Before starting an international relations degree, young wildlife photographer Daniël Nelson wanted to embark on an epic adventure. It was Africa that had sparked his passion for photography – his father took him to Zambia aged just six to see wildlife in their natural habitat – so he decided to return to Africa. Armed with his Canon EOS 6D and two lenses, he travelled the length of the continent by public transport, uncovering conservation and wildlife stories along the way.
"I wanted to do a really big trip, going to places that are not frequently visited and see things that haven't been documented much," Daniël says. "I came up with the idea of going from Amsterdam to Cape Town by public transport, along the west side of Africa. There are so many countries such as Sierra Leone, Togo, Cameroon, Congo or Angola that have interesting wildlife and cultures but are seldom photographed, or are under-reported compared with countries such as Kenya and South Africa. So, I took my rucksack and spent eight months traversing the African continent."
Daniël has always loved wildlife photography, capturing nature across the globe and closer to home in the Netherlands. After being catapulted into the public eye as winner of 2017's coveted Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year award at the age of 18 (with an image taken when he was just 16), Daniël has achieved levels of success that many photographers twice his age dream of reaching.
"As a young photographer, it is the biggest thing you can get," he says. "It brought me exposure. People started approaching me and knew my work, which you don't usually get as a photographer under 18 because you don't have a career yet, so that was a very nice platform."
"Wildlife is the biggest focus of my photography and the thing I like most. During this trip, I wanted to explore what the wildlife is like in this part of the world," says Daniël, pointing out that conflicts in the last few decades have meant that many countries remain relatively unknown to tourists.
His epic journey took him through 22 African countries in 238 days, by whatever means of transport he could find – including buses, trains, motorbikes and hitchhiking. From the deserts of Morocco through the jungles of central Africa to the coast of South Africa, the trip took in the diversity of the continent's landscapes, wildlife, cultures and history. Daniël photographed voodoo in Benin, rehabilitation in former war-torn Sierra Leone, conservation efforts in Guinea-Bissau and more.
Documenting conservation efforts formed the backbone of the trip, and Daniël worked with the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) to photograph their anti-poaching units' missions from Angola to the Republic of the Congo. "I shot stories on how the anti-poaching units go into the jungle to try to track down poachers," he says. "I also wanted to see what motivates poachers to take part in the ivory and bushmeat trades. I was able to photograph the poaching patrol, how a poacher is captured and the whole process behind that."
One stark image shows a poacher being held by a unit in Cameroon, having been arrested on suspicion of hunting elephants in Dja National Park. Another shows the scale of the problem as a storage room is piled high with the tragic spoils of poaching – around 200 tusks seized in Ouésso, Congo.
"Unfortunately, in many places there is very little wildlife because much of it has been poached," says Daniël. "But the parks are stunning and there's beautiful potential, with many native species. Pendjari National Park in Benin is one of the real success stories, and has the 'Big Five' wildlife that you'd expect to see in more well-known African parks." Across the 20,000km he covered, Daniël photographed primates including chimps and gorillas, 'Big Five' African animal species including elephants, lions and buffalos, as well as more unusual animals such as servals, plus insects, birds and stunning scenery.
Many of his photographs from the trip capture people's stories uncovered along the way, including Mauritania's famous iron ore train. "The world's longest train goes into the desert to collect iron ore, so I photographed the barren desert with this huge train cutting through it. There's a nice story behind that because it's an artery of that country's economy."
A particular highlight was Guinea. "It's one of the least visited countries in the world, but the nature is absolutely stunning – there are huge waterfalls, amazing mountains, and chimpanzees," he says. "Everywhere you go, you're among the first to go there, so it was a nice surprise – a hidden gem."
Although many countries in west and central Africa have little tourist infrastructure, Daniël found himself regularly welcomed into people's homes and offered lifts, meals and guidance. "Many places in these countries will surprise you," he says.
While he was joined by friends and family members at points during his journey, the majority of the eight months were spent traveling solo with just a 25kg rucksack containing a sleeping bag, food, medicine and just three shirts and two pairs of trousers. Travelling this light meant he took just his Canon EOS 6D, which he's been shooting on since 2014, and two lenses, a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM and a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM.
"The Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM was a great lens," he says. "I needed a longer telephoto lens because obviously in parks where animals are not used to humans, you can never get close to them. So it's nice to have a telephoto lens for long distance. For the scenery and people, I used the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM. Conditions often actually made it challenging to take photographs, but when I got the opportunity, the Canon EOS 6D meant I could take very good pictures."
Based on his experiences shooting in often testing conditions, Daniël has some advice for travellers hoping to get the most out of their photography in the field…
1. Care for your kit when on the move
"You shouldn't underestimate how important it is to take care of your camera when working in harsh conditions. When I was in the rainforest in Congo, I spent three weeks hiking. With the humidity and rain, my gear would get wet. Every morning I would wake up and there would be condensation in the camera, so for the first 12 hours of the day I couldn't shoot any pictures until it dried. At other times there was dust or dirt. My camera became my baby. I had to clean it every day and really take more care of it than I normally would. This worked – it held out throughout my trip."
2. Take your time to understand wildlife
"When it comes to photographing wildlife, especially in places where the wildlife isn't used to people, take your time to capture pictures. Unlike animals in frequently visited parks, most of the wildlife I tried to photograph was unhabituated to humans. An animal could seldom be approached and usually fled once it noticed my presence. My advice is to familiarise yourself with the species and its environment, and plan how the picture will look in advance. If I know where an animal likely feeds, what trails it uses, where it nests and what habitat it prefers, I can position myself out of sight and let the animal walk into my frame undisturbed. It can take up to two hours just to set up the perfect shot, with the lighting, composition and waiting for the animals to become sufficiently used to you being there. You need to wait until you're not a distraction any more so you can really shoot them in a natural way."
3. Improvise with lighting hacks
"You can often find yourself working in places with bad lighting. Under the dense canopy of the jungle, in a dusty slum, or during the middle of the night, it is difficult to take pictures. I never had the time to wait for a pretty sunset or good lighting, so I had to improvise. I also did not have things like a flash, tripod or remote shutter as I was travelling so light. In situations like these, it's important to know your camera well and to be creative. If the lighting was poor, I often made makeshift tripods using rocks and used a flashlight to light my subject. Other times I included moonlight, street or shop lights in my frame. Quick improvisations like these enabled me to take quality photos in poor conditions."
4. Find focal points in landscapes
"Landscapes are often homogeneous, making them tricky to photograph. I usually focus on a snippet of the large panorama in front of me. I scan the environment and look for an eye-catching feature such as a strange shape, interesting pattern or striking colour. I make that the focal point of my image, so that my audience has something to focus on in an otherwise unvarying landscape."
5. Make subjects part of their own story
"Photographing people can be challenging. For me, many people were fearful or suspicious of me taking their photo in areas where there was little tourism. I even had people coming up to me saying: 'I don't want to be another one of those skinny Africans in Western brochures,' so there was that element as well. I would have a proper conversation with people to explain what I was trying to do with the pictures, including showing the nice parts of their country. It's important to always be kind and have a conversation with the person you're trying to photograph and to really make them feel comfortable before taking a picture."