Through the Viewfinder

The cool morning breeze slowly makes its way through your three layers of clothing as the Landy crawls over the rocky road on your way to the impala plains. With a coffee flask in hand and steam rising from your cup, you patiently wait and take a sip as the Crested francolins call in duet. The sun is rising fast and golden hour is spreading her sunrays as far as the eye can see.

You try to convince yourself that this is a dream but reality reaches deep inside and generates just the right emotion as you realise the value of this moment. You breathe out slowly whilst focusing to time your shot carefully…

This was me three weeks ago while on a drive with Willie van Eden as we chased the golden light on a cold winter morning at the Pridelands Conservancy. Golden hour is probably the most important term in a photographer’s dictionary. Apart from this everyone who takes photographs and videos in the wild has a different experience and emotions when they frame their story through their viewfinder.

The viewfinder of the camera is the instrument you look through before pressing your shutter button. Depending on your vision you can adjust your focus accordingly to get the image you have in mind. The concept of how everyone experiences the same moment differently through their viewfinder is what truly makes a photograph unique. With this in mind, I decided to ask the photographers in camp how they experience these special moments when they look through their viewfinders.

Willie van Eden

Video and media for EcoTraining share his intimate experience behind the lens:

“As photographers and avid nature & wildlife enthusiasts, we always have some locations on our bucket list we want to visit one day. Places like the Serengeti, Chobe and the Delta in Botswana, Hwange National Park, Mana Pools in Zimbabwe, Makgadikgadi Pans, and the list goes on and on. All of them are dream locations for any photographer.

I have been in the privileged position to visit quite a few of the above-mentioned places and what a joy it has been to visit these remote and pristine wilderness areas that Africa has to offer. The people, wildlife and biodiversity in each area are absolutely breathtaking.

Photographs do tell a story but to enjoy it to the fullest one has to actually be there in the flesh to fully understand how breathtakingly special our continent is. The smells, sounds, noises, feeling the sun on your skin as you wait for that special sighting to surprise you and see all animals roaming around in their natural habitat. Even sitting in the pouring rain as you enjoy the spectacle that Mother Nature is providing.

Some of the locations are still on my list but it only makes the excitement growing day by day knowing that one day I will be there and know that it is going to take my breath away.

The Maasai Mara in Kenya is also definitely one of the bucket list areas many photographers want to visit. It’s the abundance of wildlife, predators, the wide open plains and the great migration that attracts millions of tourists every year.

I am one of the lucky that can say ‘’I’ve been there”. It’s an experience I will remember for the rest of my life and some scenes we’ve witnessed will always be etched into my memories.

The Maasai Mara was in fact number one of my places to visit while I have the privilege to be alive.

As mentioned above the abundance and density of wildlife in the Mara is something one struggles to explain when witnessed but in laymen’s terms – THERE ARE ANIMALS EVERYWHERE! No matter where you look you will see some sort of mammal, birds, clans of hyenas, huge herds of Wildebeest and Zebra, Giraffe, Topi, Gazelle and not to mention all the other predators walking around between all of them as if you are in the garden of Eden. It’s the one location I wish everyone on earth may have the privilege to visit in their lifetimes.

Many photographers have one or two images they are chasing when visiting certain wildlife areas. Mine was simple yet I knew that I will be so happy to witness it – for me at least. All I asked for was to see a herd of Elephants walking over the plains of the Maasai Mara.

This particular photo was taken at the Ol Chorro Oiroua Conservancy which forms part of the Greater Mara conservancies while on a visit to the EcoTraining Camp at the Mara Training Centre.

Through the viewfinderWe set out for our normal afternoon activity which consisted of a game drive. There are three conservancies we are able to traverse. Enonkisku, Ol Chorro & Lemek. Ol Chorro is right in the middle of the three.

In the distance on the vast plains of the Mara (your typical Mara scene), we saw the small herd of Elephants walking towards the direction we wanted to go. This, fortunately, gave us time to get ourselves in a favourable position. I asked our guide & trainer, Mike Anderson, to get us in a position where they will walk straight towards us, without obstructing their path so that I can get the shot as they hopefully walk by our vehicle. The sun was also in a more favourable position at this angle.

We stopped the vehicle and waited for them to approach us and hopefully do the “walk by” we have anticipated. They were approaching quite rapidly but luckily in the direction, we wanted them to go.  At one stage they were so close to our vehicle that my long lens was just too big to get any quality photos of them. This is when I decided to get my wide-angle lens out to get the photo. Showcasing them in a line in their natural environment. They were about 10-12m away from us when I took this photo.

I opened the door of the game viewer, after checking if they are comfortable and relaxed with us being there, to get myself on a lower angle to get the photo I was looking for.  And this photo was the outcome.

Luckily for us, all elements played along this specific afternoon. The rain stayed away for a short while, the soft light of the sun came out and the clouds in the background enhanced the dramatic skies.

It’s always such a blessing and privilege to be in the presence of these gentle giants. It speaks to your soul. Personally, I think they are the closest to us, humans, when it comes to looking after your family and loved ones, standing together and caring for each other. Not to speak about their intelligent nature.

The Maasai Mara is the one place every human on earth has to see at least once in their life. It’s one of the most pristine and beautiful places I’ve ever had the privilege to visit. I will surely be back one day. It changed my life and I am glad that I could’ve had the opportunity to freeze this frame making me remember this scene for the rest of my life.”

Photo details:
Nikon Z6
Nikon Z mount 24 – 70 F/4 @24mm
1/2500 sec
ISO 400

David den Hartog

EcoTraining student David explains what goes through his mind when he is behind the viewfinder.

“At first it’s a rush of panic that usually has me muttering to myself like a lunatic. I usually have a battle with my camera bag trying to get the damn thing out, all the while silently begging the bird not to fly off. My brain rattles as I check my settings and look through the viewfinder to see those bright yellow eyes staring back at me. It is a wonderful thing, to see the picture before you take it in your mind and hope it turns out the way you want it to. This was one of those times. I hear the soft click-click of the shutter and I feel a smile creep onto my face when I see the pictures on the screen. Then I put the camera down and enjoy the pearl-spotted owlet sitting stock steady on the branch. I’ve learnt to do this now, to enjoy the sighting with my own eyes instead. Then it flies away with barely any sound and I turn to see my friends smiling along with me like a bunch of crazies.”

You don’t have to own the best gear for this experience.

At the end of the day, it’s the picture that has an emotional connection that will resonate the strongest with you. The one that tells a story without words. Like when someone captures you taking in the stunning features of hundreds of years old baobab trees. This is what I strive for when taking pictures, careful not to overthink the moment but rather to embrace it as it is. It’s all about becoming one with the environment around you and making yourself feel small and sharing the frozen moment with others so that it may last forever.

Taking great photographs of nature requires creativity and technical skills, but also the knowledge and understanding of one’s subject matter. The wilderness photography course teaches participants about the equipment needed to become a versatile wilderness photographer. Participants also learn about the various elements that combine to make good wilderness photographic compositions. Learn more about the course here.

About the Author:
Picture of Christoff Els

Christoff Els

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