Lion Man

Ali Schofield talks life-changing journeys, celebrity fans and
unpredictable animals with Harrogate wildlife photographer
Sam Oakes
"Your normally camped not far from a pride of lions, elephants can troop through at night, a hippo brushed my tent one morning; all sorts of things happen and there are lots of near misses." Africa's 'big five' weren't much of a concern in Sam Oakes' previous career as a desk-bound graphic designer, but since taking up wildlife photography and adventure guiding in 2005, things have got a lot more interesting for the Harrogate local.
It all started when Oakes took the leap to quit his job and book a flight to Russia.
"I wanted to go on a bit of an adventure really, so I booked a flight to Moscow and a train ticket across the Trans-Siberian through Mongolia to China and then just decided to see where I'd end up after that.
"I came home 18 months later through a lot of South East Asia and Australia with a large body of work."
Having photographed both animal and human subjects, as well as landscapes, in countries as diverse as Croatia, Cambodia and Tanzania, Oakes has produced a line of greetings cards, a 2011 calendar and coffee table book, 'East Africa - A Journey Through Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda.'
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I wonder how he pairs down thousands of photographs to just 12 for a calendar.
"I ask a lot of family and friends what they like," Oakes says. "If you show people a group of pictures, the ones they go 'wow' to are generally the ones you should choose. But sometimes it's very different to the ones that are my favorites, in fact most of the time they are different to the ones which are my favorites, but family and friends are the greatest critics, particularly my family and friends, they're great at it!"
The photos which have made the crop include a prowling lion, running giraffes and a silverback gorilla. Just as wildlife photography differs hugely from studio work - "To take a well composed, well lit shot, for the animal to behave, is just impossible. It's luck most of the time" - so Oakes hase to keep his wits about him.
He recalls a game drive on which he discovered three cheetah siblings who had chased down a hare and were looking for something bigger.
"They ate the hare but then they saw a group of thompson's gazelles, and although cheetahs can run very fast, they haven't got great stamina - they can only run at 70mph for 300 yards or so - they were tired from the hare but they started chasing the thompson's 
gazelles and couldn't get anywhere near them; it's just so exciting to watch,
"But because our vision was focused on this, we never noticed that a pride of lions came round either side of our truck. Never even saw them!"
Luckily for Oakes and his group, the lions were more interested in the gazelles too, and this month he travels to the Windward Isles in the Caribbean, on which parrots, lizards and turtles should prove equally interesting subjects.
Not that a wildlife photographer can rely on anything for definite; years of tour guiding have taught Oakes to expect the unexpected.
"You can read all the books and watch all the David Attenborough programmes you want, but how animals behave in a particular situation and environment is often different to what you learn in a book," Oakes says. "I remember this incident when we found a Bush Buck. I was talking about it, it's feeding habitats and where it liked to roam, but the main thing is it's one of the most solitary antelopes in the bush; you'll never see more than two or large groups of them. After I'd finished the talk, people had taken their pictures, we turned the corner and there was over a hundred of them!"
Despite his subjects occasionally embarrassing him with mass displays of ill-fitting behaviour, the photographer has enjoyed praise from one of his heros: Michael Palin.
"He came to Harrogate for a book signing quite a number of years ago and I had an exhibition at the time, but I knew there'd be hundreds of people there wanting to get their book signed so I decided to write him a letter explaining I had an exhibition and how much I admired his work - and the photographer he takes with him on all his adventures - and then just asked whether he'd like to take a look at my website. And of course you don't ever really think that anything will come of it, but I then got this email saying how much he liked the works, which was just phenomenal really."
He has then kept Palin's comment 'Excellent work, keep on doing what you're doing' in mind and advises hopeful photographers who might daydream at a desk like he did, to do the same.
"It can be four or five years before you actually get anywhere.
"The best thing I can always say is just to keep at it, get your work out there and enjoy it."

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34 PLUSH November 10