Throwing shade
African Birdlife|January/February 2022
The challenges of photographing in a forest
By Sean Thackwray, Photography by Sean Thackwray

Standing at the entrance of the forest, about to merge with the shadows, I feel the breath of an ancient whispered warning, ‘Don’t go in there...’ At least not before changing camera settings. As I step in, the sound of the forest welcomes me back: a muted backdrop of insects, the creak of aged branches, and the occasional punctuation of a bird vocalizing. ‘Willie!’ I smile, thinking of how one of our guides would pronounce the bird’s name. ‘Samba Greenbul’, I say out loud, just to let them know I’m back.

I have been coming to this forest for many years. My family too have steadily crunched their way through its detritus, crawled under fallen branches, and slid down the muddy banks. We were patiently guided by David Letsoalo and Paul Nkhumane, who showed us what it took to find and enjoy these elusive birds. Initially, we came in the hope of seeing a White-starred Robin. When I phoned to book our first visit, Lisa, the manager, told me they were as plentiful as impala in the Kruger National Park. It took another three trips before I finally found one.

My camera came along from the beginning, even though at that stage it may just as well have been a brick. As anyone who has ever tried will tell you, bird photography in a forest is a very challenging thing. It is also a very addictive thing. And as is the nature of addictions, rather expensive. Slowly but surely the camera equipment improved, my techniques too, and then the experimentation began. I tried flash, flash extenders, monopods, tripods and heaven alone knows how many recommended camera settings. Eventually, it dawned on me that in order to get to the birds what I really needed was the ability to move unencumbered through the forest. That meant I’d have to make use of whatever natural light was available, and a handheld camera. All that was needed now was for the birds to cooperate.

A White-starred Robin in full song - an unusually lucky moment to capture.

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