Guest Post: Amboseli, so much more than just Elephants!

Andrew Beck Andrew, Guest 1 Comment

Earlier this year I contacted Andrew to enquire about remaining spaces on the different Wild Eye safaris. At that moment I hadn’t made a conscious choice, but after 4 safaris in South Africa, I was keen to visit a new destination. I was fortunate that the Essential Amboseli and Tsavo dates fit my schedule perfectly, with places remaining. After doing a limited amount of research on the destination via the web, it seemed that Amboseli was a great combination for wildlife and landscapes with Mount Kilimanjaro as the iconic backdrop to the reserve. I’ve been shooting more and more wildscapes and wanted to really develop my portfolio in that area, and I felt like the 4 nights at Amboseli was the perfect place to do that. On the wildlife side, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. The images I’d seen online seemed to show predominantly elephants, lots of them! But to think that Amboseli is all about Elephants would be a misconception. Let me explain…

At a roadside stop on the transfer from the airport to Amboseli, Andrew asked all of us on the safari what our photographic goals were. I can’t remember everyone’s answers, but I answered “wider angles, animals in their environment”. I think it was the “animals” in the answer that was key. I think like all wildlife photographers we have certain animals we’d love to see more than others. But I really didn’t know what to expect. I just wanted to do justice to the environment and tell the stories of the subjects that make Amboseli their home. Andrew challenged us to try and put together a portfolio of 10 images that we felt were a representation of Amboseli and our photographic experience. So with this blog I will present my 10 images, and hopefully in the process, show you that Amboseli is so much more than just elephants!

You can do your research online but nothing can prepare you when you enter the reserve. The diversity of landscapes is truly incredible. From the dry dusty lakebed, to the lush green marshes, to the wooded tree areas, to the straw coloured grasses…no two landscapes were alike, and they were as quick to changes as we were to drive through them. This created an incredibly diverse canvas to photograph against.

Then there is the light. I don’t think in a blog I can do justice to the light in Amboseli. The cloud cover is deceiving and would give you the impression that the climate was cold. Not at all. It’s pretty hot, but the cloud cover is almost constant and will break throughout the day. These little openings create incredible key lighting, like someone is sat on a cloud with a big spot light. It is truly incredible and something that has to be experienced.

So we had diversity in the landscapes, incredible light, now what about all those elephants? Well yes, you see a lot of elephants. But these are no ordinary elephants. These are elephants that traverse between the wooded tree areas, to then submersing themselves in the lush marshes to graze. You are literally spoilt for choice. If you love photographing elephants then your only problem is where and when to point your lens. One morning Andrew suggested heading to the woodland in search of elephants and what expired was an incredible hour or so of photography. First watching a family of elephants graze under the trees, and then with Andrew and Tim’s guidance we positioned the vehicle ahead of the elephants once we saw their intent to move. We actually managed to park up right in front of their trail for the most incredible walk by. This allowed me to get the iconic Amboseli image of elephants and Mount Kilimanjaro.

Elephant and Kilimanjaro

So with this incredible image in the bag, I had 9 others to chose that would represent Amboseli. I had to chose one other elephant image though. However this elephant image is with a difference. I think we’ve all seen buffalo with oxpeckers, in Amboseli, the egret is the elephants friend. You see these egrets following the elephants everywhere, literally piggybacking on the elephants. So I just had to include an image representing this. It’s another iconic image of Amboseli, but one I couldn’t leave out because of how significant these egrets were in the environment of the elephant. Egret and Elephant

All around Amboseli you’ll see herds of wildebeest, so my portfolio had to include an image of wildebeest. On another morning drive we only just left the lodge where we came upon a herd of wildebeest grazing with the sunrising in the background. This made for an incredible series of images in themselves, but those didn’t make my portfolio. Once the sun had risen and we had golden light we got to play around with our cameras. Several of the wildebeest had started to rut and the result was a display of domination by certain wildebeest which chased after the others. This went on for some time, which was ideal to practice some panning shots. Slowing the shutter speed down to around 1/20, I took aim and produced this:

Wildebeest Pan

This is my first ever panning shot of wildlife. I’m pretty happy with it for a first attempt. I like the fact you have the yellow and green streaks on the horizon which are really representative of the landscape colours of Amboseli.

I’d mentioned those marshes and the fact that the elephants spend a large part of their day semi submerged and grazing. Well they are not alone, in fact with the next two images you’ll see that they are frequently joined in these marshes by buffalos and hippos.

Buffalo

Hippo wm

Both of these images I think represent one of the main photographic challenges in Amboseli and that is working with long lenses. Both of these images were at the longer end of a 120-300mm f2.8 lens with a 2X extender. So around 500-600mm equivalent. Whilst both these images show the diversity of species in Amboseli, for me they also represent a significant milestone in my own photographic journey in using longer focal lengths than I’d ever shot with before. For the hippo shot, this was the first time I’d seen hippos out of water. We were very far away and I was really excited, but at the same time I couldn’t really focus in tight because I was at my maximum focal length of 600mm. So I actually pulled back and included more of the landscape. This is all about animals in their environment, and by including the hill side and the hippo pod, I think it does the story more justice than a tight in close shot.

Earlier I mentioned the diversity of landscapes. So here’s image number 6 in my Amboseli portfolio, an Ostrich grazing.

Ostrich

If you’d told me before I went to Amboseli I’d get excited about photographing an ostrich I probably would have laughed at you!! But I love this image. The colours are so representative of Amboseli, the straw yellow set against the blue/grey sky. I was again at the longer end of my focal length, but waited to include the tree on the horizon as some background interest.

We spent a morning on the dry lake bed getting down low and lying flat on our stomachs to take images of zebra. The group really enjoyed this exercise, so much so we asked to go back and do it again. Lying down flat with a DSLR and a heavy lens perched on a bean bag looks a lot easier than it is. The reality is, it is pretty tricky to master, but a lot of fun. So image number 7 represents that entire experience! Making extraordinary images of zebra on the dry lake bed with really low angles. The sandy coloured lake bed under the blue/grey cloudy sky sums up the colours of Amboseli for me.

Zebra Lake Bed

With all the wetlands and marshes, my portfolio wouldn’t be complete without a bird image. Whilst I enjoy capturing bird images I class myself as a complete novice when it comes to bird photography. I have the utmost respect for bird photographers because it requires an incredible level of dedication and craft. I’d seen and photographed quite a few birds in Amboseli, some were firsts for me; the Secretary Bird, Marabou Stork, red hooded Kingfisher, Heron, Lilac Crested Roller, Crowned Cranes, and a whole host of waders. And it is the last category I chose to include. We watched this African Jacana for some time, whilst sighting elephants. A truly stunning bird with very distinctive feet, wading and feeding in the marshes.

Jacarna

So I have two images left of the portfolio of 10. What made it in? Image number 9, lions. We were fortunate enough to sight lions on 3 different occasions, including a lone lioness that killed a wildebeest. The kill sighting was some ways from us, so those images didn’t make the cut. We also watched 3 lions eye a herd of zebra and a couple of reedbuck, which made for really great images, but those didn’t make the cut either. The image that made it in was this one…

Lions

Can you see the lions? In fading light and driving back to the lodge we saw these two lions lying up. They were some ways from us, but it was another great exercise in capturing the story of the animals in their environment. Despite the hazy grey sky I love the green foliage and tall trees. For me this is another great example of the diversity in landscapes of Amboseli.

That leaves one image. And the last image might surprise you. A Thomson’s gazelle. Yes, a humble and simple antelope. I’d never seen Thomson’s gazelles, so this was another first for me. There are lots of them grazing in and around zebras and wildebeest. This one seemed to have lost one of its horns. This image stood out. I’d learnt so much about shooting in different light conditions, this image was taken towards the end of our stay in Amboseli and I put everything I learnt into practice. I chose this image not just for the diversity, but because it shows the incredible early morning golden light. Throw in a “spoonful” of depth of field and you capture the story of the Amboseli grazers in the background.

Thompsons Gazelle

When Andrew challenged us on selecting 10 images that represented Amboseli and our photographic experience I expected it to be relatively easy. It wasn’t. It was one of the most challenging things I’ve done. It really made me think long and hard. These images for me are the ones that sum up the experience and diversity. But it doesn’t tell the whole story. What did I leave out? Well most noticeably, two other species I’d never seen before. The first was a cat I’d always wanted to see, the serval. And we had 3 different sightings of 2 different serval in Amboseli. This was truly magical. The serval almost made it in, but I felt that we were truly blessed to see it, and I wanted my 10 images to be representative, rather than exceptional sightings. Likewise, at the lakebed we saw Oryx. This was an antelope I’d always wanted to see, and to see trains of them crossing the like bed in a heat haze was absolutely stunning. Then there were the giraffe that passed between us and Mount Kilimanjaro. There were the two elephant bulls play fighting in the marshes that made for stunning imagery. We regularly saw hyena. They stole the lion kill we witnessed and we also saw them traversing in and around a lake. I could go on and on. Suffice to say, the biggest surprise about Amboseli, is that it is SO much more than elephants. I think if you plan to travel there, then you have to keep this quote in mind…

‘The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.’ – G.K. Chesterton

Jon Bryant

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Join us in Amboseli in 2016

Loved by Ernest Hemingway and wildlife photographers from all across the globe, the fragile ecosystem of the Amboseli National Park hosts an incredible spectacle of wildlife and African landscapes and is where the first 5 nights of this safari will be spent. From there we move further East to the Tsavo National Park where we will explore and capture the rugged landscapes of one of the oldest and largest National Parks in Kenya.

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