Great nature photography is something of a chicken and egg question: which came first, a love of nature or a love of photography? The certainty is that one perpetuates the other, but after talking to Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Greg Du Toit, we may be able to add weight to one end of the scale.
With the advent of digital photography and the web, more and more people are exposed to imagery of the African wild and thereby inspired to splash out on expensive equipment and photo safaris. Whether they are good photographers or nature fundis is debatable, but it doesn’t take them long to realise that a truly successful image needs an incredible amount of luck, patience and a deep understanding of the wild.
It took Du Toit six years to take what he believes was his first decent shot. “For me, wildlife came before photography,” says Du Toit on a telephone interview with Africa Geographic while travelling to his book launch in Durban. “I was a ranger first. My apprenticeship started at Timbavati and what followed was six years in the bush. For a long while I just took photos to share with family and friends.”
His new book, AWE (African Wildlife Exposed) is the culmination of this – Du Toit’s way of sharing his wild experience with the world. From Timbavati and the Tuli Block to Maasailand and the wild expanse of Tanzania’s Ruaha, Du Toit gives a candid introduction to his formative years as a ranger and how his photography developed along the way. The realisation is that his knowledge of nature is what defines his photography. “My approach is different because I have a good understanding of the wild,” he explains. “Submerging myself in a waterhole to get a shot of lions is not something I would have done without a thorough understanding of their behavior.” Other motivations for doing something so risky were his obsession with the cats and the exorbitant price of long lenses: he simply had to get closer to get the shot he wanted. 270 hours of waiting in that water attracting every waterborne parasite imaginable, Du Toit finally clicked the shutter on the image that convinced him he was ready to take the leap into full time photography.
His desire to get closer is one of the most remarkable things about the collection of images in his book. You are not viewing nature through 400mm of expensive glass; Du Toit invites you right in, his lions at the waterhole being a case in point. Another is an image of a buff-streaked chat which is at once a study in ornithology as well as a classic landscape photograph. “I set my camera with a wide angle lens in front of the rock and sat in a hide about ten meters away waiting for a bird to land. It only took three days and I was hoping for the male but this female landed for just a couple seconds. I had set my camera up to show the expanse of the berg. It was at Giant’s Castle and all photographers go there to shoot vultures, but this is my take on the ‘Giant of the Castle’.”
His award winning image of elephants is the epitome of his principle of proximity and patience. Capturing the scene meant Du Toit had to shoot from a hide that provided a ground level view, in this case a sunken freight container. He had been experimenting for years to capture the special energy he picked up from elephants in the wild. He had been visiting the area in Botswana’s Tuli Block five or six times a year for ten years before he finally got the shot. “There was one particular day when a baby elephant raced past right in front of my camera and I was ready. I had to be prepared for that moment.”
Du Toit is aiming to write a book about his experiences next and there is no doubt he has incredible material if his photographs are anything to go by. For now, those of us who hardly get out of the office have a portal to the wild in AWE.
Copies can be ordered via Du Toit’s website.