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Photography

Spilling the beans – top tips from wildlife photographer, James Suter

 

Written by  Julie Graham

“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs.”

                – Ansel Adams | Photographer & Environmentalist


A safari in Africa is filled with moments that leave you speechless, unexpected encounters that take your breath away, and something to surprise you around every corner. Coupled with its pristine diverse landscapes, vibrant local cultures, and extraordinary wildlife, it serves as the perfect backdrop for both professional and aspiring photographers alike. 

James Suter, co-founder and director of Black Bean Productions, is one of Africa’s premier wildlife photographers and filmmakers, whose work is at the forefront of conservation. His films on African conservation stories have been featured on National Geographic and won numerous international awards. He shares some wildlife photography tips.

James Suter, co-founder and director of Black Bean Productions, is one of Africa’s premier wildlife photographers and filmmakers, whose work is at the forefront of conservation.

James Suter in action

With his extensive background in professional guiding and travels throughout Africa, James is able to capture his subject in an intimate and honest way. Using his profound knowledge of the African bush, coupled with photographic expertise he produces content that allows his audience to connect to the places, people and wildlife featured in his photographs and films.

We caught up with James recently to chat more about his passion for photography and conservation, and get some wildlife photography tips first-hand on how to capture and create unforgettable stories through the lens…

When did you realize your passion for the outdoors, and what inspired you to become a guide and, subsequently, a wildlife photographer?

My passion for the outdoors started at a young age and was passed down from my father, whose love of wildlife, particularly birds, left me inspired. I realized from a very young age that I had a deep connection with the wilderness and with wildlife. I started studying for a degree in commerce but soon realized that I wanted to focus my energy on something that I really enjoyed. This led to my decision to pursue Environmental Studies and Game Ranch Management, which allowed me the flexibility to explore other areas of interest and ultimately led to me becoming a Guide.

A young male lion
I found myself wanting to document the incredible scenes that were unfolding in front of me.

After a few years, I was working in the beautiful concession on the Eastern boundary of Kruger National Park for Singita. I found myself wanting to document the incredible scenes that were unfolding in front of me. I started photographing wildlife while I was out guiding and this developed into a love for the craft and capturing wildlife in their natural habitat.

Your photographic and film work coincides with your involvement in conservation in Africa. Can you tell us a bit about this, and why it is of increasing importance to support these bold initiatives to protect our wildlife?

Leopard cubs in the Okavango Delta, Botswana

My wife, Sam and I, were based in Kruger during the height of the rhino poaching crisis and saw first-hand the impact it was having, not only on the dwindling rhino populations but also on the ecosystem as a whole and the local communities. One morning we encountered a dying rhino who had fallen victim to poachers. This chance encounter really invoked our passion for using film to create change. The first film we produced as Black Bean was focused on raising critical awareness around an issue that was driving critically endangered rhino populations to the brink of extinction. Over the last 10 years, this passion has only developed further and so much of the content we create is focused on addressing humanitarian and environmental issues.

What helped us in Black Bean’s formative years were the contacts that I had built up in the conservation field, as well as the fact that I was knowledgeable on these conservation and wildlife topics. I was trusted to be out there in the field, knew how to be sensitive, and my way around a wilderness ecosystem. This was hugely beneficial in those early days.

The first film we produced as Black Bean was focused on raising critical awareness around an issue that was driving critically endangered rhino populations to the brink of extinction.

A rhino captured by James on assignment for Black Bean

In terms of my photographic work and my photographic safaris, I’ve found that having this background in conservation has really empowered me to be able to educate my guests and help others understand the importance and value of supporting the organisations on the ground that are working tirelessly to protect our wildlife and wild spaces. It’s so important to be able to connect individuals who have the means and resources to help with conservation organisations, to give them a tangible way to make an impact and support the work being done on the ground.

What are your TOP FIVE wildlife photography tips for capturing the perfect shot?

A mountain gorilla in the leaves in Rwanda
  • Always try to get out of your comfort zone. Never sit still and wait for the perfect shot to find you.
  • As a wildlife photographer it’s critical that your actions don’t in any way impact the wildlife or landscape you are photographing.
  • I would always recommend going for a low-angle shot and getting on the same level as your subject, while remaining undetected.

The rare and elusive Shoebill stork in Uganda
As a wildlife photographer it’s critical that your actions don’t in any way impact the wildlife or landscape you are photographing.
  • Having access to the right gear, for example, a telephoto lens, specifically to ensure that you can capture your shots without invading an animal’s space or impacting the ecosystem.
  • It’s vital for wildlife photographers to understand animal behaviour. Even if you don’t have a background in conservation, doing research and learning more about the species you’re documenting and their habitat really makes all the difference in achieving desired images.

What are some of your favourite destinations in Africa to shoot and why?

Animals drinking at a waterhole in Etosha National Park, Namibia

Visiting new and remote places throughout Africa gets me most excited. I’m very fortunate to be able to visit such incredible places and learn more about their culture, wildlife and wilderness areas. There is something incredibly special about Africa’s most remote areas and these are always my favourite to visit places like the DRC and remote parts of Zambia and Zimbabwe. Namibia is also one of my favourite destinations due to its unique and unspoilt locations and beautiful light.

Whether you’re interested in learning more about wildlife photography tips, perfecting your art or learning a new skill, the LuxVenture® Designers at Ker & Downey® Africa can help design the perfect photographic safari that fits your skill set and interests.

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