I was told early on in this field, “It’s wildlife, it doesn’t always do what you want. Make your peace with that now”. Not the world’s most profound advice, but a very good starting point when first picking up a camera, maybe with the expectation of landing a National Geographic cover.
Wild life. Key word. As much as we envision the perfect video sequence or award-winning photo, a large portion of the time – in fact probably most of the time – things don’t turn out the way we want. The lions get spotted before they get close to the kudu. The leopard changes her mind and doesn’t leap over the channel in the Sand River, and instead of taking off towards you in a spectacular burst of colour, the lilac-breasted roller drops off the branch in the other direction.
C’est la vie, and we simply cover our disappointment – probably after a few muttered expletives – and move on.
A sense of humour is an absolute necessity when it comes to photographing or filming wildlife, and far more because it’s usually your own fault that you missed the shot than anything else.
We’ve been fortunate to capture some amazing moments over the last few months, but I shudder when I think of how many amazing moments I’ve missed.
The vast majority of them were human error. Poor decision making, a lack of readiness, incorrect anticipation of an animal’s movements… And without being able to laugh and try again another time (assuming there will be another time – many of the shots missed I’m likely to never see again) I think I would have lost my mind with frustration long ago.
Some of these moments might not seem or sound spectacular, but many of them have been built up in my mind for years. Photographic banter between rangers invariably ends up with statements like “Imagine seeing a leopard on that rock”, or “I’ve dreamed of a shot of lions crossing the river here“ and so on. And with Londolozi currently all to ourselves and the freedom to join any sighting at any time, many of these moments have actually materialized. And many of them I’ve completely blown.
I left the Flat Rock male as he entered the Londolozi camps, thinking the sighting had played out. 30 minutes later, rangers watched him wade through the Sand River, something I’ve never seen a leopard do. I arrived back into the sighting about 45 seconds too late.
I moved away from a mind-blowingly perfect position to film the Piccadilly female reflected in a still pool of water as she crossed some boulders, also in the river, because I anticipated her moving in a different direction.
I’d waited there for half an hour in the hope of that unique shot, then moved out of position about one minute before it played out exactly as I’d envisioned it for years. I managed to scramble something in the end, but it was far from what it could have been, and that’s almost worse, in that it’s an eternal reminder of what I might have got if I’d just stuck with my gut.
Wildlife photography is like most of life – you either win or you learn. Mistake after mistake after mistake slowly starts equating to experience, which hopefully means a lower likelihood of making the same mistakes.
Forgotten memory cards, the battery you neglected to charge, the wrong lens for the specific sighting; all of these are the steps on the sometimes steep learning curve that will bring us that much closer to capturing that magic shot next time.
Many of the world’s best wildlife photographers reckon they only capture five or six images a year that they are truly proud of.
Given that we sometimes take a few hundred in a day here, expanded over a year that doesn’t add up to a very high hit rate, and one might be forgiven for being pessimistic as a result.
But the beauty of the pursuit is that the reward is ultimately for the individual. Your own enjoyment is what really matters; your own opinion of your own photos. And no matter how slow that improvement, or whether you think you take one or a thousand great shots a year, it’s hard to think of an activity in which failing can still result in such pleasure.
Sitting in the wilds of Africa, watching its dramas play out before you, camera down or camera up… whichever way you spin it, it’s a pretty special pursuit to be engaged in.
That gratitude should always be something to bear in mind out there…