What are you wanting to photograph?

Gerry van der Walt All Authors, Penny 6 Comments

My time in the Mara was not just incredible due to the place and the experience, but also because I learnt a lot photographically from my colleague Gerry van der Walt.

Working with talented wildlife photographers whose work constantly inspires me, I noticed that I stopped enjoying and appreciating my photographs and ended up getting frustrated with them and my ability as I was comparing them to everyone elses.

I couldn’t see any story or intent in my photographs. I couldn’t see anything in my images that gave a hint of why I even decided to take the photograph of the sighting in the first place.

It was just a picture of a cheetah on a rock.

Nothing more.

Nothing given.

No story told.

It was getting pretty clear to my colleagues that I was getting more and more disheartened with my photographs. It was getting more clear to me that I had stopped realising where I was, enjoying the environment and possibilities and that I was doing something that I truly love – wildlife photography.

One afternoon after we had watched our guests lift off into the sky on the charter flight that would take them back to Nairobi, Gerry started asking me questions about photography, what I look at when we approach a sighting, and what story or scene do I want to capture.

These questions included: Why are you picking up your camera? What are you taking a photo of? Are you wanting to take a photo of a lion portrait? Animal in environment? Are you looking to tell the viewer a story?

To encourage me to think before I just take a photo, we stopped at multiple scenes and sightings that varied in lighting, subject, distance and more. Giving me 30 seconds to take only one photograph, I would then have to explain to Gerry why I took it the way I did and explain the choice in exposure, composition, framing, etc and how and why I wanted to capture the image the way I did.

At first I was so unsure of myself and my answers.

Strange right since I am the one with the camera taking the photos, so surely I would know why I am… right?


I had the approach and idea to my photography wrong. I know that I am meant to look at a scene and capture it with a specific intent, but when I got to these scenes and sightings I just picked my camera up and went firing away.

Only after I downloaded my images did I start looking for the story or ‘intent’ in them.

After that afternoon with Gerry, I started asking myself questions before I picked up my camera. I shrugged off all the pressure that I was putting on myself and looked with fresh eyes again.

I thought about why I love photography, why I love wildlife photography, I thought about being in the Mara for the first time ever, and I thought about the animals and scenes that I was seeing for the first time in this magical place.

I thought about what would I like to show my viewer of the scene infront of me and why I would like to show them that.

“Look, here are two female lions with 7 adorable, curious, playful, and loving cubs. Let me show the bond between them.”

Now that I have what kind of image I would like to capture, how can I use technical and artistic elements to focus on and portray there interaction?

Here are Zebras fighting.

What artistic elements can I use to hone the viewer’s attention just to the group of zebras and highlight the chaos of the fight and the amalgamation of stripes?

I know this is an image that I will need to process for…

Capture it in camera for how I would like to process it…

Gerry used the movie The Matrix system to explain how all the questions and thoughts  should be running in my head when we approach a scene.

You know where there are a bunch of green numbers pouring down the screen?  Well basically that is what Gerry said I must have in my mind before I pick my camera up and while I take the image. Of course the numbers get substituted with questions, ideas, my thoughts on the scene presented to me, etc.

Wildlife photography is a journey that I am only at the beginning of.

That afternoon with Gerry has most definitely been a priceless one.

The help, guidance and information given has shown me that pressure and frustration on my images and progress is a pointless one indeed.

Instead  of getting myself in a tizz and getting frustrated that I am not getting the type of images that my colleagues and friends are taking, I must focus on my journey and growth.

How do I get there and end up with images that are above  ‘proof of sighting’ shots?

Start with step one.

Ask yourself why you are picking up your camera.

Let the rest of the questions then guide you to the final image.

The one that tells a story, shows you something specific, something different, something more.

I might be biased but if you are keen to take get a new and fresh outlook on your own wildlife photography I cannot recommend  a photo safari or private guided photographic experience with Gerry or Andrew more highly!

Yes, it’s worth it!

Penny Robartes

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Comments 6

  1. Phil Symonds

    I had the privilidge of spending several days with Gerry in Madikwe a few weeks ago and couldn’t agree with you more Penny. Gerrys instruction attention to what truly matters in photography, ability to explain it in a very natural manner and humility was amazing and I felt like I was in a 24/7 learning bootcamp (great bootcamp that is)… Unbelievable experience and HIGHLY recommend anyone wanting to experience massive grow in their photography to book a workshop with Gerry as soon as possible.

    1. Gerry

      Hi Phil! Thanks so much for the kind words! Had a fantastic time with you in Madikwe and cannot wait to spend more time together out in the field next year. Hope your photography is still going strong and look forward to seeing some of the images soon! Will be in touch. 🙂

  2. Andrew Cromhout

    Agree with your comments to the point of why are you picking up the camera. Too often, photographers, (me included), want to zoom in and get as much detail of the animal or supposed subject itself. More often than not, the animal or tree, etc is only part of the subject/story. I am finding more and more my shots are going wider angle and include the territory, the clouds, etc, etc, which often tell a much bigger story than the animal or tree/focus point on it’s own. Agree with comments about Gerry and Andrew. Great learning in the Mara last year, not only from them, but also other like minded people. Night photography, processing…… and not forgetting to enjoy the moment as well!!
    Quick question, the zebras. You don’t have to share all the nitty gritty but what software/processing method/s did you use?

    1. Penny Robartes

      I agree with you Andrew.
      It is great to be surrounded by like-minded people as they will always challenge you and you can only grow from the new ideas and perceptions!
      About the zebras – I will be writing a blog on it soon!
      And i dont mind sharing my knowledge as Gerry sharing his helped me! 🙂

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