What an Incredible Year

2023 was an extraordinary year for the Flack family. After leaving the corporate world I was not 100% sure what we were going to do next. I just knew it was time to leave and follow my heart again. Since my early twenties I have made a number of unconventional choices based on what I can only describe as leaps of faith. I still remember explaining to family and friends that I felt I needed to resign from Accenture and travel around the world for 8 months with a rucksack, a bible and a journal. Very few thought that was a good idea at the time, but it was a life changing experience for me and one that forged so much of my journey ahead. 6 months after returning home, I had started my own business with a lifelong friend and so my entrepreneurial adventures began.

When I look back at the decisions taken, it has been the most unorthodox and courageous ones that have had the most impact on who I am today and where I find myself. Flying to New York to profess my feelings for Eileen (my now wife) after not seeing her for 2 years was another.

As much as I didn’t know how the decisions would turn out, I had a strong personal conviction that they were the right choices for me. This year I felt to start sharing my passion for photography and learning to become a better listener. Little did I know where the road would lead. Looking back I am so very thankful. Incredibly thankful to God for all he has done and given us! And so grateful for my amazing wife; Eileen. She trusts me, actively believes in me, encourages me and is an amazing rock for Joshua and I. Thank you my love!

I hope you enjoy my lessons learned and some of my most cherished photographs that I took along the way.

What teaching photography has taught me

At the end of 2022 I was asked by a young man; Shaun, if we could have coffee together. He was considering whether to become a professional wildlife photographer and wanted my advice. Having started my training as a business coach (as I wanted to learn to listen more effectively), I had learnt a lot more about what to do in situations like this. Instead of offering advice, I asked a number of questions. They were the right questions to ask but as a result they didn’t provide immediate clarity. After our coffee, I was driving to Johannesburg to complete my coaching training when I phoned Eileen and asked what she thought about me building a photography mentorship programme and seeing if Shaun wanted to be the first person to go on it.

It had been on my heart for a while and this seemed to present an opportunity to put it into action. I felt it could possibly encourage Shaun and give him some further confidence and clarity about what he wanted to do next. Having had the opportunity to teach photography to guides in Kenya a few months earlier, I realised how much I enjoy building confidence in others, encouraging them and doing my small part to support them along their own journey. Simply, I built a teaching programme that I felt would tell participants what I would have wanted to know at the beginning of my own journey. I wanted to tell them what I had learnt about what makes images great, what to look for through their viewfinders, how studying art had built my confidence and allowed me to be more objective when analysing my images and how learning to set the table for creative success had added so much excitement to my time in the field.

Fast forward almost 12 months and I have had the privilege of teaching photographers from all round the world, from safari guides of the year and conservationists in South Africa to canon masters in Asia to artists in Texas to teachers, lecturers and macro photographers in the United Kingdom and Germany.

I was not sure anyone would even want to join me on the programme let alone that there would be enough to fill my intakes for the year. To say I am thankful would be a massive understatement. It has been an incredible privilege to walk a road with so many likeminded and awesome people.

The year has been one of incredible growth for me personally. Having never taught professionally I was somewhat insecure about my abilities and chuckled at the irony of having a professional teacher; Fiona, as one of my first participants. My immediate thought was that I was going to be found out, but I soon adopted the “glass half full approach” and thought what better way to improve and receive valuable feedback for my future programmes. Looking back on this time, I can see how important it was for my confidence and growth. Thanks so much to Fiona for her kindness and feedback. It was a massive encouragement!

Some key learnings

Looking back at the year that was, I thought I would share some of my key learnings as a photographer and mentor and use images to illustrate them.

Confidence is such a gift: Over the last year the importance of confidence and how this propels us forward in our ability to grow has been as clear as daylight. Confidence can come through a number of ways; from people believing in you, through gaining knowledge that brings clarity, through practical application leading to success. I still remember how Eileen’s belief in my photography made such a big difference in my growth trajectory. She started my social media pages and she was the one who encouraged me to show the work that I loved. Without her and further encouragement and generous gifts from my father, mother and others I would have remained in hiding, not wanting to get feedback in case it poured water on my passion.

Knowledge builds confidence: Through my own journey and through teaching others, I have also seen how knowledge is such an enabler for increased confidence. Criticism more often than not knocks confidence as opposed to building it (as we don’t normally know the reasons for the criticism or what to do with it), while helping others to identify and understand how to improve their work undoubtedly fosters it. When we start out taking images, many of us don’t realise why we love certain of our images or other people’s images. As soon as we can put words to why we love something and see how we (or others) have done it, we can repeat it. This builds confidence! It also allows us to recognize where potential criticism may come from and to decide for ourselves whether it is a big deal or not.

Growth comes from active engagement and your own practical application: It took me ages to work out how to objectively assess the quality of my imagery. Videos and google were helpful to start with, facebook feedback wasn’t and critique forums were ok for knowing what was wrong with my work but not necessarily for how to consistently fix and improve things. If you have kids of your own, it is pretty obvious that we don’t send them to school to watch videos and get social media feedback. Indeed, Bloom’s cognitive levels would suggest that there is so much more to learning. Application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation are key components to higher learning.

Consequently, our ability to learn as photographers means that we have to take the knowledge we have gained and start applying it the field, using it to prepare, plan and design our approach and indeed to analyse and evaluate our work.

It is difficult to learn composition in the field: “I have been going on photographic tours and have been to numerous workshops but have never learnt about the principles of composition”. This was a comment I heard a few times this year and it made me appreciate how difficult it is to teach composition and design while in the field taking photographs of wildlife or birds.

Given the nature of learning, it is difficult to understand the complexity of composition when action is fleeting and potential compositions only last for a few seconds. My conclusion is that this knowledge is best gained beforehand. It is also this knowledge of composition and design (and the regular practicing of it) that makes our time more productive and enjoyable when we you go on our bucket list trips.

Don’t let ambition get in the way of your passion: My study of creativity led me to discover that a key mindset shared by the majority of creative artists, musicians and designers is one of love (or passion) for their subject/s. I have spoken about “falling in love with your subject” before, as it leads to greater curiosity, more time spent with them and indeed, greater levels of creativity. Hence, letting our ambition steal our love for what we do can potentially stop us achieving the very dreams we are striving for. Over the last year, I have been asked to remind some of my participants of why they are doing what they do (i.e. the purpose behind their work) and to help prevent their performance driven personalities stealing the love and fun that photography provides them. I thought this was worth pondering in a world where success is often defined by realisation of specific goals, working 24/7 to achieve them and considering ourselves a failure when we don’t. What is your definition of success? I have found that my most creative moments have happened when I am peaceful, not striving, listening and allowing myself to go with the flow. I am still putting in long hours, applying my trade excellently but seeing success in a somewhat different light.

Many people think they are not creative. In all my experience, they are wrong. I have heard on numerous occasions this year photographers tell me that they are not creative. I used to think the same about myself! I didn’t think I had a creative bone in my body. When I started photography my images seemed to confirm that! I persevered because I loved birds and wanted to get better at showcasing them. I practiced twice a week when I was still active in business. It took 1000s of hours before things stopped being painful and frustrating. Only a few years down the line did I start taking images that I really liked and it was only a few years later that I realised why I liked them. My experience and those of many others has taught me that we don’t really know how creative we are until we lay the correct foundations. One of these foundations is mimicking the behaviour of experts (i.e. knowing what they do to achieve success) and then putting these behaviours into practice. My encouragement to all of us, is that we don’t know how creative we are until we begin to master our trade. It is at this point that practice becomes fun and exciting and we start to identify creative opportunities.

My favourite images from 2023

Besides an amazing year of learning, 2023 also produced some incredible adventures and memories. The following selection of images provides a few of my favourites, as well as a quick year in review.

My first trip and commercial portfolio of the year took place at Mavela Game Lodge in Manyoni Game Reserve. Manyoni is undoubtedly one of the top birding reserves in South Africa and a great spot to come away with photographs of some of South Africa’s most sought after species: Northern KwaZulu Natal ~ The Place of Birds

Thanks so much to Dan Stevens and Scelo Masuku for guiding me!

My time in northern KwaZulu-Natal was followed shortly by an incredible trip to the Makuleke concession of northern Kruger where I spent time with friend and guide; Warren Deyzel, and put together a portfolio for the Outpost lodge. It was incredible to see what 5 nights can deliver in this “birder’s heaven” from a photographic perspective. Warren’s guiding was exceptional and we explored areas that I never even knew existed. Highlights included the discovery of breeding Mottled Spinetails, nest building Mosque Swallows and Lemon-breasted Canaries and so much more. If you have not yet been to Pafuri or the Makuleke concession, you should definitely add it to your list: The Magnificent Maluleke Concession in Northern Kruger

February and March in the Natal Midlands is always a ton of fun. Wildflowers and aloes bloom and a variety of birds take advantage of the fresh produce.

In April we spent a long weekend at Golden Gate National Park; a landscape photographer’s dream and a great place for family hikes. It also proved to be a fantastic location to photograph wildlife and capture more “iconic African birdscapes”. The sandstone cliffs, rugged terrain and wonderful array of birds provided the perfect ingredients.

There is a reason one of next year’s creative workshops will be taking place in April/May at my home in the Natal Midlands. The kaleidoscope of colours is incredible and makes creative options more varied: Making the most of Autumn and Winter Bird Photography

My year would not be complete without spending time with my local Half-collared Kingfishers. This winter they successfully bred on our estate, which made for some cold yet unforgettable moments. (My first discovery of the kingfishers: Breeding Half-collared Kingfishers)

The end of May saw me head to the Wilderness to give a three hour talk on; “how to build our confidence as wildlife photographers, so we can reach our potential as artists”, as part of Birdlife South Africa’s annual event and Canon’s sponsored workshop. Thanks so much for having me Mark and Roger!

On the way home I stopped off at Tenahead Lodge & Spa at the top of Naude’s Nek to put together a portfolio for them, but also to look at the facilities from a creative workshop perspective. Spending quality time with their Drakensberg Rockjumpers through all weather conditions will be etched in my memory for many years to come. Thanks so much to Justin and Crystal from River Hotels! Tenahead remains one of my top bird photography destinations in South Africa and I am looking forward to sharing it with others in 2024: Workshops: Tenahead Lodge & Spa

My final trip of the year led me to southern Malawi and the beautiful Thangadzi River Conservancy and Elephant Marsh. One paragraph will not do it justice, so if you didn’t receive my last newsletter, please check it out here: Conservation & Unique Bird Photography in Southern Malawi

Highlights were many and varied but time spent observing 1000s of waterbirds on the Elephant Marsh, photographing breeding Bohm’s bee-eaters near the lodge and observing Collared Palm Thrushes in De’s garden must rank as three of the top ones. Thanks so much to Chris and De Matthews for hosting me and letting me be part of their exciting story.

Since arriving home from Malawi, I have been on one more exciting adventure to assist with a conservation project in KwaZulu Natal, but will fill you in on that in 2024.

I hope you enjoyed my last newsletter of the year. Please send me feedback and feel free to send to friends and family who may be interested.

Thank you so much for your continued support and encouragement!

If we don’t speak before the year is out, I hope you have a truly blessed festive season and an incredible new year!

Yours in bird photography,