Guest Blog: Light & Dust, A Mana Pools Safari Experience

Marlon duToit All Authors, Guest 3 Comments

It was a safari like no other I had ever been on.

Instead of the token 10 (or 20 or, rarely, 30) minutes with an animal we spent entire sessions with just one group of animals, trying to capture their most interesting behaviours from the best angles, in the moodiest light. And, because we were in Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe, we did most of it on foot.

Being approached by a large bull elephant or walking up to a pride of lions without the security of a vehicle is enough to take most of us out of our comfort zones. Yet, for me, the most uncomfortable thing was the way that I was challenged as a photographer.

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I have been taking photographs for more than 45 years. As I am self-taught, I have been thinking for a number of years about going on a course to help me become a better photographer. A quick internet search reveals hundreds, if not thousands, of people offering to help me do just that.

Most have good images on their websites and some are absolutely stunning. It is difficult, however, to tell how good the photographers really are. Do those images reflect their ability or are they the only good ones they have ever taken? And, more importantly, can they teach? I have heard stories where the photographer is only interested in their own images and their clients play second fiddle, even though they are the ones financing the trip. Clearly, choosing the right photographer/company to go with is critical to the success of any trip.

I first came across Wild Eye a couple of years ago when they were mentioned in another photographer’s blog. I followed some of the team on Facebook and Instagram and was impressed by the quality of their photography but, initially, found it hard to judge how good they were at teaching.

By the time that Marlon du Toit contacted me on Instagram, and suggested coming on one of their trips, I had decided that these might be the people to go with for my first photo (tuition) safari.

Several months later my wife, Helen, and I found ourselves, on foot, in front of a large herd of buffalo, as the Sun was rising over woodland in Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe. Marlon was directing operations; trying to get us into the best positions, suggesting exposure settings and viewing angles.

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“Look at that light!”

“Wait for the buffaloes to raise up some dust.”

“Move over here. We might get some rays shining through the dust.”

“Set your widest aperture, ISO 4000, shutter speed should be at least 1/1000, adjust your exposure compensation to underexpose by one and a third stops.”

“Alan, let me see what you’ve got. … That’s what I’m looking for but less foreground. We want to see more of the light in the background.”

We had started off quite gently with one of the more rarely seen African animals, a pack of wild dogs, on our first afternoon. Marlon let us shoot in our normal way, with just the occasional suggestion about how to compose the image and information about what the dogs were likely to do next.

Now it was our second morning and we had had advice about the brightness settings for our camera screens, about using aperture priority and about exposure compensation. (Advice about using the back focus button was still to come.)

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As a group, our equipment and experience varied. Whether you had the latest equipment, lots of experience, or, like Helen, were using a basic DSLR camera (borrowed from our daughter) and my cast-off lens, Marlon provided appropriate advice and help with adjusting settings.

Mana Pools is an ideal place to learn about working with light. It has wooded areas that provide a diffuse blue background, golden sunlight that streams through the branches at the start and end of each day and dust (lots of dust) to add atmosphere to the images and to bring out the colours of the light. Above all you can walk around in the park, allowing us to quickly reposition ourselves when the animals did something interesting, so that we could capture them in the best light, with the best available background.

Marlon was constantly telling us what he hoped the animals would do and kept moving us so that we would be in the ideal position if it happened. Often it didn’t but when it did he got very excited, telling us which bits of the action would look best in the light and suggesting different compositions.

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Mana also offers the opportunity to get close, really close, to wild animals.

I can’t describe what it feels like to have a large bull elephant approach you when you are on foot. Some were benign but others made small threat displays to let us know who was boss.

On one occasion a young bull approached the group, shaking his head with its ears extended. When talking softly to it didn’t stop him our guide, Tanya, shouted at him. The bull stopped and walked away from us with its tail sticking out at 90° to its body. He looked like a naughty schoolboy who had been admonished but was trying to show that he didn’t care.

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Non-photographic highlights for me include: lying on the ground, a few metres from the front feet of a bull elephant (we were shooting with wideangle lenses and there’s no need for remote cameras in Mana!); looking up from my viewfinder and realising that the herd of buffalo I was photographing was only 20 metres away; following an elephant that stands on its back feet to reach branches, to try and capture the perfect image; being just metres from a pride of wild lions, on foot, looking into their eyes and knowing that they were tolerating our presence in what was very definitely their territory.

On our last morning, seeing the pack of wild dogs, with a double kill, interacting with each other and the hyenas that were trying to steel their meal was an unforgettable experience too.

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Photographically, I was challenged to change the way that I expose my shots.

Normally I expose to make sure that the highlights don’t burn out and leave the shadows to look after themselves. Marlon showed me that getting the shadows correct, by exposing with my histogram to the left (rather than my usual right), would produce images that were rich in colour and full of atmosphere. Lightroom, or in my case Photoshop, would help restore the dynamic range of the image. Burnt out highlight were avoided by framing my shots to avoid the sky.

Capturing the light in Mana is so important because the atmosphere is so different to other safari destinations.

Comparing my images with those that I took when I visited the park 5 years ago, I can see the difference Marlon’s advice has made.

Then, the images are indistinguishable from those that I have taken elsewhere.

Now, they are full of colour, full of action and the animals are seen in the context of their environment.

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That is the other thing that has changed as a result of Marlon’s coaching.

Most of my wildlife photography up to now has been about taking close ups and portraits. Landscapes have only featured when the animal was too far away, or too small, to fill the frame. I learnt on this trip that placing the animal within the landscape produces dramatic images too.

This was not a safari for those who want to see as many different species as possible. We spent quite a lot of time revisiting the same areas or the same animals in the hope of getting better images of more interesting activity in better light.

It was not a safari for those who like their home comforts. We slept in comfortable tents but here was no air-conditioning and the daytime temperature exceeded 40°C at times.

It was not a safari for those who want privacy; we ate excellent meals around a communal table. There was a single shower shared by everyone and elephants could, and did, peer over the top. The communal toilet was open on the side facing the Zambezi, providing a great view of elephants and hippos in the river.

It was, however, a great safari for photographers of all abilities who want to learn in a small friendly group. Marlon was a great teacher and made a good double act with our guide Tanya (we had many laughs together). The camp, hosted by Dave, Tess and Andrew, had a fantastic, friendly atmosphere.

Finally, Mana Pools has to be one of the best places in the world to view wildlife.

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Going on a photo safari with Wild Eye not only lived up to my hopes but it has changed the way that I see animals and capture their images.

All other types of safari are likely to be frustrating after this experience because it is going to be hard to match the way that Marlon prioritized the photographic interests of his guests.

Regardless of the amount of experience we had or the quality of our equipment, Marlon was able to help us all to improve.

This was one photographic trip where the clients’ interests were definitely more important than those of the photographic guides.

I have no hesitation in recommending this company to others who are looking to improve their photography.

Thanks and take care,

Alan Smith

Alan’s WEBSITE

Alan’s Facebook Page

Alan on Instagram

 

 

Comments 3

  1. Pingback: Guest Blog: Light & Dust, A Mana Pools Safari Experience - Africa Freak

  2. Mitch Stringer

    Really Nice images Allan. What lenses did you bring and were there some you brought but didn’t end up using? I will be with Marlon In Mana and was thinking about a 16-35 or 24-70 along with a 70-200. Any need for a 200-400? Thanks. Keep up the great work.

    1. Alan Smith

      I don’t think you would regret bringing a 200-400, especially if you’re using a full frame sensor but I don’t think that it is essential. The good thing about Mana is that, because the landscape is so photogenic, you can always compose interesting shots that make maximum use of shorter lenses. I rarely change lenses in the field and the only time that I wanted to change to a wide angle was when an elephant walked right up to us – the lens was in my backpack. I was ready the second time we met him.

      I use an APS-C sensor so that might affect any decision you make about lenses.

      Almost all my photos were taken with my 100-400 f4.5-5.6. Around 90% of the shots with this lens were wider than 300mm. However, of the shots that I’ve particularly liked, only a little more than 50% were wider than 200mm and therefore slightly less than half would have needed your longer lens..

      For the wide angle shots of elephants and other guests, I used my 17-50 f2.8. I used a 10-18 f4.5-5.6 on my second camera for shots where I put the animals in their scenic context. Although this was too wide most of the time and I rarely used it.

      The only lens that I didn’t use on this trip was my 60 f2.8 macro which I often use if I am in a vehicle and reasonably close to an animal in poor light because my camera doesn’t handle even moderately high ISOs very well, so anything that helps me get more light to my sensor is very useful. On this trip, because I could lie on the ground, I reduced my shutter speed and relied on the lens’s image stabiliser to try and get round that problem.

      I hope that helps. I’m sure Marlon would be happy to give you his advice as well.

      Enjoy the trip. I wish I could be there again, too.

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