From the Field
Greg du Toit
Africa Photo Workshop
4 Photos 4 Questions
I was recently interviewed by well respected and fellow South African wildlife photographer, Fanus Weldhagen. He asked me only four questions and he invited me to share just 4 photographs. But, what he actually did, was to send me on a nostalgic journey of reflection...
1. Your first shot that made you feel that you could do this for a living?
This is the first photograph that made me feel like I could do this for a living. Up to the time that I took this image, I had spent hours and hours pouring over coffee table books and magazines, studying the work of the best wildlife photographers in South Africa. Their work was always bathed in golden sunlight and their pictures where clear, clean, sharp - and they had atmosphere, a certain magic to them! I was four years into my photographic journey and I was shooting on professional slide film. I was in Kenya where I had built my own photographic hide and one late afternoon a herd of zebra approached. They were skittish and their constant jostling kicked up a large cloud of dust. One brave zebra stuck its head through the dust to sip the water. I was 26 years old and I had taken a loan to buy my first professional camera, a Nikon F100. I had also bought an 80-400mm lens with the same loan and it was the first lens to offer VR technology. With Fuji Provia 100F film loaded, I had the same film that the pros were shooting with. As I framed my subject I saw through my viewfinder something that looked strangely familiar. I saw an image of an incredible animal in incredible light. It was sharp, clear and full of mood. It had that magic quality and I remember how my heart started pounding in my chest. When I saw the slide on a lightbox, I realised that I was fortunate enough to have what it took to compete with the very best wildlife photographers in South Africa. I knew how to get close to wild animals and I knew about light. I had the same quality film as the professionals and I set my heart on becoming one of the best wildlife photographers in Africa. My only wish is that the film era had lasted longer as I had cracked the code, but a few years later it would all change. It would all go digital and I would have to reinvent myself. Back in film days it was all about light, it was all about field craft and it was all about getting it right in camera. These are still my strengths but the game has changed and if you don’t adapt then you cannot be a professional - you will go out of business.
2. A photo you regard represents one of your first big breaks?
This image is one I feel represents my first big break. This photo of a little sunbird drinking was part of a small, six image portfolio, that was published in Africa Geographic Magazine many moons ago. Africa Geographic was the magazine of choice to get your photographs published in. They used great quality paper and they published the best in the business. I was utterly shocked when I sent the editor of the magazine a selection of slides and she wrote back to say that I had landed my first ever portfolio. What she did not tell me was that my images had been selected as the cover story and when the magazine came out, one of my photos would appear on a magazine cover for the very first time. We were still living in Kenya and we could only receive emails via HF Radio. When my wife got the message from our family, that I had landed the cover, she came running into our little house where I was taking a shower, washing the mud off of myself because I was still sitting in my waterhole trying to get shots of lions. It is a moment we will cherish forever and I still see it as my first big break.
3. A photo that represents the moment that you felt you had arrived.
This image represents the moment that I felt I had arrived. After winning the 2013 Wildlife Photographer of the Year award I found myself standing in front of a gaggle of journalists with the lights fixed on me and my big blue elephant image, answering questions in the exhibit in London. This award is the most prestigious and most coveted title in world wildlife photography and to win it was beyond my wildest dreams. The biggest professional photographers in the world enter it, including all the National Geographic photographers and there I was, the nobody from Africa who had managed to clinch the title. I did it the only way I knew how; I got down low, close to a big animal and I shot at a slow shutter speed and with some second curtain sync (flash). I wanted a feeling of mood and mystery so I attached a polariser and I shot in manual white balance. The big trick though was that I did all this in-camera and before my subject appeared. This baby elephant raced past me so fast that I only got three shots but I was prepared and I had a vision in my mind of the shot I was after. My technical settings matched my vision and the result won me the highest of accolades. My absolute photographic icon is Michael “Nick” Nichols who is the Picture Editor At large for National Geographic Magazine. He won this award in 2014, the year after me, and it reminded me of what I had achieved.
4. The photo that you would like to be remembered by?
This is the photo that I would like to be remembered by. For me, my wildlife photography is more than a profession. It is something that has grown out of a serious love and passion for the wild places, and especially for the wild animals, of Africa. In this modern era we tend to treat photography like we do everything else in life, instant and gratifying. We shoot thousands of photographs, in a single day sometimes, and we have them slapped onto instagram, facebook and twitter while we are sometimes even still in the field! We get loads of likes and smiley faces by the time we go to bed. I play this game too sometimes, I have to if I want to stay current. But when you talk to me about a shot I would like to be remembered for, then social media goes out the window. I go back to a time in my life when I spent more than one year at a single waterhole, without sharing anything with anyone else, besides my wife. In fact, in that entire year I never got the shot I was after and only after resorting to sitting inside the actual water did I manage to get my shot. This photo means far more to me than just an image of a lioness drinking. This photo represents the wild Africa of my dreams. You see, the lioness in this photograph is what we refer to as a free-ranging lion, meaning that this is a wild lion still living beyond formal park or reserve boundaries. This image, for me, represents the true meaning of wilderness. These lion are shy and strictly nocturnal and to get shots of them in the daytime I had to sit inside a waterhole for 270 hours (read the full story here...). In so doing I immersed myself in my environment and Africa put on a show for me that I will never ever forget. I saw the most incredible things, ranging from insects in the water, to Lanner Falcons catching doves in front of me. I pushed the boundaries of wildlife photography and I captured an image that I am hoping I will be remembered for, but more importantly will remind people of a truly wild Africa.
You can purchase these images as fine art prints here...
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