I was reminded of the idiom that says you never know what you have until its gone is one the other day, walking on the Copacabana promenade early one morning with the sun fighting the wispy clouds in trying to come out. I was grateful that the famous black and white stones on the walkway had been worn smooth by millions of Havaianas walking up and down as they didn’t hurt my bare feet as much. My shoes had been soaked early when I got caught by a wave I didn’t see coming and I decided to walk back to the hotel some 4km away with them in my hand. I hadn’t walked anywhere barefoot in ages. But we used to do it all the time in Durban. And the main strip in Rio, Copacabana Beach reminded me a lot of the golden mile in Durban. Only Copacabana is scaled up a little bit and possibly a little more famous. Durban is however not a 10 and 1/2 flight away.
So full 2 weeks of the New Year have come and gone. If you are still holding on to your resolutions good on you! If have already you broke them for whatever reason, well you only 2 weeks in so you can always wake up, shout “Mulligan!” and start over. If you didn’t make any, you do you as best as you can, because you never know who’s watching and looking up to you! My resolution for 2018 is actually something along those lines, but before we get there some background.
I know what you thinking. “Hold up, hold up, you can’t just be writing a year in review when the year is not yet over! Its not even Christmas!” But let’s be honest guys, as a South African the year officially ends on the long weekend of the 16th December and the new year begins after the 2nd January, maybe only officially the 8th January. The two week period in-between is neither the old year or the new year, filled with the haze of balmy summer nights, sweet over-indulgence, instagram posts and stories and travel to local or exotic destinations; all the while surrounded by dear family and friends. We should really start a petition to get the South African Government to make the 16 December to 1 January summer leave for everyone. So, for me at least, the year ended a few days back already unofficially and therefore I can just! So here are my two highlights of 2017…
I get asked quite often these days how long I’ve been so passionate about my photography, quite often I think, with the expectation of the answer being something like all my life. And when I reply in all seriousness that it has been perhaps only in the last few years that I have really dived right in I get some surprised responses. Photography, and in particular photographs, have been a part of my life for a long while. My dad had various cameras, many of which I recently reclaimed and shot many rolls of film of us growing up and growing older. However I didn’t really pick up a serious camera until about 10 years ago and only got my first DSLR about 6 years ago. Even still I’ve never taken my photography seriously and probably still don’t because of a few significant reasons.
- I’ve never thought myself good enough. Now this is not to say that I am someone who strives for perfection. To the contrary, I’ve always been one for trying your best and if your best is not good enough then you can always wipe the slate clean and try again. But for various reasons I’ve never felt my photography was good enough for me to call myself a serious photographer. Perhaps it has been the influence of other aspects in my life that say that, yes while I am good, I come off second best more often than not, so why should it be any different with my photography. And it’s always been the hardest thing to accept a compliment for me. Like someone would say nice haircut and I would reply with a self deprecating comment about my big head (But seriously I do have a big head). So it’s hard to actually internalise good feedback when I do get it. But its something I actively work on these days, finding the best way to accept that I may be good by first saying how I captured a shot, then what I like about it and only then saying what I think I could do better.
- Putting myself out there opens me up to criticism. Now to even get any good comments you have to learn how to handle the “bad ones”. And they always seem worse when you are getting them. But you have to learn how to weed out the good from even the bad. And be willing to admit mistakes and failure when it happens and be willing to learn. I’ve said it before on here I think, but no-one ever won anything by playing it small so you will have to put yourself out there as a photographer at some point, just so you can learn to get better. Even then there will be someone will not like your work. What has helped a great deal for me is joining a photography club and more recently joining my stock photography site. That anyone is willing to pay for my photos is great positive affirmation for me that I must be doing something right.
- Photography means I have to will have to interact with people. Many photographers I know struggle when it comes to dealing with people. They may love to take people photographs but the social anxiety of having to deal with people may just be too great and they tend to shy away. For many, photography is an escape, a way to get out and do what they love for an by themselves. So having to come back to reality and deal with people may well be a very limiting factor. I am no shrinking violet when it comes to interacting with people, believing there is always some or other common ground you can strike with someone you have just met. And I can spend hours talking about my photography. But, for the two previous reasons I think I have tended to stay away from photographing people. And many photographers go their whole careers doing just that, mastering other genres but eventually you will have to deal with people, even if it is to sell them your photos or share your photos on social media sites. So sooner or later as a photographer you have to deal with people so you have to learn how to. Even if it’s slowly over time. I have started asking my friends to pose for me and mostly they are more than willing to oblige. The feedback they will give you is honest and will also help with both previous points.
- Comparing myself to others is mostly a bad idea. This one is a general life rule I think. For the most part I avoid comparing myself to others in other aspects of my life, knowing that we not all running a giant race against each other but rather in our own lanes finding our way home. Even when I run in actual races I use the same philosophy, running withing myself more often than not, taking time to enjoy the beauty of the run rather than pushing myself to do better. I think I ended up last of everyone who did the 10km over the weekend in the local zoo trot. But when it comes to photography there always seems to be someone better. Someone who is doing brilliantly with the same kit you have, at the same places you visit. And this is often the feedback loop to the first point for me. Again I am learning to get over this, learning to ask questions and sometimes learning to be grateful to have seen something that simply astounds you.
I had to get over these mostly self thought up humps (and some smaller others such as technical know how) before starting to believe in my photography skills. And like with anything you learn, I progressed through the 4 stages of competency from unconsciously incompetent before I picked up my first camera to nearly the point of unconscious competence now. Personally I would add a fifth stage to the model – confidently competent. Where you are good and willing to put yourself out there enough to make the most of your skills, photography or otherwise. Just don’t jump the gun at the confidently incompetent stage!
P.S. Why the cover of a Giraffe you may ask? Giraffa Camelopardalis – the leopard spotted camel (who have differing numbers of humps if they are named Sally)
It is amazing that most of us can look back and pin-point the turning points in our lives that may have lead us to where we are now, yet at the time we didn’t realise that we were on the cusp of something amazing. I was reminded the other day on exactly one such moment by facebook and it got me thinking about all that it has lead to since. In August 2015 I decided on a whim to make a drive to the Pilanesberg National Park. I can’t remember the exact reasoning but it was around the public holiday long weekend and for whatever reason I had not gone down to Durban so it must have been pure whim that made me drive the 180km to get there.
It was my first visit to the park and I had no idea what to expect or what to do and to be honest I cannot for the life of me remember how much of the day went. What I do remember is stopping in the late afternoon at Mankwe dam to walk out to the bird hide to see what all the fuss was about. And after sitting around for a few minutes there was a little bit of commotion as a pied kingfisher came up to a dead tree right in front of the hide and proudly sat down with his catch. Not being big into birds at the time I did not know what happens next, but the seasoned photographers and birders did and quickly turned their attention to the kingfisher. The bird then started beating the fish about quite rapidly and violently to descale and tenderise the fresh catch before tossing the little meal around to position it and swallow it whole.
I was shooting with my 550D and 70-300mm Ultrasonic lens, which to that point had served me extremely well. But on that afternoon I found myself struggling. The 550D’s frame rate is about 5 frames per second which was decent enough to catch some of the action but missed half of it. The afternoon sunlight was rather harsh and I think even today I would struggle to deal with it. But the combination conditions and equipment limitations (at least in my head anyway) left me wanting to get better. And I think this is where my transformative journey in nature and in particular birding began.
I went back to the park in December 2015 with a new 7D mkii camera body and a second hand 300mmF4LIS lens that I purchased in September and October respectively. And that was my first introduction to some of the beautiful bird species to be seen in the park, including the white fronted bee-eaters and lesser striped swallows. The photography improved and I also got one of my favourite pictures in the park shot from the Rathlogo hide of 4 zebras having a drink. I also went with Tannie Wilma and Oom Hans which in itself was a great experience and possibly the inspiration to do the big year of birding I attempted in the course of 2016.
Through 2016 I did not make many a turn past the Pilanesberg. The park, which played a big role in inspiring the big year of birding as well as the Sanparks challenge I am currently completing, unfortunately took a back seat as I went trekking through the rest of our beautiful country. However I did manage one visit if I recall correctly and spent a nice afternoon at Mankwe dam again shooting a very young baby elephant and it’s protective family.
This year I have been to the park 4 times and each one was special in it’s own rights. The first trip in march for my birthday yielded a pair of cheetah walking through the long grass after the good summer rains. I was actually shooting a ruffous-naped lark when a couple saw me and directed me to follow them as they had been following the cheetahs for a while and they would come of the grass soon. And sure enough, no sooner than I had turned around, the cheetahs emerged casually walking through the long late summer’s grass. I don’t think I made the most of the opportunity but I chalked that down to excitement more than anything else.
I then decided in early June to join Heinrich Neumeyer, the leopard whisperer of the Pilanesberg to try to track at least one leopard down. In the end we did see a leopard on the safari, late in the afternoon when the light was too bad for decent photographs. But we also saw the big five in one day, elephants, rhinos, lions and buffalos to-ing and fro-ing in the early morning light and the late leopard.
I hired a lens to shoot with on the day and fortunately, as it turns out, left my 1.4x extender on the back of it. Heinrich and Gerrie tracked extender down for me so just to make sure I got it back safely I went back to the park a month later, the first weekend of July and went for my second tour with Heinrich. This time around we got got to see not one leopard but 5 and they were all in full daylight, offering some superb opportunities to photograph the notoriously elusive cats. Before the trip in early July I had seen a total of 3 leopards. Two in the dark and one briefly on safari in 2013 when I visited Kapama with Maja. So to see 5 in a day was extraordinary to say the least! I still managed to mess it up though and cut of the tail of one of the leopards crossing the road. Heinrich has promised to find me more leopards the next trip though because he owes me one…
The latest in the string of Pilanesberg adventures was on Women’s day last week. I decided to make a day trip because the holiday being a Wednesday was ideal for a one day sojourn. And I decided to invite a few friends along so we had a full car of photographers. I lead the expedition, given my love for the park, so this was the inaugural Pluckan Pilanesberg Tour (PPT). And while we didn’t get to see any of the big cats and the elephants somehow managed to elude us, it was all in all a great day. Well I think anyway. I did manage to seen two new bird species and photograph one (secretary bird below) and got some half decent rhino shots. Oh and we also saw a brown hyena which is the only hyena species in the park but were cut off just at the most inopportune time. As I said, Heinrich owes me one! I think the last trip made me realise that sharing the experience can bring its own rewards. So the park keeps inspiring me in different ways, mostly to get better with each return trip. And I shall be back sooner than I know it (possibly even by the end of this month) so the next edition of PPT is coming soon!
A fleeting glance across a crowded room,
My eyes meet yours with a familiarity only old friends know,
Your smile and happy eyes the shining light at the end of my tunnel vision,
Yet I know it is a paradox in itself.
A fleeting glance across a crowded room,
You look back and smile,
But with it comes the hint of the pain beneath,
An uneasy fidget and you look away.
A fleeting glance across a crowded room,
And distance becomes relative,
A stretch of my arm would bring you closer,
But you are already 1000 miles away.
A fleeting glance across a crowded room,
I step to bridge the gap,
You turn around and walk away,
And only time is left standing still.
The year is quickly winding down to an end, with people here mostly shutting down, or like me shut down for a week already. This time of the year everyone is rushing off to exotic destinations for what is the South African summer holidays. Filling up social media with images of beautiful places and mouth watering food, living their best life…tempting even the most steadfast among us to give in to the wanderlust. It’s easy to get so busy in the coming weeks that it all passes in a blur and suddenly you are back to the grind writing 2016 and having to correct it to 2017 without actually feeling like you took any time off at all. But in all the hustle and bustle let’s not forget to find a few quiet moments to take time to reflect on 2016 and all that has been achieved in the year.