African Photo Safari - Wild Dogs
by Nigel and Wendy Dennis
Any wild dog sighting invariably causes enormous
excitement among the Dennis's. Apart from their great rarity,
wild dogs make incredible photo subjects. They are such busy creatures,
and this means action and behavioural opportunities come thick
and fast. Fortunately there is no need to go trecking all over
Africa to photograph wild dog, as our own Kruger National Park
has a very viable population.
Wendy and I spent the best part of last winter in Kruger - close
on five months in all. We saw wild dogs in the South - plenty
in fact. We saw wild dogs in Central Kruger, and we saw them in
the North of the Park as well. On occasions we would spot a wild
dog two or three days in a row - and different packs too. When
you consider that there is a total of less than 400 of these highly
endangered animals in the vastness of this National Park, this
is rather remarkable. I can only put the frequency of sightings
down to the dog's preference for hunting along roads, and their
great passion for wandering.
As a rule though, because wild dogs have such a huge home range,
it is usually impossible to say for sure "I am going to go
out and get some pictures of wild dogs today". All you can
do is keep driving and hope to get lucky. The only exception is
when the wild dogs den in the winter months. The young puppies
are not strong enough to join the hunting expeditions, so this
greatly restricts the adult's wanderings. Last year one of the
den sites was situated quite close to the main tar road between
Lower Sabie and Crocodile Bridge. Although the den itself was
not visible from the road, the adults spent a great deal of time
sitting right next to the road. It is difficult to account for
this behaviour - it almost seemed as if they enjoyed all the admiring
looks from passing tourists! The dogs also had the rather annoying
habit of sitting on the tar road, which is not much good for photography!
The picture of the two dogs play-fighting in this feature was
in fact taken right in the middle of the road. I had to frame
tight to avoid getting very unnatural looking tarmac in the picture!
As our long stay in Kruger last year was for a new book on this
Park, we were very fortunate to get special permission to visit
this den. I believe that photographing at an animal's den site
is much like taking pictures of nesting birds. It needs to be
done with great care - if at all. I checked with the South African
National Parks staff who had been monitoring the den. It appeared
that the wild dogs were relaxed and had taken no notice of the
researcher's vehicle. Even so we opted to park a fair distance
from the den and shoot with a 600mm lens just to be sure. We need
hardly have worried. As soon as we had parked and set up our big
lenses, a couple of the adults came trotting over and sat right
next to our vehicle. So the 600mm was rapidly hauled in and replaced
with a 70 - 200mm zoom!
We had the privilege of visiting the den four days in a row.
Of course with many young puppies resident the adults were sure
to appear sooner or later. It was the one rare occasion when we
could say for certain that we are "going to the dogs"!
The opportunities for action photography were excellent. Upon
arrival at the den the adults back from a hunt would regurgitate
food for the pups - as well as for the adults left behind to take
care of the youngsters. After feeding the alpha female would call
her pups from the den to suckle. It was a big litter - we counted
about fifteen of the little black puppies. Clearly feeding so
many hungry youngsters was quite a strain and we thought the poor
girl looked very tired!
Wild dogs occasionally also den in roadside culverts, so when
you next visit the Kruger Park it is worth making enquiries. I
photographed at such a den in the Pretoruiskop area a few years
ago. The roadside den caused a great deal of interest among visitors,
resulting in traffic jams that would put even a lion sighting
to shame! At times it was difficult to get into a good position
for photography, and once I got in the right spot I found it wise
to stay put - before another vehicle pushed in to get a closer
look. The roadside culverts in Kruger are more frequently used
as den sites by spotted hyena. When the adults as well as youngsters
are present, these hyena dens can also provide some fascinating
viewing and photography.
Photo Tip - Panning for
There is no doubt that action photography
has become vastly easier since the introduction of auto-focus.
Like many new innovations there was initial criticism that
auto-focus would make photography "too easy" and
"take all the skill out of photography". I don't
think so! Just try panning with a fast and erratically moving
subject - tremendous co-ordination and anticipation skills
are required. If the auto-focus sensing area in the camera
strays off the subject for a split second, then focus tracking
- and probably the shot - is lost. When shooting action
few if any of the pan tilt or ball and socket tripod heads,
normally used in stills photography, are smooth enough for
the job. Just a hint of jerkiness and it is impossible to
pan accurately. For more than ten years I have used a fluid
action video head. The model I use - in fact I have four
of them right now - is the Manfrotto 136. Unlike many camera
accessories, it is not an expensive piece of equipment.
However it does allow the camera to glide with the subject,
and has helped me to obtain many action images that would
have otherwise been impossible.
About the Author:
Born in England in 1953, Nigel Dennis developed
a deep interest in the natural world from an early age. First
finding expression in the form of painting nature subjects, he
also became interested in photography just over twenty years ago.
Living in England at the time, his first projects included photographing
red deer and the shy nocturnal European badger. For the badger
photography he spent over forty nights photographing whilst still
managing to hold down a busy day job. Nature photography soon
overtook painting as a means of expressing his passion for the
natural world and from the early eighties his work began to be
published in books and magazines.
He moved to Africa in 1985 with a view to
making wildlife photography a full time profession. During his
first few years in Africa he continued with his previous career
in sales and marketing, but still spent about one hundred days
a year photographing by utilising all his annual holidays and
weekends. Eventually having built up a sufficient stock of wildlife
images he launched into the rather precarious occupation of freelance
wildlife photographer in 1991. Since then he and his wife Wendy
camp in the African bush for up to nine months each year. Although
they work mainly in South Africa they also photograph regularly
in Namibia and have visited Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Madagascar.
Nigel Dennis photographs all natural subjects
including reptiles, insects, flora and landscapes but tends to
concentrate primarily on African animals and birds. His work is
marketed by fifteen stock photo agencies and has been published
world-wide in over twenty five countries. He also runs his own
photo library supplying images to the publishing and advertising
industries, and currently has over 40,000 transparencies on file.
He does not take on commercial or advertising assignments and
works primarily on book and magazine projects. Nigel Dennis has
had twelve wildlife coffee table books published to date.
You can see more of Nigel's work at the
- Nigel Dennis