A drinks break in the bush. On this safari I was with regular safari goers from France and some first timers from Belgium.
It is no secret I am a pretty seasoned Safari goer. I've been a few times now, always in South Africa.
In 5 days time I head to East Africa on a dedicated photosafari. On my previous safari's my mission was wildlife photography. So why would I now choose a photosafari versus a regular safari?
I thought I would blog some of my thoughts prior to the trip and then write another blog after the trip to see if the experience matched my expectations or perceptions.
My observation of being on safari is you have 4 general groups of people sharing the experience with you:
If you haven't been on safari before, basically you are assigned to a vehicle with other guests. Depending on the length of stay of those guests there is some 'turnover' in the vehicle with people coming and going. So when you are assigned to a vehicle, you are likely to meet one or multiple types of people in these 4 groups. The longer you stay on safari the more people you will meet. I would say that the average safari goer in the first 2 categories would stay on average 3 days, before moving on. In the last 2 categories these groups tend to stay longer, maybe 4 or 5 days.
So with that mix you have to put yourself in the field guides shoes. You have different people in a vehicle with vastly different expectations. Some will have wildly unrealistic expectations of seeing a cheetah pull down an impala! But with more experienced safari goers, their expectations tend to be more tempered and probably driven by wanting to experience something different that they haven't seen before. So the field guide has to try and balance these "needs" and that is not an easy job. Add to the mix the fact that you aren't guaranteed seeing anything on safari! A harsh reality that I have stated before and I will state again, if you go on safari, be grateful for seeing even the smallest things, because you have no guarantee of seeing the big 5, big cats, etc etc. On my first safari, my wife was desperate to see elephants. We were in a reserve which had elephants yet after 5/6 game drives we had not seen one. Eventually we found some, much to our joy and to the credit of the field guide. But there are never any guarantees.
So what does this mean for your experience?
It means you get to move about a lot in the vehicle. It means you probably spend at the most 30 minutes maximum at a general game sighting if something interesting is happening, but less if the game is in abundance and there is something come in over the radio that you are on standby to go and see. What is standby? Well most reserves have multiple lodges running multiple vehicles across land boundaries with shared traversing rights. When one field guide makes a find, he'll share it with his guests, before calling it in. Like this other vehicles come in to the sighting and it increases the 'hit rate' of sightings. It is in the interests of lodges to do this, because depending on the location of the sighting, the field guides know where to return on an evening or next morning game drive to pick up the trail. This is important for things like kills and feeds, when a predator may be forced away from the kill with something bigger and more fierce coming in...and thus changing the sighting on the kill within hours, for guests to witness. There are rules to being on standby, you typically only have maximum of two vehicles at a sighting so as not to stress the animals. And if it is a special sighting, again you may only be there for 30 minutes or so, if other vehicles are waiting their turn.
So your experience is one of a huge amount of diversity in quite a short space of time.
Going off road to track animals is super exciting. It gives you a sense of the terrain these animals call their home.
What does this mean for your photography?
Well, it probably means [and I am generalising here] you get a higher percentage of proof shots, and you may not be at the sighting long enough for when the real action takes place. I have been very fortunate with Leopard sightings where we have tracked them for hours watching them scent market, hunt and mate. These have been exceptional experiences and in most cases I have been in a vehicle with first timers, and I have told them that this is exceptional and not the norm! In those cases it makes for great photography.
You are able to get very close to the animals. This leopard had stayed on the tracks and so we were able to park up and observe. But as one of the big 5, you are able to track leopards off road, terrain allowing.
One of my most memorable Leopard sightings: we followed this male off road and back on road as he did a territorial patrol. We stayed with him about 45-50 minutes with great photo opportunities all the way.
But if you were keen on taking images of giraffe's for instance, you might struggle to get interesting images. Why? Well as a general rule field guides do not go off road for general game. General game are the animals not classed in the big 5; leopard, lion, elephant, cape buffalo, and rhino. For the big 5, they are permitted and will track them off road. So this aspect will certainly limit your photographic opportunities if you are leaning more towards an interest in a general game species rather than the big 5. I got lucky once with a sighting of a giraffe drinking, but again we and some traversing rights issues before being able to get the vehicle in place, we were lucky to have a great field guide who anticipated what the giraffe would do.
So if my mission is wildlife photography, why have I waited until now to go on a photosafari?
Well this is really a personal perspective. For me the past 2 years were really the beginning of a journey. I never intentionally set out to start taking wildlife images...I fell into it by accident, and found quite quickly I was passionate about being in the bush, being on drive, immersing myself in the experience and taking images. But I had a lot to learn, and for me I wanted to see if I could develop my skills to a level where I was producing images of a certain quality on my own. I think in the last 12 months I achieved that. My images are at a level now which I think compliments my camera craft. And don't get me wrong! Every safari I have been on in South Africa has been a life changing experience. Yes life changing. The experiences I have had are really some of the most memorable of my life. But now it is time to make a step change in both the images I am taking and my camera craft. I could have gone on a photosafari much sooner, but for me it was a very personal choice to stick with general safaris.
So why will a photo safari help me make a step change?
Well first, for the reasons I mentioned above. As a photographer, or as photographers we need more time at a sighting. It have been fantastic being in a vehicle with people from all over the world, and sharing experiences with them. But it isn't the same as being in a vehicle with like minded wildlife photographers who are trying to realise a specific vision or goal. This is very different. We are patient. We are happy to sit and wait for a leopard to finish eating and pull his prey up a tree....even if it takes 2 hours. We are not in a rush to see the big 5, because we've done that. We are more interested in watching oxpeckers at work on a rhino or an antelope. I am really looking forward to slowing down. Yes slowing down. Even to the point where I take fewer images at a sighting but more more diversity of images at that sighting. I want to have that extra time and slower pace to try creative things....yes and fail along the way...but by having that extra room to breathe behind the camera at a sighting I know my camera craft will improve, which leads me to the second reason...
Being with a dedicated photo guide. The photo safari I chose is with a photographer whom I respect and whose images inspire my own work. I've known the photo guide for about a year online before going on safari with him. He's already asked me about my photographic goals before I get there. He has already been to the reserve multiple times, and yet what fascinates me is how he will approach the photographic opportunities on a return visit? I know that just having an experience field shooter around me and the group will increase my camera craft exponentially. This is really important. On a general safari, I was often the most experienced photographer there. People would look at my kit and start asking questions. It was flattering to help out...there's a phrase in business "if you are the most experienced guy in the room, you are in the wrong room". Yep, it's that.
The final rationale for me is one of stepping outside your comfort zone. I am going to a new country, a new destination, a new culture. I am meeting new photographers, new people. I know South Africa very well, and I will return as I love the place. But I want to return with a fresh perspective. I want to push the boundaries of my photography in a new environment that will help me think about my creative vision differently. It's really no different to a landscape oil painter going to a new location for inspiration, they are looking for a new canvas. It is the same for me.
As it is my first time, I cannot tell you what I am expecting. As described above I can only tell you my rational for choosing a photosafari over a general safari. Yes there will be overlaps with the experiences of the two. And I am sure there will be many differences too...but those differences I am waiting to discover. What I hope is to learn, experience, share and enjoy. I hope to create different images to the ones I am creating today. In 2 weeks from now I'll write a follow up blog and I will share my experience and if a dedicated photosafari helped fulfil some of my photographic ambitions.