I have a confession to make about my serious addiction. Africa. It is a drug and it courses through my veins, sparking lucid visions of endless rolling plains, the rhythmic drumming of a thousand wildebeest hooves, punctuated by a cacophony of whinnying zebras. The visions permeate my waking hours, leaving me wistful, nostalgic, with an irrepressible grin and a finger itching to trigger the shutter button. Since my first visit in 2014, I have journeyed to Africa every year, twice a year, for 7 years in a row, in what has become a pilgrimage, to immerse myself in the richness of its bountiful wonders and to push my photographic boundaries further than before. That is the beauty of Africa, specifically Tanzania and Kenya in East Africa. Everything feels familiar, yet nothing stays the same, especially your photography.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love wildlife photography in India too, with its incredible beauty, diversity and colour. There are places where the experience would be different from the sort of examples I list below, but these are exceptions. But if you’re a novice or an amateur wildlife photographer, you should experience Africa, and I’ll tell you why. Now if you’ve experienced wildlife safaris in India, you’ll understand what I am about to share, if not, you’ll simply have to experience it for yourself.
Understanding the Indian context
The first and most important difference is how completely different the importance to being first in line is, in the Indian context. In most wildlife sanctuaries in India, the race starts before one even enters the wilderness, with vehicles racing to be the first in line before the gates open. Why? Simply because the first vehicle has much better chances of spotting a tiger or leopard, as the tracks are narrow and vehicular movement is single-file. The further back you are in line, the lesser your chances as the animal may get spooked and disappear, but your chances of eating dust dramatically increase the further back you are, as no one allows the vehicle in front out of their sight.
In India, for the most part, wildlife safaris are experienced in jungles or forests of tall trees, thick undergrowth, and trails splitting the forest. This context greatly impacts that most important of factors in photography, light. In the forest, the trees usually end up blocking the early morning or late evening light. Then there’s the fact that you can’t choose your direction, because you’re on a narrow track facing a particular direction, so you have to shoot with whatever light you’ve got and if you have vehicles on the other side of your subject, your shot may end up compromised.
Then there is the system by which subjects like big cats are located and tracked. I like to call this system the ‘Alarm Call Ambush’. The density of the undergrowth means that visibility beyond the treeline is almost impossible, which means visibly locating a subject even as large as an elephant can be almost impossible, often right until the subject emerges from the treeline. Naturalists extrapolate the position of predators like tigers and leopards by listening to alarm calls from deer, monkeys and birds, then track the direction of the relay of the alarm calls to know if the predator is on the move and where. With these auditory cues, the naturalists will direct the driver to a potential crossing point, where the big cat may emerge from the treeline. Often, when the subject emerges, it crosses the track and vanishes into the forest on the other side. This could be mere seconds or minutes and you as a photographer are jostling for space with a dozen other vehicles, trying to get a clear visual and hopefully take a picture before the magnificent creature vanishes into the undergrowth. This means that you have to be technically on point as a photographer, to have all your settings dialled in, making quick adjustments on the fly to make your images, all the while hoping that your vehicle isn’t stuck behind others, or that some rubberneckers won’t photobomb your shot, or have a vehicle behind your subject, ruining the image. There’s a lot of luck involved as you don’t know where the subject will emerge and if you haven’t dialled in your settings correctly, chances are the opportunity will pass you by, as the subject might just keep on walking through and disappear into the forest.