In December I had the privilege of traveling to South Africa for two weeks. Not only did I get to see some of the most beautiful landscapes and eat some amazing food, but I was also lucky enough to have Lady V. guide me through safari at both Pilanesberg National Park and Mabalingwe Game Reserve. Tonight was my first chance to really review the thousand or so RAW files I captured in Africa -yes, that was seven months ago – and I thought I would share some of my insights from the experience.
I am not a wildlife photographer. It takes an obsessive hunter carrying a lot of expensive lenses for many months to be able to chase down the style of photos you might find in National Geographic. I would also hazard a guess that it helps to have access to the special game reserves where Abercrombie and Kent re-enact Ernest Hemingway’s safari fantasy for five figures. Still, it is seldom the most exciting way to see things: carried on the backs of paid servants. I was more than happy to have the challenge of driving all day long and not knowing what I might come across.
Safari is not easy. It is not like a zoo where you can actually see the animals; you have to cover a lot of miles and hope that a rhino crosses your path and that you are ready for him before he disappears for good. My poor eyes were pretty much toast. We were up as early as possible to get the first run of the animals through the parks and to avoid the midday heat when all of the animals sleep under shady trees. I am not a morning person, and the instant chicory coffee was not Starbucks [although I often crave it these days].
I cannot describe how excited I was to see my first animals. It didn’t matter that they were just kudu or that most of our first day was spent without seeing anything: it takes time to learn how to see the animals. It took a lot longer to learn how to then take their photo in a reasonable manner.
For equipment I was carrying a Canon 300mm f4 IS L series lens on a 1DmkIII body and used a 2x extender most of the time. The extender really took away the sharpness, but without it the game were just too far out of the frame. Even with eight thousand dollars worth of camera gear, I would be a minor shooter on a big safari where the rich boys carry a 500mm f4 L series that comes in at eight thousand alone. I never knew people actually bought those lenses until I went out birding the week before the trip to see how the 300mm lens worked on its own. Nope, I needed an extender to get any reach, and this was further echoed by the four hardcore birders in full-camo heading out with ten thousand dollar lenses just to shoot some songbirds on a Saturday.
How did it turn out? A highlight was standing on the roof of the rented Yaris – not my Yaris- to catch a shot of two sleeping lions. Being cursed by men who had only brought small cameras and guffawed by people trying to capture something memorable with a cellphone camera [no, seriously…], somehow made me feel like a National Geographic reporter. If I had fallen off the roof though, I am certain the cellphones would be used to YouTube my death instead of to call for help.
Sitting in the Yaris for two hours while a group of rhino slowly moved down the ridge was glorious. While the tour jeeps skidded by to head back to the sleepy lion, we just waited them out in the hot sun, and I was able to share a moment with an armoured beast who could have trashed the Toyota in a matter of minutes.
One thing I had not anticipated, however, was enjoying shooting images of birds. V. is a bit of a bird expert, so in the hours of downtime between big game sightings I was able to track birds of unreal colours such as the lilac-breasted roller. My bird shots ended up being better than my big game photos, but watching them compared to a herd of elephants at dusk doesn’t really compare.
At then end of the day, I captured some pretty special photos, saw hundreds of animals I had only dreamt of, and found out just how hard it would be to be on assignment. It did make me want to give it another try; to sharpen my skills, save my pennies and get out there with the hardcore photographers, but then again…I am not a wildlife photographer.
I have posted my best wildlife images from this trip at Anthony N. Chandler Photography. They can be seen by clicking on the second alchemical symbol on the bottom of the page. I cropped everything to the square format, which seemed to work best for the content even though it totally ignores the Rule of Thirds.