Small Signs and Big Moments

Gerry van der Walt All Authors, Gerry Leave a Comment

It’s been said many times before – you need patience to create good wildlife images.

True as this may be, it is all for nothing if you do not know what to look for.  You can sit for hours and hours waiting for your subject to, at the risk of trivialising the definitive moment, do something but you could still miss the shot.

Recognising and understanding animal behaviour will not only make your photographic excursions into the wild more interesting, but will also give you the edge when photographing wildlife and especially interaction which, I reckon, is one of the most exciting things to photograph.

From the flick of a lion’s tail to an elephant’s shake of the head, every little sign is designed to not only send some sort of signal to another animal, but something we can use to predict those special moments we all look for through our viewfinders.

The value of a qualified photographic guide, and in this case qualified (and experience) refers to actual field guiding, cannot be overemphasised in this regard.  Having spent days, weeks or even months in the wild on your own is one thing, but having someone with you who has actually studied the intricate details of nature and has worked as a guide that interprets and shares this knowledge is something that can only add value to your wildlife photography experience.

Also, and I think this is quite relevant, is that someone who has taken responsibility, to the point where the wrong interpretation of an animal’s body language could have dire results, is priceless when it comes to predicting Henry Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’, because more often than not, incredible imagery hinges on a split second.

Here is an example of predicting the moment from a recent photo safari to the Chobe.

We were watching a few hippo graze along the river.

The whole scene was calm and rather tranquil, but there was a moment brewing.

A photographic moment.

One of the males, probably the dominant bull, was having a bit of an issue with one of the other males.  He wasn’t making a huge thing of his displeasure just yet, but there were small signs that he might act on his natural territorial instincts.

Wild Eye - Hippo

The big guy was half circling the other male and every now and then, he would stop and stare at him while making soft wheezing sounds.  These moments were not over the top or very obvious by any means, but from a behaviour point of view it was evident that he was not happy and might react to the presence of the other male at any point.

Now we all know that the classic hippo threat-display involves a huge open mouthed yawn, and that is what we were waiting for.

Sure enough, as we kept the big guy in our viewfinders he had had enough and decided to show his dominance, which for us meant our decisive photographic moment.

Wild Eye - Hippo-2

The chances of capturing the peak of the action, whether a bird taking off or a hippo doing a territorial display, is dramatically increased if you know what to look for.

When you’re next in the field remember – small signs of animals behaviour can mean big photographic moments.

Will shooting with people on a photo safari led by qualified guide or a private photographic guide help increase your hit rate on these photographic moments?  Absolutely!

Isn’t that we all want?

Until next time.

Gerry van der Walt

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Comments 0

  1. Dan Streck

    Nice story. It really is the learning, isn’t it. It’s listening to the vervet alarms and looking for the predator, watching the giraffe’s body language and asking why he is staring over there. It’s watching elephant eye contact. So many opportunities to learn and to be more aware. Love it.

    1. Post

      Thanks Dan! To me one of the most exciting things about wildlife photography is not necessarily the moment we capture but the stories that lead up to that moment. Love trying to predict and ultimately capture those moments!

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