Picture perfect
Naturalist, TV presenter and nature photographer Chris Packham travels to the AfriCat Foundation’s rehabilitation centre at Okonjima on a quest to capture the ultimate wildlife image.

 

Leopards, lions, cheetahs, wild dogs. . . let’s be honest, while all animals are equal, some are more equal than others and I have to confess that the mere prospect of pointing my camera at Africa’s carnivore pin-ups is enough to set my heart racing. However, for most of us this is not an everyday event, which means research, planning and a lot of thought are required before the ‘big day’ when you head off on your travels with camera in hand.


Now I see badgers most evenings, and deer most mornings, but I have yet to come across any big cats et al. on a regular basis. This could prove to be a problem, as I know that getting visually acquainted with my subject matter before I even pick up my camera is a good idea.


With this in mind I spend the weeks before any photography assignment looking at thousands of photos of these animals. I look for the good, the bad, and most importantly, the photos that haven’t been taken. I fantasise about what might happen when I’m there, I even draw sketches of images I might take, and then I store my dreams and make sure I am equipped to try and make them reality. Or at least my representation of reality.


You see, for me it’s all about perfection. I aim for the photo to be just as perfect in all aspects – technical, creative, artistic and original – as the creature itself. So, it’s not easy, in fact I don’t really see it as an attainable ambition, but continually nudging closer to it is the challenge that keeps me, camera in hand, in uncomfortable positions in a digital storm of self-depreciating disappointment, and setting that trusty alarm clock.


I think that faced with the chaos of reality as your palette, the photographer must seek to control as many elements of the process as is possible. It’s about making a multitude of decisions in advance to ensure that in that fraction of a second when you open your lens, all is as right as it possibly can be.


This is no mean feat when you consider that the fundamental components of your photo will be beyond your influence. I’ve tried extremely hard in the past, but to this day I still haven’t been able to make the sun shine, the rain stop or the snow fall. I have also failed to get a leopard to shift to the left a bit, or to make that grass stem which lies in front of its face to wilt. What I can do is maximise my chances of creating a better picture.


Truly ‘wild’ wildlife is generally unruly and it doesn’t like people. It flies away or runs off and hides, and in truth I don’t blame it – sometimes I do the same! So whilst it can be thrilling to ‘hunt’ with a lens, it can also be unproductive photographically. Thus I like to work with animals that are close, unafraid and maybe even biddable. Then, by sheer probability, I will have more opportunity to aim high in terms of the quality of the result. Thus captive, habituated or baited animals offer me greater predictability and essentially more control. And if they still choose to sit with that grass up their nose, then the computer can wash it away at a later stage. Reality is too often ugly. I want beauty, and if you believe that tame animals and computerised image manipulation compromise integrity, as many do, then fine, but at least respect my honesty.


Finding model subjects is not easy and there are certain strict issues where no concessions are negotiable, which means that just popping along to the local zoo is rarely the answer. Firstly the animals must be in excellent condition, properly housed and their welfare uncompromised. The enclosures should also exactly replicate their natural environment, down to the right species of plant or flower. They also need to work photographically – thick fencing, high viewing points, no light. . . none will work. In truth ‘getting in’ with the animals is the very best option.


The carnivores at The Africat Foundation’s rehabilitation centre at Okonjima represent the very best of these sort of opportunities, as visitors can get close, safely, to most species, and be guided inside some of the large natural enclosures. There are few places like this on earth and when you consider this in tandem with the superb and effective conservation projects run here, it makes an extraordinary destination for photographers. And the key to any success at all – the light – is pretty much guaranteed too. Perfect. Lets go!


I chose to visit in early December, at the beginning of the short rains, because photographically I’m not a fan of Namibia’s ‘all blue’ skies – I was hoping for some towering thunderheads or freckled sunrises. Whatever, the really good, low, warm light only lasts for a couple of hours a day, so planning a schedule of subjects was important. There isn’t time to chop and change location when the seconds are racing through ‘magic hour’. And some individuals are better subjects than others – they may be prettier, more curious and more compliant. Of course you still can’t guarantee that they will sit on that termite mound when it suits you, but when they do, a smile is guaranteed.


One last thing, remember that even if all of the above is lined up, it still isn’t easy. When confronted with such a wealth of riches, some snappers get lazy. They are overcome by the opportunity and don’t realise that many others have enjoyed it too. Thus you must work very hard to see something new. You must raise the bar just because you do have it ‘on a plate’. You must think very hard about whether, when you press that shutter, you will be creating something truly new and exciting – something that does justice to nature’s perfection and that will stop people in their tracks and make them say ‘oooh!’

 

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