‘Enthusiastic amateur’ was how I described my level when I signed up to do a three-night photography safari in the wildlife Conservancies of the Masai Mara. I was probably being a bit kind to myself. The truth was I had a pretty basic Canon digital SLR (single-lens reflex) camera, which had hardly been used. Learning how to take decent images was an ambition I’d never got round to fulfilling, like learning a new language or, well, going on safari. So with the aid of a hired 100-400mm telephoto lens, here I was, killing two birds with one stone.
I’d imagined a photography safari would involve long, hot days in a 4WD, ticking various animals off a long list. But I was put right on my first night. On the short drive from the landing strip to our base, Kicheche Mara Camp in the Mara North Conservancy, just about every animal I’d ever hoped to see presented itself, and my natural instinct was to snap away.
However, Paul Goldstein, the award-winning wildlife photographer who was guiding our trip, dismissed these pictures as mere ‘snapshots’. We’d quickly learn he wasn’t interested in helping us get ‘postcard’ pictures of as many animals as possible; we’d be trying to get a handful of skilfully taken photographs that would tell a story. And, as it turned out, most of these stories would involve big hungry cats.
On the afternoon of our first game drive, five of us are spread across two open-top 4WDs, along with Paul and two Maasai guides, Benja and Dan. Small groups are key to the Kicheche Camps ethos, as this guarantees enough room for all the equipment and ensures passengers have a clear, un-obscured shot from all sides of the vehicle. It also means each safari-goer can receive vital one-on-one tuition to help them improve.
Three cheetahs — Narasha, the mother, with her two sub-adult male cubs — have been spotted in the neighbourhood, and it’s been over 48 hours since their last meal. This means we’ve got a good chance of seeing them hunt, and makes the cheetahs a much better bet for a photo opportunity than the 12-strong ‘Acacia’ pride of lions that are also nearby.
It doesn’t take long to find Narasha, and the cubs seem to be putting on an exhibition for us while mum shades herself under a tree, trying to reserve her energy for a hunt when the sun is less energy sapping. We snap away feverishly as the mischievous cats chase each other around, climbing a nearby tree before settling on a grassy mound, cuddling up closely as if posing for our cameras.
Paul takes a brief look at some of my shots, and quickly realises where I’m going wrong: the background is key to a portrait, he explains, but mine are “messy” — meaning the grass behind them is too in focus which is distracting from the main subject. He instructs me to just focus on their heads, keeping them sharp, but to soften the background with a larger aperture. Great, I think. Except I don’t really know what that is, let alone how on earth I change it.
“You want a lower f-stop,” Paul says matter-of-factly. “It will completely transform your depth of field.” I pause and look at my camera blankly. Paul grabs it from my hand, looks at my settings and, muttering, changes several functions. “Here,” he says, “try this.” Instantly my photographs are transformed. I clearly have a lot to learn.
As Narasha seems reluctant to leave her shade, we set off in search of the Acacia pride as Benja has a hunch they’ll look to hunt at last light. By the time we reach them they’re already heading in the direction of a huge herd of zebra and gazelle, fanning themselves out in a pincer movement as they approach. We manoeuvre ourselves ahead of them and watch as the whole pride stalk through the long grass.
The sun hangs low in the sky and the whole scene is awash with caramel colours making for spectacular photographs. Paul gives us a lesson in ‘panning’ as these magnificent beasts stroll past our vehicle. If they get close enough to their prey and make a run for it, we can, in theory at least, capture the animal’s speed and movement by focusing on the predator’s head as it runs, firing off a burst of shots, while using a high f-stop (small aperture) and slightly slow shutter speed. Done correctly, the face will be in focus while some blur behind it conveys the pace and drama, bringing the images to life. For now we’re practising on a lion at walking pace but the results are nevertheless striking.
However, the hunt is spoiled when the cubs make themselves known to a nearby topi (antelope). It emits a short sharp snort alerting the herd to the danger and they quickly retreat. We may have missed out on a spectacular sight, but I’ve just got my best photos yet.
The next day we’re up and out before the sun has even peered over the valley. But not before I’m chastised by Paul for wandering down five minutes late. As any photographer will tell you, the first hour of light as the sun rises and the last hour as it sets are the most important. The light changes with each minute that passes and missing any of it is criminal.
We decide to try to catch up with the cheetahs and it’s not long before we locate them, taking advantage of the cool morning air, walking across the plain in search of a hard earned meal. But they’re out of luck — the gazelles seem too alert this morning and there’s no long-grass around for cover. We track them for hours as they move from one shady spot to the next, resting and occasionally scanning the horizon for prey. Paul had warned us it would take patience and graft to capture something special on safari. A cheetah-chase is a rare thing and being there to witness it is hard enough, but being in the right place to photograph it is even harder.
Eventually our patience is rewarded when Narasha spots a single Grant’s gazelle away from any herd, grazing in high grass. The conditions are perfect as she approaches her prey from down-wind. It has now been three days since she and her cubs have fed and the tension is palpable as she moves in. Even the vegetarian in our group seems to have become blood thirsty, quietly encouraging the cheetah, knowing moments like this are crucial to the survival of this endangered species.
Narasha’s gaze is locked on her quarry; in turn, I have her in my viewfinder, every honey-coloured hair revealed in pin-sharp focus as she inches to within 150ft of her target. She won’t get a better opportunity to feast; I won’t get a better chance to claim the photo of a lifetime.
Suddenly a pair of furry heads poke up from the tall grass behind Narasha. The curious cubs can barely contain themselves. The gazelle lifts its head. Has it spotted them? Nothing moves. Time stands still. I forget to breathe as I nervously hold my finger on the shutter release button. We each silently channel the same thought through our viewfinders: sit back down!
The gazelle dips its head once more, at which point Narasha explodes into life. Her body contorts as she runs the gazelle down in a pulsating sprint. But just as she gets within striking distance, for reasons not even our guides can explain, she stops allowing the gazelle to get away. Maybe she knew I wasn’t ready — that I’d completely missed the whole thing. A quick check of my camera’s LCD screen reveals a dark blur against a smudged brown background. Both Narasha and I will need to do better next time.
As the day draws to a close, Paul has one more trick up his sleeve. He spots three elephants on the horizon and we race in their direction, before angling into position with the sun setting behind the massive beasts. We’re after that quintessential African safari scene — animals silhouetted against a glowing sky.
It’s too dangerous for us to get out of our vehicles, but Paul shows us the way by leaning out of the side and holding his camera as close to the ground as possible and firing away. The image must show them above the horizon line or they’ll lose all definition. We’re told to cut out as much of the ground from the frame as possible in order to get as much of the sky in as we can… all without using a view finder.
“Wait for them to get side profile, and if possible get a little bit of sunlight under its belly,” Paul says. “This will help define the whole shape of the silhouette or you’ll just end up with a blob as its body shape blends in with the ground.”
We shoot until the last drop of light has left the sky.
It’s 8am and here we are again. My heart is pounding as I try to remember everything Paul has taught me. I don’t want to miss this opportunity as I won’t get another.
This time Narasha has a single Thomson’s gazelle in her sights and crouches in the long grass for cover. She moves in stealthily, hoping the hungry cubs keep their heads down and don’t alert the gazelle. This time they cooperate.
“She’s too far out, she can’t run it down from there,” Paul says. The gazelle lifts her head from grazing and pauses. Nothing moves. I’m holding my breath, scared that even exhaling might somehow disturb the kill. Suddenly the gazelle takes off. Narasha gives chase. “No, she’s too far,” shouts Paul, but she’s going for it anyway out of pure desperation, and the cubs are in hot pursuit.
A hundred metres; 200 metres. I fire off a succession of shots tracking her as she gains on her prey. Three hundred metres, still she runs; 400 metres. The Thomsons try to slalom but Narasha stays locked in. Five hundred metres. Disaster — for me at least. I’ve lost her in my viewfinder and look up to see her within touching distance of her spoil. With a swipe of her paw she fells the gazelle sending it tumbling over and over, before latching on to its jugular with her jaw. Locked on firmly, she doesn’t relinquish until it is dead. The pride finally has its meal.
Even Paul, Benja and Dan, cannot believe what they have just seen. A chase of that length defies all logic as cheetahs are only built for short bursts of speed. I feel privileged to have witnessed such a feat. After three days of tracking these cheetahs, we all feel a real sense of attachment to them and we’re elated. Unfortunately, the sheer speed of the chase proves too much for my panning skills, and a glance at my viewfinder confirms I’ve no shots worth shouting about. But it’s hard to be disappointed — especially as I’ve just seen, with my own eyes, something that will live long in my memory.
Paul’s top five safari photography tips
1. Lens not camera: Spend the money on a fast, stabilised lens. This is more important than cameras, most of which are very good now. If not, hire one.
2. Do your research: If your vehicles are closed-sided and the safari company crams too many people in them your photos will be rubbish.
3. Made to measure: Check the vehicles are tailored for photographers, and there are bean bags to rest your lens on and in-car charging points for your batteries. You could be out shooting for 12 hours straight.
4. Less is more: A safari with fewer locations will give you more time in the quality areas rather than too much on the road.
5. Angles: The lower you get the more impressive your photograph. If it involves a few contorted karma sutra positions to take your photo, so be it.
6. Rise and shine: The early bird will frequently catch the… well in this case, cheetah or leopard. Get up early, there’s no excuse — you want to be ready by dawn.
7. Imagination: Don’t just ‘record’ species, try to ‘photograph’ them. A cheetah running flat out is one of the seminal sights in nature. Taken at 1/1600th second, it will be OK but not scream speed — try panning it at a 60th… see the difference?
8. Failure: Be ambitious, imaginative and unafraid of failure. Try some bold cropping or slow speeds. The gamble will often fail but when it works…
9. Don’t repeat yourself: If you’ve taken it, don’t take it again. Concentrate on the next potential image — the best wildlife photographers are always thinking ahead.
10. Calendar: Each time you press the shutter, imagine the shot on a calendar — people have to look at it for a month… exactly!
How to do it
Safari Consultants offers three nights at Kicheche Mara Camp with wildlife viewing activities, flights and transfers from £2,070 per person full board, including house drinks, or a six-night package with three nights at Kicheche Mara Camp and three nights at Kicheche Bush Camp in the Olare Motorogi Conservancy with wildlife viewing activities, flights and transfers, from £3,015 per person full board, including house drinks. Based on travel in June 2014. safari-consultants.co.uk kicheche.com
Paul Goldstein leads photographic trips with Exodus to destinations including Kenya, India and Brazil. exodus.co.uk/photography
Lenses For Hire offers lenses with next day delivery. Prices include insurance. lensesforhire.co.uk
Published in the Nov/Dec 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)