When I started my photographic journey six years ago I had some ideas in my mind of what being a nature photographer would be like. I knew that it would involve early starts and late finishes; all the books I read told me to photograph at dawn and dusk. I had prepared myself, at least mentally, for the initial costs involved in buying the camera and computer equipment necessary to take the kind of pictures that I had in my mind. Also, I was under no illusions about the time it would take to develop as a photographer and produce pictures that would make me happy to place on my wall. What I was not prepared for was discovering a continent so varied and appealing that repeat visits now are compulsory.
I had not stepped foot on the African continent for the first 40 years of my life. Yet, since purchasing my first DLSR I have felt the need and desire to visit every year. Maybe it is a coincidence, maybe it is as simple as ‘life begins at forty’ or, maybe, as I suspect, it is an undocumented side effect of wildlife photography.
People ask me why I go back to the same location repeatedly. Those questions, in the main, come from people who have never visited Kenya or one of the other wildlife rich countries in Africa. The first and easy answer, of course, is for the wildlife.
If I visit one of the UK’s hot spots for wildlife, then I anticipate returning home with images of a single prime subject: red squirrels in the Cairngorms, deer in the London parks, or grey seals at Donna Nook. When I visit Kenya, however, I am rewarded with a wide variety of wildlife, including mammals, reptiles and birdlife both large and small.
Such variety leads to endless possibilities for photography throughout a typically long day. I always practice the dawn and dusk mantra, instilled in me from my early readings, and focus typically on the so called “big cats” during those golden hours. Each morning I decide on a target species based on intelligence from the rangers and previous sightings and concentrate on that target for the dawn session. It is far too easy to stop several times for “unique” photographic spectacles en-route to your first subject. I realised quickly that most of these “distractions” occur quite frequently and the seemingly missed opportunity invariably would present itself again at another time. Having completed the morning session with the larger mammals, my preference is then to switch my attention to the birdlife. The harsh sun causes the larger mammals to rest and presents some unforgiving shadows, making photographing in the open less than ideal. I head, therefore, to some of the marsh areas where the trees offer a degree of shade. Also, I find that, with a bit of care when positioning the safari vehicle, the shadows tend to be more forgiving on small birds.
The large variety of wildlife available presents the photographer with a number of photographic challenges. In an ideal world you want your entire collection of camera accessories with you to cover the different subject sizes and distances involved; however, modern day luggage allowance has alternative ideas. Even assuming you are able to transport a variety of lenses, not knowing how big your subject is around the next corner or how close it could come, makes lens choice problematic. I try to operate two cameras most of the time, offering some flexibility, but I still find myself swapping lenses more often than my wife tries on dresses for a big night out. The second reason why I choose to revisit Kenya is colour.
When visiting the Masai Mara region of Kenya, the final leg of my journey is courtesy of a very small aircraft that flies over Africa’s plains. By the end of the 45 minutes’ flight I am fully aware of “this season’s colour” in Kenya. On my first trip I remarked on how green everything was in Kenya. The colours were quite similar to the UK in parts and I assumed that was the norm for the time of year. When I visited the following year, in the exact same week as the previous year, Kenya was decidedly brown. I was amazed at just how different everything looked; it was like being in a different part of the world. Whilst writing this article I am processing some images from this year’s trip when the fashionable colour was yellow. As a consequence, images of the same species can look very different year after year.
The third reason why I keep saying “Kenya please” when I am with my travel agent, is the environment.
The dramatic colour changes, affording impressive and alternative photographic backgrounds, are complemented by the environment. There are years when the rain has been plentiful; the grasses are short and green and the migrating animals far more relaxed with the abundance of food and water. The animals look healthy and active; they have spare energy during the day which adds drama to some of my photographs. On other occasions the grass is non-existent, the ground is dry and hard, adding dust to the air. The temperatures are higher so, consequently, the animal movements are slower. The lack of food and water makes the wildlife behave quite differently as they adapt to the arid conditions.
I mentioned earlier that, surprisingly, this year’s images are yellow. The reason for this was the unusually long grasses that had been bleached by the sun. In large areas these grasses were up to a metre long and very pale in colour, presenting a new challenge (read opportunity) that I had not encountered on any previous trips. First, the wildlife was able to move within this natural cover, which made some species very difficult to see, never mind photograph. Secondly, it was almost impossible to lock focus. Through my binoculars I spotted a lion walking through the long grasses; I repositioned myself and the camera at the lion’s eye level to get a more intimate connection with my subject. However, with so much vegetation between the lion and me, focusing accurately was difficult at best. On many occasions, when I did secure focus, it turned out that the lion had its eyes closed, as it protected itself from the long grasses as it walked. However, when the lion finally lifted its head slightly, I was able to lock focus and take my picture. That generated an image that would have been impossible to produce during any of my previous visits to Kenya because, quite simply, the environment was not the same; the long grasses were not there.
It is not only the annual environmental changes in Kenya that contribute to the variety that is so attractive to me as a wildlife photographer. Day to day changes occur as well. Some days the heavens open in the late afternoon allowing great opportunities to photograph animals in the rain.
Photographing in the rain is really enjoyable for several reasons. First, most people do not bother, so the plains become a lot quieter. Secondly, having an extra element in any photograph gives a picture feeling; a vital ingredient in my opinion. Also changeable weather can throw in the chance to include a dramatic sky and even a rainbow if you are really lucky. Some days, however, the much loved short rains do not materialise, but I do not feel cheated on those days because the alternative ending to the day is to photograph the setting sun. Racing across dusty tracks in an attempt to find a position with some wildlife on the horizon before the sun sets is good fun in my books.
So, it is the variability and diversity that Kenya offers which is so attractive to me as a wildlife photographer. Every year I encounter new wildlife species to photograph. I can photograph mammals, reptiles and birds. This variety of wildlife, combined with the changing colours, make every trip unique. Visiting Kenya even inspired me to take some landscape and people photographs, which, previously, were not on my photographic radar.
I am sure there will be other wildlife paradises to discover during my lifetime. Whether they ever capture my heart in the way that Africa has done with ease, is another question.