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Avid Photographer? Put Your Camera Down (Sometimes)!

By Natural Habitat Adventures Editorial Director Wendy Worrall Redal

Most serious adventure travelers take pleasure and pride in documenting their exploits through photography. I’m certainly among those ranks, and my photos from my many trips to the far-flung corners of the world are among my most treasured possessions.

I have found, however, that especially with the advent of digital photography, there is a strong temptation to experience an entire trip through a lens. Even though I am physically present, my gaze is funneled through a small screen or window, greatly reducing the sense of scope and intimacy I find in relation to my surroundings.

Nowhere is this truer than in a destination rich with wildlife, which was the case last month when I was on safari in Africa. Our animal encounters in Botswana were second to none. We were 7 feet away from a leopard lounging in the sand alongside a track in Moremi Game Reserve. Two male lions sauntered past, so close we could see the scars on their noses. We watched in awe as a herd of elephants came thundering through a waterhole, practically splashing our Land Rover.

Bull elephant in Moremi
Elephants in Botswana’s Moremi Game Reserve. © Kjell Redal

No question, I got some of the best travel photos of my life on that trip. But I also missed a few. And that, I’m convinced, was a good thing.

With my camera to my face and my eye trained on the animals we were observing, I was concerned with focus and framing. I wanted to be sure the light was just right, and if not, how I might adjust my settings to enhance the image. While I was intent on my subject, I was also distracted from experiencing it fully.

After our second or third game drive, I realized how much I was missing when I was watching wildlife primarily through a lens. I forced myself to put my camera away after I got five or six good shots of a huge bull elephant dining on a mopane tree: trunk up, trunk curled, trunk stuffing a leafy branch into its mouth.

I set my camera down and just watched. And listened. And smelled.

Without having to compose the perfect picture, I could just “be” with this amazing creature. I looked closely at his leathery, creased skin wrinkle as he moved and admired how vigorously he tore a limb from the tree to munch on. I saw him strip leaves with gusto, as his jaws moved around and up and down, chomping and chewing. I pondered how large his eye was and was impressed with the way he gently flapped his enormous ears to keep himself cool. Once in awhile I’d grab my travel journal and scrawl a few notes to expand on later, back at camp, as I sought to capture the day’s highlights in words as well as images.

Bull elephant in Moremi Game Reserve.
African bull elephant in Botswana’s Moremi Game Reserve. © Wendy Worrall Redal

While I may have missed a remarkable shot or two by deliberately putting my camera down, I believe I came away with more vivid memories. Some of them will remain only in my mind’s eye, while others exist in words, rather than images. All together, they create a composite that captures my experience in richer detail and in greater complexity than if I had spent the entire time peering through a camera lens.

I challenge you to try this on your next adventure. Let me know how it goes. Do you agree that you miss more, and miss out, when you worry too much about missing the perfect photo?
Photograph Southern Africa's Wildlife on These Safaris
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