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Knowing When To Put The Camera Down

As a wildlife photographer and lover of all things wild, I try my best in every given scenario to photograph what I’m seeing. I love sharing those experiences and using the stories of my sightings to inform, build awareness and appreciation of the animals and environments I’m so enthralled with.

However, there are also those times when getting a photograph, a good one, just isn’t going to happen. It can be a frustrating realisation, but experience has taught me not to let that ruin the moment, and it shouldn’t for you either. Working with African Impact in the Greater Kruger area of South Africa, I’m living and working in an extremely privileged position. I’m out on game drives multiple times a week and whilst my attention is on teaching photography, I’m also completely open and exposed to the wildlife around me. To put it short, it’s an awesome position to be in and I never take a day or moment for granted.

However, I’m also incredibly aware that whenever I raise the camera to my eye, the viewfinder is essentially a barrier between me and nature. I’m blocked off from it, cut off from what I love and that’s ultimately a sacrifice that I’m making subconsciously every time I see a potential photograph. It’s something I accept and one of the very few downsides to the profession I’ve embarked upon.

There are those situations, however, where a camera can’t convey what you’re seeing or more importantly, what you’re experiencing. Keeping up with painted wolves as they dart in and out of the bush, that sense of excitement as you follow them, almost as if you’re one of the pack, as they go on a hunt. How to you capture the essence of that?

There have been plenty of times when I’ve stubbornly tried to photograph what I’m experiencing only to come away feeling frustrated and resentful at the fact that not only did I fail at encapsulating that encounter, but also missed out on it myself. I didn’t appreciate what nature had just given to me – and that’s the ultimate sin of anyone lucky enough to be in such a situation. You have to force yourself to realise that not all great sightings equal great photographs, and with that you have to lower the camera and open your eyes to what’s in front of you. Drink it all in. Savour every moment.

Recently I’ve had two back-to-back sightings of leopard which were polar opposites of each other in terms of experiences. The first was in the late morning. We were alerted to two leopards in the area and responded quickly. It was a hectic and adrenaline-fueled thrill as they were both mobile in fairly dense bush and our driver, Chade Gelderman with Africa on Foot, navigated expertly to keep a visual on them. They had stashed an impala kill in a small tree and were racing to retrieve it before the scavenging hyenas got to it. We saw the hyenas coming in from one side as the young leopard male, Bundu, nabbed the kill and started dragging it away with unbelievable power and speed to a safer location. We eventually lost sight of them, the hyenas fell back and it felt like I hadn’t taken a breath until we stopped.

It was an action-packed sighting of everything you’d want – natural interaction and conflict between animals in daylight. However, due to the constant, bumpy movement of the vehicle and the enshrouded environment we were in, it was unbelievably tough to photograph. I managed to get a couple of shots early on, but diverted my attention to just witness and be awed by what was happening. It was fantastic. Granted I came away with only two photographs I’d eventually keep, but it was a moment I’d forever remember and be appreciative of.

A couple of days later we came across Bundu again, this time posing gloriously on a termite mound and during golden hour too! He stared at us with that intimidating but beautiful gaze before repeatedly yawning and stretching. He eventually slinked his way into the bush, which we managed to follow – but this time it was darker. However, the benefit was that the overhanging trees gave us broken rays and pools of light which flooded in.

He gracefully moved around in this dramatic lighting, sniffing and posing on different sides – he was again in a fairly open area and all our cameras sounded like machine guns as we rattled off countless thousands of pictures within minutes. In terms of behaviour, it wasn’t as exciting as the previous sighting, but in terms of lighting and temperament you couldn’t have asked for more. Bundu, the super star leopard, had done us proud and given me two drastically different experiences – both of which were incredible for different reasons but in equal worth.

I’ve always held that Africa may be beautiful, but she doesn’t suffer fools gladly. If you go on drive with high expectations and a blinkered approach to only wanting five-star sightings, you’re bound to walk away disappointed. So, learn now what took me years to realise: even as a wildlife photographer, it’s not just about the camera. There’s more to nature than capturing split seconds onto memory cards. It’s about being in the moment, embracing what’s in front of you and making the most out of your time in this fantastic place.

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