I much pre­fer to just stay with one or two an­i­mals for the whole sa­fari… Don’t be ob­sessed with see­ing ev­ery­thing in one day.

Fed­erico Vero ne si, wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher

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Fed­erico Veronesi spends most days in the African bush, of­ten driv­ing alone with his cam­era by his side. How­ever, in 2016 he also made time to visit Europe and the UK to pro­mote his new book. Track­ing him down for this in­ter­view in­volved sev­eral stops, but ev­ery meet­ing re­vealed some­thing more about this qui­etly spo­ken sa­fari guide with an eye and re­flexes as keen as those of many of the sub­jects he pho­to­graphs…

You were born and raised in Italy. When did you first go to Kenya?

I was a kid. It was a fam­ily hol­i­day and I was just six years old. I was so in love with African an­i­mals that my par­ents had to take me there! They also liked an­i­mals a lot and were pho­tog­ra­phers, but for me it was the trip of my dreams.

When did you next go back?

The next time was af­ter univer­sity in 2000. I re­turned on an in­tern­ship or­gan­ised by the Ital­ian em­bassy. One of the des­ti­na­tions they of­fered was Nairobi. I thought, ‘Okay, let’s see what it will be like liv­ing there for three months.’ So I moved and I just loved it.

Have you been there ever since?

No, I had to come back to Italy for the civil ser­vice, that’s com­pul­sory. For me it was ten months. I did civil ser­vice, not mil­i­tary ser­vice. You can post­pone it un­til af­ter univer­sity. Then through the con­tacts I had made in Nairobi I found a job in an NGO in Kenya. I stud­ied eco­nom­ics, so I didn’t work in pho­tog­ra­phy, but for an NGO on the fi­nan­cial side. That was in 2002. I worked for four and a half years for this NGO and went on sa­fari for hol­i­days. Ev­ery week­end, ev­ery hol­i­day, I was in the bush tak­ing pho­tos, and it was such a pain on a Sun­day hav­ing to leave.

It sounds like an ad­dic­tion…

It was a to­tal ad­dic­tion! So at one point I said, ‘Okay, let’s move here. Let’s move to the Mara!’ I had to find a place to stay in the Mara and just be there all the time. That’s how it started. I used to al­ways drive my­self, I never went with a guide, so I got to know the park re­ally well, find­ing the an­i­mals my­self and fol­low­ing them day af­ter day.

What sort of cam­era gear were you us­ing then?

I started with a sec­ond­hand 300mm f/2.8. It was ac­tu­ally a man­ual lens, so I wasn’t us­ing aut­o­fo­cus at all, it was all man­ual for me. I was shoot­ing slides then too. It was only when I went to dig­i­tal that I re­alised you could also aut­o­fo­cus! Af­ter the work with the NGO I had saved some money and that en­abled me to move into pho­tog­ra­phy and guid­ing.

Which lenses do you use now and how do you de­cide which ones to use at any given mo­ment?

For me, when I ap­proach a sub­ject or sit­u­a­tion I im­me­di­ately know which cam­era and lens I’m go­ing to use. It’s

an in­stinct, but I have only three lenses at the mo­ment: 24-70mm, 70200mm and 400mm, all f/2.8. I used to have a 600mm but it was a bit too tight, too lim­it­ing. The 400mm is re­ally good and still gives the pos­si­bil­ity of adding con­vert­ers. That’s what I’m do­ing now. With a small choice of lenses I find choos­ing the right one is an easy thing to do. I have three cam­era bod­ies, one for each lens.

Are they the same bod­ies?

I have D800 and D810 only, so the same body on each lens, the same set­tings. You don’t want to fum­ble around and change and change. Also, I’m driv­ing so I have to be ready. I have the cam­eras in the bag at the bot­tom of the seat, just an arm’s length away.

Your first book has been widely ac­claimed. Why did you call it Light and Dust? Light and Dust

is a ti­tle I had in my mind for a long time. I’ve al­ways liked it. When­ever I am in the field I like the com­bi­na­tion of light and dust, an­i­mals com­ing through the dust with the light shin­ing through the dust from be­hind.

So the dust con­trib­utes to the qual­ity of the light that you like?

Ab­so­lutely. Some of the most dra­matic images come from dust, in my opin­ion. It gives so much drama and cleans up the back­ground. It leaves only the rel­e­vant shapes vis­i­ble, es­pe­cially with the light com­ing from cer­tain an­gles. It’s one of things I am al­ways look­ing for when I’m pho­tograph­ing. It is evoca­tive of an African at­mos­phere: there’s light, there’s sun, there’s dust.

Which species is your favourite sub­ject to pho­to­graph?

Since I was three years old it has been elephants. Back then, even the cats didn’t re­ally ex­cite me that much.

So what was it like to see elephants in the wild for the first time?

Well, the first time was on that trip when I was six years old. I was in Meru Na­tional Park, in north-east­ern Kenya, and there was this lodge and a swamp. We ar­rived there about lunchtime and there was a ter­race over­look­ing the swamp, and the swamp was com­pletely filled with elephants. I couldn’t be­lieve it. There must have been about three or four hun­dred elephants, it was elephants like wilde­beest in the Mara! It was un­be­liev­able. It was 1982 and that was just be­fore the poaching cri­sis of the 1980s and 1990s.

Would you see the same pro­fu­sion of elephants at Meru now?

No, noth­ing like it. There are still elephants but noth­ing com­pared to what it was. They are very ner­vous now, they are so fear­ful, es­pe­cially in Meru Na­tional Park, which is one of the places in Kenya that has been most af­fected by poaching. When it hap­pens now, those herds are still one of the most exciting things to see in Africa. It doesn’t hap­pen so much in

Some of the most dra­matic images come from dust, in my opin­ion. It gives so much drama and cleans up the back­ground. It leaves only the rel­e­vant shapes vis­i­ble

the Mara, but in Tsavo and Ambesoli you can still en­counter hun­dreds of elephants to­gether at the same time. Elephants are still my favourite an­i­mals, along with big cats. I can now say I have de­vel­oped a strong feel­ing for cats!

I as­sume you do most of your pho­tog­ra­phy first thing in the morn­ing and in the last light of the day?

Yes, I do. And when it’s cloudy. Para­dox­i­cally, you get more sight­ings when it’s cloudy than when it’s sunny. When it’s sunny, yes, I shoot in the morn­ing and evening and very sel­dom in the mid­dle of the day, un­less it’s the wilde­beest mi­gra­tion when it can be very in­ter­est­ing in the mid­dle of the day as well – with dust around, you can still get very nice images.

When it’s sunny, pho­tog­ra­phy can be very dif­fi­cult, but when it’s cloudy things hap­pen through­out the day. The an­i­mals be­come more ac­tive, es­pe­cially the cats. The ac­tion be­comes very spread out at dif­fer­ent mo­ments. A lot of the images from the book were taken when it was cloudy.

And as cloudy light is more dif­fused, does that make it eas­ier for pho­tog­ra­phy?

Ab­so­lutely. There is not one im­age in this book that is taken with stan­dard frontal light­ing. Not one im­age. These days, I pre­fer to shoot in uni­form light with clouds, with these skies and ac­tive an­i­mals. I work with side light­ing and back­light­ing.

Be­ing out in the field so much, how do you man­age your work­flow when in camp?

It’s tricky. I don’t do much in terms of pro­cess­ing when I’m out in the bush be­cause the time is so lim­ited. I stay out shoot­ing about 13 hours a day, ei­ther with the guests or just by my­self, so I don’t re­ally have time to do any pro­cess­ing.

Af­ter two or three days, when my me­mory cards get full, I down­load the pho­tos to my com­puter or an ex­ter­nal hard drive, so then when I’m in Nairobi or back home I can go through them prop­erly. If I have a bit of time while I’m in camp I might fo­cus on a few images that I feel are re­ally worth­while, other­wise I edit my shots when I have a bit of time at home.

How many me­mory cards do you take and what sort of ca­pac­ity?

I have 32GB and one 64GB. I have about six or seven cards in to­tal, mostly 32GB, on three cam­eras.

Do you delete any images when you’re in the field?

I hardly have time be­cause I’m driv­ing when I’m by my­self and I’m guid­ing when I have guests, so I can­not do my own thing. In the evening I might go through the cards and do a bit of dele­tion of the ob­vi­ously wrong ones, but that’s not much re­ally. I try not to shoot too much, I try to fo­cus on what I re­ally think could turn into a nice pho­to­graph, es­pe­cially hav­ing been there so long.

You’re be­com­ing more dis­cern­ing with ex­pe­ri­ence…

Ab­so­lutely, other­wise you get just flooded with images which are of no use. The time is very lim­ited. In­ter­est­ingly, when I started seven or eight years ago the in­ter­net con­nec­tion in the Mara was much bet­ter.

Re­ally?

Yes, par­tic­u­larly in the camps down close to the river and sur­rounded by trees. There the net­work is weak, so I can’t do much. In the first few years when I was in the Mara I kept an on­line di­ary of what I was see­ing through­out the day, so in the evening I would find the time to process a few images and put them on the web­site with a bit of text, and that went on un­til about 2012, when I was un­able to do it any more be­cause the in­ter­net in the park be­came to­tally un­re­li­able. The con­nec­tion is good when you’re out in the field be­cause maybe you’re at an el­e­vated place, but back in camp it has be­come very weak, so I don’t keep my di­ary any more.

The D5 was re­leased ear­lier this year. Is this a cam­era you’re likely to switch to?

I have the D810 and D800. I think for now I’m not go­ing to go for the D5 be­cause I pre­fer to have files with beau­ti­ful dy­namic range and very large megapixel counts that can be turned into huge prints rather than have a very fast cam­era. Of course, the price is rel­e­vant too, so if I should feel the need to switch to a sportier cam­era I would prob­a­bly go back to a

Para­dox­i­cally you get more sight­ings when it’s cloudy than when it’s sunny… The an­i­mals be­come more ac­tive

sec­ond­hand D4 or D4s. I have to cal­cu­late the ben­e­fits against the cost and I think I pre­fer to stick to a su­per-high res­o­lu­tion cam­era.

If a re­place­ment for the D810 came out with more megapix­els and greater sen­si­tiv­ity I would go for that. The cam­eras I use are fast enough al­ready at five frames per sec­ond. In my pho­tog­ra­phy I try to do more an­i­mals in the en­vi­ron­ment, show­ing an­i­mals in their set­ting with beau­ti­ful light and beau­ti­ful skies and land­scape, so speed is not that cru­cial. It’s more the de­tail and the dy­namic range.

Was your first cam­era a Nikon?

My first cam­era came from my grandpa, a Mi­nolta cam­era and lenses, an SLR. Then in 1997 I bought my first Nikon, an F70, and that stayed with me un­til I bought my first dig­i­tal SLR.

Do you have a par­tic­u­larly mem­o­rable ex­pe­ri­ence from one of your sa­faris that has pro­duced a pho­to­graph that you trea­sure?

There have been many. Some in the early days of be­ing sur­rounded by elephants – elephants fight­ing, elephants play­ing – these have been some of my favourite mem­o­ries. And prob­a­bly fol­low­ing the cara­cals, cer­tain mo­ments with the cara­cals, re­al­is­ing that I was wit­ness­ing some­thing that no-one had seen be­fore, let alone pho­tographed. Some days on the Serengeti kop­jes, be­ing sur­rounded by this won­der­ful land­scape with the light com­ing through the clouds… it’s not a spe­cific mo­ment, but let’s say of reach­ing a mo­ment of com­plete sat­is­fac­tion and com­plete im­mer­sion in the wild, es­pe­cially when no other peo­ple are around. For ex­am­ple, when pho­tograph­ing the cara­cal I was al­ways alone, there was no other car with me, so I was work­ing on this com­pletely on my own. It was mag­i­cal, find­ing them day af­ter day.

What are the most com­mon mis­takes pho­tog­ra­phers make when they go on sa­fari?

Giv­ing in to anx­i­ety and im­pa­tience. You have to ac­cept that to­day you might not see any­thing, and not be­come ob­sessed by what you ex­pect to see. You have to let na­ture take its course. Some­times with ra­dio com­mu­ni­ca­tions you can rush ev­ery­where – see a leop­ard there, a chee­tah here, a lion there and then back. Some peo­ple are so happy with this be­cause they think, ‘I’ve seen so much in one day.’ Some­times you get lucky and take fan­tas­tic pictures of all these, but to me you don’t re­ally de­velop a sense of the an­i­mals you’re look­ing at. I much pre­fer to just stay with one or two an­i­mals for the whole sa­fari; some­times you just strug­gle to see leop­ards be­cause there are pe­ri­ods where they are not seen, they’re not very con­spic­u­ous, and then you come six months later and all you see is leop­ards! So, for peo­ple who come it’s good to just see what’s there and take in what’s there. Don’t be ob­sessed with see­ing ev­ery­thing and see­ing it all in one day.

So go­ing on sa­fari is about en­joy­ing the big­ger pic­ture?

Ex­actly. As you fo­cus on one an­i­mal you get so much into its rhythms and its life and you de­velop such a strong con­nec­tion with the an­i­mal, which you just don’t de­velop when you’re rush­ing ev­ery­where. See more of Fed­erico’s work and buy his book at www.fed­eri­coveronesi.com. Find out about Im­age Sa­faris at www.im­age­sa­faris.com

Pre­vi­ous page Li­on­ess Nikon D800, Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8, 1/500 sec, f/10, ISO 280 Lions mat­ing Nikon D300, Nikon 600mm f/4, 1/320 sec, f/6.3, ISO 500

Nikon D70s, Nikon 24-70 f/2.8, 1/400 sec, f/8, ISO 200 El ephants and thun­der­clouds

Great mi­gra­tion Nikon D300, Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8, 1/200 sec, f/8, ISO 200

Cara­cal Nikon D700, Nikon 600mm f/4, 1/250 sec, f/4, ISO 3200

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