Capturing the world’s most beautiful and elusive animals in their natural habitat through a lens is no easy task. Minty Clinch joins a photography course on one of South Africa’s private game reserves to improve her skills
On safari: Hunt and shoot photography
The white rhino didn't flinch as the shuttle plane landed on the airstrip alongside his habitat. He knows who owns Sabi Sand, a huge game reserve with a 50km unfenced border with the Kruger National Park. Not the alpha predators, as human beings are known in these parts, but the Big Five, the engine of South Africa's unparalleled safari industry.
As the only passenger for Sabi Sabi, a quartet of private lodges within the 65,000 hectare Sabi Sand zone, I was greeted by Mike, my designated ranger. Within minutes, we arrived at the flagship Earth Lodge. In the marble reception area, fabulously shaped furniture made from big driftwood washed up by flash floods competes for the wow factor with a shallow pool set up with foot-cooling tables and chairs.
I was ushered to a sumptuous suite with faux mud walls, artfully gilded cowskin rugs and a rustic oval bath tub with gleaming 21st-century plumbing. French windows open onto a garden with a plunge pool and a view of prime habitat stretching towards infinity. No fences. At the highest level, they've gone out of fashion.
In a world obsessed with photography, my African safari mission is to shoot the Big Five. With people like me in mind, Sabi Sabi has started professional photography courses. Ambitious amateurs familiar with their own SLRs (single lens reflex cameras) and telescopic lenses would benefit most, but the photographer provides professional equipment for anyone who wants to give it a go.
My one-day course was run by Andrew Schoeman, a veteran game warden with 12 years experience in South Africa and Botswana. Accustomed to carrying a lightweight Canon G11 in my back pocket, I looked warily at his Nikon D3S with 200-400mm f/4 lens swathed in rubber protective sleeves in bush camouflage colours when we started our workshop at noon. A rig like that weighs in at six to eight kilos and measures up to half a metre in length.
As the one-time owner of a non-digital SLR, I understand the basic relationship between light sensitivity (ISO, then known as film speed), shutter speed and aperture, but things have moved on. Today's camera bodies have digital adjustments and figures as well as manual ones. This gives them tremendous scope, but mastery is much closer to rocket science than it used to be.
Andrew realised from the outset that I wouldn't crack the Nikon code in a single day, but he gave it his best shot. "The first essentials are focus and exposure," he began. "For entry level wildlife photography, you aim the crosshair focal point - that's the little green square in the middle of the viewfinder - on the animal's eye. This ensures that the camera prioritises the big beast over the surrounding vegetation. Blurred grass can create an artistic effect, but blurred beasts are instant deletes." That's just the tip of the focal iceberg, but it's a sound starting point.
Next up, exposure. In digital terms, ISO measures the sensitivity of the image sensor. As it was with film speed, this is expressed in numbers: the lower the number, the less sensitivity to light and the finer the grain. "Once you've set the figure, you balance the aperture [the size of the hole that admits light through the lens] with the shutter speed to get the precise effect you want," Andrew continued.
Faced with this complex numbers game, many wannabes switch the camera to auto and let it rip, an approach he rightly deplores. "You have greater control if you choose an appropriate aperture and let the camera calculate the shutter speed. Capturing fast-moving targets requires a large aperture and fast ISO and shutter speeds, but using the motor drive [burst mode] improves the odds on some good results," he explained.
The two photo opportunities in a 24-hour course are the first evening when the animals awake after the heat of the day and the next morning before they settle down for their next siesta. As our targets wouldn't be lined up in zoo formation, we needed a lot of help from Mike and his tracker, Kenny. Mike drove an open Land Rover equipped with a .375 calibre Brno rifle. Perfect for penetration, especially of thick skulls, but he assured me he hadn't killed a rogue elephant or lost a client. Andrew mounted camera supports on the vehicle's hand rails as we set off in pursuit of evening prey.
Kenny sat up front, watching for signs of elephants, rhinos, buffalos, lions and leopards. The Big Five were selected for size as well as ferocity but even massive animals have scope for hiding out or moving on between Sabi Sand and Kruger National Park, an area roughly a quarter of the UAE. Kenny was ever alert to footprints in the sand, crushed grass and droppings that indicated the progress of beasts through bush.
The white rhino, named for the width of its mouth ("wyd" is Afrikaans for wide) rather than its colour, is the most cooperative target. Soon Andrew and I were screwing our cameras onto the mounts while Mike circled to give us the best light. Half an hour passed in a flash as we captured mother, baby and attendant oxpeckers extracting insects from the mud crusted on their backs, a popular symbiotic bush relationship.
Back at Earth Lodge, we shared dinner under the stars in the boma, a traditional enclosure designed to exclude wild animals. Guests eat with their rangers rather than mingling, a discouragement to bragging rites about creatures seen and unseen. Five courses, announced with due solemnity, came and went while the flames died in the giant wood-burning brazier. The food was ambitious and international, the success rate for dishes with multi-flavour sauces rather random.
The next day, we set out at dawn. One Big Five down, four to go and only four hours to nail them in. Kenny found our pride of lions laid out on the airstrip's heat-retaining tarmac, a popular electric blanket on a cool winter night. They sleep between 18 and 20 hours a day so they weren't going anywhere, but at least they were waking up, stretching, yawning, licking their cubs and generating photo opportunities.
Next a herd of elephants in deep bush. We lingered while Andrew coached me in the now slightly more familiar equipment. As the sun rose inexorably, the buffalos we'd seen the night before roamed off property and the leopards settled into their day-long torpor, essential energy conservation for murder in the dark.
No matter. Andrew taught me how to shoot into the sun to capture it rising, setting and illuminating a herd of impala, their ears backlit in the glow of a Limpopo morning. When Andrew left with his Nikon at noon, I had 400 images and, thanks to his patience, a greater knowledge of what my own Canon can do, so I gave it the chance to bag the remaining Big Two before I left a day later.
The buffalo came easily into frame that afternoon, the males lining up their formidable horns to create an impregnable circle around their women and children. But no one could locate the elusive leopard, so often the missing link in a Big Five portfolio. Another chance tomorrow? Happily yes, and it reeled in the leopard, a fine male captured centre frame on as he lay down to sleep. As always, there's more than one way to skin a cat.