1. Look for Extraordinary in the Ordinary
Venturing out into the bush for a wildlife photography trip for the first time is nothing short of exciting with inevitable high hopes for rare animals and interesting behavior to photograph.
All photographers are the same—we want and pray for the incredible.
We want to be able to photograph something so beautiful, unique, and rare that it, in turn, makes us stand out from the digital crowd of photographers that post online. But what does this do to our psyche? Most photographers have limited time in the bush, so to only focus on obtaining the near-impossible – doesn’t that seem a bit crazy? To be blinkered and ignore so much that could result in greatness?
I always advise photographers, especially those stepping into Africa, to take advantage of everything. The birds, the impalas, zebras, dung beetles – look for any and every opportunity you come across and take it.
Apply your creative eye and skills to photograph the normal in a unique way.
Otherwise, you risk a small and non-varied portfolio of images and experiences.
A collection of images should be like a well-balanced meal; of course, the steak is what’s going to get everyone’s attention, but it’s also the vegetables and sides that make it fulfilling.
2. Getting the Composition Right
The composition is the difference between a snapshot and a photograph.
When you begin thinking about your framing—what to include, what to exclude, how the light is working, where you should position things—you’re painting an image based on your own artistic sensibilities.
This is the single most important creative decision you can make – so don’t waste it.
Check Your Negative Space and Remember the Rule of Thirds
Simple tricks like leaving negative space (extra space in the photo for the subject to move or look into) drastically elevates the story of your subject and enables audiences to engage quicker and for longer.
The ‘rule of thirds’ is a visual guideline for composing in photography, painting, and film where the image is divided into even thirds. The aim is to have important/key subjects lined up on either of the lines or crosshairs where vertical and horizontal lines overlap.
This is an old but effective technique to bring balance to your photographs. It’s one of the first things taught in any camera workshop. However, it should not be considered as a rule.
Rules ultimately restrict art, and art is all about creative liberties and freedom, so don’t feel bound to it.
3. Staying Safe and Healthy in the Field
Now, it can be daunting at first to have to think about so many different things. After all, when you see your first leopard, are you really going to be able to think about shutter speed, ISO, aperture, lighting, subject movement, composition, etc? And all as you lift your camera for the first time?
Probably not. Just do your best but enjoy the sighting first and foremost.
All these aspects of photography become subconscious and automatic in due time; like with any skill, you’ll soon realize you’re able to do it without really thinking about it. However, the one thing we always need to be aware of and constantly check in on is our safety.
If it Wasn’t Dangerous, Was it Even Worth it?
Photographers like to push boundaries. We want to get close, we want to get low, we want to capture excitement and danger. But striving too far into this can easily and quickly lead you into dangerous situations, especially if you’re not an expert or trained in animal behavior.
It’s always a case of remembering that it’s a privilege to be in the wild among these fascinating animals and creatures, and not to abuse that privilege.
Respect an animals’ space, stay as quiet as possible when in close proximity, keep movements to a minimum, and use your peripherals to occasionally check your surroundings – don’t get lost down your viewfinder. And of course, make sure to stay hydrated!
I’m aware I sound like a nagging mother to my volunteers and guests, but I’ve seen what a lack of hydration and too much time in the sun can result in. Once something is happening in front of them, photographers tune a lot of things out and water, shade, food, and their well-being are often easily sacrificed.
It’s never worth it; pushing too far today risks your chances of tomorrow. It’s never worth it.
4. Back Up Your Photographs (Memory Cards Don’t Count)
Finally, after your health, what’s most important? Your photographs! The thousands of digital files you’ve lovingly captured and the result of your travels, efforts, and money spent.
They need to be backed up, there’s no question of this importance. If you can’t carry a laptop, there are plenty of portable devices you can automatically back up to.
There are still way too many nightmarish stories of memory cards failing, getting lost, and being stolen that it should be an automatic process for any photographer to back up their work. When you arrive back from any drive or activity, backup your photos.
Memory cards are a vessel to capture and transfer photographs and shouldn’t be used as storage.
Once you’re home from your adventure, having a second backup (via another hard drive or the cloud) is preferable. You never want to be in a position where, if one element breaks such as a hard-drive, computer, or memory card, you’ve lost all your work. That heartbreak is hard to move on from.