My 9 key tips for beginner wildlife photographers

I recently went on a trip with friends who were interested in learning more about wildlife photography and how to get better photographs while out on safari. The first thing I usually say is that I am no master myself, in fact I am constantly learning myself each time I got out to a park or birding spot. However, over the last 5 years or so I have shifted from shooting mainly landscape photos to focusing more and more on wildlife images as I spent more time in nature, first challenging myself to visiting all the SANParks run national parks in South Africa (Love at first (and last) light) and then through my studies towards becoming a field guide (Another fork in the branch of the ziziphus). And, above all, I do love wildlife imagery! Not only my own but more so the spectacular shots I often see on social media from photographers all around the world. So hopefully in this post, I can share some of the basic tips and tricks I feel any beginner and even intermediate wildlife photographer (such as myself) should keep in mind.

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The 6 things I can’t leave behind when I do a game drive or safari!

I love getting out to the bush, whether it be to camp for a few nights or just driving through on the day to nature reserves like Rietvlei or my favourite park, the Pilanesberg, which is just about a 2 hour drive from my home. Normally very early starts to get into the park or nature reserve as the sun rises and the light is good means that I have to prepare the night before and get whatever I need packed and ready so that I can just shower and hop in the car in the morning. And, not matter which park or reserve I am going to, there are usually 5 or 6 things I always make sure are packed and ready!

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Zimanga Photographic Safari Experience

I was meant to have written this post up months ago! I mean the trip itself was the last week of February after all. The Corona Virus, by official accounts, was not in South Africa yet and we therefore had no travel restrictions or any inkling as to what the year would turn out to be. It feels surreal thinking about it because it feels like it was so long ago and at the same time, as if hardly any time has passed because of the blur of the daily routine that became lockdown life and our new normal (Finding my new normal…). But December is as good a time as any to reflect on one of the few outings this year brought and possibly one of the best trips I’ve ever done in my life!

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Finding my new normal…

The first time I attempted jogging in a mask I honestly felt I was going to drown. South Africa went into hard lockdown for Covid-19 at midnight on 26 March 2019. We stayed there for a full month before our president addressed us and said preparations to deal with the surge in cases were underway and we (South Africans) were allowed to exercise again. Suddenly everyone was a runner and out on the roads between 6 and 9am, mostly from a month long build up of cabin fever in a country that really is outdoor mad. I went out in my 3 layer material mask, on a cold morning in May and the material was almost immediately wet through by the vapour in my breath. By the 2km mark I was panting from a month of no exercising and 10am samosas as snacks and the soaked mask made it feel like I was swimming rather than jogging.

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Two months in, too many more to go…

We went back into our homes one day,

Closed the doors behind us and drawing the curtains,

Cowering away from a new serial killer we could not see.

We stayed in for a few days,

Learning how to speak in different languages,

We got creative and played new games,

And then baked and ate it all.

The days grew into each other,

And slowly became stretchy bubblegum weeks,

We monitored the daily numbers,

Until the numbers made us numb,

So we got brave and ventured outdoors,

We said it was to buy essentials but really it was to shake the cabin fever.

We began to suffer Zoom fatigue,

And Teams exhaustion,

We began to flaunt the rules,

Or thought they didn’t apply to us,

We started to find a new normal,

But still we asked “When is this all going to be over”.

We worried about the economy,

And wondered if the outside missed us,

Then the news of a colleague at work,

A neighbor,

Outbreaks at the local pharmacy or a hospital we may use.

The numbers that had numbed us suddenly gave us new reasons to fear,

When would we get the message of a brother or a sister,

And would our four new friends with their catchy tune begin to draw near?

It’s a strange thing…

It’s a strange thing to meet you and not extend an arm to pull you closer

and tilt my chin up instinctively

to feel you head against my heart

It’s a strange seeing you smile

but realise your eyes are saying something else

and to feel overwhelmed by that same dread for the days to come

It’s strange stopping myself from saying let’s go grab breakfast

or to go quickly gobble up pizza

despite the promises to eat better

It’s a strange thing to text more and get responses

in a time when the words feel utterly futile

and yet so much more essential

It’s going to be a strange new world we will emerge into

broken and then pieced together to start over

and I’ll raise my arm place it on your shoulder

so that we can walk together once more

Another fork in the branch of the ziziphus

In the Zulu and Swazi cultures in particular, Ziziphus Mucronata or the Buffalo Thorn tree is strongly associated with burial and death. It is said that if someone dies far from home, a twig from the tree, which is rather uniquely covered with both a curved, backward facing thorn and a straight forward facing thorn at each growth node, must be taken to fetch the body before a burial. The backward facing curved thorn is said to capture the soul of the deceased, and in that way bring it back home with the body. At the funeral the twig is buried with the casket and the straight thorn then points the way to heaven. Where no body has been located, the twig alone is brought back and symbolically buried alone.

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How to gain followers and influence people!

For the most part, if you ask people (and sometimes even if you don’t ask) for their thoughts on social media you will find that they fall into one of two opposing camps. The first, and seemingly growing camp, is those in opposition, arguing that social media is a major time waster and only serves to feed the user’s need for external validation through likes and comments. In fact, when I initially thought of writing this post it was going to be a bit tongue in cheek and all I was going to say was all you needed to do to gain followers and influence people is to be an Instagram model. Full stop. But then I realised my facetiousness was just an attempt to mask that I fall into the second camp of people who argue that social media can be used effectively and to achieve different goals. So I decided to do more of an actual post than just a silly clickbait article.

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Love at first (and last) light

That time I fell in love between two river beds….

The first reaction I get from most of the people I told my December holidays were spent visiting the Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park (KTP for further reference) was “Where’s that?”.  My response for ease of reference was “Near Upington, on the border of Botswana and Namibia – that pointy sticking out bit.”  Still most would only recognise it slightly better.  The most common response I got as a follow up was “It’s hot there!” For good reason though.  Most South Africans my age are most likely to recognise Upington, from the daily weather reports our parents forced us to watch growing up, as one of the hottest places in the country almost through all the seasons.  Durban would be setting record highs at 36 degrees Celsius and Upington would be “Hold my beer” at 45 degrees. Upington, Lephalale and Skukuza would always be closer to the sun than the rest of South Africa.  So maybe visiting at the height of summer was madness.  But it was madness I had set in motion 3 years before and has to see through.

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