‘Incoming on the right! Here it comes.’ Six people swivelled on their chairs and pointed their cameras in the same direction, trying to find the bird in flight. A seventh peered through his binoculars. We were on a tutored photo safari on the Chobe River, something a little different from the usual game drive or sunset cruise.
It wasn’t as easy as you might think. First, boat pilot Schuur Shandweza was fighting three currents in the river rapids to keep the boat steady without hitting the submerged rocks. It was quite a feat, even though Pangolin’s photo boat was custom-designed with weight in the nose to stabilise it and a hull that stays super-flat at all times.
The yellow-billed storks were nesting in a tree on an island in the rapids. ‘They’re only here for six weeks to breed and then they’re gone again so you’re very lucky to see them,’ said Guts. When they’re breeding the storks have pretty pink feathers. ‘Chicks dig it,’ he grinned. Some of the males opened their mouths, a warning to other males to beware and back off.
He’s a natural teacher with a contagious enthusiasm for the art of photography. During our three-hour, hands-on tutored safari he used humour as a way to cement knowledge. For instance, when recapping the basics he explained F stops as ‘Frikkin stupid things’ because the smaller the number, the bigger the aperture.
The Marmite effect
He’s a believer in composing a good shot in the frame rather than doing too much faffing and fixing in LightRoom or PhotoShop afterwards. He egged us on to do the same. We certainly won’t get to be Botswana Wildlife Photographer of the Year like Guts, but we can at least try to improve the quality of our shots using some of his tips.
He taught us how to use ‘back button focus’ on our fairly new Canon 7D Mark II, for instance. Usually you press the shutter button half-way down to focus, then all the way down to take a photo. With back button auto-focus the shutter button doesn’t control the focus; you give that function to a button on the back of the camera.
Now you can press the back button to focus then let your finger go and recompose as long as the subject remains the same distance away. You can also keep your finger pressed down to constantly focus on birds that jiggle about all the time. ‘I call it the Marmite effect,’ Guts said, ‘because people either love it or hate it.’
Our photo safari with the benefit of his expertise was in the early morning, the best time to see and photograph birds. If you want mammals, you might want to sign up for an afternoon trip instead – and it might be a softer option.
Photographing birds is hard. They’re small and they don’t sit still for long. A giant kingfisher dived to catch a fish and everyone on board groaned – we’d all missed it. An African jacana on a nest was easier because it wasn’t moving. ‘It’s the males that sit on the eggs and look after the chicks,’ said Guts, ‘but only 15-20% of the chicks survive.’
He also reminded us of the importance of knowing animal and bird behaviour so as to try to anticipate what the subject will do next. ‘For instance, read the signs and body language and you’ll know if the kingfisher is about to dive into the water.’
It was still cold when we stopped for coffee and rusks, and someone asked if there was a tot of something warming for his coffee. Guts said they used to bring a bottle of Amarula but the authorities complained that they didn’t have a licence, even to give it away. ‘We call Amarula an image stabiliser,’ he said. It relaxes you so you don’t tense up and get camera shake.
Turned out later this was another of his jokes. Never fear, if you go on a sundowner cruise with Pangolin, you won’t have to forfeit your boozy sundowners.
He was animated and full of beans, reigniting a love for taking photos and inspiring us to do better. He told us he rarely takes a camera with him on the boat. That way he can focus on helping others to get the shot rather than getting lost in his desire to capture a potentially prize-winning photo for his own portfolio.
If you’re even vaguely keen on wildlife or bird photography, I can highly recommend putting this on your list of things to do the next time you visit Chobe.
Need to know
- More info about the course and the cost
- For a different experience, stay on Pangolin’s Voyager houseboat and go out with the guides in the custom-built boats to find mammals, birds and reptiles to photograph.
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