September 2014 — Go Back, Then Repeat

INT BOTS Khwai Aug2014 RX100III 10686.jpg

I’m a little late with this month’s teaching point, so I’ll keep it brief and directed at what I was doing in August. As you may have guessed, I was in Africa for almost the entire month. First with a group of former African photo workshop students, then with a new group.

No, there won’t be a blog of these trips. If I did blog what happened, it would just make you all super jealous and clamoring to sign up for my next African workshop, which currently isn’t scheduled. Worse still, I’d have images scrolling on forever. That’s how good it was. Let’s just say that within 30 minutes of getting off the plane we were sitting at a wild dog den with pups. Things got better from there. I saw things I haven’t seen in 20 years of traveling to Africa regularly, and everyone probably filled more storage space than any previous trip. Come on now, mother Cheetah with cubs posing as if I had laid them out where I wanted them on a termite mound? Lions and dogs hunting with us in the fray, too? 

And then there’s that elephant shot up above, taken at about 70mm with a Sony RX100III. Yes, 70mm. While on the ground, not in a vehicle. This trip I probably got closer to just about everything while walking than ever before, including lions on a hunt. Why am I on the ground? Viewpoint. It only takes a safari or two before you start to realize that shooting down at animals from the vehicles doesn’t give you the same impact as shooting at eye level (or below) does.

One of the things that amateurs don’t realize about pros is this: all those really great shots we have in our files? Most of them didn’t happen the first, second, or even third time we went to that place or tried to get that shot. Sometimes we’re lucky and we get it the first time, but more often than not it took many repeated visits to get the photos we show. 

Some of that is just observing and learning. I really looked clairvoyant when the first morning we headed out in Moremi with the group of first timers I said “you really shouldn’t be concentrating on the game over in the open to the left—you can shoot impala just about any time. You really should be looking…OMG…to the right at the treeline where that Cheetah is watching the impala.” Really, I didn’t know there was a Cheetah sitting there when I started the sentence. But the thing is, I’ve been on safari enough times to know where I should look, and guess what, sometimes the animal is actually where it should be doing what you want it to ;~). 

All this is true of landscape photography, too. The really great shots take time to understand how to develop fully. Right time of year, right position, right lens, right light, right clouds, right everything. Most of the time you go somewhere, something isn’t quite right, so you observe and learn. And come back. And back. And back.

It’s part of that “practice makes perfect” thing that we got hounded about when we were kids. It really does help. While I expect to make some good shots every time I go out on a trip, I expect to make great shots by going back and eliminating some of the problems and issues that happened the previous time.

Which reminds me. I’m going back to the Galapagos for a sixth time in December of 2015 with a group of students, and there are still openings for that workshop. If you want to get the full benefit of your teachers having a strong sense of what does and doesn’t work the first time you’re there, then you should join Tony and I on that trip. This is where you can benefit from others’ experience.

So I’ll make that my last point in this month’s teaching: what you want is help to get you up to speed with a place or a subject faster, because you can’t always go there as many times or for as long as the pros tend to. So ask lots of questions of those that have been there before. Find out what they know so that you have that knowledge before you get there. If you do this well enough, it’ll almost be like taking your second trip, not your first. 

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