PetaPixel

A Passion for Africa: Interview with Award-Winning Wildlife Photog Morkel Erasmus

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Morkel Erasmus is an award-winning wildlife photographer based out of South Africa. He has an abiding passion for his country and its animals, which comes out in his beautiful photography that is perhaps best described as ‘intimate.’ You can find more of his work on his website, blog and 500px, or by following him on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

We recently sat down with Erasmus (digitally of course) to talk about his work and see if he had any words of wisdom to share with the wildlife photography fans who read PetaPixel.

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PetaPixel: Alright, first things first, can you tell us how you got into photography in the first place?

Morkel Erasmus: I have always enjoyed creating images, even when I had a cheap old film point-and-shoot camera and my first Sony Cybershot digital camera. I am now quite sorry that I waited so long before buying my first proper DSLR-and-lens system (that was in January 2009). I have had a strong artistic bent since childhood, so photography also helps me give an outlet to that.

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PP: Did you jump right into wildlife photography the moment you picked up a camera?

ME: I have always been visiting the wilderness areas of my native South Africa, being taken on various trips to places like the Kruger National Park and the Drakensberg mountains by my parents who were both teachers and thus had more holiday time to spend with us than most working parents (every school holiday).

The passion for our natural heritage remained strong as I went off to study and eventually started working as an Engineer — until the day that I picked up my first DSLR camera … everything just clicked for me then (pun intended). I started purposefully traveling to the wilderness more, and focusing (another pun) all of my photographic energy towards capturing the animals and vistas that abound there.

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PP: Do you draw inspiration from any other photographers? And if yes, who specifically?

ME: Constantly! I am convinced that you never really “arrive” in photography, and I have been so inspired by many other wildlife photographers in the world and also in my native South Africa, where there is a big culture developing around that and there are many amazing photographers who never really get noticed as much as they deserve to.

Some of the “big names” that inspire me are Nick Brandt, Andy Biggs, Marsel van Oosten, Frans Lanting, Greg du Toit, David Lloyd, Paul Souders and Brad Hill. Local guys who are fast making a name for themselves and who inspire me are Lee Slabber, Hannes Lochner, Wim van den Heever, Mark Dumbleton, Grant Atkinson, Chad Cocking, Marlon du Toit and Gerry van der Walt. I particularly like to see a familiar scene/subject interpreted in a fresh way.

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PP: What do you feel makes your work stand out from other wildlife photographers? African wildlife is photographed a lot, do you feel like you have an individual stamp that you try to put on your work?

ME: Well, I’m not sure I do stand out as much as there really is excellent work being shared on a daily basis via social media, and I don’t get into the bush as often as others.

I do think it’s important to develop your own style, and I strive towards that — though I don’t think I’ve got it down yet. I aim to convey a sense of story, drama and that once-in-a-million moment with my photos, and I love using the available light to enhance that moment. I want to bring viewers into the frame with me, and leave them with an impression of the beauty and drama of African wildlife. In the end, I also hope my photos can inspire others to conserve what we have left, though I cannot label myself as a “conservation photographer.”

I do like to photograph a bit “wider” in a sense, even when using a telephoto, to include some context of the environment and conditions in which the photo was captured. I find this helps people connect with the image more so than just a close-up portrait which could in effect have been taken in controlled, even captive settings.

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PP: What separates a great wildlife photograph from just a picture of a wild animal?

ME: It’s hard to pin down — but for me the photos that capture something of the soul of the animal and photos that capture decisive moments in nature stand out so much more than mere portraits and holiday snaps of wildlife. Portraits can be powerful, but that also depends on the photographer’s angle, use of light and overall composition.

I think the really great wildlife photos tell a story so vividly that no words are needed, and they draw the viewers in, making them ask more questions about what happened in that moment.

PP: In your bio you mention that your motivation is simply that you love everything about Africa, how do you feel this manifests in your photography?

ME: Others have often told me they can see and feel my passion when they see my work. I believe that my drive to capture engaging moments artfully, skillfully and tastefully perhaps gets me closer to showing and conveying that passion deep down.

I do perhaps lack a more documentary and conservation side to my portfolio — showing the harrowing effects that we have on Africa’s natural beauty — it’s something I am very passionate about and might work on more in the future, although it doesn’t always make for “beautiful” or “artistic” photos.

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PP: One of the things that drew us to your work is the intimate quality there. It’s obvious you have a real connection with these animals and this landscape. Can you talk about that?

ME: Thanks, that’s a great compliment. I think I have mentioned some of this in the previous answers … but I do feel a real connection with our natural heritage and I absolutely love spending time in nature and capturing these fleeting moments. It’s hard to put into words the effect it has on me, and I often realize it only when I am back at work and in the hustle and bustle of our modern existence.

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PP: You have a whole section of your portfolio dedicated to monochrome work, that’s not something we see as often in wildlife photography. Why do you think that is? And why do you personally shoot monochrome?

ME: I love working in monochrome as it just adds a timeless mood to wildlife photography. It forces our colour-weary eyes (bombared with Technicolor TV and vibrant printed advertisements and billboards all day) to focus back to the basics of form, line, texture, light and mood.

That being said, not every photo works in monochrome, and being able to pick out the ones that are suited to this medium is the hard part. I’ve found the best monochrome wildlife images are those that happen in the field — that is, when you think in terms of monochrome and capture images with that end-goal in mind. I am trying to establish a big part of my body of work in this genre, so I’m glad you picked up on it.

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PP: Alright, taking a technical detour: What gear do you use? Is there a particular camera and lens combo you find yourself reaching for more often than any other?

ME: I am a Nikon Ambassador in South Africa, and currently use the Nikon D3s and Nikon D800 as my main camera bodies (I’d love to test out the new D4s though, will see what I can arrange haha). My Nikkor lenses of choice are the 500mm f4 VR-II, 70-200mm f2.8 VR-II, 24-70mm f2.8 and the 14-24mm f2.8.

I normally shoot action sequences with my D3s and the 500mm (with or without the 1.4x teleconverter, depending on how far I am from the scene). The D800 normally stays glued to the 70-200mm for those wider and more static scenes (the D800 doesn’t have the framerate or the buffer for RAW images like the D3s has). The 24-70mm is used for scenes where the animals are quite close, and for general landscape shots — while my 14-24mm is my go-to lens for most dedicated landscape and nocturnal photography.

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PP: Do you do any post-processing on your images?

ME: Yes, of course, haha. I mostly do stock-standard processing of the RAW file and further enhancement of colours, contrast, sharpness and vibrance in Photoshop. I do have a general personal ethic of avoiding any cloning and adding of elements, as per the rules of most established nature photography contests.

I like to shoot scenes as they were and present them as such — even if that pesky blade of grass or that leaf is in the way of the subject. The only time I usually amend that ethos is for specific fine art monochrome prints that I sell. I also present courses in South Africa specifically for post-processing of wildlife images.

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PP: What’s your favorite part of being a wildlife photographer?

ME: Most definitely the privilege of being in the wild and (relatively) unspoiled parts of our wonderful continent, capturing fleeting moments of natural history as the circle of life ebbs and flows, and also sharing those experiences with those I love (my wife and kids and friends), like-minded photographer friends and the guests I am fortunate to take to these places now and again.

I also love sharing my work, and viewing (and being inspired by) the work of others as they feel inclined to share. I think deep down as well, there is a sad realization that what I see and photograph today may not be there to show my children’s children one day with the way things are going — and that makes me savor those moments all the more.

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PP: Do you have a favorite image?

ME: I have so many and I actually get quite emotionally attached to my work. I think my favorite images (let’s say there might be 3 or 4) are the ones that remind me of those epic moments I had in the field, and take me back there. They may not necessarily be my best photos from an artistic or documentary standpoint, though.

PP: What do you hope people take away from your photography?

ME: Like I said before — an awe and appreciation for the natural wonders of the African continent. Also, that they somehow get a glimpse of the Glory of the Creator — these things are all just small signs and signals pointing us to Him.

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PP: The kind of wildlife photography that you do can be dangerous at times. Have you had any close calls you’d like to share with our readers?

ME: There are a few, but the one instance that stands out involves African Wild Dogs on the my first trip to Mana Pools in Zimbabwe.

We had leopard-crawled with our cameras in a dry riverbed to within safe ‘shooting’ distance so as not to disturb the pack who were relaxing in the riverbed. After about an hour of photographing them, the alpha male took notice of us, got up and walked purposefully towards us, bearing down on us and staring at us the whole time. When it got to within 10 meters from where we were lying motionless (due to excitement combined with fear), he took in our scent, gave us one more look, then slumped down totally accepting our presence — exhilarating stuff!

Another similar moment happened with a lion in the far north of Namibia. I was lying on my belly, going for that low angle, and the young male lions also approached with a keen eye. I eventually had to get back up and jump into the Land Rover which was parked next to me.

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PP: What about your favorite moments. Is there one interaction or experience that stands out above the rest?

ME: One of my most memorable wildlife experiences has also been in Mana Pools, Zimbabwe. In this instance we were spending time with 3 elephant bulls on foot as they were foraging in the forest. The oldest and biggest of these bulls would continually raise himself up on his hind legs to reach the succulent leaves in the highest trees, and we spent about 2 hours running around the forest, changing our position to work with the light and capture this amazing behavior.

The other special moment was recently in November when I was the only person to arrive at a waterhole in Etosha, Namibia, and witness a pride of lions take down a large giraffe bull — spellbinding stuff that reminded me of the cruel necessity of the life-and-death cycle in the African bush.

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PP: Any advice for budding wildlife photographers?

ME: Firstly, respect your wild subjects and their environment. You are mostly a visitor in their world — so tread lightly and don’t bring undue stress to the animals in the pursuit of getting your shot.

Secondly, be prepared to put your work out there. It’s doing nobody a favor just sitting on your hard drive. Share it on social media and nature photography forums.

Thirdly, be honest about your work when you do share it. Declare when you’ve used bait, declare when the animals weren’t truly wild, declare what you’ve done in processing when sharing your work. You don’t want to be duly embarrassed like the guy who was stripped of his BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year award for using a trained animal to stage an unbelievable photo.

Lastly, solicit positive critique from people who you trust and whose work inspires you. I’ve grown the most when I’ve taken constructive critique from established photographers to heart.

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PP: Finally, what are your plans going forward? What are you looking forward to in 2014?

ME: I am looking forward to expanding my body of work in 2014, especially my monochrome portfolio as mentioned above, as well as the trips to the bush where I will be taking my wife and young kids along. I love sharing my passion with them and instilling a love for the bush in my kids like my parents did for me.

I am also especially looking forward to taking some photographers out on safari with me to some iconic spots, sharing amazing moments in nature with them and helping them expand their own photographic skills and portfolio. You can see more of the trips I lead throughout the year on the Wild Eye website.