With a name synonymous with birding and photography in South Africa, we are so happy to know that despite his busy schedule Isak took some time to answer our questions.
Buying his first camera and big lens
Isak Pretorius has always loved nature, specifically birds. After receiving his first paycheck, he decided to buy a camera to capture his very own birding and wildlife photos. Experiencing nature in such an intimate way soon became an obsession. His friend, Hedrus van der Merwe, convinced him to get a 600mm lens and the rest is history. “I still think that was the best purchase I’ve ever made and I have him to thank for it!” Isak continues to say that nothing happened overnight. He started out as an amateur photographer in 2000 and in 2004, started specializing in avian photography specifically.
The key to capturing a great photo
In avian photography, the purpose of the photo is to evoke emotion and make the viewer go, “WOW!”. Typically, this will be an image of the bird with stunning posture; like an eagle banking in flight. To photograph this, you will need good reflexes, anticipation and good camera settings for action photography. “Good equipment certainly helps.” The best photographs, however, don’t need the best equipment; just a bird in good light that stirs up emotion in the viewer.
Isak’s purpose with photography
Isak doesn’t like chasing down specific birds. He’d much rather inspire people to venture into nature, protect it and take amazing photos along the way through social media and the photo safaris he hosts. He really wants to make people excited about nature and bird photography so that more people will preserve the natural wonders of our world. He goes on to say, that he wouldn’t mind taking a nice photograph of the African Pitta.
A proud moment in his career
Isak recalls his proudest moment had to be when he won the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2013 for the Bird category. The photograph that won him the prize was that of a Noddy Term caught in a spider web taken in the Seychelles.
Photographing exotic birds in exciting destinations
In 2014 he went to Antarctica and visited the Falklands in South Georgia. “To see and photograph those spectacular numbers of penguins, albatross and other seabirds has always been a dream of mine.” To make matters even better, the weather was incredible and he went on the trip with two of his photography idols; Frans Lanting and Art Wolfe.
Isak’s recommended list of the best avian photography hot spots in South Africa
- Kruger National Park (and the Lowveld)
- Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
- Marievale Bird Sanctuary in Gauteng
- Strandfontein Water Works in Cape Town
- The bird hides at Zimanga close to Pongola (they’ve taken hide photography to the next level)
- Lamberts Bay on the West Coast
- Giants Castle Nature Reserve in the Drakensberg
Tips and tricks to better your skill
To sharpen your skills as avian photographer, Isak suggests you find a nature reserve or park close by that offers the opportunity to photograph birds. “They don’t have to be an exciting species. Just experiment with different shutter speeds, apertures and lighting conditions; positioning yourself in different light.” He continues to say that good hand-eye coordination is the key to bird photography, more so than any other genre of photography. “With practice, you’ll develop the skill so that you can effortlessly point your lens straight at the bird before you even look through the viewfinder.”
“Basically, the best you can afford”
Fast focusing camera bodies with a high frame rate will work the best; like the Canon 1Dx MkII or the Nikon D5. The Canon 7D MkII and the Nikon D500 are great value for money options and will also do the job.
Long focal length and fast focusing lenses are a must. Isak recommends prime lenses like the 600mm f/4, a 500mm f/4 or 400mm f/2.8. The new generation of zoom lenses is also great, like the Canon 100-400mm f/5.6, the Nikon 80-400mm f/5.6, the Sigma and Tamron 150-600mm lenses.
Isak also suggests a sturdy tripod like the Benro A2682TB1, gimbal or fluid head, a monopod, off-camera flash and a camera bag with more space than you think you’ll use. You will also need larger and faster memory card than you think you’ll need “and a picnic basket with a flask of coffee.”
An optical illusion
There is an interesting photograph on Isak’s Instagram feed which stirred quite the debate in our office. I asked him to clarify to us what happened and he said they were in the Masai Mara National Reserve watching Black-backed Jackals and vultures feeding on a carcass. “Feeding and fighting, as is typical.” The next moment a jackal ran towards a Ruppell’s Vulture to fight it off and since the vulture was slow to take to flight it created an optical illusion where it looks as if the vulture tried to catch the jackal.
His photographs evoke a sense of peace and tranquility, whisking you away to some dream destination… I can’t help but picture all of the beautiful, touching and amazing moments he’s still going to capture throughout his growing career.