I’m a very lucky man, I have a wife that tolerates and sometimes even encourages my many passions in life; football, golf, snowboarding, adventure travel and lots of photography. A couple of weeks ago it was my birthday and for this special occasion Tracy always surprises me with the best gifts. This year year I was especially lucky and she booked me on to a photography day at Port Lympne safari park.
Reading the days itinerary I received in the post it all looked a very well planned out day, traveling round the park with a pro photographer and one of the parks keepers.
The day started at 9 am and as always I arrived a little early. I was met by our pro for the day, Dave Ralph. Friendly and enthusiastic about taking a group of amateurs out for the day we got talking about the kit I had and what I would need and when.
My kit. Now I was lucky enough that I could borrow a second body and lens, so I had with me 2 bodies, an old Canon 40D (mine) and a 5D MkII. As for the glass I had a 24-70 f2.8 and a 70-300 f4.5. Plus another couple that I didn’t even consider using. So I was set, I had everything covered. Having the 2 cameras meant no time was wasted swapping lens.
Anyway, back to the day. Quickly the other 7 budding photographers and our park keeper Jess (sorry didn’t get her surname) arrived and we headed to the cafe to get coffee and run through the day in more detail.
Dave has been photographing the animals at both Port Lympne and Howletts for 26 years and was on hand for any technical queries or pointers we needed. What I found particularly good was he let us get on and take photos and experiment, rather than say here is a rhino, do this or do that. However, if we needed help he was there and always happy to.
Jess was full of energy and a mine of useful and interesting knowledge about all the animals their habitats and backgrounds as well as the history of the park. Having her on hand to answer our questions and tell us about the animals made the day even better.
We all boarded the safari jeep. And this is my only criticism of the day. 10 people in the back of a jeep, 8 of whom are waving around large DSLR cameras and very long lenses, was a little cramped to say the least!
We set off and headed for the first of our stops. Rhinos. Very quickly we reached the paddock and all jumped out for the first of the days shots. Luckily we had an over cast sky, so no massive contrasts in light or harsh shadows.
From here we headed in to the African Experience and we had a wide array of wildlife to capture on camera. Antelope, Waterbuck, Eland, Zebra, Giraffe and Buffalo to name a few. The Giraffe however didn’t want to play and were hiding way out in their vast enclosure. A quick word in the radio from Jess and a keeper appeared to entice them over with food. With the animals on all sides it was a bit chaotic on the jeep. But being so close to the animals it was fine and I managed to get some great shots. The 70-300 was was perfect and allowed me to get both close-ups and full shots of the animals.
The main advantage of being on the photography course was the jeep stopping whenever we asked. Where as the general public ones never stopped. This gave us time and more control over what we captured.
Next we stopped at the Meerkats. These little cautious creatures made the perfect models while standing guard, allowing us to take shot after shot. There was also a small reptile enclosure, however with the tungsten light and glass to shoot through it was much harder to get unusual shots or angles.
Our next stop was one of the Gorilla enclosures. Because there are so many males at the park, they have a separate group of bachelors. We arrived at feeding time. You would think this would be an added bonus, but the Gorillas are very clever and know you are there to stare and gawp, so generally faced away from the crowed while eating their lunch. So we had to wait for the moment their curiosity got the better of them and they looked our way. It was at this point I couldn’t get the settings on the camera right. Everything was over exposed, it made no sense. I tried adjusting everything, aperture, ISO and shutter speed. My spot meeting? was telling me everything was correct, but the images were completely blown out. Then just before we moved on, it dawned on me. I was focusing on their eyes, deep set and black eyes! Of course how stupid of me! I changed to evaluative metering and I managed to grab a few well exposed shots before we moved on. One of which is my favorite of the day.
Time to regroup and have lunch.
As we headed off toward our next encounter, we passed a Lion enclosure. We weren’t due to stop here, the Lions are behind fences and that’s not great for photography. However a pair of females were far enough away that at 300mm the fence disappeared (well almost) and I managed to get a couple of shots.
Arriving at 2 big open enclosures, our next subjects were Baboons and more Rhinos. I was hoping for some really exciting shots from the Baboons, but they weren’t in a very playful mood. Shame, but these are wild animals and do what they want when they want.
Our next stop was the Black and White Colobus Monkeys and the De Brazzas Moneys. This time we were going in. While the general public stood at a safe distance behind the fence, we got up close and personal. It was now I made my second fatal error or the day. Only taking the one camera in with me, with the 24-70 lens. Although we were close, I missed the opportunity to get those really really close up shots. Next time! The Colobus Monkeys were really relaxed with us being so close, swinging and playing in front of us, they even started sun bathing. The De Brazzas on the other hand were a little more cautious and just sat and kept an eye on what we were doing.
Time to go and visit more Gorillas; this time a family group and a huge silverback. Arriving at the viewing platform with 15 minutes until feeding time we got set up in our chosen spots. It was clear we weren’t going to get chance to move as the crowds quickly gathered. 8 photographers with keepers are a bit of a give away something is going to happen! Slowly the Gorilla family emerged from the seclusion of their enclosure and waited for the peanuts to fall from the sky (the keepers tossed them from the roof). For the next 20 minutes we followed the family round with our cameras trying to capture a unique moment. Easier said than done.
With one final stop at the Tapier enclosure, our day was done. I had managed to fill 5 memory cards. I’m sure if I had more time with each animal, I could have been more selective about the shots I took and composed them better. But quickly scanning though the days shooting, I was really happy about what I shot.
You can see the images on my Flickr, but here are a selection of my favourites.
You can find out about the course on the Port Lympne website here.