How did your interest in wildlife photography begin?
As a small child my family spent many holidays in various South African parks. My dad was a keen cine photographer and I was given a small Brownie camera to take my own pics, so I’d say that was when I started. But I only got serious about it in 1986 when Sharna and I moved to the Okavango Delta to manage a safari camp. Our family and friends were incredulous at our move from Durban to a life under canvas in the bush, so we needed to take a lot of pictures to show them what we were doing. From that it went to slide shows in camp, to selling prints and eventually, putting together our first book.
What personal qualities do you need to be a good wildlife photographer?
Acclaimed wildlife photographer and safari tour guide Daryl Balfour talks: living in the wild, good lighting and being trampled by an elephant!
Patience with a capital P! To create successful images can take hours of sitting and waiting for the right moment. You also need an enquiring mind, a passion for wilderness, and enthusiasm for discovering new things. Of course, a good photographer does need an eye for the light too. In my opinion the light, and the way you use it, is possibly the most important aspect of photography.
Can you elaborate on the success of your husband-wife team?
Together we have produced more than a dozen top-selling wildlife coffee table books and countless magazine features around the world. We have lectured at the most prestigious nature photography symposium in the world, and we supply many of the world’s leading image libraries, including Getty Images in the USA. We have built up a sizeable stock library of our own here in South Africa with close to a quarter-million images, and over the past decade have established a successful photo safari business, Wildphotos Safaris, taking small, intimate groups of guests to wildlife destinations across the world.
What are your most popular safaris?
The wildebeest migration in Kenya and Tanzania, polar bears in the Arctic, and wild dogs in Botswana.
What was your most memorable encounter in the wild?
We have witnessed many births and they are always incredible experiences, but probably the best was seeing my first elephant birth, from start to finish, after 24 years of waiting for it. Also being able to crawl into a tiger’s den to photograph her newborn cubs within hours of their birth was pretty special. Seeing my very first polar bear up close...there really are too many to mention – that’s why I do this with my life!
...and the scariest?
In December 1992 I was trampled by the well-known Kruger Park tusker Tshokwane and almost killed. I spent four months recuperating and then went back to look for him. That was scary.
What is your favourite animal to photograph and why?
Elephants, without a doubt, are my number one. Their trunks give them an added element that is so human-like. Touching, caressing, picking things up, rubbing an eye, scratching an itch… Wildlife photographers look for images that evoke a human response, and elephants usually do that in the way they use their trunks.
Can you pre-empt a good photograph by studying and understanding animal behaviours?
Most certainly! That is possibly the most important skill a wildlife photographer needs – the knowledge of an animal’s behaviour and the ability to predict what might happen next, and be ready for it.
Can wildlife photography impact conservation?
I like to believe that we can create a greater understanding and awareness of the beauty of nature and the importance of preserving it for future generations. As I get older and more cynical I’m starting to believe the best we can do right now is preserve a record of what the world will have lost.
How much of your work is planned and how much is spontaneous?
It is planned in the destinations we visit. We visit the Arctic with a plan to photograph polar bears. But thereafter so much of it has to be spontaneous, and quite honestly, I don't think I’ve had two days exactly alike in almost three decades of wildlife photography!
Do you ever feel separated from an experience by being behind your lens?
Yes, that is often something I’m aware of. Occasionally you miss experiencing the wider tapestry because you are focused on a small segment of a scene. I was always aware of the fact that I was seeing pictures – that is probably why I was trampled by the elephant. I was photographing his charge, so absorbed and thinking to myself: “Wow, great pictures!”
Do you enjoy photographing other subject matter apart from wildlife?
I became a wildlife photographer for the lifestyle, to be able to spend most of my life in the wilderness, not out of any passion for cameras and photography itself. But I love sport too - and getting a contract to photograph the 2005 Rugby World Cup was special. Yes, I was at the final and got a shot of Stransky’s winning drop goal!
Any future projects by Daryl Balfour we should know about?
In a few years’ time we want to do a retrospective of our lives in the wilderness, looking back over three decades, our experiences, and our best pictures.
Daryl and Sharna Balfour can be contacted via their websites: