Darran Leal

Animal & Wildlife, Travel | Last Updated: February 11, 2021

Time to update my ShotKit information, and what a perfect year to do that. Julia and I are celebrating 30 years of running photo tours and workshops around the world and I am celebrating 40 years of my own photography.

I met my wife Julia on my first Darran Leal photo tour in 1989. We have now taken over two thousand photographers to all sorts of locations and countries around the world.

We are very dedicated to our paying customers and appreciative of them trusting us with their ‘hard-earned’ dollars.

We work hard as a family, but the reward is photographers trusting us and paying us to help them enjoy their photography adventures!

Bill is about to do his 67th event with us and Fran has done just under 50! Many others are into double figures.

They get to see how passionate we are about photography and helping others to shoot anything from a beetle on a flower to a breaching whale, or perhaps a Himba lady standing at the entrance to her home.

We have had a lot of customers shoot award-winning images, but of course the key is to shoot fulfilling imagery that they can enjoy for the rest of their lives.

I have a new role as a TV host on Snap Happy the Photography Show, I am still writing for Australian Photography Magazine – heading to 100 photography articles in 2020 for them and over 300 articles with around 20 different magazines.

This brings me to my camera gear.

It has changed as of early 2019. I decided to take a different line and tried the Lumix G9. I love it!

When you travel a lot, weight is an issue – but not with my Lumix kit. I have 2 x G9 bodies. This camera performs well above its weight and, in the right hands, can handle any subject thrown at it.

I have three Leica lenses – 8-18mm f/2.8-4 (16-36MM), 12-60mm f/2.8-4 (24-120mm) and 100-400mm f/4-6.3 (200-800mm).

With my Lowepro 350AW bag, total weight is 6kg and that is with filters, air blower, first aid kit, etc.

One body has the 100-400mm permanently attached. I use this lens for action. It could be big game in Africa, or a hummingbird in South America.

Some online chatter says this combination is too slow and doesn’t work well for birds – rubbish! I can show thousands of images that I shot in 2019 alone that put pay to such talk.

I can only guess that these people have never actually used the gear in the field. Sadly, a common way to test camera equipment nowadays.

The features I really like with the Lumix (besides weight) are the speed of focusing, ease of use and simple menu.

The only point I miss is a few more megapixels, but I work around this when shooting landscapes by stitching several images together and I take more care to get it right in camera.

Hey, that is how a professional should work anyway.

As to size, I only need 10MP for a two-page spread. How much is enough?

In 2019, I led tours to Africa, India, Patagonia, several in Australia, the Pantanal and the USA. The Lumix G9 with my 3-lens combination handled everything thrown at it from sandstorms and 50 degrees C (120F) to sub-zero and ice.

I’m at home now enjoying a good break and some fishing. But I can tell you, it won’t be long until I talk my small bag out in the boat and target some eagles and kingfishers that live around my place.

I have always had a strong motto to any travel adventures, since my first ‘big trip’ in 1979 – Travel as light as possible and as simple as possible. I apply this simple principle also to my photography and when teaching others.

I love to shoot everything when travelling – from the landscapes of Patagonia and Namibia, through to the cultures of Bhutan or Cuba. How about the big game of Africa and the hummingbirds of the Americas? I rarely target one specific shoot opportunity, rather shooting opportunistically every day to the best of that location and the itinerary that we have sold to our customers.

Since 1989, I have taken over one thousand photographers to all sorts of locations and countries around the world. Yes they pay me to help them enjoy their photography adventures! They get to see how passionate I am about photography and helping others to shoot anything from a beetle on a flower to a breaching whale or perhaps a Himba lady standing at the entrance to her mud hut. We have had a lot of customers shoot award winning images, but of course sell fulfilling imagery that they can enjoy the rest of their life.

I am not a machine gun shooter and often do not have the biggest lens, or highest capture rate in the group. My last ‘big lens’ was the Canon 200-400mm f/4L. Beautiful lens! I sold it and bought a boat. Size is not always everything…

I am probably a rare breed in that I have used Nikon 4 times, Canon 5 times and Sony for a year. Some changes were due to sponsorship opportunities. However, most were to gear up to very specifically help me travel as light as possible for my creative goals. For ‘point and shoot’ work I use my iPhone. How crazy is the Pano mode! Does a brand of camera make you a better photographer?

I am also very dedicated to my paying customers. Since 1989, they have allowed me to live a dream lifestyle of travelling the world and exploring new locations. My two sons have followed me with Pearce working for us as a full-time photo guide and Frazer managing our IT needs. I met Julia on my first Darran Leal tour in 1989, the rest is history… So in the field, how do I get just 3 lenses and one body to work for me?

This was my first true passion for photography. Today, equipment can allow a novice photographer to shoot amazing nature images. I see it on every tour that we offer. I love seeing anyone shoot a great image and the excitement on their face when they recognise – they got it.

In recent years I have decided to take a step back to my ‘old style’. That is, to aim for quality rather than quantity. Last year was the Nikon 810 with Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VRII, Nikon 24-120mm f/4 VR II and Nikon 16-35mm f/4 VR lenses. This year is the Canon 5Ds with Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L Mark II, Sigma 24-105mm f/4 and Canon 16-35mm f/4. I have heard some ‘back ground noise’ that these cameras are too slow for nature and action work – not true. 5 frames a second does the job for me and with the large MP information, I can crop images ‘a lot’ if necessary. This can offer me equivalent to a longer focal length lens. So, no need for a ‘chick magnet’ anymore…

How much information do you need for the job? Often, it is enough pixels for a two-page spread. I also love enough information for my large format Epson printer. A good quality 15-20MP file prints up perfectly to 2m long!

The positives of such a long lens kit is its very small lens size – lightweight and ease of use, so consequently I hand hold all shoots and simply increase the ISO as needed. 3200ISO works beautifully for these cameras. My default is 400ISO, something I would have loved to enjoy back with the first DSLR I bought – the Nikon D1X.

A little trick I use to get around not carrying a macro lens, is to use an extension tube. A 12mm tube offers a better close up magnification in conjunction with the Sigma 24-105mm f/4 lens. However, the new Canon 100-400mm has a very cool magnification factor. Again I can use the 12mm tube with this lens also. To help this facet further, I can crop due to the large sensor size.

No two shoots are the same and I can say that each visit to even the same location will be different. I am lucky to have taken over a dozen groups each, to hot landscape shoot locations like Patagonia, Namibia, Kimberley of Australia and the polar regions. It is so lovely to be at a location, waiting for the sun to rise. However, before this, I have been working out the best angles and techniques.

I really enjoy using a 16-35mm lens when I can. I try to give a 3D perspective by adding foreground subjects that enhance the dimensional perspective of the scene. On other occasions, a long lens will compact the scene.

While I love to shoot predominately hand held, occasionally a tripod is needed. My favourite series for over a decade is the Manfrotto 190. Currently, I use the Manfrotto 190 CF with the Manfrotto 324RC2 head. It does not come out of the bag often, but when it does, it is invaluable.

This is my greatest challenge as a photographer. After all these years I still find myself ‘out of my comfort zone’. However, that very fact drives me to listen to the unique customs and life of the people and to try and shoot images that portray that experience. I do not take many images, rather aiming for a unique split second. This can be frustrating at times and I can walk away with little to show. The next day I walk the same street and shoot several magic images that I am very proud of.

I just finished a tour in Cuba with a Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 lens. I always find that I would like just a bit more at the tele end, so I am now using the Sigma 24-105mm f/4. Personally I do not get hung up on super fast lenses, rather I like quality and an adaptive range of angles to optimise what will most likely be the only chance I have to ever take the shot. So one lens and body is the main order – but – I have used 70-200mm f/2.8 Nikons and Canons and even a Sigma 50-500mm f/4.5-6.3. Sometimes, standing off from a person who has never been photographed is enjoyable for both parties and opens up more photo options.

Where does photographic creativity start or stop? What was once facets left to experts, is now explorable to most photographers. I call them the ‘3 key aspects to photography’ – Pre Visualisation (picturing a result days or months before shooting) – Visualisation (the moment around shooting) and Post Visualisation (processing). A great photographer combines all three, understanding that they are now linked tightly together. For me. this helps to shoot images beyond snap shots and a high consistency of quality images. I am a big believer to achieve the best in camera first. I do not like to ‘over process’ my work.

In the past several years, Adobe Lightroom is my main processing tool. Occasionally I will use Photoshop. Some of my best selling images are Pixel Bent. Good friend Russell Brown from Adobe put me onto this years ago – I still love its subtle creative effect.

My main suitcase is just 16-19KG and that can be with fishing gear. (Love fishing in wilderness…) I can travel with enough clothes etc for a couple of months to this weight. Plus I currently use a LowPro ActiveZone 350 bag with all of my camera gear and a shoulder bag with my 15” MacBook Pro (my third…) and a Samsung 1TB SSD external drive. This bag also has my chargers, just in case the main bag is separated in travel.

I use other little tricks like a USB battery charger for my Lensar LED P7 torch, this charging via my laptop instead of another charging unit. I take a small two plug adaptor to charge, plus a universal plug adaptor. The only photo items in my suitcase are a LowePro sling bag that mainly carries cords and a second back up body (rarely used) that my son Pearce and I share. It’s his old Canon 5D Mark III.

I hope this helps someone with the concept of ‘less is best’. I can travel anywhere in the world for long periods easily. I can shoot anything at anytime and have never run into an equipment issue. My gear fits on all planes and only once have I been questioned about weight in over 35 years. No issue, I take out my camera with the standard zoom, put it around my neck and ask they to weight again – all good thank you sir…


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