional photographers get the extra length by adding a 1.4x or 2x extender their existing 300-400mm lens. This is especially useful when travelling since you only need to take one big lens.
If you're considering buying a new lens for your Pantanal trip, its good to check review sites (such as www.photozone.de) to see how different lenses score in testing. Camera manufacturers often produce different lenses aimed at different markets - with consumer lens being smaller, lighter and much cheaper. Professional grade lenses are generally bigger, heavier, better built, and significantly more expensive. The reason for the extra size and weight is that they let in more light, and have sharper optics. This means letter low-light performance, less camera shake and higher shutter speeds. Another advantage of letting in more light (using larger apertures) is that it brings your subject into tighter focus while blurring out potentially distracting backgrounds. This blur, called bokeh, is a photographic science in itself.
If professional lenses are outside your budget, other manufacturers such as Sigma and Tamron also have their pro options.
- Consumer-level lenses can still take great images - with extra sharpness being added using the sharpening tool of your favourite photo editor.
- When choosing a lens, consider a model with Image Stabilization (Canon) or Vibration Reduction (Nikon). This helps reduce camera shake on telephoto lenses, and when taking photos in low-light.
Guide on buying Camera Lenses
5. Pack Other Essentials
Don't forget other items you'll need. If you're going to be out trekking then ensure you're sufficiently prepared to keep going for a few days without having to rely on a hotel or Internet connection.
- extra battery (or a battery grip)
- extra memory cards
- charger, power adapter, and USB cable
- portable hard disk and/or laptop
- shutter release cable
- Polarising and ND filters
- flash and flash modifiers
Guide on selecting a tripod
Camera filters are another worthwhile accessory. Although opinions among photographers differ, a screw-in UV filter is useful for protecting the front element of your lens from dust, grime and scratching. A Polarising Filter can be used to increase colour saturation, also reducing haze and reflection off water. Neutral Density (ND) and graduated ND filters are used in landscape photography (e.g. for reducing the intensity of the sky), and for giving a smooth milky appearance to the flow of water in steams and waterfalls. Unfortunately, the downside of the screw-in type filters is that you'll need a different one for each lens diameter. Therefore, if you have a range of different lens diameters then consider a cokin filter system adapter which lets you place rectangular glass panels in front of your lens, and even "stack" multiple filters. This means you can use the same filters across all your lenses - plus it allows you to move the horizon if using graduated filters.
Typically I also travel with a pair of speedlite flashes and a small set flash modifiers (diffusers and Honl speed strap with coloured filters). Truth is that these only have limited value for wildlife photography, but they're useful for location and people shots.
6. ... But Don't Pack Too Much
Most photographers face the temptation to load their camera bag with all manner of lenses and accessories - on the basis that it *might* come in useful. However, the fact you need to carry your gear in with you (and the menace of airline luggage restrictions) means there's a strong incentive to review everything in your camera bag, reduce the lumber of lenses, and purge anything not absolutely essential. If space and weight is at a premium, consider substituting multiple lenses with a single extreme range lens such as 18-300mm. Although this mightn't be as good as a suite of dedicated lenses, the results can still be acceptable (and much more convenient).
7. Caution with the DEET Repellent
Mosquito repellent is an (almost) must-have in the Pantanal, especially at dusk and when wandering through stands of forest. Unfortunately, most repellents contain DEET - which eats into plastics and rubber coatings on cameras and lenses. Although it won't necessarily ruin your gear - it does ruin the finish. For this reason I try to minimise my use of insert repellent, relying instead on light long-sleeved shirts and trousers and dusk (and sometimes standing in the smoke of the campfire, which also helps drive away the mosquitos).
8. Learn to Clean your Gear
Your camera and lenses are bound to get dirty when journeying in the Pantanal. There's dust in the dry season, and mud in the wet season. A small cleaning kit with a lens pen, blower, cleaning fluid and cloths is essential to remove grime and dust from your lens, filters, and even inside your camera. Taking a lens cloth with you when trekking is also a good idea to wipe away dust and water droplets. This is something I often forget - and usually end up using my t-shirt to wipe the lens (this is something all the photography references recommend against, but given I have a clear lens protector fitted, the risk is minimal).
9. General Tour or Photography Tour
If photography is one of your main reasons for travelling to the Pantanal then consider choosing a specialist photographic tour package. Although you can still take great photos on a regular tour, you may find that your guide and other tour members just aren't willing to hang around while you set up your equipment or try framing up the perfect shot. By contrast, when travelling on a photographic tour you'll be with a bunch of like-minded people, and a knowledgeable guide who will (hopefully) take you to the right spots mindful of the lighting and time of day.
Add checklist at the end.
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Choose Your Photographic Subjects
This seems a kind of obvious, but work out ahead of time the sorts of photographs you'd like to take - what scenery, what animals, what sort of people or environmental shot etc. This ties in with the research item already mentioned - since knowing what you're after helps you find or recognise it (and capture the photo you wanted).
Focus on the Eyes
Regardless of whether you're photographing animals or people, ensure your images maintains eye contact with your subjects. Sharp focus on the eyes (especially when the subject is looking right at the camera) provide a "connection" with your audience.
Pay Attention to Backgrounds
The backgrounds in your photos are important. You don't want them to be messy or distracting. If there's too much going on in a photo, it will be harder for your audience to focus their attention on the main subject of your image. There are several tricks commonly-used by photographers to improve their backgrounds:
If you have control over the subject:
- purposely position the subject with an appropriate (not too distracting) background.
- re-position yourself (and your camera) in relation to the subject, composing the shot with the cleanest background possible, and/or
- use a large aperture lens (and shallow depth of field) to blur the background so that only the subject is in sharp focus.
Shoot Raw Format
Raw format (actually a different proprietary format from each camera manufacturer) sometime gets referred as being your "digital negative". Essentially, the digital sensor in your camera picks up more information than actually gets shown in the JPEG and preview images that you initially see. This is extra information hidden in the highlights and shadow. Although you can't see it, this hidden detail becomes extremely useful when importing your photos into image editing programs such as Photoshop. You'll get extra image adjustment options on import to refine image exposure, improve the contrast range, saturation, and remove colour casts. This is a lifesaver for recovering images where the lighting hasn't come out as expected, or where incorrect camera settings have been used.
How to process Raw images in Photoshop Elements
There are a couple of things to be aware of when using Raw format:
- Raw format files aren't directly viewable. They need to be converted on import (its often more convenient to use the Raw + JPEG option so you get both).
- Raw format files are significantly bigger than JPEG (sometimes by a factor of 10). This means they'll chew through your memory card much faster. You'll need to buy additional (and/or bigger) memory cards, and have a plan to regularly save your images to a laptop, portable hard disk, or cloud-based backup service when travelling.
Know When to Shoot
Knowing when to shoot is another critical skill. Basically, the best time to shoot is whenever you have the subject in front of you - even if the light is less than perfect.
However, many photographers talk reverently about the "golden hour". This is the period shortly after sunrise, or before sunset, during which daylight is redder and softer compared to the rest of the day when the Sun is higher in the sky. Taking photos at this time of day shows an attractive colour cast, with saturated colours, strong directional light revealing better textures, and a narrower contrast range showing greater detail in the shadows and less overexposure in the highlights.
Tips for Wildlife Photography
Most importantly, wildlife photos require patience. Its also good to take lots of photos (and sufficient storage cards). This maximises your chances of getting at least one really great image.
Other tips and links to articles
Vary your position to get a different perspective of your subject. For example, if you're shooting a small animal don't just stand over it pointing downwards - try getting down low for a more eye-to-eye perspective. Getting down low also has the advantage of making you less threatening - affording you the opportunity to get closer.
Try alternative compositions: shoot wide, shoot close focusing in on detail, shoot horizontal and vertical versions.
Look for food (and water) sources
Preserve your subjects and consider their welfare. Don't destroy nests, eggs, or otherwise put the animals to risk or distress.
Show animals in their environment.
Use a high shutter speed (and sufficiently fast ISO) where possible to freeze your subjects and ensure your images remain sharp even if your subject moves (although, ironically slow shutter can convey the image of movement through the blur created as subjects move).
Tips for Landscapes
Tips for Photographing People
Tips for Streams and Waterfalls
Tips for General Travel Photography
Do your research as to the best place to see animals. When choosing a lodge consider those which have a good reputation for the animals that you want to see (noting that sometimes they'll be lots more expensive). Also find out the best time of year to see those animals. Going with a lodge that has active participation in conservation programmes means that (a) there's more likelihood the animals will be around, (b) you may be able to photograph people working on those conservation programmes - such as checking nest boxes for chicks, and (c) there's a likelihood that you may run into knowledgeable biologists whose knowledge and insights might help your quest.
Photo Credits: Giant Otter (iStock/Torsten Karock)
Pantaneiros (Andrew Mercer)