2023 Botswana Blog

After coming back from teaching back-to-back workshops in Botswana in Spring I got a call from my Capricorn Safaris, my ground operator in Africa, asking if I wanted to take over a Wilderness Travel trip they had scheduled for late September, but which had no signups. Wilderness Travel, Capricorn Safaris, and byThom have a long-term relationship that is co-dependent upon lodges. When a trip gets cancelled last minute, the lodges don't like that because they end up having to market a big block of rooms at the last minute, so negotiations in the future with those lodges get more complicated. 

So after clearing the idea with Wilderness Travel, I said "okay, let's try that" and publicized the trip as a byThom workshop. Within a couple of days, it had filled. Lodge relationship preserved (yay).

One of the reasons why I wanted to try this trip is that I haven't previously offered a workshop so late in the Botswana safari season. Literally, we were going to close down Capricorn's year, as by mid-October it gets really hot and the rainy season begins (as I write this it is 104°F (40°C) with rain forecast two days this week). 

The good news about late season is twofold: (1) it's the end of the dry season, and animals have to congregate at the remaining water sources; and (2) the brush and trees have all lost leaves—some are starting their regrowth cycles now in anticipation of the coming rains—so it's easy to see into the landscape and find animals that aren't on the beaten path. The bad news is that it tends to be hot. We averaged temps around 95°F (35°C) at each day's peak, though nights fell down into the 60's, sometimes low 60's F (teens C). 

The other reason I wanted to do this year's trip is that I'm still trying to fill the last spot in my teaching partner Tony's trip next September. My hope is that by showing you all that was on display this year via this blog, you'll be motivated to sign up for next year's trip (but don't wait too long, there is only one remaining tent available, which can be shared or single). Two things about that trip before I continue: (1) it's the last byThom trip at the old workshop pricing (every supplier has raised prices for future trips); and (2) I'll be there for the first day to do my usual pre-safari teaching, plus I'll show back up at the end to look at how everyone did. That said, Tony has proven to be a very good instructor, so I have no doubts you'll learn a lot from him while I'm off exploring new possible areas to take future workshops to.

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I should also point out that next year's trip is likely to be a birders delight. First, Tony is a bird photographer, first and foremost. He knows the species and their patterns better than I do. Second, next year's trip is even more centered on the available water sources, which is where the birds all collect (as do the mammals). Third, it's the time of year that the heron rookery is active (foreshadowing). 

If you're interested in next year's trip, see the official workshop page for it. Signups are extremely limited.

Without further ado, it's time for Tony to take you through this year's trip. Unless it's in brackets [like this], the following is Tony's telling of this year's workshop, with Tony's images illustrating each day.

Into the Okavango Delta, Day 4

Written by Tony Medici

[Additional comments by Thom are in italics and brackets, like this]

A Travel Day is one of two days on this trip were we have to leave camp and get to another location by nightfall. Today we will travel from our camp in Xakanaxa by Land Cruiser to reach a public dock, and then travel by boat to arrive sometime in the late afternoon at Xugana Island Lodge. A picnic lunch, which we bring with us, will be held on an island deep in the delta some time in the middle of the day.

The Story about The Tree Hugger

Following up on yesterday afternoon's Thom challenge: the only thing I did was take the picture. I didn’t spot it and I didn’t name it. [One of the things I tell students to do is name a photo in their head as they take it. This gets them away from taking pictures of nouns and taking pictures that communicate something.] The group I was in decided it was our best of the afternoon. [I'll point out that they were still talking about that well into dinner, debating the merits of several images. Which, of course, was my goal.]

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It turns out that both the spotting and the naming were done by our driver/guide Adam Hedges. All he said was “Tree Hugger” I don’t even remember if I saw him point at the elephant but I did see the picture when I looked back up. The camera was instantly up, I adjusted its zoom—this was the 100-400mm—and I took a short burst at 20 fps. Only the first two images got the tree hugger pose (1/10 of a second) and by the time the sequence was done, the elephant was off the the tree. One other person got some shots, but mine were judged to be better. He never showed me what he actually had taken but I suspect it was what I took later in the sequence.

So also following up on yesterday’s post, I wrote the "be prepared to take images" advice because it's the only way to get some kinds of images. Moments in time are very ephemeral. The above image was taken right around sunset and my last checking of my manual exposere was good enough for the image to work.

Yes, my image was the picked image for the afternoon from our vehicle. The other image from our group that was considered was a herd of Cape buffalo. Once again I miss another large herd of Cape Buffalo [That's what happens when you're always looking at the birds ;~]. The image picked by my group was a very nice image of a lot of buffalo. We had luck that our guide spotted both situations and even named the winning picture. But that's one of the reasons why we use veteran guides who've worked with Thom and other photographers before: they start keying into what we want to photograph. [Adam is the founder of Capricorn Safaris and has been leading trips in Botswana for 40 years now. Indeed, he was the lead guide on my original Botswana trip with Galen Rowell back in 1994, and I've used his company ever since for our workshops.]

Traveling to the dock

We started at our normal morning departure time with bags packed for what we needed to sleep two nights at the lodge. That lets the camp crew bring your large bag with them on the mobile camp transfer instead of loading them on the boat and later on the Cessna Caravan we will travel on during our next travel day. 

In the early morning it was generally quiet with us seeing a few things.

We saw a Tsessebe on alert. This is the fastest Antelope in Botswana. Despite all the lions around, we never saw one really running, so you'll have to take my word on its speed.

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An African Fish Eagle looking for a meal. You hear these birds long before you see them, as their calls are very distinctive.

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A Red-billed Spurfowl in a nice walking pose. Generally, you want a foot off the ground to imply walking.

A Hamerkop walking in low water. Be sure to get the complete reflection when working around water! These birds build enormous nests.

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Our first male lion as we found him (middle of road).

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Since we had not seen a male so far on this trip, he had to be another unique sighting. This makes for 22 unique lions seen so far on the trip.

A little after we arrived on scene, Thom and Adam arrived with the other students. That presented some new photo opportunities:

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We also saw at least one female, which the guides indicated was a member of one of the four prides we had seen before. This brings our total with three and a half days to 35 lion sightings total, and 22 unique ones.

African Wild Dogs on Day 4

We also heard about a dog pack over the radio from a friendly Lodge guide. It was supposed to be out of our way, so we had to rush down to Second Crossing, where they had previously been spotted. Eventually we found them not far from the dock area we were to use. The pack was at least seven dogs (there probably were a couple of others in deeper bush we didn't see). They were resting, which is typical for the middle of the day, but they provided a few minutes of enjoyment prior to getting on the boat and seeing what the water might bring.

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The Boat Ride

It was time to abandon the dirt tracks and load up onto a small flat-bottomed boat. We'll be heading up river through multiple lagoons to our eventual goal, Xugano Lodge.

One thing about finding elephants in the river channel is that you end up close to them. The 100-400mm feels like a very long lens when that happens.

But the primary targets on the river tend to be birds.

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Little Egret

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African Darter

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Nile Monitor lizard

All the above were all taking while traveling up river to our lunch spot. After our picnic lunch, we continued on, and found an active rookery, where we had plenty of BIF (birds in flight) practice.

Yellowed-billed Stork

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Marabou Stork

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Marabou Stork Portrait

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Yellow-Billed Stork

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Great White Pelican

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African Openbill

The only small disappointment for our boat ride today: we saw no Malokite Kingfishers. 

[As often happens on the long boat ride to Xugano, we arrived late, almost at sunset. We try to spend as much time at active sights like the rookery as we can, but that puts a real strain on both our boat driver (who has to get back to Xakanaka while he can still see) and the lodge, as we're already into dinner time by the time we get settled in our rooms and cleaned up.]

Xakanaxa, Day 3

Written by Tony Medici

[Additional comments by Thom are in italics and brackets, like this]

A quiet early morning

I can always tell when the morning is quiet compared to the start of other days. As I’m a firm practitioner of photograph what’s in front of you, I found I had a bunch of ubiquitous birds to choose from this morning while we were scraping to find bigger, and to most of the students, more interesting subjects.

Still it wasn’t a bad set of images I took, it just wasn’t the big five or any other more exotic animal people want to see.  

The Burchell’s Starling as nicely lit up on its perch showing off its iridescence coloration which is much darker in bad light. 

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The Marsh Flycatcher is an erratic bullet which is almost impossible to catch in flight. 

The Namaqua Dove presents a variety of different colors depending on age and sex. 

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The Goliath Heron was a regular for the last three days since he likes it in the natural ponds just outside camp. The White-faced Whistling ducks swimming in the water and eating were a nice contrast to the Goliath Heron, which is the largest Heron. 

A young Vervet Monkey standing what looks like very overly proud. 

An elephant trying to cool as the temperature rises.

And lastly a Watted Crane that started a take off run only to decide to abort it. 

And then...

A pride of 13 lions eating

This pride was about as messy as you get with lions. Most of the pride had finished eating and were resting under random bushes or in tall grass while a few were still eating. I could have taken pictures that were a lot more gory than what I’m posting here. I took few and skipped the worst things I saw. Lions on a kill usually gather Vultures too. I don’t think this kill had been dead for very long since I only saw Hooded Vulture around.

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Lions on kill

Lion after eating

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Hooded Vulture

The Afternoon

In the afternoon, Thom didn’t go out on the safari instead choosing to stay in camp for the afternoon. Going out every day can tire you out especially with the heat, and constantly teaching is a strain. [I'd also done a very intense scouting session just prior to this workshop, so I needed a bit of down time, otherwise I would have been running near continuously for over a week.]

Thom did give both vehicle’s occupants instructions though: come back to camp later in the afternoon with an image chosen by the occupants as the best image of the afternoon from that vehicle. These were my picked pictures in order taken for the afternoon. See if you can figure out which one I liked for Thom's game.

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Hippopotamus out of water

Elephant Portrait


Grooming and Eating

Egyptian Goose

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A Tree Hugger

[I should comment about this exercise. It isn't so much about picking the right image, though I don't tell the students that ;~). I use tricks like this faux contest to get students to communicate with each and talk about what makes one image good and another less good. Turns out with this group of six, my trick had exactly the right impact. Both groups were still seriously discussing their images and the merits of them well into dinner.

The other interesting thing about making "best image" choices also reared its head in the discussions. When it's your small group doing the discussion, sometimes you start second guessing yourselves and try to figure out what I'm up to and what I want to see (don't, that's a waste of time ;~). More than once I've seen a group pick an image I didn't feel was the strongest, and when I tested that by showing all the examples to the other group(s), they agreed. This brings up the "we're all our own worst critic" problem. 

My intent on workshops—and Tony buys into this too—is that we're there to discuss and improve our photography. That isn't just about technique, but also in how both we and others perceive the photos that we create. There's no one "right" way to take photographs. It isn't about aperture, shutter speed, ISO, or anything else technical. The technical decisions should inform your aesthetic decisions. We've all seen great photos that could have been captured better. But we also have all seen far too many photos that are technically excellent but aren't interesting. The goal, of course, is to do both. 

As I observed the two groups and listened to their discussions, I could see that's exactly what they were trying to figure out, which was the intent of my little charade.]

It’s not really shooting fast, it is being prepared to shoot.

How do you photograph so quickly? Some people say to Thom and I: "You always seem to get the image while I’m always missing it."

I don’t take photos quickly at all. I simply pre-set everything so that under "normal" conditions, I’m always ready to press the shutter release immediately.

What does that mean? Well on Safari I set the camera so that I can immediately photograph something once I get the camera in focus. During the day, when the exposure remains consistent, I set the exposure manually for isolation on a single subject. That means if I encounter a single subject attraction that is in the sun, I don’t have to change anything about the camera settings when the encounter starts. That means I could be taking images as soon as the vehicle halts and I can get a good focus on the subject. Sometime that pays off because we spooked the subject, it moves within seconds of that first image being taken and had I not taken it on stopping, I would have no image at all. This will also, mostly, work in aperture priority mode though you might have problems with certain color subject. [I'd also point out that you can get focus "close" by having it set to a distance you anticipate seeing a subject at. The current cameras are incredibly fast to focus if they don't have to move the lens from the closest focus position or infinity to a subject that's in between.]

In the evening or early morning, an automatic exposure mode might get you there quicker since the light is constantly changing. Though you can still be ready using an manual mode if you are regularly checking the exposure meter to make sure it where you want it to be.

If you are photographing with two cameras, you need to make sure both are being updated between animal encounters.

[With new safari students, I also spend the late afternoon saying to them "what's your shutter speed? Do you need to increase your ISO?" as the light wanes. In the early morning, it's the opposite refrain. Tony's point here is a good one: be prepared for what you want/expect to happen. Don't wait for it to happen to make settings.]

Xakanaxa, Day 2 — "Day of the..."

Written by Tony Medici

[Additional comments by Thom are in italics and brackets, like this]

A quiet start in the morning

As we pulled away from camp at sunrise, the group I was with today (with some encouragement from me) decided to stop for sunrise photos. I was stopping for distant bird pictures that happened to have the trees and the sun as its view. So with the sun rising in the haze and dust, I took a quick picture, which also happened to have a Grey Heron perched in the tree. One thing that a lot of first-time safari folk tend to do is ignore the environment, but those photos tell us stories that just headshots of animals don't.

This was a short stop because everyone was hoping to revisit the small pride of lions we spotted yesterday late in the day. In the meantime, we stopped for what we saw when various animals attracted our attention. Here are a few random images I took while we did that. They included species including Waterbuck, Tsessebe, Yellow-billed Kite, Red-billed Spurfowl, Swainson’s Spurfowl, Common Ostrich and Impala. These are just a few of the species I spotted during the day, (plus 41 bird species today and an eventual 120 bird species for the whole trip). Due to lack of a convenient app, I don’t track mammals, reptiles or insects species.

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We never did find the three sleeping lions from the previous day. However, we weren’t out long before we found a different, nine lion pride.

A pride of nine lions on the move or on a hunt

Adding those nine lions to the three sleeping lions we found on the first day that were sleeping in the grass gave us a count of twelve individual lions spotted in just a few hours work, which left our group very happy with the sightings. During the initial contact, the Lions were active and playful and although they occasionally they moved toward prey, they never actually chased them.

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Turns out it was the day of the lions

We decided to leave the group of lions when they slowed down to rest, as the temperature continued to rise into mid-morning. As we traveled the area, just after our morning rest stop believe it or not we spotted another pride of nine lions. The guides were sure this group was not part of the first pride as we had moved a significant distance from that pride so we could stop at a scenic spot for morning break. So we designated it as the second pride of the morning. This group was actively eating at a kill [That would be another indicator of "different" pride; the two groups would have hooked up had they heard a kill from a portion of their pride]. We took the much messier images while the females continued to devour the kill. After spending time with them we eventually headed back to camp for our lunch and afternoon break.

The second (eating) pride also had nine lions, bringing our individual lion count to 21 for the trip in just over 24 hours! I don’t usually take lots of pictures of lions eating because most people I might show them to find them very gory. I try to take less gory images; here's a somewhat less gory image:

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After our lunch, initial afternoon image reviews with Thom, a short break, and then the required British tea break, we headed back out at our usual afternoon start time of 4 pm. We spotted additional lions in this trip, but the guides were sure they were part of one of the prides we had already spotted, so we did not count these. The lion count for the day ended up 18 with the extra lions spotted more than once during the day. That count is worth counting as the Day of the Lions.

[I'll point out again that one of the benefits of a late season trip in Botswana is that the water sources force the animals to congregate closer together. In April, for instance, we do see some lions in Xakanaxa, but certainly not this level of activity. When the water is ubiquitous and spread out, so are the prey and predators. As the water dwindles down to just the permanent sources, things get concentrated to a specific area and finding both prey and predators is a lot easier. The guides have a word for this. They'll say an area is "pumping." I expect next year's September trip to be similar to this one: Tony will be teaching that workshop across three different permanent water areas, and I'll bet they'll be pumping...]

A lesson about Pre-Release Capture (30, 60, 120 fps)

The three highest frame rates for the Nikon Z8 and Z9 are 30, 60 and 120 fps [the Zf can do 30 in Pre-release capture]. All of these frame rates output only JPEG files and they each use different crops of the sensor to manage to shoot their specific frame rate and image size. I don’t often use these high speed rates because I’d rather produce raw files. Without Pre-release capture, the Z8 and Z9 top out at 20 fps recording NEF (raw) files [the Zf tops out at between 6.5 and 8.2 fps with raw and a live viewfinder, depending upon shutter type used]

Turning the Pre-release burst—Custom Setting #D3 on the Z8 and Z9—to either .3 second, .5 seconds or 1 second changes the way the camera operates when using Pre-release capture. Now the camera will be set to copy a burst before the shutter is pressed. The time the pre-release buffer is begun is with a half press of the shutter release. Starting focus (AF-ON) also starts the buffering.

Pre-release capture is used most commonly for trying to capture an event that you might otherwise miss due to your reaction time. Say you’re waiting for a bird to take flight; normally you miss the actual movement of take off due to reacting too slowly before you press the shutter release. In some cases, you might be so late pushing the first image taken doesn’t even contain the bird! Using Pre-release capture, you could be collecting images from up to 1 second before you press the shutter, which will also be saved when you finally press the shutter release. 

If you run the numbers for each speed, C30 means as many as 30 additional frames, C60 is 60 additional frames, and C120 is 120 additional frames. All frames captured before you pressed the shutter release. You set the Pre-release burst time based on the frame rate you’re planning to use and how many images you want before the shutter was set [basically, you're telling the camera you're slow in reaction time or fast ;~]. I usually use 60 fps and a full second because my reaction time has gotten quite slow as I have aged. If I can’t afford to go into DX mode, I’ll set it to 30 FPS instead as that uses the full frame to capture the image and hope I got it. (Again Custom Setting #D3 is being changed to make that adjustment.)

Every new firmware seems to make a slight change to this mode. Read up on your camera to understand the full set of limitations. The Z8 needs to reset what’s being captured prior to release after 30 seconds. There is a warning indicator at the middle bottom of the viewfinder display. If the buffer is good and still being managed by the camera, the icon has a green dot in it. If 30 seconds have expired, a question mark will be there instead because the camera has stopped buffering the pre-release info [I believe this is partially done to manage sensor heat/noise]. The Z9 can have more than a 30 second buffering time [depends upon firmware installed], but keeping an eye out for the question mark is still a good idea.

To start, begin holding focus with AF-ON or a back button technique, or half press the shutter release. To begin taking images press and hold shutter for at least a second. Release shutter to end the sequence. [The "at least a second" caveat is mine. I've found that if you just tap the shutter release in Pre-release capture, you don't always get the sequence you're expecting. I've taken to telling people to hold the shutter release down for a bit, and I use "for one second" because that's something they can comprehend.]

During your wait to press the shutter, always monitor the status by occasionally looking at the pre-release capture icon in middle bottom of viewfinder. If the green light disappears, release your focus button and/or shutter release, and restart the sequence.

The above image of a Little Bee-Eater is taken at my normal 20 fps rate using raw output. It was entirely luck to capture, and it still wasn’t "lucky enough" since I usually just take short bursts and ended up not getting the bird/wing position I wanted.  This was the eighth frame of a nine frame sequence. All of the seven prior images showed a (mostly) perched bird. The ninth image showed the bird had turned right and the head and the wing position was not good enough for a keeper.

The following sequence of a Crimson Breasted Bee-Eater I would break down into four categories. 28 images at the beginning were Bird on a stick photos (duration 1/2 second), 28 were Bird looking left images (duration 1/2 second), 21 were Take Off and Flight images (Duration 1/3 second) and 6 or more were unusable at the end of the sequence as the bird flew out of my framing. Breaking down the third category, I’m posting the 6th and 10th image. Fifteen of the 21 take-off-and-flight photos were good enough to have been keepers. (One consequence of "waiting for the bird" is that I accidentally took one of more sequences prior to getting the "good" sequence.)

When I’m switching in and out of Pre-Release Capture mode, since I already have Custom Setting #D3 set, all I do is pick a frame rate over 20. To turn it off, I switch the frame rate back to 20. [I go a bit further in my instructions: since the images will be JPEGs, you sometimes have to account for a slight difference in how the raw and JPEG files would be exposed. I'm often at +.3 or +.7 exposure compensation when taking raw photos, but there's no highlight retrieval possible with JPEG, so I have to dial that down. Tony always uses manual exposure mode, so he could just move the shutter speed up or down a bit instead.]

Xakanaxa, in Moremi National Park — Day 1

Written by Tony Medici

[Additional comments by Thom are in italics and brackets, like this]

On a typical Bythom safari planned as a 14 day safari, Thom usually has the larger group stay at a lodge in Maun to catch everyone up on his way of teaching. So Day 1 would be arriving at the lodge, lectures and practice for going out [that's the plan for 2024, and I'll be there for that day of teaching]. On day 2, we would then leave around 9 am for the long drive to Moremi National Park. The first part of that drive is long and dusty as we travel on tarmac and dirt roads out to South Gate before we enter the park itself. Once inside the park, we would stop for lunch hopefully at a scenic location. Two years ago, our picnic was interrupted by a family of elephants who posed for us. For the rest of that long-driving day, we would be in safari mode where we take it slow, looking for attractions on our way to camp. We end up spending maybe 4 or 5 hours in safari mode arriving at camp right before it gets dark.

Because Thom inherited a fixed itinerary from Wilderness Travel for this trip that saved time by flying out to the park on the morning of Day 1, everyone overnighted in Maun the day before and we first met at the plane in the morning. [This, of course, wasn't optimal, however only two of this trip's students were new to my workshops, and thus I was able to spend most of my first two days working with them to get them up to speed.

While a flight costs more it got us to the Xakanaxa airstrip (which is a dirt field) by mid morning. We then spent about 2 hours in Safari mode looking for attractions before driving into camp for lunch. Here's some of what we saw in that "extra" morning of safari:

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I like hiding elephants, because, well, they're hard to find. Normally, you see elephants more like this:

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We also saw a number of other interesting things for a "first" drive:

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All five of the above images were taken just in the morning safari after the flight, before we arrived at camp for lunch. The trip is off to a fast start.

Our first afternoon started with lunch, some rest/nap/download, review images time, and instruction time, followed by the usual afternoon safari tea. Thom spent most of that time making sure everyone was up to speed and ready to photograph whatever we found, just as I'll be doing at next year's workshop. At 4 pm, we loaded back into the Land Cruisers for our afternoon drive. We spent until the local sunset in safari mode looking for animals before we headed back to camp for a shower, dinner and retiring for the evening.

We continued to have good luck finding subjects during this drive, but I’d say the most excitement in the afternoon for the group (especially the first timers to Africa) was spotting a trio of sleeping lions in tall, dead grass (below). As you can see, some of the photographic opportunities of the encounter weren’t stellar. The sun was setting, and we couldn't wait for the lions to wake. However, it’s always nice to spot three of the Big Five so early in the trip (the elephants and leopard in the morning, the lions in the late afternoon).

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We did spot plenty of other animals for which I took the opportunity to get some images of some more common animals. On the first day, most people are willing [want toto stop for more common animals, which I often don't take time to photograph. Later in the trip, that will become harder and harder after we’ve seen many more of these common animals and everyone wants a "new" excitement.

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I'm a birder, so I also like to take all the opportunity to get decent images of all the birds that might be around. Today I saw a few birds I haven’t seen for multiple trips, as well as birds I sight more often. Different birds can be seen in an area due to visiting at a slightly time of year to catch migratory birds. Or you can see different species by changing areas, which causes the indigenous birds to vary. In September, for instance, the crimson bee-eater is migrating through the area:

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Red-Billed Ox-Peckers stick around, and only migrate on the backs on animals:

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Tony Medici is a photo instructor that specializes in Nikon equipment. He has been working with Thom for 15 years as the assistant instructor on all of Thom's large workshops. During that time, he has used a variety of Nikon cameras and lenses as Nikon completed its journey for its F-mount DSLRs ending with the D850. He has now continued with the Nikon line by using Z camera bodies including the Z9, Z8 , Z7, Z6 and Z6 II, and Z-mount Nikkor lenses, such as the 400mm f/4.5 VR S that was used in many of the above images. That puts him in an excellent position to answer specific question on Nikon cameras as well as general answers on Photography questions during any workshop that he might lead or help Thom with. Tony is also the Lightroom expert on a byThom workshop (Thom is the Photoshop expert), and helps students with organizing and processing their images.


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