African Swamphen


In the digital world you can find the needle in the haystack, or you can endlessly recreate more haystacks and wonder what to use them for. Photography helps us to look, but how does it help us to see? MIT is working on new technology where taking a photograph will be as simple as lifting your fingers in the gesture of taking a picture and a computer/camera you carry around your neck will snap the shot for you. This technology may soon be as freely available as are cellphones. (It is worth watching Pranav Mistry giving his TED talk ).


The way I understand photography, however, is that it is about more than taking pictures of what the eye can see. It is about allowing us to examine what the eye cannot see, either because the action happens too fast, or the detail is too far away. Finding these hidden bits can be likened to finding the needle in the haystack.


The portrait I offer for reflection this winter is of an African Swamphen (Purple Gullinule) that I photographed at Geelbek in the West Coast National Park. They are elusive birds and never forgotten once seen in full detail. Their colouring appears bright, but is perfectly suited to an environment of water and reeds where they can blend and disappear in an instant. What I love about this portrait is how worn the beak is. This is not a young bird. This is a bird who has probably raised chicks, foraged at length, taking it on the chin in the process. As a species, they push down reed stems with their feet and then eat out the stem pulp. They are not endangered, but as with so many other species their numbers are decreasing as a result of habitat loss.


Living in Yzerfontein means we have relatively easy access to this National Park where we may find sightings of such magnificent birds and watch them in their natural environment. This individual was photographed at 10:00 in the morning, using an ISO of 500, aperture setting of f5.6 giving a shutter speed of 1/640. These settings probably mean that it was a misty or overcast day, typical of what you may expect from winter photography. I use a Canon camera with a 500mm lens and a 1.4 converter, making it an effective 700mm lens. It was then further cropped in to focus on the facial expression only. This needle was a privilege to find.

(This article was written for publication in the Yzerfontein Urban Conservancy Newsletter – Winter 2016).

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