Something to declare: Zen and the art of amateur wildlife photography

 

"Wait, wait, wait … Nearly there …"

Your vehicle lurches over the rough terrain, your driver manoeuvring for an angle while you stage-whisper directions. But now there's a branch in the way. And the light's wrong. Back a bit? Too late: with one disdainful glare the leopard slinks back into the depths of the thicket.

"Where's it gone? I don't believe it! Did you get anything?"

Sounds familiar? Sadly, that was me, last year, in Zambia's Luangwa Valley. I'd love to say that, after years of wildlife watching, it was a one-off – a bad lens day, if you like. But the old snap-it fever still descends when a suitably picturesque subject steps into view.

What invariably follows, whether or not you get the shot, is a frantic scrolling through the LCD display screen to check the evidence. Forget the next sighting – the kudu that breaks off browsing to ponder your muttering, the lilac-breasted roller that dances like a feathered kaleidoscope before your unseeing eyes – you're either flashing your winning shots to your companions or sunk too deep in misery to care. And as soon as you get back to camp you trawl through them all again. Your game drive – what should have been a gob-smacked epiphany at the wonder of nature – is reduced to an inventory of images, its success or failure hanging on a collection of pixels.

For today's safari-goer, a decent camera is indispensable. We've all seen the magazines. Can't be too tricky, surely? Just whack a big lens on your digital SLR and snap away. Your pictures are, after all, your trophies. Not only do they prove to the folks back home that you came and you saw – edging you a few points ahead on the great scorecard of life experience – but also that you conquered; nothing escaped the sharpshooting of your trusty shutter finger.

The trouble is that the true thrill of safari doesn't fit a viewfinder. Not only does staring down a lens blind you to the bigger picture – literally, the world outside – it also effectively seals off your other senses. The dew-laden cobwebs, the yodel of a fish eagle, the heady musk of an elephant: you're dead to them all as you switch to aperture priority and whack up the ISO.

And then there are the practicalities. First, packing it all into your hand luggage – the camera, the lenses, the accessories – and bluffing your way through check-in. Then, lugging it around for the next fortnight, in a state of perpetual anxiety about available power points. And finally, working out how to use the thing – inevitably collapsing into expletive-laden meltdown when your gear fails at the critical moment.

I'm not suggesting leaving the camera at home (although this would undoubtedly have improved some of my trips). Too often a wildlife sighting unsnapped brings more pain than pleasure. What you need, ideally, is a certain Zen-like equanimity: enough to put down the camera, after a snap or two, sit back and soak in the experience. Accept missing a few images and, instead, glory in the moment. After all, when will such a moment arise again?

Yeah, right. Good luck with that.

Mike Unwin is the author of the 'Bradt Guide to Southern African Wildlife' (Bradt Travel Guides)

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