Making the most of taking photographs at Mana Pools

Brian Petit for Zambezi Cruise & Safaris • 25 March 2019

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As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a National Park, Mana Pools is rightly famed for its wildlife populations. The photographability of its wildlife is subject to a number of factors. Some you can control to some degree or other. Others you are stuck with and have to make the most of, or circumvent, as the case may be.

A lone Elephant bull feeding down on the floodplain just in front of the lodge.

Firstly, its location.  Mana Pools  is located  in the Zambezi Valley, on the Zimbabwean side of the River, and is a significant distance by boat or by road from what would be called "civilisation".  Just getting there is an experience in its own right. There are no supermarkets or pharmacys "just up the road". You need to take in with you all those little things without which you you’d have withdrawal symptoms! 

Gadget Power
Nowadays it seems we can’t survive without a plethora of gadgets (including our photographic equipment). Charging batteries is a constant concern. It’s best to use rechargeable batteries, and there are charging facilities at the lodge. Bear in mind, though, that you are likely to be taking far more images per day than you normally would. At least one spare set of batteries is, therefore, essential. If you’re using replaceable batteries, you’ll need to hazard a guess at how many you will need and add a safety margin. A small pocket torch is also a good idea. There are torches at the lodge but they’re not pocket sized.

Familiarize yourself with new Equipment
Do take the trouble to become reasonably proficient with your camera equipment before coming on your trip. Remember to bring the instruction booklet with you as, even if there’s a Professional Photographer and/or Guide on the tour, you can’t expect him to be an expert on every brand.   Hiccoughs are always likely to occur.

It never ceases to amaze me how these babies manage to cling on even when Mum is running full pelt. Sometimes they cling on underneath and I once saw one with one up and one down.

Image Memory and Storage
Memory cards and storage are equally important. Modern cameras with  multiple frames-per second shooting capability, and video mode can fill up what you thought was adequate memory, in no time at all. In theory, you can delete unwanted images as you go.  In practice - you probably won't have time. And the sun is likely to be strong, which  means that outdoors, you may not be able to see your image display clearly to base a "discard" decision on.

Personally I never delete anything until I have downloaded it onto my laptop in the evening. IF there is time, I thin out the download and retain all those images that I feel warrant a second look. I then back up onto a travel hard drive as well, to give me two copies. The memory card can then be formatted ready for the morning.  But there may be no time for thinning out.  So make sure you have sufficient laptop and travel drive space to backup the entire memory card.

Impala ram with attendant oxpeckers

Bear in mind that in Mana Pools, the rules require you to be back in your lodge by 6pm. You will probably, then, want to remove unwanted parts of Africa from in your hair and behind your ears, and wash away the heat and dust with something cool and long. (Or even more than one).There will then be dinner and maybe the option of an illustrated talk on offer. You will want to be up before dawn to make the most of the early morning game drive. None of this leaves much time for downloading and sorting through images.

What photographic equipment to take
This will depend on a number of factors.  For example, are you a happy snapper or a serious photographer after images for publication, slideshows, greetings cards etc? If you’re the former, then whatever equipment you have will be fine. There will be lots of opportunities to record your trip. You will have to accept, however, that there will be limitations on what you can expect to accomplish. Some things, like animals at a distance and small birds in flight will be out of the question.  But in Mana Pools, elephants, buffalo, kudu, and maybe even big cats will probably be close enough to photograph with your mobile phone!

This female Leopard strolled across the grassland one evening just in front of us near the Lodge.

If you’re a serious photographer, with access to professional or top-end equipment, then the requirements will be different. They will be dictated, to a certain extent, by the season and the terrain. Mana is a place of extremes. In the dry season, there’s not a leaf on a tree, but visibility is good and you may on occasion, be able to photograph at considerable distance. For this you are likely to need as long a lens as you can practically manage. But remember that you will have to carry it with you.  For the average trip you will be working out of game drive vehicles. I would suggest that, in these circumstances, the 400 x F2.8's, the 500 and 600 F4's will be virtually unmanageable.

A pod of Hippos is a classic case of it paying to “wait and see”. There is always the chance of interaction between them but you often have to wait for it. Set the camera to as fast a speed as practicable and wait. The action, when it comes, is likely to be fast and furious.

Hazards of long prime lenses
Apart from that the sheer logistics of getting large equipment to Zimbabwe, will prove prohibitive. Working from a vehicle, using long prime lenses, is not straightforward. You won’t be able to easily adjust your subject distance to get the optimal image size. If you have to pan a moving target, the position of other passengers will be critical. It is very difficult to remove the imprint of your lens hood from the ear of the guy in front of you! Additionally subject size can be so variable.

Any turn in the track could reveal a flock of these lovely little parrakeets feeding on seeds on the ground.

Two of Mana's iconic subjects are elephants and Lillians lovebirds (the size of a Sparrow). You never know which one is going to be round the next bush. My suggestion, therefore, is bring as long a zoom as you can manage, maybe coupled with a converter and mounted on a DX cropfactor camera body. This should allow you to cope with a range of subjects both large and small.

The same turn in the track could have confronted you with these two young elephants testing each others strength.

At the other end of the scale a straightforward 18/70, or 28/105, depending on whether you are using an FX or DX body should suffice. This should be adequate for landscapes and some close-ups. If your short zoom doesn’t allow for a "macro" setting, then a couple of simple screw-in close-up filters are ideal. They take up very little room and weight and are not expensive. These will allow you to take super close-ups of some of the phenomenal plants and insects that you are likely to come across. It will obviate the need for an extra "macro" lens. I realise that filters, converters and the like can supposedly affect image quality. It is, however, normally very slight and will be, at least partially, offset by the clarity of light in any case.

Red Basker dragonfly - male

African Light - Help or hindrance?
African light can be both a boon and a problem. Whilst its quality is excellent, its strength creates a shadow problem. This is especially so in the early mornings and late evenings when most of your game drives take place. Your driver should be used to the demands of photographic perfection and so will position the vehicle to best advantage. In some situations this will not be possible. You will, therefore, have to make the best of it and adjust your camera settings accordingly.

A side lit elephant, at breakfast time, can make a disappointing image, so do your best to avoid it. Correspondingly the same elephant at lunchtime, when the sun is directly overhead, can have a wonderfully lit upper deck. At the same time his undercarriage will look like the backside of the Moon. Again make the best of it and adjust settings to cope. Much photography is based on compromise and the trick is to find the compromise that best suits your objectives. You can aid and abet the situation by using bracketing. This simply involves, when time allows, taking the same shots at various camera settings. This greatly increases your chances of scoring a bulls-eye. Vary both aperture and speed settings, combined with the use of your "compensation" button.
This is one of the procedures best played with at home, prior to your trip. That way, by the time you arrive, you’ll be able to operate automatically.

This old Dagga Boy used to visit the Pool every afternoon for 3 to 4 hours.

Still on the subject of light (can we ever get away from it?), most wild species tend to spend the hotter parts of the day in the shade. This can make life tricky for the photographer. It’s not a major problem if the subject is completely and uniformly shaded. A straightforward exposure adjustment should cure the problem. What is not so easy however is if the foliage creates dappled light. This can be partially offset by the use of a dedicated flash, especially if you have one with a "fill flash" setting. It may seem strange to be using a flash in the middle of a hot and sunny African day. The fill-flash setting, however, will just lift the darker parts a little and often provide you with a highlight in the eyes. This can make all the difference to the finished effect.  (Bear in mind, though, that animals don't appreciate flashlight, so, be sensitive and try to avoid using it when you are in a close-encounter situation).

Tripod - or not?
Unlike most game parks, in Mana Pools, there are a number of places and circumstances in which it is possible to operate on foot. Whilst a tripod is a positive hindrance in a vehicle it can be a great boon when out of it. This is especially so when using a fully extended long zoom. If you take a tripod make sure that, collapsed, it will fit into your suitcase. These days you can’t take one on board as cabin luggage - it seems it looks too much like a weapon of mass destruction!

Patience pays
Mana Pools also has a number of pans and pools of sizes varying according to the season. During, and just after the rains (Dec - March), these pools are usually full. There’s also a lot of water lying around  in the bush In these conditions it can be difficult to move around (even in a vehicle) to maximise your photographic opportunities. My personal preference, at this time of year, is to choose a pool and sit by it. Much wildlife will take cover at the sound of an approaching vehicle. Sitting there quietly, for a prolonged period, gives them a chance to adjust to, or ignore, your presence. My chosen Utopia is Chine Pool where a number of these images were taken.

This is the view across Chine Pool from my vantage point in the roots of a fallen tree. 

If you’re travelling as part of a group it may not be possible to opt to sit in one spot. However, you can arrange a Private Game Drive. You may find one or two like-minded souls in the group who’d like to go along with you. This will, of course, keep the cost down. At Chine Pool there is a camouflaging fallen tree stump, halfway along the bank. I have spent many a happy hour within its branches, dressed in sympathetically coloured clothing (avoid white in all circumstances), resulting in the images here.

This Blog was written for Zambezi Cruise & Safaris who operate cruises on Lake Kariba and tours to other parts of Zimbabwe, including Mana Pools, where they base out of Mana Pools Safari Lodge.


Related articles:-

A guide to ethical wildlife photography (Blog May 2016)

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