An avid amateurs trip to the Pantanal
Keywords: pantanal, south_america, america, brazil, d850, d800, beginner, intermediate
This article was kindly donated to the Nikonians Community by Silver member Alan Mosley. If you would like to contribute with an article from your own photo travels, or if you would like to share your experiences and thoughts on other subjects, please do not hesitate to contact us on the editorial team.
I’m sure there are plenty of Nikonians who regard themselves (like me) as "aspiring photographers" – whether we shoot landscapes, wildlife, or street life. We see the constant stream of wonderful pictures and think “I wish I had the time and/or experience to produce pictures like that.”
But, the business of (earning a) living gets in the way, the camera comes out of the cupboard for holidays and occasional weekends only and then goes away again.
City-based photographer going wild
I’m probably luckier than most in that I do get away a few times a year, even if most of these trips are city-based, when I’d rather be shooting landscapes, or – deep breath – wildlife.
The trips are usually with my wife, who is very patient and tolerant, but not being a photographer we both have to compromise. She doesn’t mind stopping at regular intervals when something catches my eye, or to be waiting for twenty minutes after the sun has set, to see what colours materialise.
But, the prospect of revisiting places on several occasions to get the perfect light, simply isn’t realistic. For the most part I have to grab what is in front of me, or do without.
Third time is best
When we agreed to head to the Pantanal in Brazil – the South American Mecca for wildlife (Pantanal encompasses the world's largest tropical wetland area), I knew I had to be prepared to make the most of it.
We’ve been there twice before, the first time twenty years ago with my trusty Olympus OM4. Shame the films got fogged by the constant attention of airport X-ray scanners. And, shame I was at that age where I hadn’t quite acknowledged that I needed spectacles, and the split-prism focus screen wasn’t lying!
The second visit was ten years ago, with my recently acquired D300s. A shame I hadn’t properly understood or mastered focus-tracking, or realised that the buffer had a finite size! Or, that there was a limit to how much contrast that sensor could handle. As everyone always says, make sure you learn your camera before you use it in anger. Still, at least I’d already learnt the lesson of always shooting RAW.
Go with a guide
The cameras and my technique have moved on since then, even if I’m still a long way from winning (or, let’s be honest, even entering!) "Wildlife Photographer of the Year". I’d been hankering after another visit to Pantanal for a while and what finally persuaded my wife was the quest to find the perfect guide.
Your guide can make a huge difference to your Pantanal experience – not just with their knowledge of the things you see, but also spotting the things you don’t see, and persuading the elusive creatures to come to you while knowing the habitats (and the human owners of those habitats!) plus the habits of the local critters.
A good guide won’t necessarily be cheap, but when you’re travelling all that way, maybe it is even the trip of a lifetime, don’t you really want to make the most of it?
On this occasion, our guide (Mario Mosquiera of Clark Expediciones) came from Argentina. We’d done a brief tour of El Rey National Park with him last year, and it turned out he regularly led tours to the Pantanal. Mario is a biologist by training, and a truly knowledgeable ornithologist – no consulting reference books here, as we’ve seen some other guides do…
All geared up
The gear was duly assembled: My Nikon D850 and D800 bodies, a Nikkor 300mm PF and a Nikkor AF 70-200mm/f2.8G, plus Sigma 24-35mm Art, all AF tuned with FoCal. I absorbed as much wisdom from Nikonians and other places my brain would be able to hold. I even went to London Zoo to get some practice with birds in flight – only to find their giant walk-through aviary was closed for refurbishment. And these guys need lots of space…
Our first stop of the trip was at the Pouso Alegre Lodge, a large ranch which features a number of different habitats, and possibly the biggest variety of birds (especially acquatic) we saw in any one place. These birds ranged from the Spoonbills and Ibises on the approach road, to the Rheas greeting us in the car park...
Reaching Rio São Lourenço
Our next stop was at the end of the road. The Transpantaneira road only runs halfway down the Pantanal and stops dead at the Rio Sao Lourenco. There are the occasional traffic-jams on the way.
I had read (thanks Steve Perry for all your invaluable tips!) that the AF sensors aren’t always quite where the viewfinder says they are. So although I thought I had this Giant River Otter nailed, the D850 decided it preferred the fish’s face instead (and no, face-recognition was not switched on!) The size of the sensors also proved challenging when trying to grab small birds hiding in vegetation – thank goodness for manual override.
Editors note: To get the most out of your lenses and camera, make sure you get to know the AF system well and ensure you know how it behaves in different environments/shooting scenarios. For example, AF using LiveView (LV) uses a different mechanism than AF in the viewfinder. LV uses the main imaging sensor while the viewfinder has dedicated sensors. If you are interested learning more about using AF in various situations, the AF sensors, their alignment and sizes plus much more, see e.g. the following Nikonians articles:
- Photo Techniques: Autofocus Tracking with a Cluttered Background
- Photographing Birds-in-Flight and other quick moving subjects
- Back button focus for newbies
- Working Toward Getting Successful Wildlife Photos
- AF sensor width and position test
- Nikon D800 AF Custom Settings
- Nikon D2X AF System Revisited
- The basics about the Multi-CAM 2000 AF module
- Understand the Multi-Cam 1000 Auto focus
If that did not help to nail the image you wanted, feel free to post your AF questions in any of the Master Your Nikon Camera forums.
Auto-ISO? Not always
Another learning point (for me) was that although Auto-ISO can be very useful for birds in flight, you need to remember to turn it off when you don’t need it – obviously! This little fellow above (a Jacana) wasn’t exactly jumping around, and I could have had a lot more DOF/less noise, if I hadn’t been forcing the camera to keep a shutter speed around 1/2000sec. If you want to see how pretty a Jacana can look, a fellow Nikonian posted a beautiful shot recently.
Our final stop on our way back up the Transpantaneira was another riverside Pousada, which apart from this cute Pygmy Owl above roosting next to the rooms, seemed to major on Jabiru Storks. These neatly illustrate a point about the lenses to take with you.
Before our trip, my Nikkor 200-500mm had made way for the 300mm PF, partly for quality reasons, but mostly for size and weight. Despite Mario’s (frequently successful) efforts to get small birds to come closer, 300mm often wasn’t enough, even with the D850’s prodigious cropping potential. On the other hand, anything longer than 300mm and this guy would have been too close for comfort. I’d say 300mm, in combination with the 70-200mm was probably the best compromise.
Sunset done LX
There were lots of "portrait" shots, but I’ll spare you those. I tried to bear in mind the advice to show the animals in context, or try to capture their personality – but within those limitations of grabbing what I could. I did have my Sigma Art 24-35 strapped to the D800 for landscape duties, but it seemed whenever there was a spectacular sunset, the only camera to hand was my little Panasonic LX100 and it did acquit itself very respectably.
I’m pretty happy with what I achieved, but any advice from more experienced/talented Nikonians always welcome (just be gentle with me!) And I promise to write out a hundred times “Check your ISO settings!”
Originally written on October 23, 2019
Last updated on October 23, 2019
More articles that might interest you
Alan Mosley (mosley_alan) on October 26, 2019
Ah, you mean the Black-Capped Donacobius? Just kidding! That is what the little guy is called, but I only know because our guide told us. We warned him at the start that we weren't twitchers, and I think he despaired at me wanting to spend all day watching the Hyacinth Macaws. I know what you mean about the great wildlife shots (I don't include mine under that banner!) - I go to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition here in London every year, and just think 'I would never have the patience or skill to achieve that'... Glad you like my efforts though!
Tom Jacob (sevendayimages) on October 25, 2019
Thanks so much for writing this out Alan! Seems like you had a wonderful time and you sure have a great set of pictures to prove it :) I enjoyed going through them and the shot with the black/white bird with yellow eye (you see I am not an ornitologist) holds my favorite spot. I don't know how you guys make all these great wildlife shots, but there's always room to learn at Nikonians...Cheers!