Category Archives: Photography

Laos – the new Thailand. PORTRAIT & CULTURE PHOTOGRAPHY

Portrait/culture photography with the G9 and GH5

I recently went out to Laos on my first assignment as an ambassador for Panasonic to solo shoot a short film about the unbreakable bond between an 80-year-old mahout and matriarch elephant. Alongside the videography I took stills of the people, places and culture around this most beautiful and mysterious of countries – one that is so often overlooked in between it’s more popular cousins; Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. I can’t recommend visiting this ethereal and magical slice of Indo-Asia; it’s one of the few remaining Asian countries that can offer you a genuine experience of the culture without hoards of tourists. You can have precious moments to reflect without running into paparazzi or drunken party goers (yes, even in Vang Vieng!) So if you’re keen to learn about Laos and what you can photograph/do in the city and villages – look no further!

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Humans – such a complex and fascinating species, and perhaps of all the animals that roam our vast planet. Over 7000 different languages spread over 7 vast continents, all 7.4 billion of us are as unique and beautiful as the atoms that make up our universe.

Without getting too deep and sounding rather philosophical, I am of course referring to the very nature that defines us as human – our intelligence, our curiosity, and our emotional capacity. These qualities are the very essence of humanity and is something we can all relate to – across all boundaries regardless of cultural, language and political differences.

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Faces are incredibly expressive for a reason. There are 43 muscles in the face, most of which are controlled by the seventh cranial nerve (also known as the facial nerve). This nerve exits the cerebral cortex and emerges from your skull just in front of your ears. It then splits into five primary branches: temporal, zygomatic, buccal, mandibular and cervical. These branches reach different areas of the face and enervate muscles that allow the face to twist and contort into a variety of expressions. This is something I really love to capture when photographing people, I am inherently wildlife photographer but have been keen to explore what makes us as supremely evolved animals tick.

It can be trickier to photograph that moment in time where your person makes the smallest of expressions – which makes the challenge all the more enjoyable. In film you can shoot off speed and capture this more easily, I always shoot 50/60fps for people to highlight their subtle emotions rather than 75/120, the latter would only be in situations where my character is moving incredibly fast or for a special effect (usually in sports where you can go up to 2000fps). Again the eyes always draw me in because they are among the very first features we notice when passing by or meeting another fellow individual – so much can be read emotionally by looking into them. I mention looking into them – never at them, because this cuts you off from the persons true essence. I believe that a lot of portrait photography is about building trust, even if for a brief moment passing by, and ALWAYS ask for their permission!

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So first a little history lesson; and yes I’ll make it a quick one I promise. It is of course the summer season! But you’ll want to know what you can do with that amazing camera that you got for your holidays, right? 😉

Despite it being one of the poorest countries in South – East Asia, one of the things you notice, is that nobody dies of hunger. This landlocked country is known as the ‘fruit/vegetable basket of Asia,’ and most families manage, not only to meet their needs, but even to put an important part of their small earnings to one side so as to participate in what small futile pleasures that make life enjoyable. Laos is a country of smiles, where composure and serenity reign and from where a sort of karma and an invigorating energy exude – from your local flower lady to the monks praying for our happiness. Laotians say that this special karma, was born with Laos, many centuries ago.

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The Lao people (Hmong, Hill tribe, monks, Buddhism). With nearly 5 million inhabitants on an area half the size of France, Laos is one of the least populated countries in S.E. Asia (17 inhabitants per km2). Laos counts about 80 ethnical groups which can be grouped into 4 families. Each group speaking its own dialect and having its own customs, traditions, religion, etc.

Laotians have an easy-going, smiley and amiable character; and quite Latin (I’m half Spanish so just saying!) in that they generally prefer to take their time, the same as in their way of life, savouring each moment not overthinking or worrying about the future, unlike the hustle and bustle of other mega Asian countries or indeed our own. This is one of the things that decidedly give this country its exceptional charm, completely the opposite to the Vietnamese or even Thai restlessness – which is partly why I wanted to visit this staggeringly beautiful country. It’s so often overlooked for it’s more famous surrounding countries.

Whilst the Laotians primarily practice Bhuddism, Hmong people are traditionally animist, worshipping the spirits of their ancestors and the surrounding environment. Shamans (Ouanung) are called upon to communicate with the spirits, seeking their advice in moments of ill health and village adversity. It tends to be that a spirit is upset and offerings such as livestock are made at the spirit’s request. Most Hmong wear amulets around the wrist or neck to ward off bad spirits – and you can buy their amazing jewellery and hand crafted artisan gifts in the night market..

Every house has an ancestor spirit altar where food and water is placed to please them. During Hmong new year white paper is put on the columns of the house and a chicken is killed in their honour; and there were certainly plenty of them going around (waking me up at 3am every morning!)

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Monks – it is estimated that about 1 in 3 male Laotians join a monastery for at least some period of their lives, ranging from a few months or years to an entire lifetime. Most novices enter monastic life at an early age, learning the ancient chants and sutras, while also attending a regular school with a curriculum similar to that followed by most young students around the world. For many children in rural areas of Laos, joining a monastery is the only available option for education. Life in the monasteries can be tough and some novices from remote communities are only able to visit their families once or twice a year. The young monks follow a strict daily routine, living communally, sharing food and daily chores.

 

Camera: G9

The low down on the G9 before we get technical; this camera packs a powerful punch in terms of features. From the 4K, 60P, 4:2:2 GH5 goodness that was released late last year (I’ve been shooting with since February 2017), came the photographic brother that boasts:

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  • No Optical low-pass (anti-aliasing) filter
  • 20MP micro four thirds sensor
  • ISO sensitivity from 200-25600.
  • 5-axis Sensor-shift Image Stabilization
  • 3″ Fully Articulated Screen
  • 3680k dot Electronic viewfinder
  • 20.0 fps continuous shooting
  • Built-in Wireless
  • 658g. 137 x 97 x 92 mm
  • Weather Sealed Body
  • 6.5-stop built-in image stabilization system
  • 4K UHD recording in 24/25/30/50/60p.
  • Full HD recording in 25/30/50/60p.
  • Long GOP compression.
  • 4K UHD 3840 x 2160 video resolution high-speed video recording up to 60fps.
  • Full HD high-speed video recording up to 180fps
  • CINELIKE D and CINELIKE V photo styles.
  • Depth from Defocus AF.
  • Mini jack input for an external microphone.

 

The Lumix G9 gets the same 20.3MP Micro Four Thirds Live MOS sensor as the Lumix GH5, which means that, as on that camera, there’s no low-pass filter. And if 20.3MP isn’t quite enough resolution for you, the G9 also features a new High Resolution mode, which outputs files at the magnificent equivalent 80MP. This works by combining eight images that have been taken in rapid succession, with small sensor shifts between each one, which means that, unlike with some rival systems, a tripod is a must when using this mode. Whilst I don’t use this mode because of storage  (the 20MP images are amazing enough as they are!) it’s a nice little feature to show off with. In timelapse mode you can go all out with this and pan/crop as far in as you want. The auto focus is ridiculously fast, even a cheetah couldn’t outrun this little baby feature and it’s one of the quickest on the market.

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The double SD card slot means you can shoot jpegs on one card and RAW on the other which is quite handy when you decide if you want to keep the JEPEGs or vice versa.

Ergonomically I love this camera – the buttons sit right where you fingers rest where with the tip your finger you can zoom in before pressing the shutter button (a specialism of this model for telephoto users – hence why this is geared towards wildlife photographers). Also I’ve put this through its paces in the humidity when hiking to caves and through the leech, tick infected jungles (!) and of course the (light) rain – and it handled this well. On a more recent trip it handled the freezing constant rain too, was really impressed by its rigidly. 

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There are of course video recording features like the GH5 but please bear in mind that this is not a video camera like its brother. So it has much less features but can still record both HD and 4K resolutions in MP4 format, 4:2:0 colour sampling and 8-bit colour depth, lacking the internal 10-bit capabilities of the GH5 so your video is noticeably more compressed. However, it is possible to record 8-bit 4:2:2 in 4K 30p via an external recording device, I’ve always got my trusty Atomos Ninja Inferno to do the job.

The responsiveness of the camera was perhaps the standout feature for my day with the G9. After over 2,000 photographs the battery was still going strong and the results were strong in almost every case when shooting a timelapse – so this certainly bodes well with wildlife photographers. All in all it’s a great stills camera more than a video one (go for the GH5 or its newer sibling the GH5s) – you should give it a go!

And now for a little more technical details with examples from my travels, each with a key theme to help you decide what and how to shoot on your next project.

 

Key factors to think about:

1. The light – I can’t begin to describe the beauty of this country in terms of light – it is ever changing and so incredibly awe inspiring words can’t do it justice. Play with it. Follow it. Bask in it.… use it as the ultimate tool to create images that capture the nature of your subject – human, animal and/or landscape. ALWAYS shoot in MANUAL for such images, as well as in RAW so you can also have as much fun in lightroom and Photoshop (just kidding it’s more fun actually being there…). Remember to adjust your variable ND if you’ve got one on.

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P10442942. Movement – we are by nature very mobile, with our physical movements to the way in which we live our lives in chaotic urban settings or indeed nomadic lifestyles in the countryside. Capturing that sense of movement is fun when you use different techniques – so here I wanted to shoot a timelapse at one of the many famous night markets in Luang Prabang to highlight this. Using the 3 axis shark slider mini you can programme the movement with the easy to use app – video of that up soon!

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Shade – this helps with your tone and mood. A lot of black and white stills photographers will focus on the varying light and shade to get their feelings and message across – fear, love, joy, happiness, sadness, admiration, hatred, hunger, elation…. removing colour makes you think of how to tell your narrative in far more sensitive ways in a way similar to producers of B&W movies back in the 60’s would have directed their shots. Patience when using natural light to frame your subject is KEY!

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Playfulness – this is one of the defining characteristics that makes us intelligent mammals. It is seen across the animal kingdom, from dogs, to horses, tiger cubs to humpback whales – and again is a universal motion that transcends boundaries (or species). I feel that as a photographer you certainly have an influence in bringing about this feature – although children are the easiest to capture with this emotion; as they are devoid of the adult tendencies to judge, criticise and generally be more grumpy!

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Textures – peoples skin, their hair, their clothes say a lot about them as individuals. I don’t mean in a vain sense but you can gather a rich array of information about them as characters or background what they get up to and how they hold themselves. The culture in Laos as mentioned above is so incredibly rich and vibrant – it hits you with it’s sharp saturated colours, like those of a bold acrylic painting. I often think England  is the complete opposite, and draped in a sweet, soft glow and the light painting it in equally soft water colours. The food, dresses, festivals streets and of course magical temple offer this in glorified abundance. When first arriving in the Capital, Vientiane, my senses were overwhelmed by such a variety of colour, shade and patterns – all of which are a joy to capture.

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The remnant French archways and colonial architecture among the hotels and homes, the soft, large shapes of the many fruits adorning the markets and of course the magnificent sharp, elaborate temples – of which the country has over 100’s. I was very excited indeed to go on my very first ‘temple run!’ Such exquisite colour – would be nice to see such comparably colour in our own churches and places of prayer. In this particular temple, one of the largest and most superlative in the city, I used the 12-60mm 4.6 lens with a 46mm Gobe variable ND filter. It was a bright, sunny day, and whilst I would have liked to capture it during the golden hours, I felt that it wouldn’t do it’s full colour spectrum justice. I also used the Panasonic 100-400mm lens for some closer details of the statues and patterns adorning the holy site.

Monks are of course a central part of the religion and culture in Laos, and something that I was especially eager to photograph. Again the bright, bold colours highlights the amiable and fun personalities of the locals, whilst the actual reason for their colour choice lies in ……. At first I’ll admit I was rather shy and reclusive at photographing them out of courtesy and etiquette – but then you quickly realise that all it takes is a smile and polite gesture to your camera to ask their permission… and 9/10 times you’ll find they are more than willing to have their photo taken. This one was taken at the same temple as above.

Here I was rather lucky to see a group of young monks walking along the mighty Mekong riverside front as I went out the first day to explore – the light was perfectly aligned with one of the tallest of the (collective noun for monks?) group. I moved myself into position from the opposite side of the road and so that I could frame the rather beautiful verdant green parasol against them as they paraded along. Again this was with the 12-60mm and I did use photoshop to tweak the highlights – but I can promise you that the colours were just as vibrant and enchanting.

 

Emotion 

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I think this particular title is highlighted in all of the above mentioned – as texture, colour, shade all feed into our emotions and how we react to each image or film clip. It’s one of the most basic principals in cinematography and where the Director of Photography will work closely with the director to create a specific look and/or feel to the film. Photography also uses this principal and of course a lot of it can be touched up and edited in software later. This is quite often where all the magic happens (sorry to burst any bubbles – but I’m guessing many of you reading this are well aware of this!)

Washer woman cleaning off her dinner – people look so incredibly timeless in Laos, I could never tell how old she was.

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So a handy little anagram for what to look out for when photographing people include:

H- humour: So this can work both ways. They can be (and this is most of the case!) laughing at you and find your odd demeanour and camera geekiness quite entertaining; don’t wait for the moment to pass – snap away and capture the moment!

U- unique: What’s unique about your subject (person)? Have they a standout feature, eye colour, beautiful smile, scar, long/short/frizzy/straight hair? Whatever is distinctive about your person, make sure to celebrate an honour it by making this one of your focal points of the image. It’s what makes us all special.

M – movement: Just slow down that shutter speed and experiment with your person, especially if they’re moving. Adding a little motion blur to your image can bring it to life and give you a whole different angle to play with.

A – activity: What does your subject do? Are they dancers? Crafts people? Artists? Scientists? Whatever it is they do, try to photograph them in their element doing what they do best – not only will this make them more comfortable, but you will certainly make the image more genuine and interesting to the viewer.

N – ature: Try to capture and set your human in their environment, their natural habitat that represents them. I really can’t emphasize this enough, a single image of a person in whatever comes naturally to them is key to capturing their essence.

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My encounter with the people of Laos has been a magical one at that – their resourcefulness, peace and positivity reflects the equally majestic landscape where they are able to sustain and feed their families – securing a better future for all. Family is certainly a huge part of this country, and everyone plays their part in taking care of each other – with young girls cooking, cleaning and taking care of elderly relatives – with the men earning a living in the farms and wives working like wonder women in the rice paddy fields. For me the most surprising thing was seeing how happy they were compared to another poor country I recently visited, Kenya. I can now see and understand this to be partly due to the abundance of food which is far more readily available than it is in Africa. But also the spiritual belief and conviction they have that their Buddha/deity/spirit guide will help them live a prosperous life in the here and now – as well as the next should the reincarnation cycle not be broken…

Until the next post – all about the wildlife in Laos!

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Panasonic GH5 – A wildlife filmmaker’s dream?

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Hello everyone! It’s been a while since I wrote a single word on this blog as these past 6 months have been hectic- editing away for A Lion’s Tale, doing work experience on the One Show, BBC Wildcats, attending Wildscreen – and recently my own film premiere at the Everyman theatre! I’m officially a graduate MA Wildlife Filmmaker; time has flown and can’t actually believe the course is over now. I also managed to get some very exciting work at the BBC as a researcher for NHU digital, on Planet Earth II digital and now the Oceans projects – a dream come true (!) So much can happen in the space of a few weeks, Bristol is such an incredible city full of passionate creatives…

More of that later, but today I’m here to share my experience with the greatly anticipated Panasonic GH5, which has been released TODAY...

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At the beggning of February I had an amazing opportunity to try out the pre production GH5 model, which I was especially excited about. I had been reading different hybrid mirrorless camera specs, including the GH4 and A7S II; but then came across the GH5. If I could write a specs list as a wildlife photographer and filmmaker – this camera would tick them all! And whilst there are many of you out there shooting incredible films with FS7’s or RED One’s, this article is targeted towards those with much smaller budgets and the need to travelling light. I principally wanted my choice of camera to provide me with all the features that allow me to have stabilized, sharp images, 4K at 10 bit, variable frame rates to shoot in high speed and capture high quality, blue-chip style footage… and here it is! Not to mention the improved low light performance and compact body…

Here’s the tech specs for you to drool over:

Technical Specifications

  • 20.3MP Digital Live MOS Sensor
  • Venus Engine Image Processor
  • UHD 4K 60p Video with No Crop!
  • Internal 4:2:2 10-Bit 4K Video at 24/30p
  • 4:2:2 10-bit (DCI and UHD up to 30p + HD 60p) Firmware update summer/April
  • 400mbps All-intra (DCI and UHD up to 30p) Firmware update summer/April
  • Variable frame rate (up to 180fps in 1080p HD: )
  • 5-Axis Sensor Stabilization; Dual I.S. 2
  • 0.76x 3.68m-Dot OLED Viewfinder
  • 3.2″ 1.62m-Dot Free-Angle Touchscreen
  • Advanced DFD AF System; 6K & 4K PHOTO
  • ISO 25600 and 12 fps Continuous Shooting
  • Dual UHS-II SD card Slots;
  • Wi-Fi & Bluetooth
  • Improved low light
  • Hybrid Log Gamma (for HDR video)
  • Waveform and Vector monitors (for all you graders out there!)
  • Price:  £1699.00 (body only, UK)

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Sample shots

So enough of me gabbling on; here are some stills I took at Bristol Zoo and around the city, using the 100-400mm f/4-6.3 and  the 15mm Summilux  f1.7  Leica lenses:

duckDucks galore. 1/650 sec, f/6.3 with the 400mm Leica lens. 6K stills mode.

lions_edited_black_bkg4_curve_balanceLions lair. Shot handheld through a fence 1/650 sec, f/6.3, ISO 1600 with the 400mm Leica lens. Cloudy/dark conditions so had to increase the ISO as the min aperture was 4.

lion_ss_1Look into my eyes. 400mm Leica lens at 1/400 sec, f/6.3, 1600 ISO, manual

fur_sealSleeping beauty. 400mm Leica lens at 1/320 sec, f/4, 400 ISO, 6K stills mode.

fur_seal_MCU400mm Leica lens at 1/320 sec, f/6.3, 400 ISO, manual

red_panda400mm Leica lens at 1/1000 sec, f/4.2, 1600 ISO, 6K stills

red_panda_2400mm Leica lens at 1/1000 sec, f/4.0, 1600 ISO, 6K stills

penguin215mm Leica lens at 1/500 sec, f/1.8, 200 ISO, manual

flamingo2.1400mm Leica lens at 1/1000 sec, f/4.2, 1600 ISO, 6K stills

And now for cities!

test415mm Leica lens at 1/1020 sec, f/1.8, 200 ISO, manual

tes2sunrisemist15mm Leica lens at 1/3200 sec, f/1.7, 200 ISO, manual

boats_harbourside15mm Leica lens at 0.6 sec, f/1.7, 200 ISO, manualcranes_bristol15mm Leica lens at 0.65sec, f/1.7, 200 ISO, manualboats_towards_city15mm Leica lens at 0.6 sec, f/1.7, 200 ISO, manualcathedral CU15mm Leica lens at 0.5 sec, f/1.7, 200 ISO, manualtower15mm Leica lens at 0.5 sec, f/1.7, 200 ISO, manual

So here’s my short little summary breakdown of the pros and cons (so far):

Pros

  • Incredible image quality. Both stills and video
  • Sharp 
  • Fast focus, cont focus very good with fast moving subjects (with a whopping 225 autofocus points compared to the GH4 which had just 49 of them!)
  • Dual IS was brilliant; everything was shot handheld!
  • Colours were vivid and realistic
  • Variety of functions and control
  • Viewfinder superb contrast and easy to use in combination with the screen
  • Screen: incredible quality and sensitive to touch screen capabilities
  • Solid feel, nice grip
  • Sound stereo actually good
  • 6K photo function
  • Ability to stabilise on a drone and shoot 4k 60fps
  • Price: Nearly $1500 cheaper than the A7S Ii, you can afford to splash out on a decent lens and not struggle
  • Compact: You get through customs without questions, as a ‘tourist’ and not draw attention with a large FS7 or FS700 without compromising on quality…
  • You can use this on a Movi for additional stabilisation
  • Ability to attach mics – interface with Panasonic’s optional hot-shoe powered DMW-XLR1 microphone adapter (for amazing sounding interviews!)

Cons

  • High speed grain. Quite noisy at 180fps, better at 120 when light conditions were good. An try and avoid using 1080 120 100mbps with a telephoto lens (if you’re using the 15mm 1.7 you’ll be fine as this is a nice wide, fast lens that gives you plenty of light).
  • 100-400mm manual focus not as smooth or intuitive as some of the Canon L glass (but you can get a speedbooster and mount for your Canon lenses)
  • Battery life; constant 4K shooting 3 hours and 15 minutes. Not mega efficient! But can get 2 and lasts longer than A7S.
  • Poorer performance at 3200 in low light, not good in darker conditions with telephoto, but superb with the 15mm

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What next?

Well, there’s a few things that I personally want to film with this revelatory new piece of camera technology. Exquisitely designed in terms of ergonomics and with the operator in mind – this is certainly one to watch for indie wildlife filmmakers who not only want to shoot stunning stills, but also enter film festivals with high quality films – all within budget. (Then you’ve got more to cash to splash on going out on location to exciting places!)

More soon with video footage samples in 4K and variable frame rates, as well as a more extensive guide on what each of the features allows you to do – but in the meantime, get down to your local camera store and try it out!

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ps: Me playing with a DJI Ronin! And soon the GH5…..

Virginia McKenna: Meeting my heroine

I was 10 years old when I stood up in front my my somewhat small class of 8 students in Southern Spain to talk about my heroine and great inspiration in life…Virginia McKenna. Having seen the Born Free film, and found out about the astounding efforts of the actress turn conservationist I felt compelled to learn more about this beautiful, spirited and passionate individual. 11 years later, little did I know that I would be producing a film about the plight of lions and my heroine for the Born Free Foundation! It truly is a dream come true and I am incredibly excited to share this with you all. I am certain you’ve all loved watching the Born Free, a story of true determination, passion, love and drama –  and one of the most successful conservation stories ever told all. Lion’s need our help more than ever, and this is why I want to share this story now

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After several trips to the car with various tripods, c-mounts, pro mic kits, radio mics, cameras, lenses, lights, gaffa tape, XLR cables, mixer… we set off! Virginia lives in a most beautiful part of the country, Surrey. The skies were clear and a deep azure, you could even see the reminiscent red silhouettes of the Red Kites as they soared with the thermals over the A4. Trails of happy holiday goers could also be seen with white airplane clouds trailing behind. I was reading over my questions with great excitement, I could not believe I was about to meet my childhood heroine.. she had been part of my early life through television, books and of course podcasts and audio books where her powerful words would inspire me to write, and read poetry about wildlife.

We were let into one of the most beautiful houses I’ve ever seen by her incredibly passionate son Will Travers (president of the Born Free Foundation). He looked remarkably like her, with those dazzling blue eyes and handsome face. Down the bluebell woods which were dappled with a soft spring light, under the trees that whispered in the wind…and into Will’s gorgeous home to set up the kit. Gosh has he travelled. Adorned with relics from every country, the place had such a welcoming and warm feeling. The garden was such a retreat, with its quiet still and calmness– the birds and bees clearly sought refuge in this little piece of Surrey serenity.

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After discussing plans with Will about the trip itself and the interview, we met Virginia who had come up from her house.. I must say my heart was pounding! She was even more beautiful in real life and her voice so welcoming. We sat down and began the interview after setting the sound and framing with the cameras. From descriptions of the intense pulse of Africa, her Born Free role, her brilliant husband… to the future of Africa’s lions…to me there is something more remarkable than this woman’s countless number of achievements over the past 50 years. More than her bravery in changing her entire career path onto one of conservation, more than establishing one of the most successful animal charities in the world, more than helping thousands of individual animals and people through her hard work and determination.. it is her sense of hope and light that emanates from her. You not only see it but feel every word she says with such verve and passion that it truly resonates with you. I’ve conduced many interviews before but never felt so moved and inspired afterwards- her ability to listen is something that I believe has allowed her to help change the lives of so many.

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After the interview we chatted more about her love for Meru National Park, and I mentioned that I would be thrilled if I saw a naked mole rat (don’t ask me why but its something about their incredible evolutionary strategy which rather excites me..!), and she jumped in delight for my love of them, she was also a lover of all creatures small and mighty. We filmed a few cut aways of her in her garden and sauntered through to her stunning section of the house. Through the pathway an amazing view caught us by surprise, “That’s where Christian the lion use to stay when we helped keep him for Ace and John..” I had to restrain myself from squealing with excitement- CHRISTIAN THE LION! The famous lion from the YouTube video where he remembered his old owners in a fond and loving embrace. And then further down the garden was the most resplendent carving of a lion you’ve ever seen! By a very talented welsh chainsaw artist…the eyes were soft in contrast to the sharp, crisp details of his lustrous mane. Along his back perched a small butterfly; what could be more iconic as a sign of hope…Virginia’s very own butterfly lion although I am told he is called the Lion Guardian.

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After visiting her beautiful home, we thanked each other after an embrace and wished each other the best of luck on each of our journeys. This was the most incredible day of my life! There is always that fear at the back f your mind that one of your heroes, should you be so fortunate as to meet them, might not like you, think you’re somewhat annoying or downright  boring…but Virginia’s warmth and compassion came through and I felt so welcomed by both her and Will. I now see that this is their haven to retreat to after all the suffering they see with the animals they fight so hard to save. They are different to any other charity I’ve seen. They truly believe in what they do and care about every individual, and I feel greatly honoured to be starting my journey with them next week as I travel to Kenya, Meru National park- the original heartland of where George and Joy Adamson released Elsa the Lioness into the wild. It’s remarkable to think that now in 2016, the Year of the Lion and the 50th Anniversary of the Film, that the Foundation they set up is still going strong and making such a difference- keep up the hard work! And last week Virginia was awarded the Inspiring Lives Award in San Francisco- she couldn’t be more deserving.

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By Born Free Foundation. Virginia and her son Will by Elsa’s grave, Meru National Park.

Please help support their work, and also please check out my IndieGoGo site for A Lion’s Tale (https://igg.me/at/alionstale/x/11469504) for more details, and I’m giving $1000 to Born Free if we can reach our target; thank you! More to come soon about the story and film I’m making for my MA Wildlife Filmmaking course (Bristol BBC NHU) as I travel with my camera assistant Adrian to Nairobi, but for now, asante sana and Hakuna matata!

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Photography by the incredible Robyn Gianni, check out her work and where you can get her prints! http://www.robyngianni.org/

 

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Ocean Film Festival 2015 – Bristol

Having a Whale of a time

Saturday was the International Ocean Film Festival UK Tour at the rather splendorous Victoria Rooms- a regular concert hall for the students of Bristol University. What a fitting venue to showcase some of the worlds most inspirational ocean based films, from the icy expanses of the Arctic, the colossal depths of the pelagic Southern African oceans to the rip-roaring undulations of waves off the coast of Hawaii- this 2 hour plunge into the ocean will literally leave you gasping for air…

I chose to go to this rather than the opening of the Encounters Festival as I feel assessing your own response and emotions towards the films is far more valuable in terms of learning a great deal about what works within this industry. That and wanting to watch some epic shots of surfers, photographers and divers!

First up was the hugely gob-smackingly courageous and gutsy “The Fisherman’s son” filmed by Chris Malloy, about Chilean born surfer pro, Ramon Navarro– a son of a subsistence fisherman off the once sleepy shores of Punta de Lobo. His entire life path was shaped by the random kindness of a visiting surfer who had given him one of his old surf boards to practice on. So Ramon would head out onto the rough swells of the Pacific Ocean- the largest in the world… where his passion and connection with the Ocean fueled a gritty determination to explore the world. The journey of this gentle fisherman was captured with an assorted collection of local interviews as well as with his good pro surfer friends.The lighting during these was actually quite ethereal and intimate; capturing that sense of mystery about this once unknown fisherman.

He now has such a huge following that he uses this power to campaign against the development of his hometown- something which I hugely admire with any “celebrity.” I think the ability to use your voice as a vehicle to influence others when you have such a following is almost a duty, but more importantly it should be something that comes naturally, the want to make a difference in the world. ALL of the sequences of Ramos and his chums tearing down the jaw-droppingly immense waves are as remarkable as they sound… the elegance with which Ramos executed the anglelings, kick outs, aerials (dude yes, I’m down with the lingo), was exhilarating. The man would never fall off! He glided seemingly endlessly across the water, and with such ease that its a surprise that he hasn’t the nickname Jesus de Chile. Check out the film here:

Next up was a rather quirky short with a very talented sand artist, depicting the unseen problems and ignorant relationship we have with the ocean. He dashes his sand across his glass, and in an almost hypnotic way in rhythm to the music, where he then moves his fingers across to paint the picture. The destruction of our oceans through dredging, pollution and over fishing are just some the highlights of this short but powerful film.

The next film was a rather remarkable journey of a South African surfer who rose above a physical and mental tragedy of losing his ability to walk. It was the Ocean where he sought to take his own life, and yet the very place where by an inevitable twist of fate that he found it once more. He describes his difficulty in accepting his condition, and then this almost leading to his “collapse into the abyss”. And yet feeling the “strength” and “spiritual power” of the ocean is what led to him living a full and adventurous life, sailing his own boat solo across the Indian Ocean, meeting fascinating people and places. DevOcean is a real reminder of how EVERY individual has a powerful journey to make and its how their attitude towards life can be shaped by the natural world around us. Top short film.

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After a short break – with the light-hearted topic of contemplating the meaning life with a fellow course mate and friend, we returned to watch another repertoire of unbelievable stories created by indie filmmakers. Arctic Swell, although a short film, shows the incredible photographic talents and remarkable endurance of Chris Burkard and a team of surfers up by the freezing sub-zero temperatures of Norway. Nevermore so has the preconception of a typical blonde surfer with a bronzed tan and generally not wearing much been so overruled… deep within the Arctic circle, with wind chill and waves that carry seemingly endless pancakes of cobalt-blue icebergs are the team of dedicated explorers- keen to capture the majesty and beauty of this raw landscape. The colours are some of the most awe-inspiring I’ve seen, and the contrasts between the hues and tones makes his photography truly magical. Check out some of his incredible work: http://www.chrisburkard.com/

The next one was rather unusual and quirky, The Fox of Bloody Woman Island was about the unusual life of one Nordic traditional Viking boat builder- Ulf. Another short, this was certainly the weakest of the cohort, but nevertheless fun to watch the hilarious antiques of this solitary wild man of the woods. He certainly was a very talented wood worker, and incredible audaciously bold to skinny dip every day in the sharp, cold dark waters of the Nordic Fjords. A true Viking at heart! The next small short was quite extraordinary, the remarkable talents of young 6 year old Quincy Symonds, known as the Flying Squirrel. Growing up with health complications and yet being able to surf with extreme accuracy and flair really made for an inspirational story. I mean what were we all doing aged 6- starting to ride a bike? A hear-warming tale of the families journey through her health problems and overcoming them together…Little surfer was all very Disney like.

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Finally we come to the last film about Hanli Prinsloo, an ex-pro free diver, from Johannesburg. She certainly took our breath away with her outstanding ability to dive deep into the depths of the ocean, all the while gliding with eloquent grace like the marine beauties she so ardently seeks to film. Having had many years as a successful Pro Diver in the World Championships, she decided that taking a larger conservation role and enjoying the beauty and thrilling experiences that the oceans has offer was far more rewarding. Be prepared to see her diving with some of the worlds most incredible marine species- Mako, Blacktips, Blue sharks and dolphins! Ocean Minded was a fantastic way to end the stream of awe-inspiring films.

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Here’s a short clip of her reason for her love of the Ocean and her work with the Ocean Conservation trust.

All films had a remarkable inspirational and motivational message to get across, which was most fitting as my course friends and I are about to embark on our own journeys into the world of Wildlife Filmmaking. I really do feel so blessed and fortunate to be able to have this opportunity, not only personally to pursue a childhood passion, but hopefully to be able to make a difference to this most beautiful blue planet of ours.I hope you can join all of us on this exciting adventure and be prepared to see some incredible, staggeringly beautiful people, places and nature around the world!

Help support the ocean and go on a 2 minute beach clean!

How to become an adventure filmmaker

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SO you wanna be an adventure filmmaker?

Yes – its summer! That time of the year where we all wack out our shorts, shades and sun cream and jet-set across the world to exciting new places with friends and family. Be it glamping in Gloustershire, or snorkelling with Whales in Tonga, we ALL love to film our adventures and trips while we travel. YouTube is good evidence for this, brimming with hours of awful selfie shots of random tourists doing crazy activities, or what unusual tropical fruits they just ate for breakfast on a remote island.

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So WHY go to the trouble of making one?

MEMORIES! These trips of a life-time are so called because of the incredible sights and sounds you get to see, that nobody else will ever encounter or see in quite the same way. So you can capture these moments in a different light to writing and inspire others to get out and pursue their own trails around the world.

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204549-ed53366a-6795-11e3-bdad-d26236de09deFirst off….

To create a successful travel adventure film requires a blend of creativity, planning and decent tech. I don’t believe in the advice that others will say on being able to create amazing films with basic kit, you do need a good SLR or GoPro action camera with 1080p, 30fps specs! But that said, the standard of the compact camera and touch screen phone cameras  nowadays means you can get pretty close to it, so if you’re on a budget this shouldn’t sacrifice the quality too much.

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#Tip 1:

The key here is to OWN a TRIPOD and keep your video footage STILL. Then you’re practically 70% closer to making an amazing video. This is because in most videos that move everything around with additional handshake can result in unpleasant and messy images. This is the worst way to showcase your amazing holiday, and something nobody wants to see – even if the quality is superb, a still camera shot marks the sign of a decent film. All the videos I’ve been shooting in South Africa have been largely on a tripod whilst filming monkeys and big cats at Monkeyland and Jukani sanctuaries. The rule applies to both GoPro’s AND SLR cameras too, mainly the SLR’s as the shake from them can be unruly.

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#Tip 2:

Next up is the sound….

Now unfortunately the budget cameras that we all buy have awful quality audio- the sort that sounds like your voice has been turned into a million billion amps then compressed into sounds waves via a small cheap pair of crappy tin speakers…So your best bet is to buy a relatively inexpensive Rode mic for your SLR cameras, and if not, then don’t bother with the sound and add some on Adobe Audition or Cool pro edit. Both can be downloaded for free (Adobe audition version 3.0, not the new one). You’re an extra 10% there now.

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#Tip 3:

Have a story. There’s no point I filming literally anything you walk past, have some sort of journey through which we can follow. This won’t always be possible note, and DO film exciting things you’ve never seen before, but think of whether you want to make it more of an adventure adrenaline junkie one with plenty of action shots, or a buddies trip over with long braai nights and sit arounds which may be nice to film. Of course including local people and cuisine is important, and most exciting of all, the wildlife and landscapes!

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21 Jun 2011, Indonesia --- Sea Kayaking in Raja Ampat, West Papua, Indonesia, New Guinea, Southeast Asia, Asia --- Image by © James Morgan/Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis

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Planning a shots list always helps too, any close ups of preparing food, tight close ups of animals, then the more scene setting views of the area- so streets, mountains, the ocean, a fiesta, ect.

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Then interviews should always have a personal perspective and be directly on them, with the potential to have a camera on you if you have +2 cameras. When you find an interesting place, person, animal or situation you ALWAYS film it in a proper sequence in that you get at least 25 different shots of the event in that given location, so that youre able to tell the story visually. Don’t bother if the place/event isn’t particularly memorable, better to save your memory card and battery for somewhere that is. Many a time have I been somewhere and filmed away, then run out of battery for the next day without being able to find a plug socket!

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#Tip 4:

Shoot transitional shots. So whether you’re driving to your next location, passing maps, road signs, street scenes, day to day events, passer by’s, film a few seconds of it. People brushing, cleaning, eating, chatting, commuting – its all great stuff to add to your film an give it a more professional finish. Now your 92% closer to being a pro!

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#Tip 5:

The edit– this makes up the final 99%! Its key to mix up the interspersed transitional shots that you’ve got, and intertwine these to make your movie more professional. Add music or commentary to suite your film and then voila!! You should have an amazing travel holiday video that you can be proud of and show off to all your friends and family. And if your feelin brave, why now show it to the world and put it on YouTube (to reach full 100% pro rating of being a good distributer), Vimeo and then spread it around on social media? Who knows, maybe you can et sponsored to take videos by GoPro, mammut, Nike, Canon, Bergus, Timberland, ect and other outdoorsy companies that would love to promote themselves through your incredible work. More about that soon, but for now, keep filming!

SO you wanna be an EXPEDITION CAVER?

SO! You wanna be an EXPEDITION CAVER?

Calling ALL adventurous students!

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A motley crew of 40+ cavers, with a range of ages, will descend upon the Austrian Alps for the Dachstein summer Caving Expedition 2015. This is literally all the low down on the cave exploration scene in the Alps. It is as well renowned for its deep, tortious and hard alpine cave systems, as the Austrians are for lederhosen and beer. A staggeringly high peak of 2995m, the possibility of a 2500m deep entrance point to the water table below is tantalisingly closer than ever before. And YOU could be part of the team that is part of this historical event!

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The Winter project requires dry, frozen, stable conditions to enter the 100km long, 1.1km deep single monster cave at the main project to the far west (Sahara), deep snow, and involves a breath-taking 2-6 hour approach hike. This is however not for the light hearted, a 10-18 hour caving trip in extreme cold conditions is the likely scenario, and trust me when I say these cavers are literally rock hard and (sorry), rather insane!

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But nevertheless, it’s a most exciting trip to be had if you’re fed up of a gentle walk up Ilkley Moor, and if your local Hyde Park snowball fight isn’t quite giving you enough frost nip…get your crampons and ice picks at the ready and sign up to this winter’s expedition! For more info head to their Facebook page and have a chat with them, they’re a really friendly bunch once you get past the grimy remarks and jokes about your incompetence (I kid of course). A plan of the cave route can be seen here:

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As for THIS summer, the project involves connecting the hysterically named “Wat have U-got-Pot” and the Hirlatz (yes I think its German). So for the fit and keen there will be the opportunity to take part in the exploration of the mighty Wot-U-Got Pot (800m+ deep and 6km long) which requires camping underground for 4 days at a time. But do be warned, this is a dangerous, cold, flood-prone pothole that demands skill, ability, bloody-mindedness & a twisted sense of humour which I must say was provided by the bucket load this weekend (I can’t remember or understand most of it, but do join us if you want to hear some).

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It is this cave that gives Joel and his team the best hope of breaking into and connect to the massive Hirlatz Hole from WUG Pot- then it will become a 1.5km deep monster system and mastercave (1.5km+). Recently over the past few years teams have shortened the distance between these two mega cave systems to under 500m. If the connection is made the journey from top to bottom could well be the ultimate adventure sports challenge involving winter mountaineering, abseiling, caving and cave diving taking several days to complete.

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SO just think of all the mud, sweat, darkness, smelly feet, lack of sleep… I mean- ADVENTURE, EXCITEMENT, HEROIC APTITUDE, SWANKY CV BOOSTER (a ‘what scenario shows teamwork skills’ drill), and most of all FUN 2 weeks of caving during one of the most exciting times in caving exploration history in Europe. The price really is fantastic too (£250 for 3 weeks).  Here’s a little break down courtesy of Joel:

  • Expedition fees (to go towards metalwork/hardware, ropes, communal food, etc) £60 for the duration;
  • Weekly allowance (fresh veg, fuel, etc) €10 (so €30 or €40 for the duration);
  • Accommodation of approx €3.50 or €4 a night = approx €80 total;
  • Travel: very rough guide but maybe £100

hiking-austriaThe team are insistent that it’s not necessary to be a pro but the willingness to train and have a go! I think I may be going to simply take the photographs, document the expedition and have a nice hike and climb until I feel ready to undertake the caving trip- so if you fancy a nice sight-seeing holiday, come along! It’s not just all about that hard-core exploring, there’s plenty of other activities to do and get involved with, including prospecting in the mountains looking for new caves, continuing the exploration of previously discovered caves, assisting with the re-rigging as all the ropes and much of the metal work needs to be replaced.

And if deep dark caves aren’t your thing, there’s even an ice cave nearby that makes for a stunning tourist trip, just so you can pose with those new ice picks you’ve bought (lads), and girls yes you can pretend to be Elsa.

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For all you animal lovers out there, Joel tells me there are marmot colonies near by, gams in the hills at dawn (similar to chamoix), foxes, snakes, etc… Where you’ll be based at 1850m its about 100m below the transition from the superlative carpeted green slopes to more bare alpine scenery- a haven for wildlife, and wild ADVENTURE!

This is the greatest cave exploration project in the world: no discussion!! Matt St Clair will be organising & will appoint key people to the role of “Dachstein Reps” as some of the lifers cannot commit 100% these days. If you feel you would like to assist in the organisation then please make yourself known. Dates are provisional but will probably be 3 weeks in total, see their dedicated Facebook page for more information: info.https://www.facebook.com/events/1490999744511831/

BUT WAIT!!!!

First of all, before you go jet-setting to the Alps with your shorts, T-shirt, trainers and multi coloured running leggings… there’s a few things you need to know about surface gear and caving gear, as well as the health and safety aspects to the trip. I’ll try and make it as painless as possible I promise!

Kit List

“NORMAL” CLOTHES (e.g., trousers, underwear, t-shirt, socks)

Recommended 2 sets for caving (one for each trip) and one for the hut. (You could get away with two sets one for caving one for the hut relying on the drying room – it should be noted that the term drying room is a misnomer, it just makes all things marginally less damp)

DO NOT BRING JEANS TO CAVE IN!!!!!!

(When wet they get cold, heavy and chafe, they also take ages to dry, fine for the hut though.)

BRING WHITE STUFF AT YOU OWN RISK

(Water in caves is often a bit muddy and can dye white clothes a permanent brown)

  • WARM STUFF FOR THE HUT

Caving huts can vary wildly in temperature (also good to keep warm on the way to the pub)

  • A FLEECE to cave in

Fleeces are ideal to cave in as they are warm and drain relatively quickly when wet.

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  • THERMALS to cave in

Very good for keeping you warm in wet caves. (A cheap set can be made with any tight fitting top e.g. modern rugby tops and a pair of thick tights (yes even for the blokes) looks silly? yes Warm? Definitely. I mean, who can resist a guy in tights? (Definitely me…guys don’t go for the 1D look outside of caving, only wimps wear girly tights for fashion).

  • WELLINGTON BOOTS (gum boots) to cave in

Wellies are quite simply the best footwear to cave in. The club has a good selection which it is happy to lend out but please email to request them as unless you were born with 3 size 9 left feet we may not have any in your size (particularly true for small/large sizes)

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  • GLOVES (marigold washing up gloves) to cave in

A controversial one this (some cavers like gloves some don’t) but good for keeping your hands warm they are cheap and can be god-send so you might as well bring them

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  • HAT to cave in

A wooly hat/balaclava is good for keeping warm underground. People with long hair should bring some stuff to tie it back e.g. hair bands, buff e.t.c

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  • SLEEPING BAG

To sleep in. No really.

  • TORCH

So you can find your way to your bunk/ back from the pub. Oh and the cave.

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  • WASH KIT (Tooth brush, soap, deodorant etc.)

PLEASE bring this guys to wash with. Don’t bother with beatifying stuff (hair straighteners), but perhaps a hint of mascara and eye liner..oh and concealer for those equally dark eye circles around the eyes from days of no sleep. Trust me everyone will thank you for it. Shower gel- many cavers don’t even bother to shower after a trip, merely washing will make you look like a god/goddess compared to the other muddy and smelly cavers.

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Because it looks so swish I hope this encourages the guys to get one 😉
  • TOWEL

To dry off with / avoid flashing everyone when getting changed and to hide from the prying eyes of cavers

  • MONEY

Money for the pub crawls and to buy dinner and any drinks

  • BEER/DRINKS

There will normally be quite a few drinks had Friday and Saturday night. We normally stop on the way at a supermarket. Even if you don’t drink alcohol it will probably be worth bringing some coke/ squash to quench your thirst. Missing something? The club has some spare kit it can lend (particularly wellies).

CAMPING

Please Bring:

  • ROLL MATT

A length of foam mat to keep you of the tent floor and hence much warmer.

OPTIONAL KIT (if you have it please bring it):

  • Any PERSONAL CAVING KIT
  • WETSUIT

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Some caves have some great (if cold) swimming opportunities. Chances of using one is slim but swimming in crystal clear pools deep underground is worth the effort of packing it. Please don’t pack your bikini.

  • FURRY / Thermal Undersuit

A giant adult sized fleece baby grow. Known universally by cavers as furries they are also sometimes used by sailors and divers under dry suits. These are the crème de la crème of caving insulation and many cavers’ first purchases. They can be very expensive so if yours is a non-caving one for use under a dry suit you use it at your own risk.

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Oh! I almost forgot. Warm underpants…I’m not fooling around here, its vital to keep yourself nice and snug down there. Nothing worse than soggy bottoms is there Mary?

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Well that’s all from me, write up on first aid and cave photography soon!

South Africa and Bristol MA Wildlife Filmmaking

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This last week has truly been one of the most exhilarating, emotional and thrilling times of my life…I will be visiting South Africa this Summer, AND have been offered a place on the incredible Masters course in Wildlife Filmmaking at Bristol, in partnership with the BBC! I literally wept with happiness, joy and relief when receiving the news on Tuesday…literally just had the interview two weeks previously at the University, and everything I have worked for these past 6 years has been worth it. I am truly grateful for both amazing opportunities.

Thank you to all my friends and family for their endless and continual support, as well as belief in me to pursue my dreams. This feels like this is the beginning of some very exciting adventures, and can’t wait to find out what excitement, hard work and challenges lie ahead!

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Hopefully you can join me on this journey and that I can inspire you to feel passionately about the natural world around us, and more importantly preserve it for future generations. It is our duty as filmmakers to protect the stunning and awe-inspiring places we visit and continue to tell the fascinating stories that unravel on a daily basis on this beautiful blue planet of ours.

UWESince I was very young, the remarkable literature talents of Lauren St John, David Alric, Michael Morpurgo and of course all of my history/biology/geography reference books provided me with an escape and world of wonder and curiosity about the natural world. I could travel the world from my bed, chair, rock, beach towel… and one place, always so vividly represented in all the books I read, was South Africa. Its rich culture, bright colours, sublime smells and majestic animals- and I yearned to visit one day. BBC documentaries and the mild attempts of the Spanish equivalent further gave me the impetus to one day visit this staggeringly beautiful country, and this I finally decided that THIS WAS IT! I’m going to SA this year after I graduate to have the experience of a lifetime.

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This is it! I am going to volunteer at the South African Animal Sanctuary Alliance, Plettenberg Bay and work as a multilingual tour guide (sounds posher than it is)and photographer/filmmaker intern. Each of the sanctuaries under SASAA include Monkeyland, Birds of Eden and Jukani wildlife, which fund themselves through revenues from tourists who take educational tours of the sanctuaries to continue to bring in funds.

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A detailed catalogue of all the SAASA species has not yet been made of the primates, birds and apex cats, and so compiling this information, along with taking photographs and film footage (for YouTube) of individual primates is an important part of the project. They do great work here and I am honoured to be a part of it, and help out in any way that I can.

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SO this will be my ‘job’ from June 2th till August 2nd! I’ll be writing regular updates on what I get up to, and how practical it is for YOU to VOLUNTEER for CHEAP ABROAD, it took me many hours to research ethical, well respected places that treat their animals well and don’t actually charge you to volunteer. The only cost involved is the homestay at Rock Road Backpackers (contact Mac: info@wwisa.co.za) which again is AMAZINGLY priced at £18 a night, FOOD, ACCOMODATION, TRAVEL to and from the sanctuaries included. Total cost for 36 days will be around £1600, but I’ve applied for £500 funding from the Leeds for Life Foundation, fingers crossed! Still an amazing prices considering.

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They are SO lovely there, I’m feeling really confident about heading over now as they seem to be very experienced in receiving students. Currently taking my vaccinations now (ouch tetanus hurts!), which are all covered by the NHS, but be warnerd, rabies is £40 a shot! It is necessary though, especially since I’ll be working with primates, (and an odd bat or two if I get the chance).

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I really want to be able to make a difference at the SAASA (South African Sanctuary Alliance) by bringing my skills as a photographer/videographer/zoologist and researcher, as well as help to build up a collection of all the species and individuals at the sanctuary. Having studied zoology at the University of Leeds for 3 years now, I feel the need to travel and experience different cultures, sights and wildlife encounters before I go on to study for my Master this coming September. Not only do I feel I would grow as a person, but also gain further insight and build upon my current portfolio which will prove to be very useful when applying for jobs as a freelance camera woman. It has always been a life-long ambition to visit South Africa, I missed out on an opportunity field trip last summer due to my research project that was to be conducted in the UK on bat foraging distributions. There’s so many amazing activities to get up to there too, canyoning, scuba diving, sky diving, caving, whale watching and I’ll also be going to the world renewed Addo National Park with students from Washington University!

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One day..one step closer…

SO! I’m currently studying for my exam finals now, and can’t stop thinking how lucky I am. I mean, I have worked really hard to get to where I am…and it’s not been easy by any measure. These past three years a Leeds have been a rollercoaster of emotions- but cannot recommend going highly enough. University teaches you more than simply lectures and how to avoid drunk people! But it allows you to find yourself, your purpose, your dreams, what your capable of and most of all determined to, no matter what, follow your dreams and CREATE YOUR OWN LUCK too.

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