Kenya in the frame: How to step up your photography on safari
Published 13/01/2016 | 13:03
Can an amateur snapper become a confident wildlife photographer in matter of days? Sarah Marshall says yes.
A messy break-up, the death of my first pet hamster, and the scene when Elliot and ET fly across the full moon on a bicycle; these are all episodes in life that have brought me close to tears.
Now, I can add a 53-year-old man in khaki shorts, wielding a Canon 1DX camera, to that list.
"James, can you move forward," bellows wildlife photographer Paul Goldstein to our safari guide and driver, who's manoeuvred us into position for a shot of two male cheetahs climbing over a fallen tree trunk.
"Some diva's complaining about a twig in her picture."
It's true, there's lots of foliage in Kenya's Masai Mara in June, but this particular rogue branch is obscuring my photograph, crowning one of the cats with a race day fascinator.
As we lurch forward, the cheetah leaps up, soaring through the air like a rocket before hitting the ground in a cloud of dust. It's spectacular to watch, but not one of us gets a picture - including Paul, whose fiery temper is now a blazing inferno.
Cue several choice swear words.
An award-winning wildlife photographer, Paul guides specialist tours all over the world for travel company Exodus and at the Kicheche camps, which he co-owns, in Kenya's Masai Mara conservancies. The demand for his peculiar hard knocks school of photography is so high, many trips sell out before they even make it into a travel brochure.
His popularity is part of a growing appetite for expert-led holidays; proof it's no longer just about where you go, but who you go there with.
Yet, do people really pay good money to be bombarded with a series of four letter expletives? Apparently so, and I've joined one of Paul's Kenya departures to find out why.
With vast plains and big open skies that run a spectrum from burning red to stormy blue, the Mara is an appealing canvas for any artist. But it's the conservancies bordering the National Reserve - where we'll be dividing our time between Kicheche's Mara and Bush camps - that are particularly special.
Lower vehicle density (there are no day trippers), the opportunity to drive off-road, and a ballooning big cat population are all the ingredients required for a wildlife extravaganza of Attenborough proportions.
Before even reaching camp, we're issued with a series of strict dos and don'ts: 'do' be prepared to work hard, get up early and be shouted at; 'don't' mention the Big 5 ("it's a butcher's term"), be satisfied with 'safe' shots, or turn up wearing a multi-pocket utility waistcoat - the last foolhardy guest to do that had his garment tossed on the bush fire.
"This is not about a dull accumulation of species, or about going out after breakfast from some characterless, ethically derelict mainstream lodge and chalking off a few sleeping cats," warns Paul.
Kit wise, I've borrowed a Nikon D4s (capable of shooting 11 frames per second) and two lenses - an 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 and wide-angle 16-35mm f/4 - from Lenses For Hire (lensesforhire.co.uk).
From amateurs to serious pros, enthusiasts with a range of abilities join Paul's trips and some don't even bother with a camera at all. Equipped with binoculars, they simply enjoy his (surprisingly) patient and considered approach to observing wildlife.
But whatever tools you choose, don't turn up expecting to shoot with an iPad or iPhone; it's the equivalent of walking into a church and swapping the hymn books with copies of well-thumbed, sticky jazz mags. Sacrilege.
Our first outing begins before sunrise, as tantalizing streaks of orange creep across the sky. Paul scoffs at "charlatans" who delay game drives in favour of bacon and eggs; by the time the sun has come up, he says, it's already too late.
We quickly find our subjects, a pride of lions with cubs frolicking in the false dawn. James directs our Toyota land cruiser into the light, now illuminating the lions with golden halos.
I attempt to capture them play fighting, but all I seem to score is a series of backlit bum shots. "Too slow, too slow," tuts Paul, who's fired several volleys before I've even touched the shutter release. "Sort yourself out!"
Lesson number one: with wildlife, you have to be quick.
"Imagine every picture you take is for a calendar. Someone's got to look at that for 30 days," says Paul during lunch back at the camp. I can't look at my efforts for more than 30 seconds, so I vow to work harder.
Taking great pictures is also about taking risks.
"If you're prepared to fail when gambling with your camera, the potential rewards are huge," advises our uncompromising mentor.
Slow panning - opting to track an animal with continuous focus on a slow shutter speed rather than freezing the action - really is going for broke, and it's Paul's signature style.
"Lock your arms into your body, swing down until you hit a V-shape, then fire," he instructs.
Right now, the only V sign I want to make is by flicking the back of my right hand, but I give it a go. For the most part, I end up with a blurry mess on my camera backscreen, but when it works, the results are superb: a cheetah strolling through long oat grass is now swathed in a swirling mass of colour.
We have another opportunity to hone our technique the following day, after hearing news the great wildebeest migration has started.
Setting off at 5am beneath a canopy of brilliant stars, we head for the National Reserve and the Sand River, a tributary of the Mara, hoping to witness a crossing.
Thousands of the ungainly antelopes have gathered on the riverbank, galloping back and forth like athletes limbering up for competition. Their constant, non-descript rhubarbing reminds me of Charlie Brown's teacher in the Peanuts animation.
Wildebeest are famously indecisive, and we wait hours for them to do something. But our patience pays off when a herd cascades down a hillside, leaping into the water to create Paul's Holy Trinity of photographic conditions - dust, air and spume.
Lesson number two: rewards come to those who wait.
Further proof of this comes when we track a hungry cheetah, Malika, and her brood of four grown cubs. Once again, the Kicheche drivers put us in the right position and we monitor the cats' behaviour.
After two hours of waiting, watching and listening to Paul recite Fast Show sketches verbatim, Malika springs into action, chasing an impala straight down the barrel of my lens. She disarms the prey, but invites her fledgling cubs to finish the job.
Mayhem ensues as cats dart in between vehicles, photographers fire like kamikaze fighters and Paul has a quasi-religious experience, hopping up and down enthusiastically screaming: "This is nature!"
The greatest test of our mettle, though, comes at the end of the trip when we have to present our best work. But any harsh words from Paul make his compliments seem even more significant. Our disciplinarian can also turn on the charm when desired: like a stunt pilot performing loop-the-loop acrobatics, he knows just when to avert course and avoid a nosedive.
Paying to go on holiday with Paul is, at times, like self-flagellation, but the scolds and scars deliver results. What's more, it's actually extremely good fun.
My only dilemma now is that I'm reluctant to go on safari anywhere - or with anyone - else. But isn't that exactly the sort of behaviour you'd expect from a true diva?
Sarah Marshall was a guest of Exodus (exodus.co.uk; +44 0845 863 9601), which offers a nine-day trip to the luxury tented Kicheche camps in Kenya from £4,599/€6,132pp, including flights, food and photographic coaching from Paul Goldstein.
Next departure is August 19, 2016. Paul will also be leading two 12-day photographic charters to Svalbard on June 22 and July 3, 2016, from £3,899/€5,199pp excluding flights.
Kenya Airways (kenya-airways.com; +44 020 8283 1818) operates daily overnight flights on its new B787 Dreamliner from Heathrow to Nairobi, from £722.75/€964 return.
Safarilink (flysafarilink.com; +254 20 6000 777) offers twice daily flights from Nairobi to multiple airstrips in the Masai Mara, from $325/€299 return.
See magicalkenya.com for more.