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Mana Pools is paradise for Wildlife photographers

~ Zambezi Cruise and Safaris

As a Unesco World Heritage Site, Mana Pools is rightly famed for its wildlife populations. The photographability of that 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.

Whilst at Mana we will be staying at the uniquely designed Mana Pools Safari Lodge.

This is a view of the River and Flood Plain taken from one of the rooms.
A lone Elephant bull feeding just in front of the rooms.

Location.

The first factor to consider is the one that gave rise to Mana’s fame and that is its location. It is situated in the Zambezi Valley, on the Zimbabwe side of the River. It is a significant distance by boat or by road from what would be called “civilisation”. Both these journeys are experiences in their own rights. As a result there are no Supermarkets or Chemist Shops “just up the road”. You therefore need to take in to Mana with you all those little things without which you feel you would go into withdrawal!

This is the leader of the local troop of Vervet Monkeys. Remember to keep doors and windows shut when leaving the room. They are past masters at rooting out anything even remotely edible.
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.

Gadget Power.

Nowadays we have a plethora of gadgets(including our photographic equipment), without which we seem unable to survive the day. Battery power for them is all important. For those using rechargeables, which I would recommend, 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 is, therefore, essential. Those using replaceables will need to hazard a guess at how many they may need and add a safety margin. A small pocket torch is also a good idea. There are torches at the lodge at Mana but they are not pocket sized.

Having a spare set of batteries also means that your equipment can still be “ready to go” at all times. This is particularly important at Mana. Apart from the stunning scenery and sunsets, there is a constant trickle of Wildlife through the grounds in front of the rooms. This provides photographic opportunities which it would be a pity to miss.

There are a number of species of Finches and Waxbills around the Lodge and a stealthy approach, or a wait and see, can pay dividends.

Familiarize yourself with new Equipment.

Do take the trouble to become reasonably proficient with your equipment before coming on your trip. Remember to bring the camera instruction booklet with you. Many tours include a Professional Photographer and/or Guide. You cannot, however, expect him to be fully cognizant of all makes and breeds of equipment in this day and age. You will  probably be pushing your equipment to its limits and so hiccoughs are always likely to occur.

These Birds are hard to miss as you drive around. They occur singly, in pairs, or in small groups. One such Group favours the Woodland between the main drive and the Lodge and, again, a stealthy approach should prove successful.
These Red Billed Hornbills can be found throughout the Park. They tend to stand out when up in a tree. Most of their time, however, is spent rummaging around the undergrowth looking for insects. Their colouring is such that they are easily overlooked.

Image Memory and Storage.

Memory cards and storage are equally important. Many modern cameras come with so many frames a second shooting capability, and video modes as well. These can fill up what you may formerly have thought was adequate memory, in seemingly no time at all. I know you can delete unwanted images as you go – in theory. In practise – you probably won’t have time. Additionally, in Mana, the sun is likely to be strong. This means that, in the field, you may not be able to see your image display clearly. Certainly not clearly enough to base a “discard” decision on.

Downloading.

Personally I never delete anything in the field. I prefer to wait till I have downloaded onto my laptop in the evening. IF there is time I then thin out the download. I retain all those images that, at a quick first glance, I feel may warrant a second look, and delete the rest. I then backup this thinned out download onto a travel hard drive as well, to give me a second copy. The memory card can then be formatted ready for the morning. There may be no time for thinning out. Make sure, therefore, that you have sufficient laptop and travel drive space to backup the entire memory card.

Bear in mind that in Mana you are supposed 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. Additionally a certain amount of dust will have built up in the upper parts of your digestive system. This will need washing away with something cool and long. (Or even more than one “something cool and long”). There will then be dinner and maybe the option of an illustrated Talk on offer. You will also 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.

Medication.

If you are on medication of any kind do take more than sufficient for the length of your trip. Delays for unforeseen circumstance can occur anywhere in the world including Mana. New, or replacement drugs, may not be available within a practically accessible distance.

What Equipment to take.

The actual equipment you will need for optimal photographic results will depend on a number of factors. Prime amongst them are your personal Photographic aspirations. Are you a happy snapper after memory-jog shots?  Or are you a serious photographer after images that you can do something with? Things such as publication, slideshows, greetings cards or the like? If you are the former, then whatever equipment you have will be fine. There will be lots of opportunities to record your Mana trip. You will have to accept, however, that there will be limitations on what you can expect to accomplish. Some things, such as small birds in flight or in bushes, will be out of the question. At the same time there will be other opportunities such as Elephants, Buffalo, Kudu, and maybe even Big Cats. Some of these will probably be close enough to photograph with just a mobile phone!

This female Leopard strolled across the grassland one evening just in front of us less than 1 mile from the Lodge.
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.

If you are a serious photographer, with access to professional or upper end equipment, then the requirements will be different. They will be dictated, to a certain extent, by the season and the terrain. Mana can be very dry when it’s dry and very wet when it is wet. In the dry season much of the bush will be bereft of leaves. You will be able to see, and therefore, on occasion, want to photograph at considerable distance. For this you are likely to need as long a lens as you can practically manage. Everyone will have their own ideas on this subject. 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

Any turn in the track could reveal a flock of these lovely little parrakeets feeding on seeds on the ground.
The same turn in the track could have confronted you with these two young elephants testing each others strength.

Hazards of long prime lenses.

The sheer logistics of getting yourself, and that kind of equipment, by air from your country of departure to Zimbabwe, will probably prove prohibitive. Working from a vehicle, using long prime lenses, is not straightforward. You will probably not be able to easily adjust your  distance from the subject to control the size of image required. 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 actual subject size can be so variable, apart from distance. 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 waiting round the next bush. My suggestion, therefore, is 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 wide range of subjects both large and small.

At the other end of the scale a straightforward 18/70mm, or 28/105mm zoom, depending on whether you are using an FX or DX body should suffice. This should be adequate for your Landscapes and some Closeups. If your short zoom does not 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 closeups of some of the phenomenal range of 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.

African Light – Help or hindrance?

African light can be both a boon and a problem at the same time. Whilst its quality is excellent its strength creates a shadow problem. This is especially so in the early morning and late evenings when most of your Game Drives in Mana are likely to 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 sidelit 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 the use of bracketing. This simply involves, when time allows, taking the same shots at various camera settings. This greatly increases your chances of scoring a bullseye. 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 of your arrival, you will be proficient in it and able to operate automatically.

Staying on the subject of light(can we ever get away from it?). Most Wildlife species tend to spend the hotter parts of the day in whatever shade there is available. This can obviously make life tricky for the Photographer. It is 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 to counteract, 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  at Mana. 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.

There are quite a few groups of warthogs at Mana. Many of them, especially around the main waterholes, are reasonably used to people. It is such a pleasure to be able to photograph an animal from the front instead of from the back, as it runs away from you.
I almost felt like a cheat photographing this male Warthog as he lives under part of the Lodge buildings. He is completely unfazed by human presence. Furthermore he seems tractable enough that you don’t need to worry about your shins while photographing him. At the same time remember that, as with any Wild Animal, whether supposedly “Tame” or not, a sensible non-intrusive distance is the order of the day.

Tripod – or not?

Unlike many Game Parks, there are a number of places and circumstances in Mana 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. At one time you could take one on board as cabin luggage, but those days are gone. I think that the powers that be decided that a tripod, in the wrong hands, could become a weapon of mass destruction!

Many of the Pools at Mana fill up in the rainy season and then gradually dry up to some extent thereafter. Some will dry out completely. As the water levels fall they become a magnet for a wealth of “fisheaters” as the fast growing fish species they contain are concentrated into a smaller area. This site was near the Park Offices and had attracted a wide variety of Fish eating Birds and some reptiles.
This is the view across Chine Pool from my vantage point in the roots of a fallen tree. I was lucky enough to be able to spend some days there recently and was amazed at the wealth of Wildlife species that presented themselves for my lens.

If possible patience pays.

Mana, apart from areas of open bush, contains a number of Pools of sizes that vary according to the season. During, and just after the Rains (Oct/March), these Pools will be full and some will be joined up. Additionally there will be pockets of water in the bush, so the Wildlife will have plenty of water sources to choose from. In these conditions it is probably better to move about in a vehicle to maximise your photographic opportunities. However, once the odd water sources have dried up, then the main pools become a magnet for wildlife. 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. On a quick stop-off visit, therefore, you may be surrounded by Wildlife and see little of it. Sitting there quietly, for a prolonged period, gives them a chance to adjust to, or ignore, your presence. My chosen Utopia is Chine Pool. I have attached a number of images, all of which were obtained there on my visits.

This old Dagga Boy used to visit the Pool every afternoon for 3 to 4 hours. His Modus operandi was wander out of the bush and wade well out into the Pool. There he would feed on aquatic vegetation and hold meaningful conversations with the troop of Cattle Egrets that invariably came with him. This would then be followed by about an hour of luxurious mud bathing(see separate blog post)
Here he came almost up to the tree where I was hiding in my hooded jacket. Too close for me to move and risk a head to head confrontation. He could see, sense or hear me but didn’t seem able to work out what I was. For this I was thankful and did the only other thing possible. Grinned, bore it and kept pressing the shutter release!
These White Fronted Bee Eaters were using the branches of the tree I was hiding in as their regular perch. Over the days I was there I was able to take a number of images of them feeding on a variety of insects. This is the subject of a separate blog post that will appear shortly.
This Nile Monitor Lizard ambled across the foreshore just in front of my tree root. I was able to keep the lens on him without moving significantly so he was relaxed enough for me to be able to catch him with his tongue out.
This was the largest of 3 Hippos that, like the Buffalo, used to appear from out of the bush on odd occasions. There must have been another, bigger and clearer pool nearby. They just seemed to use Chine Pool, which was almost choked with growth, to feed on the pond weeds for a bit and then wander off again.

During my time spent at Chine Pool I was able to obtain a number of images of a wide variety of water based Birds feeding on Frogs and Fish. These are the subject of a separate Blog Post and can be found under the Blog heading “Mana Pools – and Where do Babies come from?”

If travelling as part of a group it may not be possible to opt to just sit in one spot. There is, however, often the chance to arrange a Private Game Drive. If this is the case then you may find one or two like minded souls in the group prepared to go along with you. This will, of course, alleviate the cost. At Chine Pool there is a camouflaging fallen tree stump, halfway along the bank. I have spent many a happy hour ensconced within its branches, wrapped in sympathetically coloured clothing, resulting in the attached images.

Should you have any questions which I have failed to cover in the above article please feel free to let me know and I’ll do my best to help.

Brian Pettit.

wildlifepics@ntlworld.com

www.naturepicturesworldwide.com

Zambezi Cruise and Safaris.

www.zambezicruisesafaris.com

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