Portraits of Africa, the Stories Behind the Pictures

My latest black and white series, Portraits of Africa, was shot over the course of two back-to-back photo safaris that stretched over the months of August and September in 2010. During the course of my travels, I shot most extensively in South Africa and Botswana, but made several excursions into Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. My principal camera bodies were a Nikon D700 and D3s, and most of the pictures featured in the series were captured with the Nikon 200-400mm f/4 and the Nikon 600mm f/4. This was a trip that I had been planning for years, but for one reason or another did not get around to until I was fifty.

Upon returning to Vancouver with nearly 15,000 photos, I was faced with the daunting task of cataloguing and editing my photographic record. Neither of which are tasks for which I have either proficiency nor fondness. It was a process (for lack of a better term) which initially took several weeks and then stretched out over nearly two years as I found that within the overall body of work, I had images that fell into many different genres and themes and I had no clear idea initially how to shape the work. Portraits of Africa is a distillation of images that I came to consider the best portraits of the animals that I observed and were those images that worked best in black and white. Separate from this work, but no less worthy or equal in my eyes, are hundreds of images of the birds of Africa, a similar number of landscapes and close-ups of flowers, and many images of the villages, towns, cities and peoples of Africa. Over the next fourteen posts I’ll share with you the stories leading up to each photograph.


A typical day of shooting in Africa while on safari consists of rolling out of your tent in the dark at least an hour before sunrise, about 5:00 am, then grabbing a quick cup of coffee and bolting down a bowl of porridge that bubbles in a cast iron pot over a crackling wood fire. As caffeine enters your system, the sky begins to brighten. Returning to your tent, you grab all your gear and head for the vehicles. You then climb, or stumble groggily as the case may be, into the back of a Land Cruiser and set out with your local African guide, or tracker, your driver and the fervent hope that you’ll get to a good water hole or game track before the sun has yet risen, or at least too high in the sky.

As we made our way to our first spot of the day, there was usually a lot of conversation as the guides traded tips on where the local game animals were mostly likely to be, perhaps near a fresh kill for example. Working as a guide or a tracker is a highly sought after career throughout Africa. In addition to a regular stipend, guides and trackers depend on fleshing out their income with tips. The more animals you can show a visitor, and especially a photographer, while they are on safari, the greater the likelihood that your tip will be a generous one. In an effort to maximize their earnings, the local guides generally share information with each other about the locations of the most highly sought after big game animals, or what has become generally known in Africa as the “Big Five”, the Elephant, the Rhino, the Lion, the Leopard and the Cape Buffalo (needless to say, the “Big Five” was a list first complied by those shooting with guns and not cameras). I was extraordinarily lucky during my safaris to partner with a number of highly regarded and very gifted local trackers, guides and drivers. I could never have taken these images without their skills and assistance.

Once you are in place, you simply wait in the Land Cruiser for the animals to come to you. And for the sun to rise. I scheduled my trips to coincide with the end of the dry season, as the landscape has significantly less vegetation (distracting in photos), far fewer flies, and with less water available, the animals tend to go every morning and every evening towards specific, reliable watering places. And by choosing a safari company geared towards photographers, you do have the luxury of staking out a spot for hours at a time. The interesting thing about the Land Cruiser is that the animals have become so acclimatized to them that they no longer associate the vehicles with people. It’s just a thing. Like a rock or a tree. So while it helps to have great long telephoto lenses with you on safari, there were occasions when the lions and leopards and elephants passed so close, that if I had taken all leave of my senses I could have leaned out of the Land Cruiser and touched them…

From a technical point, I started the day with ISO’s as high as 3200 and with the Nikon D3s, I was very comfortable shooting that fast. And even much later in the morning, many of the animals stay in the shadows of the vegetation, so shooting at 1600 ISO was not uncommon.

If you spot a particularly elusive animal, such as a leopard, your guide and driver will give you and your shooting partners first crack at some good shots and then pass along the information. Within a few minutes you can count on other Land Cruisers appearing out of the scrub brush and bushes. If there’s a pride of lions around a kill, you might see as many as a half a dozen vehicles in an area that’s crowded with tourists. And this kind of crowding makes getting a great shot exceedingly difficult as the ends of your frame gets squeezed. But can’t complain too loudly, because if you go for half a day without seeing anything, you are exceedingly grateful for a tip from someone else! So, the the further you venture, the fewer the people.

By ten o’clock most of the herd animals have drunk their fill and headed out to graze. The sun is now climbing well into the sky and you have peeled off several layers of clothes. The early morning chill has been driven off by a determined sun. The predators will have headed for shade, as much of the hunting takes place at dusk and dawn, but also to trail the herds. Nothing in Africa passes up an opportunity to eat…

…so the photographers then head to base camp for a real breakfast. But first you start to download your pictures and start some preliminary rough editing, flagging those images you think have potential. After comparing notes at breakfast, you return to your tent to do some more editing.

At Noon on safari, the early and late breakfasts are followed by a rather sumptuous lunch, after which you reconnoitre with your guides and plan the afternoon shoot. The conversations are all about the animals and the wildlife and who saw what and where might we find what else. You check all your battery-powered gear and attach all manner of things to solar panel chargers and the camp generator, camera batteries and laptops taking precedence. Once again, you gather your gear, then get back into your Land Cruiser and head out again by two o’clock. Generally speaking, as a photographer, you stay out until there is no longer enough light to shoot.

But it being a safari, and safaris having a rich colonial history and much British influence, you may break at four for tea and biscuits, or beer and beef jerky. Then again at approximately six o’clock when the sun is setting, you stop for “sun downers”, which is any cocktail of your choice, but traditionalists usually start with at least one gin and tonic. The spot for sundowners is often chosen for the beauty of its sunsets, and all the Land Cruisers in the immediate vicinity will congregate in the same spot, sort of an African tail gate cocktail party if you will. And again, the conversations are all about who spotted what where and who got what shot. After drinks it’s time to head back to the main camp for dinner.

The first thing you do when back at camp — it’s now about seven — is download your cameras (the second time that day) and then head for the shower, which is a canvas bag filled with about fifteen gallons of water which has been heated in a fifty gallon drum over another smoky wood fire. After a day in the bush you will be covered from head to toe in fine red dust. And a bag full of warm water soon becomes the most sensual hedonistic pleasure you can imagine indulging in.

After showering, the camp will have gathered around a large campfire, quaffing yet more cocktails and waiting to be seated for dinner at eight. You may have noticed that when on safari food is a recurring theme…

After dinner, the day’s shooting will be much discussed and ambitious plans for the coming day expressed. People retire to camp chairs around the fire, hopefully upwind of the smoke, and from various lockers, bags and other personal stashes, will appear all manner of whiskies, ports and the occasional Cuban cigar. For a moment you forget that you are days and perhaps weeks into the bush, dozens if not a hundred miles away from anything recognizable as a modern city. The fire barks and the wood splits and crackles and spits sparks skyward until they are lost, mingling with the stars overhead. The night sky is black and the flames create dancing shadows that fuel your imagination with wondrous creatures.

In the darkness you can hear the lions and hyenas arguing, and a cacophony of growling, grunting, eery howls, guttural coughing, and all of it punctuated at odd moments by the shrill scream or cry of some unknown beast, and you’re not quite sure if its exultantly triumphant or in the last throes of death. By eleven or so you will be one of the few hardy souls left and your weary body will begin to crave the narrow cot in your tent, knowing full well that it will start all over again in six or so hours and you fall asleep to the sounds of the African night.

Vince “Dagga Boy” Hemingson

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