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On photo safari in Kenya

TIME : 2016/2/23 14:43:54
(Frederic Salein)

On photo safari in Kenya

Expert advice from an award-winning photographer and guide - now there's no excuse for not coming back with the perfect shot

Joseph spotted the cheetahs just after dawn. A wobbling, bloated sun had just dragged itself over the Letek ridge, casting its thin light across the plain. "You see them?" he asked, his shuka wound tight around his bony shoulders. "There is the mother, and there are the three cubs." He was pointing at a smudge in the grasslands half a mile away, indistinguishable pointilliste blurs in the evaporating twilight.

"See the mother's belly," he continued, observing with the naked eye what I still couldn't see through binoculars. "She is hungry. Today she will hunt." He glanced at me, teasing. "We will stay?"

Of course we'd stay. It was still so early that it was almost last night, but for me the day was decided, because one of the many first rules of the wildlife photographer's club is that you do not desert a hunting cheetah.

A new form of hunter

When man first roamed the shimmering grasslands of Kenya's Masai Mara he came armed with a spear. Later the white hunters arrived with their rifles, and while now we stalk the plains armed with Canons and Nikons, little has changed. Wildlife photography is trophy hunting by other means: patience, stealth and the rented skill of the native trackers are still crucial, and the thrill of the kill, of squeezing off that perfect shot, is as intense as it ever was.

I stumbled across this dangerously addictive pursuit by accident. I'd done the whole safari thing - morning game drive, brunch, kip, afternoon game drive, sundowners - to death, from Amboseli to Zimbabwe. I'd sat in Land Rovers alongside oblivious honeymooners, mask-wearing Japanese businessmen and once, marvellously, a lady from Idaho who was disappointed that there were no tigers.

I'd pointed and clicked until my memory cards were full of grainy images of impala, or giraffe - it was sometimes hard to tell - and I always left with a vague feeling of dissatisfaction, as though I'd been to a theme park and missed the rollercoaster.

Then I met Rommel. Not the Rommel, obviously, but a man nicknamed for his similarities. Like the Desert Fox, award-winning photographer and guide Paul Goldstein leads convoys across Africa wearing a peaked cap and goggles, only he's far more brutal than the Wehrmacht Field Marshall.

I met him not in Africa, but on a ship in Antarctica. I was watching penguins. He was terrorising passengers. "Come to Kenya!" he barked. "I'll teach you how to take pictures properly."

An early start

Six months later, bearing a DSLR that had been out of the box for 48 hours and a borrowed telephoto lens the size of a large thermos, I arrived at Kicheche, Goldstein's camp in Kenya's Mara Conservancy. A huddle of askaris (camp guards) were inspecting the charred remains of one of those multi-pocketed, Kate Adie-style photographic vests, still smouldering in the ashes of the campfire. The rules, said Rommel, were simple.

Wake-up call at 04:30, into the vehicles by 05:00. Back at dinner time. No lateness, no excuses and absolutely no photographic vests.

We bumped across plains that smelled of mown hay and scorched earth, strewn with bright-white wastepaper flowers, to a dry riverbed where a leopard had been spotted, fleetingly, an hour previously, among the wild olives. "Where's your camera?" asked Rommel. I pointed at my bag.

He shook his head. "No good in there. Give it to me." I handed over my virgin brownie and listened to a 30-second masterclass in the science of digital photography.

"The key is to keep the aperture as wide as possible, letting in the maximum possible light in the shortest possible time. Wide aperture means fast shutter speed, and fast shutter speed means sharp images. All you need to do is keep the camera on aperture priority - AV - and the processor will calculate the shutter speed. If there's not enough light to get a fast enough shutter speed, you adjust the sensitivity of the sensor by increasing the ISO. Got it? Good - there's the leopard."

I saw her for a moment, a gorgeous vamp in fur coat and bloody lipstick, and then, like the Cheshire Cat, she disappeared, leaving just a mocking grin. "Did you get her?" asked Rommel. Of course I got her. I showed him the shots on the camera screen. Grass, the back of the driver's head, a tree, and there, at the top, a leopard's tail, exiting screen right. "Pathetic," sighed Rommel.

Patience pays dividends

The next morning it was still dark as we rolled out of camp. Headlamps picked out the eyes of a wildebeest herd, a sea of orange lights flickering like a distant city in the chilly murk. As it grew lighter, a family of mongoose - the kicheche in Swahili - scampered chattering alongside, a black-backed jackal trotted guiltily home and a pair of spotted hyena loped nonchalantly away like knife-wielding hoodies leaving the scene of a crime. The wet air smelled of dung and the grassy sighs of ten thousand ungulates relieved to have survived another night.

By the time we found the lions, I was so ready. ISO 400, aperture f/5.6, shutter speed 1/1200th. It was a wasted effort: the pride had eaten - bits of blood-stained zebra were lying around like a ripped-up rug - and the fat cats were lying around like post-bonus bankers, so self-satisfied and immobile that I could have painted them in oils. The instruction though, was relentless.

"Think about composition, and try to do something different. Watch the cubs. If they're looking to the right you put them in the left of the frame. See that lioness in the shade? Underexpose by two thirds of a stop and you'll get her on a black background. Experiment. You need to know where your camera buttons are without looking," added Rommel, "in much the same way, I suppose, one needed to be able to strip a Luger blindfolded."

Constantly nagged during the course of a gruelling 14 hour game drive - four hours in the bush is the daily limit for most camps - I stopped up and down, zoomed in and out, playing with all of the beasts of the field as I became more acquainted with my camera.

The fringe benefits of this long exposure were more subtle: while other vehicles came and went, pausing just long enough for their passive occupants to tick the box before zooming off, the photographers' vehicles stayed put. The purpose was utterly self-serving - it's hard to take a good picture on a drive-by safari - but the simple expedient of remaining in one place allows Africa to come to you, presenting sights, sounds and smells missed by tourists on more hurried itineraries.

A wealth of advice

One afternoon we spent two hours waiting for a malachite kingfisher to live up to his species' reputation by actually catching a fish - he lost heart before we did. The next morning a similar period was spent belly down on a bluff above the Talek River, lenses locked on a pod of flatulent hippos, waiting for one to oblige us with a yawn - I blinked and missed it. On yet another backside-numbing cheetah stakeout I watched as a six-foot black mamba slithered purposefully past our vehicle, turning my Masai driver white.

Goldstein wastes no opportunity to direct his pupils towards that elusive, award-winning shot, and while the advice is rarely gift-wrapped, it's always worth keeping. Elephants? Either go wide or zoom in on a detail. Giraffes? Get some sky under the belly to emphasise their height. Crocodiles? Unless they're ripping some unfortunate mammal apart, leave the snapping to them.

With all species, focus on the eyes - always looking for the reflected twinkle called the catchlight. Get low, use back light, avoid portraits, practice spot metering. Wind the shutter speed down to 1/60th or lower and try panning - maybe one in a thousand shots will work - and never, ever leave a hunting cheetah.

Critiques and appraisals

Back at camp there's no respite: pre-prandial cocktails around the campfire provide the forum for the ritual humiliation of show and tell, wherein you show Rommel your best shots of the day and he tells you where you went wrong.

"What's this?" he asked. It seemed obvious to me. "It's a secretary bird," I replied. He shook his head. "It's part of a secretary bird. Next?" "A lion thinking about lunch." "Not sharp. Next?"

And so on, for as long as you can take the brutally honest criticism of errors in composition, depth of field and exposure. I had been rather proud of myself - just two days ago I'd thought depth of field was an agricultural term and an f-stop was a roadside bordello.

"This is very good," he announced suddenly, pausing to admire my close-up of a lilac-breasted roller murdering a beetle. "It's pin-sharp, you got the catch-light and the exposure is spot on. This is an exceptional photograph." He clicked to the next - a zebra looking at a cloud. "This, one, however, is frankly remedial. It should have been portrait, you should have got lower and it's not sharp. Can I delete it?"

It's not all tough work

The Goldstein method is perhaps not for all. Brittle egos are quickly shattered - by his own admission he has reduced fragile men to tears - but if you want to learn how to be a wildlife photographer no-one will drag you up the learning curve quicker. And it's not all pain: Paul is also a charming host, hugely attentive to the needs of his guests, and a world-class raconteur with a growing army of followers known as Rommel's Afrika Korps.

By day four I was taking more good shots than bad, and fewer too. The machine-gun approach, beloved of inept snappers who hope that somewhere in that rattling ten frames per second volley there'll be one decent shot, had been replaced by a sniper's patient determination to make every shot count. More importantly, I'd been bitten.

Fast forward and I'm back at Kicheche for the fourth time, settling down to spend the day watching a hungry cheetah and her three cubs stalking Thomson's gazelles through the grass. These days I'm carrying two camera bodies, and that thermos-sized 100-400mm zoom has been superseded by a 400mm f/2.8 the size of fire extinguisher and the price of a small car.

The hours pass in treacle drips as the blistering sun climbs, hangs and drops. Waiting for this cautious cat to select her prey is an agonisingly slow process - I've spent so many days watching cheetahs hunt now that I fancy myself as a bit of an expert - but it's worth waiting for the fleeting opportunity to take the definitive kill shot.

An (almost) perfect result

At 5.30pm, in perfect light, she makes her move, exploding from the oat grass and locking onto her prey like an anti-tank missile. Her target, a Thomson's gazelle, takes off a millisecond later and for a moment it looks as though predator and prey will run right past my vehicle. Then the gazelle changes direction in a desperate, wide-eyed, last-ditch attempt to survive. It fails, and the cheetah knocks it down in a bone-cracking flurry of dust, far out of range for my lens."

By the time Joseph has driven me to the kill, the cubs have arrived and the family is eating, quickly and nervously, eyes and ears twitching for the hyenas that are already closing in. For the cubs it's their first taste of meat, and as one climbs onto his mother's back to keep watch, his face and paws smeared with the gazelle's blood, I check my settings and take his picture.

Months later, I hear the shot has won first prize in a major African wildlife photo competition, so, rather smugly, I send it to Rommel for his appraisal. The reply is short and sharp. "Should have underexposed by another third of a stop." He's right, of course. I probably should have.

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