Three cheetah cubs launch themselves from stationary to almost full pace just moments away from our vehicle. The five of us suck in air and hold it in a collective gasp, as a bat-eared fox becomes hunting practice for the cheeky youngsters. They skid, swiping at the terrified animal before it manages to leap down into its den. We take a second to recover, then look down at our cameras. We'd all instinctively reached for them, but not one of us had got a decent shot. I had in fact been attempting to shoot with the lens cap on.
Paul's laughter broke the stunned silence. "I take it no one got that? First lesson of wildlife photography: be ready for anything, at all times!" Lesson number two was a breakdown of things to check on our cameras in preparation for action – from battery power and space on our memory cards, to manual settings in order to ensure that focus, exposure and shutter speed would always work in the moment. Paul Joynson-Hicks, renowned African wildlife photographer, was our teacher for the week. The next time the drama occurred, I would be ready.
Photographic workshop safaris have become an increasingly popular option for holidaymakers – a version of point-and-shoot that is far more evolved than the hunting safaris that once lured colonial adventurers. A keen photographer myself, I'd decided to try it out on a trip to northern Tanzania's Ngorongoro Conservation Area, with Capture Safaris, a specialist in this field.
Their itineraries are designed specifically to help photographers find the very best images. The company provides a professional photographer to instruct throughout the trip, to advise on new techniques during workshops, and to offer ideas for improvements in your photos during review sessions. By using trained drivers who spot and anticipate animal behaviour – considering such factors as the light and shooting angle – clients are also helped in the quest for great pictures.
I packed my Canon 550D (a mid-range DSLR) and a selection of lenses and joined them, anticipating sights of the wildebeest migration gathering and lots of gangly wildebabies to photograph. Each year an estimated two million zebra and wildebeest make the 500-mile journey north across the Serengeti, and just before they leave hundreds of thousands of calves are born within just a few weeks, reaching a critical mass in March.
The area they choose falls within the southern Serengeti, but within the boundaries of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, where we were heading, along with the greatest concentration of predators anywhere in Africa, all arriving in search of feeble newborn animals and weakened adults. Drama was virtually guaranteed.
My safari was divided into three stages. First we were to travel to the Ngorongoro Crater; then down to Ndutu where the main calving activity takes place; and finally into the Maasai lands of Loliondo, just outside the reserve's boundaries. Here, we intended to do some walking, "macro" photography (extremely close-up images) and also spend time in a Maasai village.
Standing here, looking out over the Ngorongoro Crater, provided a sweet sense of anticipation that first safari night. We were perched on the eastern rim of the crater at Sopa Lodge, too high up to see any wildlife, but at the perfect height to take in the magnitude of this unique environment. It wasn't dry and yellow as I'd imagined, but a vibrant green with a bright lake glowing in the evening light at the centre of the basin.
The rainy season is often a quiet time for tourists. However, for photographers this is an ideal time to visit. The air is clear and everything is green and lush, creating a contrasting backdrop to the abundance of wildlife. We lined up our tripods and snapped all the way through to sunset.
On the following morning, we descended into the crater just as the sun seemed to be climbing out of it – and all the wonder I've witnessed in endless wildlife documentaries was revealed in vivid reality. As we were so near to the equator, the sun came up fast, and we had to be ready for the constantly changing light.
We enjoyed the silhouettes initially (learning to meter using the sky for deliberate under-exposure of the foreground), and then adjusted our ISO and aperture for the sloping shadows to capture the golden warmth highlighted against a beautiful male lion just a few metres from the car. I was learning as fast as the light was changing.
From here on we were camping. Well, there was canvas, but it really wasn't camping. Double beds, electricity, hot showers, en suite bathrooms, hot water bottles at bed-time and tea to wake you in the morning. Capture Safaris partners with Nomad Tanzania for its accommodation and the Serengeti Safari Camp experience put us right in the wilds. At the same time we had power for charging all our equipment, great food to keep us going through long days, and then real comfort when we needed to relax away from the dust and constant excitement of the safari vehicle.
We rose at 5.30am most days, always working to get ahead of the dawn light and to take advantage of the cooler morning temperatures. We saw honey badgers, watched cheetah and lions stalk prey, and finally witnessed a cheetah at full pelt sweep the legs from under a gazelle and lock her jaws on to its neck. And all the while, Paul guided us: "Change perspective, keep moving … Melissa, get some stability or those eyes will not be sharp."
He taught us "panning" to capture the speed and movement of an animal using a high F-stop (small aperture hole) and slightly slow shutter speed to cause deliberate blur, and we practised waiting for the "catch-lights" in an animal's eyes to improve our portraits. Automatic settings were definitely not on the agenda. It was clear to see they offered no flexibility in the effect you wanted to achieve and that they often mis-measured the exposure under the extreme African sun.
After lunch most days there was time for a workshop session with Paul, usually focusing on a specific aspect of photography or post-production, and also to review the best shots from each of us. In the late afternoon we'd head out again, returning in time for sundowners around the fire, and to do an evening shoot. The clear night air meant our pictures of the stars above were stunning. (The best tip for this was to use a torch and light a foreground item, such as tree, to focus on, then lock your focus on to manual, switch off the torch and – on a minimum 30 second exposure – take the shot.)
Long exposures, early mornings ... time took on a new quality in the bush, separating into crystal-clear moments. Key instances stood out: observing a lion creeping towards a baby wildebeest; the thudding weight of paws on grass as four cheetahs give chase; the snap and click of the aptly named flappet lark as it flew over my head; the smell of wild basil, fresh and clean in stark contrast to the rotting corpse from which we had been downwind only moments beforehand.
But moments such as these fade after a holiday is over; all we are often left with that is sharp and clear are our photos. In many ways safari photos have become the hunting trophies of the modern day, and that made it all the more important that I absorbed all the lessons whispered in our 4x4; that I listened to the questions the others asked, and tried out everything I could.
Never in my life have I been as brave as I was on this trip, and it had nothing to do with sleeping within earshot of the up-curved whoops of a pack of hyenas; it was all about trying out new photography ideas. The more I tried, the more new styles and solutions I began to discover for every photographic situation that occurred.
We left Ndutu after three days, crossing the vast open spaces of the southern Serengeti to the Nduara Loliondo camp, an exquisite little spot surrounded by those quintessentially African umbrella acacias and kopjes; elegant yurts served as the dining room and bar area. Only on arrival did I realise I was nervous about our photo shoot with the Maasai the following day. It's one thing sticking your 400mm lens as close as you can get to a lion, entirely another taking a 50mm and standing right up in someone's face, as a gawky voyeur.
However, far from being uncomfortable, the Maasai were happy just to get on with their daily lives as we took photos. Paul showed us how to use the background textures of the huts and how to handle the extremely low light inside. Later, when it came to the unexpected bonus of the evening's dancing, we considered the light and the angles to capture the perfect moment. In the end the Maasai got so carried away that they continued on until well after the sun had disappeared; the men later joining us around the fire, viewing colour replays on a video recording.
From Nduara, we took a small flight to Arusha, the main entry and exit point for visitors to either Ngorongoro or Serengeti.
Our time in the air offered a moment of reflection on all we had seen and a real sense of the scale of it, something that you simply cannot grasp from the ground. I smiled as endless lines of ant-sized wildebeest stretched out below me, my camera packed full of the memories of the dusty magic that I had just been a part of.
Five top tips for an iPhone safari
Your best camera is always the one you have with you. Since this is often your smartphone, it's important to know how to get the best out of it.
1 You control the composition of the photo by picking where you focus. Tap the display where you want it to focus. A white square appears onscreen where you've touched it, and the camera will refocus on that point. If green squares appear, they indicate facial recognition – but note this works for human, not animal faces.
2 If you've found the composition you want, but you are waiting for your subject to pounce, you can lock the focus and exposure levels. Tap and hold the screen on the focus point. Now wait for the animal to pose more agreeably. These locks persist between shots, so no time is wasted refocusing when you need to shoot repeatedly.
3 When shooting in landscape format, hold the iPhone so the volume buttons are on the top edge. Use the Volume Up button as the trigger, which minimises camera movement. For panoramas, touch Options, choose Panorama and sweep from left to right (you can change the direction). Hold the phone close to your body as you turn to reduce any judder.
4 HDR stands for High Dynamic Range and is found in the Options box on screen. It's helpful in sunny safari environments, quickly snapping three shots at varying exposures and combining them. This creates a noticeably better image with high contrast and detail, even in shadows.
5 You can launch the camera quickly from standby – which is handy if you need to take shots in a hurry. Simply swipe up on the camera icon on the lock screen.
Capture Safaris (0207 183 3055; capturesafaris.com) offers small group photo tours and bespoke trips. The Green Wildebeest Tour seven-night trip departs on 12 March 2014 and costs £3,750pp, based on two people sharing, including allinclusive accommodation, internal transfers, and the services of an expert photographic guide throughout. Flights to Tanzania are not included.