Unlearning what you have learned…

Every now and again, I take a step back from wildlife photography. A sabbatical, if you like. I go away and I watch the latest wildlife documentaries (sometimes really old ones), read and research subjects, and I visit art galleries and antique emporiums. I’m seeking inspiration. Looking for a fresh approach to photograph wildlife, differently to what I have done previously on any photo safari. Although, admittedly, it’s near impossible to do anything original these days.

In my early years I was rather one-dimensional – a product of shooting stock images for so long and fitting into a construed format that allows space for headlines, copy, cut-outs, etc. It has been difficult to break away from that commercial mindset – to throw off the manacles and compose photographs with complete freedom. Photographs for me.

However, over the past two-years, I have successfully turned away from stock and now focus almost entirely on ‘fine art’ photography, (selling prints and contemporary wall art) as well as working as a photographic tour leader.

Crater Lion (March 2011)
Fine art wildlife photography… “Crater Lion” Photograph by © Elliott Neep captured on 19/03/2011 13:15:55 in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania with NIKON D3S and 24.0-70.0 mm f/2.8 lens at ¹⁄₈₀₀ sec at ƒ / 10

As my previous posts will explain, I have recently returned from one of these sabbaticals. It was a time of emotional upheaval, so there wasn’t a great deal of inspiration this time. Just pain. I unplugged in February, photographed a little in May (Skomer puffins) and then went straight into a co-leading role with David Lloyd on his Great Migration Photo Safari.

In the weeks leading up to the tours, I was keen to see what my new colleagues have photographed in the Masai Mara, so I looked at the websites of both David Lloyd and Richard Peters. It’s impressive stuff! Both are superb technicians and accomplished artists.

Richard favours dramatic light and I think it’s fair to say that David prefers the classic monochrome, with a healthy dose of motion panning. I’m summing up their work horribly so please go and view their websites for yourself – click on the thumbnails below. My point here, is that I was keen to see what had been achieved during previous outings of their Great Migration Photo Safari, in order to a) gain some inspiration, b) avoid duplication.

David Lloyd Website
David Lloyd Website

Richard Peters Website
Richard Peters Website

Before the Great Migration Photo Safari in August, seeing as I’d just sold my Nikon DSLR system, we decided it would be a far better experience for our clients if I used a DSLR camera body and lens – to better articulate my approach to wildlife photography – rather than solely using the medium format and focussing too much on Living Landscapes.

David loaned me a Nikkor 300mm f/4E Pf (an exceptional lens) and his original Nikkor 400mm f/2.8 along with a Nikon D500 – an extremely generous gesture. It’s worth noting that David has several lenses for Masai Mara clients to hire, including both Canon & Nikon 300mm f/2.8 & 400mm f/2.8 lenses, saving clients the worry of transporting heavy and valuable equipment.

Historically, my photographic style is quite simply ‘all the way in, all the way out‘ and it has served me very well over the years. By this, I mean that I have usually shot with either a 600mm f/4 or my wide-angle, occasionally the short end of a 70-200mm.

I shoot for high-impact portraits and I always have an eye on the wider context with animals in their environment – what I now call Living Landscapes. I think my style compliments David’s and Richard’s extremely well. Our über-keen clients would be able to learn something new, no matter which one of us was in their vehicle or co-leading the group… and that is exciting!

Jumping forward to the photo safari… I swapped over with Richard on the Saturday, met with David and the new group on the Sunday morning. After a day or two in the Mara, it was immediately obvious that David hasn’t updated his site in a long time 😀 David was showing me shot after shot that just dazzled me. Abstracts of big cats, elephants, and giraffe that were simply superb.

David is an extremely talented and clever photographer and he has a great motto: “There is always a photograph out there.” David really impressed me with his opportunistic style and an array of techniques that enables him to capture truly beautiful photographs when most other photographers put down their equipment and or don’t even lift the camera to their eye. Most enlightening is a high-key but detail-rich approach to photographing wildlife with washed out skies and/or high-contrast light and the use of ND filters to slow the shutter to capture motion blurs in bright daylight.

And I’m not just back-slapping. I told him so. He did look a little stunned. But credit where it is due, David’s real talent is with strong, unorthodox, dynamic, and challenging composition with any subject – lions, leopard, cheetah, elephants, zebra, wildebeest herds, and giraffe.

Giraffe, especially, is a subject that I have ignored for too long, simply because I couldn’t work out how to photograph them well. In many ways, it was easier to simply ignore them, call them ‘boring’, and keep on driving. Pretty shameful really. However, this time I was determined to right this terrible wrong. I think giraffe are extraordinary animals and very beautiful, just frustrating! I always make time for the stunning zebra, so why not giraffe?

Here’s some examples of my old giraffe photographs….

I put my previous failings down to impatience and a legacy of my stock photography rut: everything in frame, everything well exposed, space for copy, bla bla bla. The thing is, giraffe are just so tall and perpendicular, to photograph them in frame with space, means they just look lost.

Unless you can find them on a ridge and silhouette them, they become nothing more than a record shot. And this is key. The difference between a wildlife photographer and a photographer that takes wildlife is artistic interpretation. This is what frustrated me. I felt that I couldn’t seem to get an artistic angle on the giraffe.

Enter David Lloyd…

During every David Lloyd Photo Safari, we host an image review session, affectionately labelled ‘Camera Club’. Clients bring two images on a memory card or USB stick: One image they love; One image they wish to discuss – because they found the subject challenging or want tips on how to crop/edit/process the image in Lightroom. It’s a positive space full of useful constructive critique and suggestions.

It’s actually a fantastic concept that has morphed organically into the present format. There are two for each week, timed just before the afternoon safari. Most telling, there is always a marked improvement between the first and last session images. Clients take on board a huge amount of knowledge by seeing everybody’s images, including the tour leader’s photographs, all from situations in which they were actually present. So it’s relevant! They then have the rest of the week to put what they have learned into practice.

I have no shame in admitting that I found these sessions equally inspiring – for the same reason I enjoy my Instagram feed – a range off familiar subjects (including the giraffe) captured in a myriad of differing styles. One sentence from Mr Lloyd did it for me:

“You don’t have to see the whole animal to know what it is.”

And there it was. Because, I was trapped in my literal way of thinking, I’d totally missed a concept that I’d happily apply to practically every other animal. You can shoot figuratively and just capture the ‘impression’ of the giraffe. It’s such an iconic animal with such a familiar pattern, you can photograph any part of it and the viewer still knows exactly what animal this is.

 

…It finally clicked. Brain fart, cleared!

 

Latest giraffe photographs… A marked difference!

Using the 400mm, I revelled in a new passion for details. My medium format Fujifilm GFX50s with the 110mm f/2 was always on my lap to capture the wildlife in its savannah habitat. In between big cat encounters and waiting for crossings, we always looked for zebra, elephant, and giraffe. It was brilliant!

Why hadn’t it clicked before? Who knows!? I’ve led tours for over a decade, but this was the first time that I had worked with another professional photographer on safari. It was both energising and extremely motivating.

Living Landscapes with the FujiFilm GFX50s

Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in the Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya with GFX 50S and GF110mmF2 R LM WR lens at ¹⁄₁₂₅ sec at ƒ / 10 on ISO 100
Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in the Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya with GFX 50S and GF110mmF2 R LM WR lens at ¹⁄₁₂₅ sec at ƒ / 10 on ISO 100
Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in the Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya with GFX 50S and GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR lens at ¹⁄₅₀₀ sec at ƒ / 8.0 on ISO 200

Another aspect I found surprising was how well my Living Landscape approach was adopted and interpreted by our clients. It’s a fantastic feeling when, at the end of the safari, your clients come up to you and say they “will never look at the savannah the same again” and that “you’ve opened my eyes to a wider world” with all the emphasis on ‘wide‘. [smiling]

So I owe a huge “Thank you” to David for inviting me to join his Photo Safaris, for loaning me his kit, and frankly inspiring me to be a better photographer.

Next post I’ll be sharing some more medium format loveliness from the Masai Mara.

Elliott Neep

Currently based in Oxfordshire, UK. Experienced professional freelance wildlife photographer, writer, and photographic guide with portfolios from East Africa, India, Arctic, Antarctica and British Isles.

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