Out of Africa with David Noton
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The buffalo is nonchalantly munching, gazing at us. Sometimes you do wonder who is watching whom. I press the AF button and the focus locks on, the brief display of red sensors indicating my focus point. Any need to override? Not in this case. Bolted on to the 500mm is my trusty 1Ds mkIII, so that’s some £10,000 worth of kit poking out the window collecting the Kruger dust. That’s what it’s for. I did think of bring a 1D mkIII for its extra reach with the small sensor, but what’s the point? I can always crop the 1Ds mkIII’s full frame image to suit, and when cropping is not necessary I’ve got all that extra quality. I also contemplated going for the 600mm f4, but it’s a much more unwieldy beast. This set up is working well.
A red billed ox-pecker is picking parasites off the buffalo’s hide. I shoot, recompose, quickly check my display. No blinkeys means the highlights are OK. I’ve no time to check the histogram but experience tells me the exposure using evaluative aperture priority metering will be fine. I’m not using the high speed drive, I just find it too quick and I end up shooting 2 frames when one would do, using up valuable memory and increasing the chances of filling a card just as the action peaks. No matter how fast a motor drive is I don’t think you can beat the photographic skills of observation and anticipation to capture the decisive moment.
My eyes flick around the info in the viewfinder, checking the exposure. Aperture wide open? Shutter speed fast enough? Any exposure compensation still dialled in from the last shot? ISO setting OK, not unnecessarily high? Note the count ‘til the card is full, log the state of the battery. All of this should be second nature. After a few weeks of working like this everyday my camera craft feels well oiled, it’s a good feeling. The ox-pecker lands on the nose of the indifferent buffalo and the shutter clicks. Yes! Life is good.
The sun is getting higher and hotter, its time to head back to camp. Breakfast, back up images, read, write. By midday, in the heat of the vertical African sun, nothing moves. We wallow in the camp pool like hippos, keeping cool, waiting. The trip started in the north of the Park and we’re gradually working our way south from camp to camp, staying about 3 days at each. They are all different and the landscape of the Kruger varies considerably. The north is wilder, more remote with sparser visitors and wildlife. The south is busier, and more commercial; more vehicles, but greater concentrations of wildlife. Cynics say the north is a park, the south a zoo. Take your choice. It was a revelation to me to discover that to do the whole African safari experience we don’t have to book on a massively expensive package staying at a nobby lodge. That is an option, but equally you can just turn up in your rental vehicle and go from camp to camp kipping in a tent or a cabin just as you would in Cornwall or Provence. Easy. Except the cats outside the campsite gate are a bit wilder, some with big hair and impressive molars.
4pm; time to head out again for the evening light. The light’s a bit flat and hazy, not great for landscape work but for wildlife the lower contrast could be advantageous. We trundle about, stop, wait and listen at a few waterholes but nothing’s doing. Then off in the bush, two giraffe seem to be getting friendly. It gradually dawns on us what’s going on; they’re mating. As the male mounts a huge pink member is prominent in my eyepiece. What am I doing? Giraffe porn? I feel like a voyeur, distinctly shifty. Well, I have to report it’s all over pretty quickly. Afterwards there’s a bit of necking, which is strangely touching. Photographically its crap, the giraffes never ending necks stick up from the scrubby bush against a white burnt out sky. This just isn’t working, so I opt to keep my powder dry. But then they start walking together through the bush, almost in formation. Wendy’s got the vehicle moving, mirroring their movement. This is an opportunity for a tracking shot.
What am I doing here? As I’m not a dedicated wildlife photographer I’m not after some particular species or animal behaviour. Nor am I interested in straight record shots of different animals. Maybe, just maybe as a landscape and travel photographer I can bring a different approach to the subject of wildlife. I want to use details, graphic shapes, backgrounds and movement, just as I do in the Scottish Highlands or on the streets of Hanoi. I want to produce wildlife art. OK, I know that sounds pretentious, maybe I’m getting a bit up my own bum here. Let me know. But you’ve got to have ideas to produce something different and unique, and I had this sort of shot in mind when I boarded the flight at Heathrow.