Shannon Benson, known professionally as Shannon Wild, was on hand to road-test the Huawei P30 Pro at the Phinda Game Reserve in South Africa.

'Rough, dangerous, wonderful': Shannon's wild life in Africa

22nd June 2019 5:00 AM

AT FIRST, the game reserves of South Africa might seem a world away from the Darling Downs.

The plains of the African nation are teeming with wildlife foreign to Australian soil - lions, leopards, cheetahs and elephants.

But it isn't hard for Shannon Benson to connect her career filming some of the world's most dangerous animals to her formative years in Australia.

"There's a lot of similarities between the South African bush to our outback. The bush, the look of the landscape, the colours of the soil," she said.

Shannon is better known to more than 200,000 followers on Instagram as Shannon Wild, a National Geographic cinematographer whose dreams of living in Africa became a reality six years ago.

It's a "rough and dangerous and wonderful" story that has left her mauled by a cheetah, and bedridden for three months - and the roots of that journey can be traced back to her time in Toowoomba.

Shannon's describes her loves of wildlife as "innate", instilled from a young age growing up on the Gold Coast.

Her family's move to a property on the Darling Downs when she was 13 years old further enhanced her connection to the land.

"The experiences I had as a teenager moving out onto the land highly affected that because then I was surrounded by a much more wild environment," Shannon said.

"And I was able to get used to how different that is to an urban setting. It's a different way of thinking."

Wildlife cinematographer Shannon Benson, known professionally as Shannon Wild, captures the process of tagging a rhino on a Huawei P30 Pro at the Phinda Game Reserve in South Africa.
Wildlife cinematographer Shannon Benson, known professionally as Shannon Wild, captures the process of tagging a rhino on a Huawei P30 Pro at the Phinda Game Reserve in South Africa. Will Hunter

Shannon finished her senior years of schooling at The Glennie School, and her parents Alan and Lynette still live in Toowoomba.

She remained in the city after graduating high school to work as a graphic designer, before moving to continue her career in Brisbane at the age of 21.

It was here she took up photography as a hobby, to capture the animals she looked after as a volunteer wildlife carer.

The merging of these two passions eventually evolved into a creative career.

"I quickly realised I enjoyed it far more than I did the graphic design," she said.

Shannon ran a pet photography business in Brisbane for seven years, but couldn't escape her dreams of moving to Africa.

"I was tossing up the idea of moving overseas to elevate my career, but I hadn't decided where to go or what to do," she said.

"I'd got to a point where I was a bit restless. I felt I wanted to do more in wildlife but the work isn't there enough that I could support myself with that purely.

"I grew up dreaming of Africa.

"I grew up on Attenborough documentaries and National Geographic magazines."

It was a whirlwind romance that eventually sparked a monumental shift in her life and career - her move to South Africa.

Shannon first connected with her husband and fellow cinematographer Russell MacLaughlin on Instagram.

After that initial contact in September, the two married in Indonesia two months later.

"I followed him to South Africa and never came back. I sold everything I owned except my camera gear," Shannon said.

"I packed up and moved here and nobody knew me or my work. I had to start again.

"For the first two years I worked for free and networked and shot as much I could. It was really, really tough. I burnt through my savings pretty quickly.

"By the third year, then all that networking gradually starting to pay off. We've been constantly travelling ever since."

Her years of hard work finally took its toll while on an assignment in the Masai Mara in Kenya.

"The lead up to this had been very long, I had just pushed myself for years and years and my body finally gave out," Shannon said.

"I just never had a chance to get over something. I'd be terribly ill but I'd be pushing through because I had to finish this job. I literally pushed myself to exhaustion."

She was medevaced out of the area after collapsing on a gravel path, and unable to work for six months.

"I've learnt my body's limitations and I've come back stronger and healthier," Shannon said.

Shannon has now wrapped filming on an 18-month project to document the black panther, a melanistic leopard living in dense jungle in India.

"We needed every second of that because it's a very elusive animal," she said.

"We're looking for one individual animal in a very massive area."

It was a shoot also filled with drama - the rare creature's face was wounded in a territorial fight with another male leopard and disappeared for five weeks.

"We were worried for him and his safety and his health. We were also worried if we still had a documentary," Shannon said.

"Suddenly one day he pops up and he has this perfect white line down his face. It actually made a very distinct storyline.

"The moment was absolute sheer relief."

Lions hunt on South Africa game reserve: Lions hunt on the Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa. All footage shot on the Huawei P30 Pro.
Lions hunt on South Africa game reserve: Lions hunt on the Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa. All footage shot on the Huawei P30 Pro.

Projects like the upcoming documentary allow Shannon and her husband to film all over the world, travelling for about 11 months of the year.

"It never gets old. I could go out on game drive every day and wouldn't have to see anything. I just love it," she said.

The moments that stick out in Shannon's mind include the roar of a lion vibrating through her chest in just her first week living in South Africa.

"I literally just started crying, I was so emotional. It's the most beautiful sound in the bush," she said.

"There's so many amazing moments.

"I've seen a baby elephant at a watering hole make that transition and learn for the first time, where it's been kneeling down and drinking water with its mouth to learning how to do it with its trunk...which just blew my mind."

And although Shannon's path to success has often been difficult, she said the challenges had been worth it.

"I'm in a nice comfortable position now when I get regular work. But getting to this point has been really tough," she said.

"There were a lot of times that I could have and wanted to give up.

"I had moments where I could have packed up and gone back to Australia but I didn't even have enough money to get a ticket home so I had no choice but to stay.

"I'm glad that happened because I got past those moments and it gets better.

"It's been rough and dangerous and wonderful and amazing and I wouldn't change any of it."

Shannon's black panther documentary premieres on Nat Geo Wild in December.

How to improve your smartphone shots

NATIONAL Geographic cinematographer Shannon Wild has a few tips for budding content creators eager to improve their skills with the lens.   

"The first thing would be to make a really strong image it's important to have really good composition," Shannon said.

"A really easy to learn what makes a strong image and composition is to shoot a little bit wider at first.   

"Once you have a bit of a play on your phone crop it in different ways and look at how that changes the drama of that image.

"Once you do that you start making those decision as you're shooting."   

She also strongly encouraged users to take advantage of the video features.   

"People tend to gravitate towards stills, but the beauty is video is just a swipe away," Shannon said.  

"Absolutely get a few stills…but have a play and start practising in video.   

"All the fundamentals are the same and as you practise more and get more comfortable you start getting more creative."   

Shannon said the advancement of technology had made wildlife cinematography an "extremely competitive field".   

"There is something to be said for knowing your gear. Now you have feat that a pro knows how to use on phones like this, it allows it to take it next level," she said.  

The Chronicle deputy editor Will Hunter visited the Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa last week to test out the Huawei P30 Pro. He was a guest of Huawei Australia.