I am fortunate enough to be going to Grumeti in the Serengeti in early March. Part of my preparation is to look back on some of my images from the Masai Mara a year ago. The idea behind the “look back” is to identify mistakes such as incorrect exposures and shutter speeds which were too low and also to critically assess how effective I was in portraying the dynamics of a pride of lions and the supreme power of the big males. It is also to look critically at the way I was taking the images with respect to timing and artistic intent.
“Photography is a love affair with life.”
At that time, the Marsh pride coalition of four large males dominated the area. The four males were named Scar, Hunter, Morani and Sikio. Most of the images of the males we saw were of Hunter and Sikio, as Scar and Morani were with the other half of the Marsh pride on the east side of the Mara river.
All the images of Lions were taken in the 10,000 hectare conservancy in front of Kitchwa Tembo on the north-east corner of Masai Mara. The light was peculiar. It rained each night and was overcast every morning and it looked like there was smoke in the atmosphere. The result was strongly filtered light. One of the key challenges in this strongly filtered light using long lenses was to achieve enough shutter speed without having to push up my ISO too much so as to minimise “noise”. Another challenge was creative, and it was to portray this male as a majestic animal.
As you can see from the shooting data my shutter speeds were too low. Our rule of thumb is that, at a minimum, your shutter speed needs to be three times the focal length of the lens. The F9 aperture was aimed at getting enough depth of field because this male was lying diagonally to us. One of the adaptations I need to make is to be more dynamic and open up my apertures when an animal moves parallel to me as I do not need the same depth of field and in this case did need the additional shutter speed.
This male had been constantly surveying the plain in front of him and saw that a female had caught a Warthog piglet some way off. His regal pose quickly turned into that of a thief. One aspect I want to capture better next time is the flowing mane when this lion runs.
One of the tricky aspects of shooting in the Mara in the strange kind of light, is to get the white balance right. One of the editing dangers was, because the light was so diffused, it was tempting to put too much contrast in the image creating artificial looking colours.
1/500, f7.1, iso1000, 600mm
“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”
Out on the conservancy there was no place to hide. The ground was uneven so a lion could remain hidden for a while but would be exposed close up. Another key part of the photography was to try to capture the dynamics of the wildlife interaction on the Mara. This Buffalo took no nonsense.
The light might not have been right but there were pheromones in the air. This male was using his Jacobson’s organ to test the scent on the wind and grass. Some scent in that area definitely caught his attention. This male was stationary so no additional shutter speed was required beyond the three times focal length.
One of the key elements required in wildlife photography which creates more compelling images, is to see the eyes, preferably both eyes. Human beings seem to need to be able recognise and interpret intention through the eyes. Although this image shows the shape and power of this male that key element of eye contact was missing. Often it is just a question of being patient and choosing to shoot at just the right time rather than just firing away. The trick is to shoot at just the right moment when he opens his eyes, looks up, has one paw up and is flicking his tail.
One of the beguiling aspects of wildlife photography is that there are occasions when you just like the “feel” of a shot. The problem is that it is very contextual and for anyone looking at the image without having been there they would not have that same feeling and the image would probably look very ordinary to a casual observer. It is therefore important to look for compositional elements which hold and tie the image together and provide some compelling context. The bushes acted a modest frame to this male. The rule must be to do most of the work in camera. This can be tough sometimes as your excitement overtakes and you lose your compositional composure.
Part of the reason for looking back through some of these images is to see what works and what is just OK. The very low shutter speed is a killer if there is any real movement in the image. This magnificent male was just lying in the grass watching the goings on all around him – supreme confidence in his own size and strength.
This male stole this Warthog piglet from the lioness who had caught it. The buffalo close by did not appreciate the neighbour’s antics and decided to give the big guy a “rev”. Again here depth of field was an issue with the buffalo and Lion both facing us.
1/640, f9, iso2000, 155mm
I could not get the composition right but I liked the idea of the Buffalo giving this big male lion a “rev” with the Hyaena looking on in the background.
The Buffalo soon co-ordinated their aggression against this male lion. Even if you cannot get a great image it is still a privilege seeing the battle of the titans playing out in the wild.
1/500, f9, iso2000, 165mm
This must be a wildlife classic. You manage to find a magnificent male lion in an open area with a relatively clean background and he lies down next to a pile of buffalo dung!!! Rather self-centredly, I assume he was pushing out his tongue at us.
“… we are there with our cameras to record reality. Once we start modifying that which exists, we are robbing photography of its most valuable attribute.”
~ Philip Jones Griffiths
With parts of the background unwanted, I had to crop the image closer. Perhaps I could have opened up my aperture and reduced my iso as low as possible to reduce the image grain. Somehow in the excitement it takes a real presence of mind to realise that you will have to do a closeup and your shooting parameters need to change. The level of consciousness required in photography is often underestimated. Without trying to sound funny,this is why you do not find many photographers having too many beers or glasses of wine the night before.
Sometimes you have to wait to try to get something different it could be a look or a pose or a yawn.
With so much wildlife on the plains there is always something going on. Again the compositional aspects become important to get a decent image. One Giraffe cannot be looking into the edge of the photograph. They need visual space.
In the same area we found a pride with a few lionesses and many youngsters. This pride had trapped a leopard cub on the ground and killed it while forcing the mother leopard up the tree. We had been shooting with long lenses. They would not work in this scene as a shorter lens was needed somewhere around a 70 to 200mm focal length. It was a very sad scene and is upsetting to see the ruthlessness of mother nature in the raw. The lionesses killed the leopard cub and just left it and did not try to eat it.
“Photography is the story I fail to put into words.”
~ Destin Sparks
One of the young males picked up the lifeless Leopard cub and ran off with it. The lionesses let him run off with the dead leopard cub. These kind of scenes are so unique in the wild and photographically is takes some doing to keep calm and remain very much in the present trying to capture the most poignant images you can.
The young male carried the leopard cub about ten to 15 metres away from the kill point and the rest of the pride followed. Suddenly they were spooked by something, but I was not sure what. One of the key aspects about good wildlife photography is to understand the behaviour of your subject so that you can be ready with the right lens/camera combination and settings. Nothing I have ever seen in the bush prepared me for this.
The young male lion was very protective over his “capture”. The sudden and erratic movements of these lions meant that you needed high shutter speeds to ensure pin sharp images of this unique interaction.
Sometimes things happen fast in the wild. The brilliant aspect of photography is that you are trying to capture fractions of a second which portray the movement or look. You can spend hours in the sun when nothing happens and all of a sudden in a second or two all the action takes place – you have to be alert all the time – anticipation!
The lions killed six warthog piglets that morning alone. The lionesses managed to get most of them and the males only stole two that we saw. Remember the light is constantly changing especially if it is a variable and cloudy day which changes not only the exposure but the white balance too. Editing in Lightroom helps correct exposure and white balance as long as you are shooting in the raw format.
1/250, f9, iso1000, 400mm
“Taking an image, freezing a moment, reveals how rich reality truly is.”
With buffalo dung next to his right paw, a closeup of his face was preferable. A little more contrast makes quite an impression.
Again to make the image more interesting, it is worth waiting for your subject to do something a little more unusual.
This lioness got to keep her kill. The warthog families took a beating that day. We were very fortunate to see all the activity as the warthogs could not be decimated at that rate every day
Another piglet caught. The lionesses were much faster than the warthog piglets in the open. This lioness was not going to let this cub have a look in. It probably was not her cub. This kind of interaction was all some distance off so a long lens was needed and with it high shutter speeds. If there was anything I learnt from this trip was to make sure I kept my shutter speeds up above three times the focal length of my lens.
“Essentially what photography is, is life lit up.”
— Sam Abell
Again presence of mind is needed. There were three animals, the lioness and two cubs fighting over the still alive piglet and they were running fast. I needed depth of field for the three lions and shutter speed because they were running fast, and of course their feet were moving much faster than their bodies.
This young female cub was pure tenacity. She was not about to give up her prize without a real fight. She was being dragged along by the larger lion cub and trying to slow it up by putting her paw in its eye, but to no avail. At times like this you need shutter speed and no grass in front of the subjects. We are not fussy, we want it all!!
The cub interaction was brilliant photographic material. The trick was to keep up the shutter speed.
I am not sure whether this was Hunter or Sikio. The predator experts would know immediately from telltale marks and scars. The images do not give you a good idea of just how big these male lions were. One of the key elements in wildlife photography was to try to capture images at eye level. With lions this size close by, eye level was not a smart idea.
“Of course, there will always be those who look only at technique, who ask ‘how’, while others of a more curious nature will ask ‘why’. Personally, I have always preferred inspiration to information.”
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-c0nnectedness and let it be.
Loved the story and photos ☺
Super images Mike, loads of interaction, stunning portraits. Your analysis of your shooting data made for interesting reading, the bad light really was a tester!!! Holding thumbs for great weather and super photography on our upcoming trip!!