Staring out the hotel room window for the first time in broad daylight was my first ‘wow’ moment in Kenya, and definitely not the last. 24 hours before I’d been abruptly woken by my alarm clock at 3am in a cold London flat and just a day’s travelling later and I find myself watching a gazelle-like animal feeding on the grass as the sun rises in the sky over Nairobi National Park. As I said, wow.
This is my first time on safari and my first visit to sub-Saharan Africa – I’ve been to Morocco twice before but they are such vastly different parts of the continent, I already know it will be a completely different experience to any trip I’ve ever taken. My real world wildlife photography experience is fairly limited too, so I’m expecting to learn a lot in this sense as well. I blogged about a wildlife photography workshop I attended (here) a few years back, but that was in a zoo so I’m expecting this photography experience to throw me in the deep end.
Learning how to game drive
As a first-timer, I really don’t know what to expect when it comes to wildlife in the area. Yes, I know about ‘the big five’, but I’m intrigued to find out what other weird and wonderful animals I’m likely to see, how much wildlife will there actually be and how close will I get to the action?
Our little plane touches down safely on the grassy airstrip in the middle of the Maasai Mara National Reserve and we’re greeted with a cold drink and a warm local welcome.
I didn’t expect to be pulling out my camera during the 10 minute drive from the airstrip to the camp, but I find myself scrambling to get the lens cap off after we spot a kingfisher perched with a fish in its mouth, a red bok stopped to have a drink, with a lovely reflection in the pool of water below and a silver-backed jackal scampering through the long grass.
Lesson 1: Always have your camera ready to go. You never know what photographic opportunities you’ll be surprised with.
After settling in and getting the full safety briefing back at camp – it is unfenced after all and you never know what might be hiding in the bushes (which I found out for myself later in the evening) - I saddled up for the first game drive of the trip.
The largest elephant I’ve ever seen crosses the path of our truck as we head off the road to get a better look. Although he’s in musth and therefore has the potential to be aggressive, the bull shows no signs as such and is completely chilled out as he passes right by the truck, mere metres away. As I sit there with my Canon 100-400mm lens attached to the front of my camera, I’m thinking I would rather have the Tamron 10-24mm on in instead, he’s that close. So, 5 minutes in to my first game drive and one of my questions has already been answered quite succinctly: how close will we get to the animals? Very!
Lesson 2: It’s not just about the telephoto lens, keep a wild angle or standard-zoom lens very handy too!
As the afternoon game drive continues I’m completely blown away by everything – the big open blue sky (don’t see that often in London), the vast plains and all the different wildlife I’m seeing for the first time in their natural habitat: warthogs, giraffes, buffalo, zebra, gazelle, a sleeping cheetah and a whole other list of bird & butterfly species. It’s all an incredible experience and the sheer numbers of animals we see are impressive too.
We spend some time photographing zebras in a spot where there are just so many of them. We’re parked up in an area that’s full of them and you can see them in all directions, which answers another one of my initial questions: how much wildlife will there be? A lot! It helps that the zebras are fairly docile creatures too, as I have the freedom to take my time thinking about the shots I want to get and composing them accordingly. With other animals, like the warthogs for example, I desperately try to get a decent photo but they constantly seem to be running about and popping up all over the place, so I need to be a little more opportunistic.
Lesson 3: Get used to watching the TV. No, not that TV, the Tourist View, otherwise known as the rear-view of the animal, which is what you’ll see a lot of as they turn away from you when you park up. You’ll just appreciate the photos where they’re looking straight down the lens that much more.
The exciting part
The sun dips below the horizon and both the temperature as well as the light drop off rapidly, so it’s time to head back to camp. After a full afternoon’s driving, we’re back near the zebras again and our guide notices them huddling together in the distance and looking very alert so we head over to check it out (if you’re squeamish, look away now!)
What we find are two female lions and a young hyena feeding on a fresh zebra kill (hopefully not one from the photo above!) which it seems we’ve just missed by minutes. Although it isn’t ideal photographic conditions in such dim light, it's one of the most incredible events I’ve ever witnessed (or heard for that matter). Nothing is more eye-opening to the wild nature of these animals than seeing one literally tearing its prey limb from limb only metres away. Close enough to hear that the zebra is still alive and close enough to learn that lions make a very similar growling sound to domestic cats when they eat (just a bit louder and less adorable, more terrifying). If I was in any doubt after the elephant encounter earlier in the day, there is definitely no second-guessing as to how close to the action we would get: pretty damn close indeed.
Lesson 4: my Canon 450D is not cut out for this kind of low light shooting. If I ever go on safari again, I’ll be upgrading...
Meanwhile, back at camp...
As I head off to my tent after dinner to turn in for the night, I discover that the adventure is still not over for the day. I meet the security staff, who are resposible for escorting guests to and from their tents in the evening (remember, it’s unfenced) and I'm told that the main path is being blocked by a family of elephants. It’s another ‘wow’ moment in the Maasai Mara as we (very quietly and carefully) take the long route to the tents and keep one eye on the family of elephants happily feeding along our usual path.
Lesson 5: there’s always another surprise just around the corner, even trying to sleep at night is an adventure!
I must admit my first night in the Maasai Mara was not the soundest sleep I’ve ever experienced. It’s certainly not my first time camping, but it’s definitely the first time I’ve heard hippos roaring and elephants trampling plants and knocking over barriers in the middle of the night. Of course, being in a tent means it sounds like it’s just outside the relative safety of my four canvas walls. Another (slightly sleep-deprived) wow moment.
Hippo on the menu
The next few days follow the same pattern of heading out before dawn for several hours of morning light photography, trekking back to camp to make the most of the shade in the middle of the day, then an afternoon game drive and taking advantage of the evening light before watching the sun set over the plains.
One of the really interesting photographic opportunities we encounter during this time is an old dead hippo that’s floating in a watering hole filled with bright green lily pad type plants. As expected, a large number of hyenas have discovered the hippo too and they take it in turns to swim out to where the hippo is to get their fill of protein for the day (and probably a fair bit of fat too).
The dead hippo is not particularly photogenic but it’s a great chance to get some hyena portraits as there’s quite a few of them just milling about near the game vehicles. The sun is starting to get low in the sky and so I experiment with taking some backlit portraits. The hyenas swimming back and forth from the hippo are another fantastic photographic opportunity and the dense coverage of the green pond plants creates an interesting background to more hyena portraits.
Bird photography beginner
I must admit I’ve never been very interested in photographing birds nor have I ever really had the right gear to give it a proper go, but to my surprise I find myself turning my 100-400mm lens to the many avian subjects that the Maasai Mara has to offer too.
From the beautiful rainbow feathered lilac-breasted rollers to the not particularly good-looking vultures crowding in the trees, there's a huge number of interesting birds to photograph. Although the Canon 100-400 lens I had with me may not be long enough for many seasoned bird photographers, it was perfectly fine for me. Many of the larger birds that spend more time on the ground than in the air are often fairly close to the game vehicles so close-up portraits of them are possible too.
Lesson 6: it’s not all about ‘the big 5’, make a point of noticing and photographing all the other wildlife on offer, from colourful birds to very large bugs.
As with many people, one of the earliest lessons I learnt after becoming really interested in photography was the benefit of shooting in ‘the golden hour’ – the short time just after the sun rises and before it sets. Nowhere have I found this to be more true (or beautiful) than when I was out in the Maasai Mara, the light really was as golden as it gets. I made sure to take the time to ignore the animals for a moment to try and capture that incredible sky and without any graduated filter sets with me on the trip I feel like I still managed to do it justice.
Another opportunity that's too good to miss is to take advantage of the brilliant sunset colours and photograph some of the African landscape silhouetted against the colourful sky. One photograph that's quickly becoming one of my favourites from the trip is one of those images that at first you think is no good at all. There’s a bird in a tree that I’ve tried to capture side on so the full outline and beak can be silhouetted against the sky, but in one of the shots he’s looking in the opposite direction to me, which means there’s no definition in the head whatsoever. So, at first I think it's a bit of a dud photo. Looking back on it now that I’m home, I realise how funny the shape of this large bird is when you can’t see the shape of the head or beak, almost cartoon-like and I’ve actually come to really like it.
Lesson 7: don’t pass judgment on your photos until you’ve looked at them again on a larger screen, you might find a gem in there that you’ve overlooked.
One complete oversight I made when packing my photography gear is the lack of lens hood for my 100-400mm lens. To be fair, I borrowed it from a friend and he didn't give me the hood along with it but if I had been better prepared I could have fashioned one out of something I'm sure. The sun is just so bright here and during the morning when it's low in the sky I have a bit of trouble focussing without more shade for my lens. It hasn't stopped me getting some good photos though, I just have to be a bit more patient.
Lesson 8: Always pack a lens hood!
Lions in the grass
We spend quite a significant amount of our time on safari with the lions and with a fresh buffalo kill nearby; they are out and about a lot, providing some fantastic photography opportunities.
As I soon learn, lions sleep a lot during the day to conserve energy in the heat (as they don’t sweat but pant instead, thus using up a lot of their water reserves) and at first we mostly see them sleeping in the long grass or under trees. This makes photographing them quite challenging as sometimes you can barely see them with the grass so high around them.
Instead of giving up and taking a rest, I make the most of a situation where the lion isn’t moving very much apart from a flicking tail every so often to keep the flies at bay, which allows me the time to imagine the photo in my head that I want to capture instead of just snapping away opportunistically - which can happen a lot of the time with so much going on. I think about the composition, where abouts in the frame the tail will be flicking up into, the shape it makes as it curls back and forth, and I take the time to obtain and test the right settings. So I sit there patiently waiting to take the photo I’ve pictured in my head and while it’s certainly no masterpiece, it's a significant photo for me because it’s the result of another lesson learned.
Lesson 9: slow down, think about the photo you want to take and make it happen.
We head out on one last game drive and spend most of the morning with the lions again, who have made some serious progress getting through their buffalo meal overnight. Even in the short time I've spent in the Maasai Mara, every day has been so varied, and this morning is no different - I'm not expecting to see the lions leaping in the air to bat away vultures with their giant paws and I'm afraid to admit I wasn't nearly fast enough to capture the action. I did finally get a photo of the warthogs running about that I wanted (and bonus points for getting some baby warthogs in the frame with tails in the air too!)
Lesson 10: enjoy every minute, you'll be home before you know it!
As I watch the sun break over the horizon I take a moment to appreciate the last sun rise I'll see out in the Maasai Mara. In 24 hours time I'll be back in snow-covered London, where lions tearing apart zebras, swimming hyenas and elephants trumpeting in the night will be a surreal memory - and one that I'll be recalling for a long time yet as I look over my favourite photos from Kenya many times over.