As wildlife photography has a sense of uncontrollability to it, capturing new and unique imagery is part of the excitement. A lion’s grimacing yawn or an impala’s pronk high into the air are difficult to plan for and so make a sequence of photographs all the more diverse and interesting.

But nothing stops a photographer from premeditating a photograph; in fact, that is the beauty of wildlife photography. Not only should one be ready at all times for the unexpected to happen (like a male leopard falling out of tree) but gambling with where to position and with which settings to use may pay off for something completely different and otherwise unattainable. Premeditating the scene is so important, but it can suddenly lead one to dreaming up ambitious photographs, some almost impossible. This is where the day dreamer in me comes out.

I have, in my head, dozens of these impossible shots. Unfortunately imagination is infinite and so very, very specific aspects to very, very unique photographs are floating around my brain from a day-to-day basis, and in order to not drive myself mad I make an effort to simplify some of them into realistically attainable goals. One day I’d love to capture a back-lit male lion hurtling through the Okavango Delta in still water of only one foot deep or less, in the early morning. Or an elephant bull in the Etosha National Park illuminated briefly by a well-timed single external flash as he walks beneath a sky full of stars during a long exposure Milky Way explosion. Or the bucket-list Northern Lights both in the sky and reflected on a still lake, with a log cabin to the side, smoking from the chimney. I can do this all day, but alas.

One of the more basic scenes I had strapped to my mind involved a very still leopard and a tree with not-so-still branches. I thought this would be one of the most easily accomplishable “bucket list” photographs, or creations, on my ridiculous dream checklist… So what a one to start with. However, I quickly realised its need for such specific conditions!

Essentially, I wanted the final product to be a slightly wider portrait of a leopard, pin sharp (of course), with lots of movement of branches and leaves both behind and even partially in front of the subject’s face achievable with a slow shutter; a type of motion blur photograph. This would require low light and a very still subject and hand, or complete dead-rest to be sure, as well as lots of wind! Easy…

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1/6 sec at f/22; ISO 100.

I first started experimenting whenever there was any wind at all, as we are often blessed with such comfortable weather conditions. These opportunities, though, always seemed to be during the early afternoon when sunlight was too strong for a slow shutter. I also quickly realised I would need a much larger lens in order to get close enough for a portrait, and not only that, but the leaves and branches would need to be so perfectly aligned in such a dense tree for my vision to come even close to materialising. Realism set in fast.

The above image is a clear example of how not to try accomplish said goal. Although conditions were sunny, I thought a shaded subject in breezy wind would get me there. Turned out that 1/6 of a second shutter speed not only let in way too much light but wasn’t slow enough to reveal much movement, which was only in the slight if I must be honest. My miserable attempt out of eagerness.

In fact, I have about a hundred of these failed photographs, most of which I’ve deleted – to my current frustration as it would’ve been nice to compile a more substantial progression over the past few months. However, some botched shots have have slipped through the cracks and can help illustrate the headway made recently.

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1,0 sec at f/22; ISO 100.

I mean, we can’t even see a head in this one above. That is how desperate I was to get something on this very gusty afternoon! Slightly darker conditions meant a full 1,0 second both captured a manageable exposure as well as the movement of the branches… Getting somewhere.

Hundreds of scenarios later and I found myself with a wide awake subject in very windy conditions and thought I would have the shot!

dsc_1047

1,0 sec at f/22; ISO 100.

Again, strong light was one of many limitations in this case and although the male leopard came out very sharp, most of the image was uncomfortably over-exposed. Honestly, there needed to be more branches and leaves in the frame anyway…

Recently, though, opportunity presented itself and I couldn’t contain myself as this leopard climbed the flimsiest tree around, during an approaching thunderstorm in high winds and low light, and stood fairly still. “Get the shot!”

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0,8 sec at f/22; ISO 100.

Her head moved around quite a bit…

But eventually she froze for just a few seconds. Enough time to fire away with the predetermined settings I had learnt so well through every other failed attempt. Ready for this moment when position, light strength and wind strength were all in line with my dreamed up vision.

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1,0 sec at f/22; ISO 100.

Without needing action, gore, excitement or golden light, this photograph has a story and a vision about a moment in time. A moment which existed only in my imagination and, although I had not actually pictured how the final result would look, the idea of its possibilities encompassed that moment.

What I now understand is that I was never premeditating just a photograph, but fostering the idea of an image. And now that I have seen this idea transpire into imagery, I will be seeking more photographs based around this idea, and more. The never ending pursuit of my imagined imagery; a bucket list for the overflowing mind.

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1,0 sec at f/22; ISO 100.

Questioning, exploring and dreaming; this is how we chase ourselves, around and around, until we can dream some more.

About the Author

Sean Cresswell

Safari Guide

Sean is one of the humblest rangers you are likely to meet. Quietly going about his day, enriching the lives of the many guests he takes out into the bush, it is only when he posts a Week in Pictures or writes an ...

More stories by Sean

6 Comments

on The Journey to an Imagined Image
    Jill Larone says:

    Sean, now THOSE are stunning images (both coloured and the monochrome)!! Well worth the failed attempts (easy for me to say) and all the patience (and skill) you demonstrated, just waiting for the right moment. Thank you for sharing your beautiful images!

    Sharon Blackburn says:

    Wonderful story, Sean! Applicable not only to photography, but to life, as your last insightful sentence illustrates – “Questioning, exploring and dreaming; this is how we chase ourselves, around and around, until we can dream some more.” Dream, imagine, work, persevere, work, fine-tune, work some more and… achievement. Repeat.

    Barbara Weyand says:

    Sean,
    I so enjoyed the early morning rides with you and Robbie when my husband and I visited Londolozi in June. My attempts at safari photography resulted in several great photos of the four leopard sightings we shared. Again, many thanks for my first safari experiences. We hope to return with friends to Londolozi. And, I enjoy the blogs you and your compatriots post daily as the perfect way to relive all of the beauty and excitement of the bush.
    Warm wishes in the New Year to you and your Londolozi friends.

    Kim Jacobson says:

    Well done…..fabulous end result !!

    Wendy Hawkins says:

    Oh Sean I smile at this blog! How many times I have taken pictures & they are either blurred or over exposed, so now I feel better seeing a pro like you post these, there is hope for me 🙂 Thank you

    Amy Attenborough says:

    I think this photo is stunning Cress! It’s the difference between taking photographs and making photographs.. Super cool!

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