The curse of a wildlife photographer is that one always wants to do better. It’s important to have the urge to improve and develop in photography, as with any art-form, the moment you settle is the moment you get stale and uninspired – you’ll lose passion and your images will reflect nothing but. However, it also means that we’re infinitely harder to please as a photograph of a lion just simply isn’t good enough for the most part. We’re all after those defining images that we’ve been inspired to seek. Social media throws out a very glamorised portrait of wildlife with nothing but the best being posted – but who’s to blame them? I, for one, am not going to post a mediocre or subpar image when I can impress with my best.
What this leads to is what I call the ‘cursed chase’; when you have a particular image or goal in your mind that only luck and circumstance will give you…. And consequently, the chances of capturing these images are nigh on impossible. Still, at the core root of this chase is a challenge, and photographers love a challenge.
My own personal chase comes in the form of the malachite kingfisher; a small and beautiful blue and orange bird that is often found on the water’s edge. It’s my favourite bird but clearly that affection is very one sided, as it took me years to even see one from afar. Now, the age old question “if you didn’t get a photo, does it count?” – well, of course it counts, it’s just a painful feeling to walk away from a sighting having not gotten a single photograph of your subject matter. This bird became my unicorn; as I often joked for a long time that they don’t exist whilst others often paraded their countless sightings as if they had a tracking device.
Finally, another sighting proved slightly more beneficial, albeit far away. The problem with them living near water is that they’re often found on stumps and reeds in the water or on opposite banks, so I knew this would be an agonising process of baby steps; getting closer and closer over time until I got something meaningful. The picture was enough to say I had officially photographed one, but the embarrassing “it’s the blue and orange smudge” was a conversation I wanted to avoid. It wasn’t good enough, and to be honest I didn’t know what would be good enough unless it flew up next to me lens (and even then, it would be too close!).
The third sighting, quite some time later, got me closer. The kingfisher was finally on our side of the water, but still frustratingly far away. You can clearly see what it is now but that meant some hefty cropping and an overall bland and boring image. I couldn’t help but laugh about what an ungrateful person I was being, that most people would count themselves blessed with such sightings and yet here I was always wanting more. Typical photographer, I have to say!
The fourth sighting was in a different location and we initially stopped to observe an African jacana until I noticed the flash of blue and orange out the corner of my eye. And it was so much closer! It was facing away from us but that’s fine as it periodically looked to the side for a nice side portrait. Could this be it? Well, no. Again, we were ever closer, and these increased sightings were fantastic from a personal point of view, but in terms of what I’d been chasing for years; we weren’t quite there.
Now, there was one place I knew my hopes could be attained. In Kruger National Park there’s a hide at Lake Panic where they’re frequently sighted, but it’s a mission to get to and often out of reach. That was until I took some leave with a friend and we stayed for a few nights in Kruger, allowing us ample time to visit the hide and get a sighting of that blue and orange. Upon first arrival there was a plethora of activity with hippos, herons and jacanas plodding about the lake; it’s an extremely beautiful and serene place that if you’re able to spend any time at, I would highly recommend. However, no blue and oranges to be seen…
We went back the next morning and at first there seemed to be noting, until I was called to the opposite end to see not one, but two. They danced about a few metres away, fluttering gracefully from one reed and branch to the next. My finger never left the shutter and after a few minutes knew I already had shots to be proud of.
Then, I literally gasped as one flew right next to the hide. Dangling on a delicate branch of reed just a metre and a half away, it sat perfectly in the open and for just long enough to fire off a quick succession of shots… and as quickly as it had arrived, it went. There’s little I can compare that satisfaction to, that upon quickly checking the photos taken I knew that this two-and-a-half-year quest had come to an end. I have the close up and vibrant pictures I had imagined for so long, of a bird that I very much had a love / hate relationship with.
It would sound very clinical of me to say that it’s another box ticked as far as wildlife photography goes, but in truth every photographer has goals and aspirations; especially in terms of subject matter. It was a test of patience, perseverance and unrelenting luck… a real testament to being in the right place at the right time, which is the corner stone to wildlife photography. Whilst I hope my journey with these beautiful birds isn’t over, I can at least sit back without that pressure hanging over me, that it’s no longer my unicorn. It’s a feeling I believe only those who work with nature can feel, to finally obtain something that gets dealt by nature; and that’s what makes it all the more special.