Samuel Cox, a professional wildlife photographer, discusses how research separates the enthusiasts from the professionals.
After a decade of photography, and two decades of knowing Africa, I’ve found there’s a fundamental stumbling block stopping photographers from getting the very best they can out of their subjects.
Sure, knowing how to use your camera, having the best equipment, and even going to the best wildlife hotspots in the world will set you up for getting fantastic shots. But if you don’t know anything about what you’re shooting, you’re destined to fail.
Learning about your environment and your subjects is absolutely vital and quickly separates the professionals from the enthusiasts.
Also see: Pietro Baroni, a volunteer on our Wildlife Photography and Conservation project in the Greater Kruger, made a video about A Day in the Life of a Volunteer Photographer in South Africa
Research Doesn’t Just Apply to Your Subjects
Okay, so you’re going to Africa to photograph wildlife – fantastic!
You’ve booked a trip to the Greater Kruger because you’ve heard the word Kruger before, and you can’t wait to snap those iconic sunsets over vast, open plains with giraffes and umbrella thorn trees. Or elephants marching under thunderous clouds. Or thousands of wildebeest crossing crocodile-infested rivers.
Sounds fantastic except…that’s Kenya, and a specific time of the year too.
Research is fundamental to not only better prepare yourself gear-wise, but also in setting expectations.
You want to experience the heat and luscious colors of Africa? Don’t come in our winter season. Yet, people do because there’s a fallacy that Africa is hot all year round and we have a singular season.
A Wildlife Photographer Follows Nature
Now, I’m not suggesting you have to come out to Africa knowing everything; part of the joy is learning while you’re here. But knowing when birds migrate is going to be handy if you’re keen to photograph birds, or that November / December is referred to as baby season if you’re wanting to photograph young antelopes.
The best thing to do is enlist the knowledge and expertise of a guide, preferably one with photographic knowledge, who can not only get you into the best positions for photography but who will also teach you all the wonders of everything you’re seeing.
Knowing that hippos become more active around dusk will save your frustrations of sitting at the side of a river in the midday heat. And knowing that certain animals are nocturnal may inspire you to go out for a game drive after the sun has set.
Ethical and Non-Ethical Ways to Capture the Perfect Wildlife Shot
What we must remember is that we allow nature to dictate to us how we photograph. We can’t enforce our wills and wants despite having a mile-long list of dream shots, it’s all down to circumstance. The longer you’re in the bush, the more your chances increase for great sightings and great photography.
What we cannot do, under any circumstance, is to start affecting or manipulating nature for our own selfish needs and wants. We must remember that it’s an absolute privilege to be among these animals and to respect and uphold that is paramount.
I’ve personally seen photographers, and guides, unethically interact with wild animals to get them to look or move in a certain way – enabling the photographer to get their shot, and the guide getting a bigger a tip from that now-happy photographer.
In an ideal world, the animals we see and photograph would never know we were even there, but in the current world of noisy diesel land cruisers, that’s nearly impossible. Trails, or walking safaris, are definitely a more ethical and immersive experience – but photographically not ideal.
Hide photography is, for me personally, the best in terms of experience and ethics; where we sit quietly in a generally uncomfortable, dark, and humid box and allow nature to come to us. With that waiting, we’re taught patience and become more in-tune and aware of what’s around us.
However, these hides aren’t as popular as the constant “on the chase” nature of a game drive is more exciting and pleasing to the mass public. Not many photographers, let alone standard tourists, will have the patience to sit in a hide for hours on end in the hopes of something turning up.
Also see: The Impact of Photography Volunteers
Wildlife Photographer Lodges and Photo Safari Guides
One of the biggest recommendations I can give, above all else, is to utilize a lodge that caters to photographers.
Self-driving is great, and most lodges offer fantastic experiences, but nothing compares to being out on safari with a guide that knows how to tailor the experience to you based on your photographic needs.
If a guide has photographic knowledge – how lighting works, what positioning is best, and what focal ranges you have with your lenses – they can then make decisions that will benefit you.
There’s no point in getting too close to a lion if you have a large 600mm lens, for example. Or, they’ll know to position you between the subject and sun, so you’ll get the best conditions possible for a great shot.
This takes a lot of the work out from your side, and it’s reassuring to know you’re in good hands and that no matter what you see, you have an expert working to help get you the best shots.
Having worked with plenty of guides over many years, from interns and trainee guides to experts with decades of experience, the biggest thing for me is if the guide knows photography and / or communicates.
Are you interested in birds? Are you after silhouettes? Do you want close-ups or wides?
Even if you don’t know the answer to these questions, they can quickly fire out suggestions and ideas to you when you’re out in the field, guaranteeing you get the best, and most diverse, range of photographs for your collection or portfolio.
Once again, everything comes back to doing your research. All of these options are out there and with the right insight and expectations, you can get an outstanding experience and a new library of beautiful photos.
Too many people rush into an African safari without knowing exactly what they’ve paid for – but if you want to take wildlife photography seriously, the work begins long before you step onto a game viewer.
Check out our Wildlife Photography volunteer programs and join Samuel Cox on unforgettable photo safaris through the legendary Greater Kruger Area in South Africa!
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