In May 2017, a professional nature photographer called me and asked if I wanted to join his expedition to Africa. Marsel van Oosten – published various times in National Geographic – was on assignment for Nikon, and needed a filmmaker for this project. I packed my backpack with camera gear and spent two months travelling through South-Africa, Botswana and Namibia.
During this trip, I learnt a lot about astro time-lapse photography, animal behaviour, natural navigation and African botany; essentials skills for filming in the bush. On film sets, it’s easy to adjust and move lights and create the visual you have in mind. Filming wildlife is a totally different ball game; you can’t change the position of the sun or direct animal behaviour. It’s all about becoming one with nature.
If you are filming in the outdoors, there is always one questions that you ask yourself every day: where does the sun rise and where does it set? It’s important to have this situational awareness because ideally, you want to aim your camera perpendicular or in an angle from the direction of the sun. Shooting with the sun in your back will create flat visuals.
Before my departure, I wrote down all the bearings (degrees) on a piece of paper so I could use my compass to see where the sun would set and where it would rise. A compass points to magnetic north instead of true north (there are three types of North). There is a trick to adjust your compass and calculate the magnetic declination: the angle between magnetic north and true north.
The soil in Africa, especially in Namibia, contains a lot of iron. This affected the accuracy of my compass as well. In many cases, I couldn’t rely on the $#@! thing and just put it in my backpack. Sometimes you can get so focused on your smartphone or whatever device, that you forget to look around you. I spent quite some time with African nature guides and they taught me to read signs from nature.
How to locate north without a compass?
Did you know that trees have a growth hormone called ‘auxin’ and that this hormone travels away from sunlight? A higher concentration of auxin can be found on a tree’s shaded side, causing the tree to bend towards the sun because the shaded side grows quicker. The shaded leaves are also bigger and darker than the leaves on the sunny side. In the Southern Hemisphere, the sun rises in the east, travels over the north and sets in the west. So, the leaves and the shape of the trees can help you determine the north-south line.
Marsel also taught me to locate true south. The constellation Crux, also known as the Southern Cross, is located in the southern sky. The bright stars within Crux are part of the Milky Way and are easy to identify. Crux is the anchor point of the Milky Way, so if you want to shoot star trails in the southern hemisphere, it will play a major role in your artwork.
Once I understood Mother Nature’s program, I started to make plans and visualise my intended shots. During the day, I had plenty of time to make plans and scout because most of the animals sleep. Most of the activity is around dusk or dawn.
I’m grateful that I was part of this project. I learnt a lot of new skills and I fell in love with Africa. Namibia, Botswana and South Africa are such beautiful places. I always felt safe and I can’t wait to go back!