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South Africa

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A Shutterbug Safari

Although most safaris and bush holidays provide numerous opportunities to wield a camera, if you really want to hone your wildlife photography skills, attending a dedicated workshop could be the way to go.

We sent science editor Tim Jackson on one such trip, run by professional photographer David Rogers, to see what it was all about.

In flight
One morning we left our vehicle and walked to South Luangwa’s colony of yellow-billed storks. It’s the largest gathering of the species in Africa and afforded us excellent (and rare) opportunities to photograph the birds as they brought nesting material back to the colony.

Taking wildlife pictures these days is oh-so-easy, but taking good ones is not. Chances are you went on safari and returned home to find that what you thought were award-winning photographs are, well, kind of okay for the family album if you’re brutally honest about it.

Earlier this year I received a last-minute call to join David Rogers on one of his photographic workshops. The destination was Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, where we were to be hosted by Robin Pope Safaris for their ‘Emerald Season’ event. ‘Emerald’ as it was the late rainy season, when everything is green and tourist numbers are low – an excellent time to visit the park, provided the weather holds.

With only a few days to prepare for the trip, the night before my departure saw me packing as midnight approached. The thought that I would be standing on the banks of the Luangwa River at Nkwali Camp the following evening seemed a far stretch of the imagination, but the next day everything fell smoothly into place. The flight to Zambia, being met at the airport and guided through customs and immigration (a first for me!) and the quick hop by ProFlight to the valley happened without a hitch and I arrived bang on schedule.

Despite having a solid background in wildlife photography, I was looking forward to the course.

David Rogers
With his personable and relaxed style, workshop leader David Rogers is just as at home helping to photograph intimate close-ups of nature as he is chasing after the big and hairies.

As Rogers explained that evening, “You can always learn something from someone else – if you can’t, then your photography is unlikely to advance much further.” True words indeed and I was keen to swap notes with my fellow photographers.

“A workshop covers more than how to take a picture, it also investigates what to take, when to take it and what to do with that picture,” he continued. “It makes for a more rewarding experience than going it alone. There’s a certain energy that builds up within a group, prompting people to feed off one another’s enthusiasm.”

We set off in earnest the following morning. Soon we came across a group of lions. They were a long way off and nice to see, but not to photograph. On a ‘normal’ safari package that simple sighting may have been enough – with the lions ticked, there’s a good chance the driver would have moved on in search of other wildlife. But with a photographic trip like this, things are different.

Using something akin to a sixth sense, driver Braston Daka followed the river in an effort to get us closer to the pride. With some patience, and a good dose of luck, we didn’t have to wait long for a superb sighting as the lions chased a puku antelope across the riverbed.

Lions
Overcast conditions can be great for photography. Bright sunlight would have sent these lions into the shade; instead they lazed about in the open and our patience was rewarded when this young male sat up to lick a female companion.

The suddenness of this brought to the fore an important point – know thy camera! “You’ll get more out of your equipment if you know how to use it”, Rogers explained. Sounds simple enough, but it is advice that is often overlooked. Without a basic knowledge of how to focus, or how the motordrive can help you to keep up with the action, my ability to take photographs of those lions would have been severely limited. And (as is the case with any safari), the timing of animal sightings is almost entirely a matter of chance. We could have seen this chase on our final day, when our equipment would have been more familiar, but fate served it up on our first drive out.

“Generally, you need to have a basic idea of how a camera works and you can learn that at home,” Rogers added. “What the workshops offer is something else. I help to put people into great photo environments, but you’ll get more out of them if you know how to use your camera.”

For enthusiasts, a tailor-made workshop lets you stop when there are good pictures to be had and to keep going when there aren’t. In the Luangwa Valley, we were also able to get out of the vehicle to explore the smaller things of life and become engrossed in landscape photography. All too often, I’ve been anchored by the confines of a vehicle and missed a great opportunity, but being accompanied by a field ranger from the Zambia Wildlife Authority gave us the security we needed while we were out on foot.

lionesses
Knowing how your camera works is very important in the field. After failing to hunt down apuku, these lionesses turned on one another and played chase across a riverbed. I was able to let the camera take care of the focus and exposure, while I tried to contain all three cats in the frame.

In fact, we spent a lot of time away from the vehicle. For close-up work, it is a must; for landscape photography, where positioning and tripods come into their own, we couldn’t have done otherwise.

Not only were we able to pursue a wider variety of subject matter, we honed different skills too. Close-up photography, for example, is the home of composition, depth of field and working with the light available, reflected or even from an electronic flash.

It needs a completely different mindset to that adopted when taking pictures of, say, large mammals, birds or landscapes.

During the course of the week, we stayed at a number of lodges, giving us access to a host of subjects: big, small, flying, running, sitting, sweeping (as in vistas), close-up, graphic, cliche. For me, though, one of the most rewarding aspects of the trip was being able to compare the pictures I had taken with those of other photographers. It’s incredible just how differently people ‘see’ the same situation. Sometimes there would be a clear winner, the kind of image that makes you think, ‘I wish I’d taken that’. More often than not, though, everyone came up with really good pictures.

Rogers photographing a baobab
Not all good pictures are made from a standing position. Here, Rogers gets down as low as he can to photograph a baobab. The extreme angle and side-lighting should make for a dramatic image.

Speaking from years of experience, Rogers pointed out, “It’s amazing how many different interpretations you’ll find of a single theme. One of the key aspects of my workshops is the processing of pictures and sharing them with others. In fact, one of the biggest skills that we aim to develop is the ability to be self-critical and open to comments that are given in a constructive way.

“At times,” he added, “you will doubt yourself, but it’s by taking these thoughts into account and seeing what other people around you are doing that you’ll raise your own bar.”

While I think of myself as having a pretty reasonable photographic grounding, I definitely learned from those around me, and benefited both technically and creatively from this intense, but hugely rewarding experience. Now I just need to persuade the editor to send me on the dry season trip to South Luangwa – I’m hooked!

Text and Photographs by Tim Jackson. This article features courtesy of the August 2010 edition of Africa Geographic magazine.

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