Tell us a little about yourself and how you became a professional wildlife photographer and safari guide.
I was born and grew up in one of the wildest and most remote areas of Zambia and have lived here all my life. Throughout my childhood, the natural world was always where I felt most comfortable – usually barefoot and always exploring!
I could never imagine living in a city and my first job was as a safari guide at Chibembe Lodge in the Luangwa Valley in 1994. I was in my late teens and armed with a very old and battered Kodak film camera. Encountering magnificent animals such as elephants and lions on a daily basis was addictive for me and my love for photography grew swiftly.
When did you decide to turn wildlife photography into a career?
As a safari guide at Chibembe I met many photographers of different skill levels. Some of them were professionals and big names in the industry at that time. Their enthusiasm and passion for photography rubbed off on me and I began to think that maybe I too could make a living as a wildlife photographer. It was a natural progression for me to become a professional photographer as it provided a way to continue living in the bush and to make a living doing what I love.
During your career you have won numerous awards for your work in many of the most prestigious photography competitions worldwide. Is there any advice that you can offer wildlife photographers entering these competitions?
Of course it is always nice to receive awards but they are certainly not the most important thing. This is because the results from a competition are very subjective and really depend of the judging panel and what their tastes are at the time. In fact I once entered the same image every year in the same competition over a period of three years and on the third year it won an award! This is probably because either the judges or their idea of what made a good photograph had changed over that time.
If you want to win an award in a competition though, then you need to take a look at previous winners. Some competitions will award ‘classic’ wildlife photographs and others look for the more artistic or creative images. It is important to enter the right images in the right competition and to only enter your very best work.
Tell us a bit more about the photographic safaris that you provide.
My safaris are very small and intimate with a maximum of 3 guests per safari. This is so that each photographer has his or her own seat on my vehicle. The safaris are fairly intense in that we spend every possible moment taking photographs but I also try to make them as enjoyable as possible. I find that people are most creative when they are having fun and enjoying themselves. 70% of my customers are repeat guests, which is hopefully an indication that I am doing something right.
Are there any specific photography techniques that you teach on your safaris?
There are some great techniques that will turn an average scene or animal into something special and interesting. For example, panning, which is used to blur the background and add motion to a running animal, creative use of different shutter speeds and making use of different light angles. I often find that backlighting, where the light is behind the subject is far more effective for producing an emotive photograph than front lighting.
One of the most important techniques for me though, if you can call it that, is ensuring that my guests remember to take images of animals with a sense of place. This means including some of the environment around the subject whatever it might be. There is a tendency for photographers to use the largest lens at their disposal and to zoom into the subject as close as possible. It is more difficult to tell a story with a photograph if the animal’s environment is excluded. Obviously composition is very important here also.
What would you say is the most important skill to have as a photographic safari guide?
Well, of course having the technical know-how with cameras is a must but I think it is also very important to be a people person and to be able to communicate effectively with all sorts of different personalities.
Apart from this, I have always been fascinated by animal behaviour and trying to figure out and predict what a particular animal’s next move will be. This is a very important skill in wildlife photography as it allows you to anticipate what will happen next and to be prepared for it by being in the right position and having the right camera settings.
What is your favourite location for wildlife photography in Zambia?
Without a doubt the Luangwa Valley is my favourite location and most of my photographic safaris are held here. The density of wildlife at the height of the dry season as well as the quality of light are a wildlife photographer’s dream come true. I also know the Valley intimately and this makes a difference as well.
That said though, there are many other National parks in Zambia which are fantastic for photography, including the Lower Zambezi and the Kafue. I have led a number of safaris in these parks as well and an added bonus that they offer is the opportunity to take photographs from boats on the Zambezi and Kafue Rivers throughout the year. Being on the water provides some unique elements, for example shooting from a very low angle. Photography from the Luangwa River is only really possible at the height of the rainy season when the river is in flood.
Do you think that photography and the increasing interest in photographic safaris is helping to conserve Zambia’s National Parks?
Absolutely. I believe that compelling wildlife photography is a powerful tool in preserving the environment, especially when used in collaboration with conservation organisations. Also, with the growth in photographic travel in recent years, we have seen a lot more specialised photo safari companies operating in Zambia, providing much needed employment and generating income for local communities. This is obviously a good thing as in order for conservation to work the National Parks have to involve and benefit the communities that live in and around them.
Patrick Bentley is a professional Zambian wildlife photographer. He is also a certified safari guide and uses his 20+ years of knowledge and experience in photographing African wildlife to guide specialist photographic safaris throughout Zambia.