Tales & images from life as me…

Ruaha – photo workshop safari

Having arrived back from the UK with my wedding dress in tact, I had around 8 hours with Damien before I was off to the bush again! This week’s blog shows a little of what I got up to on our amazing photo workshop safari with Authentic Tanzania and renowned African photographer, Paul Joynson-Hicks.

It was five days of coffee wafting across the camp at 5am; sunrises setting fire (not literally) to baobabs and rocks; sunsets melting gold over rivers and prides of lions. It was clicking cameras; whispered urgent advice; the bark of a leopard in camp; or guttural roaring bursts from lions. Hot red dust and thirsty wildlife, support and kindness, and good hot food; and hours and hours of fun.  I can’t recommend this experience highly enough.

I can’t give you the full text with descriptions and all the secrets I learned about photography as none of the magazines have gone to print yet, but I can give you a peak at some of the photos and a few good tips I gathered. After that look out for Digital Photographer (out on 4th Oct), Travel News (Nov issue), Active Travel (out in Jan) or Bird Watching (early next year!).

Just so you understand the premise – I joined a small group of people who’d signed up to learn more about photography from one of Tanzania’s top photographers. We were given little folders of information to start with, including a timetable for the five day trip and told to bring whatever equipment we had.

I was relieved to discover that the group was extremely friendly, plus it hadn’t occurred to me what a pleasure it would be to spend time with people who love photography as much as I do and don’t mind analysing the best depth of field for the scene for ten minutes! We were very varied – covering four decades, four countries and a beginner to a full-time professional, amongst five of us – but we had photography and a love of the bush in common and it turned out that was enough.

In case you’re interested in the way it all worked this is it in a speedy summary: We camped in Authentic Tanzania’s fabulous ‘fly-glamping’ spot, chosen just for us so that we’d be right in the middle of the bush and the game (for more details of how these work check back to my piece on the Selous) and started early in order to catch the light each morning. We did bush breakfasts and were usually focused on a team or individual challenge so that we were learning specific skills. We’d return in time for lunch at the camp, download images, review the best of each person’s and then have a workshop tutorial. In the afternoon we’d take what we’d learned in the workshop and head out again – usually with another challenge in mind. Evenings were time to relax, have a drink, download the afternoon’s shots, review them in the group and do the next workshop. It was busy, it was nerve-wracking at times, (even stressful when you knew you hadn’t got the shots you wanted), but I learned so much and loved every second.

Wanna see the results? I’ll share a few hints and tips I gathered as I go. Here are a few of the shots I took (I can’t show them all as they’re being used in magazines). These are iPhoto downloads – I now have fancy LightRoom to learn too (inspired by this trip) so hopefully with improved editing I can improve things even further later.

So, to begin with landscapes – top tips: check your depth of field, use a tripod, use lines to guide the eye, keep it simple, ISO 100 whenever possible for best quality.


Unusual angles keep things interesting:

It was the middle of dry season so there were plenty of thirsty animals hanging about…

We were told to try to capture animals in context, not just close up, so that images tell more of a story. This thirsty elephant wandered down and dug about in the river bed to open up a drinking hole.

Small patches of water are tempting drinking spots – Sven (our Authentic Tanzania guide and animal behavious expert) encouraged us to learn about animal behaviour in order to help us anticipate what might happen and have the camera ready, on the right settings, for the shots. 

This thirsty herd of buffalo were making their way down to what was left of the river. The dust and dramatic boabab tree set them off nicely.

Capturing movement: A whole new area for me and we were introduced to panning – deliberately blurring all or part of the image but maintaining the clarity of what is actually being photographed. It resulted in a few interesting images (most of which went in the bin!) and these were some of my favourites.

This was shot by tracking the animal and allowing the background to blur with a relatively slow shutter speed.

The lines of the last of the water in this dry river bed help to guide the eye and form a simple background too. Yes, in this one the animals are blurred more than the one above, but I’m told that as long as the animals are recognisable and the shot carries a feeling or story then it’s all good – some people love it, others hate it but it starts a conversation!

This one’s fun because it captures the flick of the head, peeps through blurred grass at a low angle, but the yellow flowers in the centre of the image are sharply in focus.

Birds in motion are always tricky, this is one of the few I managed to get sharp!

And this is the Ruaha Horn Bill – unique to the Ruaha region (and not moving just randomly stuck in!)

During our time in Ruaha there were several highlights, but there was definitely a lion theme running through a lot of them – and that was largely down to Sven’s excellent knowledge of the park and his ability to anticipate what the lions might do next. As a result we witnessed some really magical moments (several of which are in other sections) but here are a few:

A group of two females, three cubs and a male began staccato roars, pushed from their bellies so that they echoed across the river and suddenly the rest of the family appeared responding with the same sounds so that the noises were all around us, bouncing off the inside of our chests. Spine chilling and completely captivating.

This is a pic of some of the family as they all met up!

And one of the males, shaking his head and looking pretty evil as he did so!

In fact, we were asked to try to capture animal personalities and behaviour as one of the challenges. Here are a few of mine:

Cute little guy

Alert and beautifully camouflaged.


This beautiful girl just lowered her head to gaze in through the vehicle window in a sudden moment of curiosity, the sun had almost set but you can just about make out the last of its rays along the edge of her face and in the catch lights in her eyes (which I now understand are very important for creating strong portraits). This little lady was so brave – her wings are spread to protect an egg she had amongst the rocky soil. She stayed put even in the face of our safari truck, several telephoto lenses and all our heads sticking out. Amazing what mum’s will do for their babies! It was almost entirely dark when I took this and that was one of the lessons I learned – how to get the shot, even in failing light. It’s never as great as it is when you have stunning light, but at least I now know it’s possible.

It’s amazing what the camera is capable of if you treat it right. Here are a few others I shot in near darkness:

This leopard could barely be seen, amongst the leaves on the side of the road, but using high ISO and a steady hand a clear image was captured – the quality is compromised as I had to pump it up to maximum but at least I got the shot!

And for this it was total darkness as Paul ran us through a tutorial on taking photos of the night sky.

But of course the best light is morning or evening – and we had some spectacular ‘golden hours’ during our trip.

A huge thank you to Sven and everyone at Authentic Tanzania who made it such an amazing trip, to Paul Joynson-Hicks who shared so much knowledge and left us all with lessons we’ll keep for life, and to all my fellow enthusiasts on the trip – they were all so talented I was pretty overwhelmed initially, but so kind I managed to keep going.

The trip of a lifetime – can’t recommend it highly enough. If you want to know more visit:  www.authentictanzania.com or Email: info@authentictanzania.com


3 responses

  1. Kate Wood

    Mel, wow, wow, wow. What incredible adventures you are having. Makes me so miss Africa and you! Would love to sit down and hear all the tiny details over a glass of vino! Love you babe. x x x

    September 13, 2012 at 10:15 am

  2. These are great. Looks like you had fun learning to use your camera even more to capture these amazing photos!!

    September 17, 2012 at 9:22 pm

  3. Some great photos of Ruaha along with the explanations. You really captured the essence of the park. Please visit our website ruahanationalpark.weebly.com ..Ruaha is ‘Tanzania’s Best Kept Secret’ and the largest park in East Africa. The site has everything you need to know about Ruaha. Any contributions or articles would be greatly appreciated

    October 21, 2012 at 11:05 pm

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