NOTE FOM JONAH: This is part of a series of photographs and thoughts from Madagascar. To see earlier installments of this series click here. As always, click photos to embiggin.
When looking at Madagascar, its hard not to be fascinated by the variety of jumping things found on this island. These things come in the shapes of lizards, mammals and lemurs.
This is reason enough to make the long journey to Madagascar.
But photographing them is an entirely different story. Here’s how a lot of “lemur photography” works:
You go to a national park. You hire a guide and set out on hikes on relatively well maintained trails. As the guide leeds you he is listening and watching the canopy of the forest. Then, in one quick moment he says “wait here” and then darts off the trail into the thick forest. Standing there you wonder what prompted his actions but you can assume he heard or saw something.
Then from within the forest you hear him “ok, come here.”
Pushing through the wet trees and spider webs you just hope that you dont accidentally grab something poisonous, or worse, that something poisonous grabs you. But eventually you find a small space between the trees where the guide is. He points his finger directly into the air and says “there.”
And this is where you start. In a dark, wet, jungle looking directly up at a backlit small monkey-ish type animal who is just about as quick as a bird when it wants to be.
Getting images to come out in this scenario is quite tricky. The equation is simply not productive to making good pictures: fast moving objects, uncomfortable environments, strong backlight contrasting with a dark subjects. I found using any type of automatic setting would essentially ruin most photographs. But even using a complete manual mode the backlit condition made the autofocus far too slow to be effective. Putting the camera to manual focus means you are essentially guessing where the lemur will jump and what the lighting condition will be in that spot.
And jump they do.
My favorite of these jumping creatures is the Sifaka. An amazing lemur that stays upright as it jumps — even on the ground. This essentially means when its on the ground it hops on two feet without the use of the hands to crawl. This gives the lemur a kind of dancing motion as it moves across the ground.
However, the real challenge was to photograph these animals in mid air.
The first step to not having backlit photos was to create a level orientation between the subject and the camera. i.e. you can’t be shooting up, you have to be shooting across. And while I’m not the best tree climber, the better practice here would be to have the patience till the animal comes to a lower height. This is the key word: patience.
After spending some weeks in the jungle making bad pictures of these animals my appreciation for real wildlife photographers came back. It must be one of the most unglamorous jobs in the world.
While I think there is a lot of technical challenges in wildlife photography, its really a very difficult mental challenge. Sitting in a buggy place waiting for an animal to do just the right thing at the right moment. And then of there wasn’t enough chance in that equation already, you have to be ready with a camera when that happens. This is the challenge of wildlife photography.
And as the jungle wears on your patience, cameras become heavy. Mosquitos bites become more itchy.
The one thing that can make this even more difficult is — the night. Many lemurs are nocturnal including one of the more interesting ones I saw — the Mouse Lemur.
This little creature is about the size of your hand but has the ability to jump two to three meters almost spontanouslly.
The mouse lemurs are nocturnal lemurs of the genus Microcebus. Like all lemurs, mouse lemurs are native to Madagascar. Mouse lemurs have a combined head, body and tail length of less than 27 centimetres (11 in), making them the smallest primates
Think of this lemur, like a bouncy-ball that you threw inside of a small confined space. They jump from tree-to-tree frantically catching insects in the air as they jump. The speed at which they jump is truly amazing, as the fact they seem to be able to propel themselves great distances with zero light. Taking pictures of something this small, this fast and in the dark — is not so easy.
Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to have any discussion of the lemurs, without discussing the state of their habitat.
Like many lemurs on the island, the Sifaka (directly above) is threatened due to deforestation. As Madagascar’s forests have rapidly disappeared, so has the wildlife population. Many reports now claim over 90% of Madagascar’s original forest has been cut.
This has had a direct impact on the lemurs and for the most part, you won’t really see them unless you are in a national park or protected area.
The impoverished population has had no choice but to turn to the forest for survival.
More on this in next post …