Guest Post: Mirrorless in the Masai Mara

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Many people still find the thought of a photographic safari intimidating. Guy & Helen were two guests from New Zealand that joined us in the Masai Mara for their very first photographic safari. We asked Guy whether he would be prepared to share some thoughts form his time with us both as a first timer on a photographic safari, but also given the fact that he was shooting off of a mirrorless system with a maximum focal length of 300mm and his wife Helen was also shooting off of a compact Fuji which had a bit more focal length.

Too many people get caught up and intimidated by the hype around gear and massive lenses – not Guy & Helen.

Here is their story and an idea of what is possible when you go mirrorless in the Masai Mara!

Enjoy!

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Landing on the grass strip runway Mara Serena situated high on the plateau of the Mara Triangle, was the culmination of a 40 year dream, and the start of 30 days in East Africa for my wife Helen and I.

40 years ago we had travelled by ship from New Zealand to Cape Town on our big OE but because of politics of the time we were denied visas to travel overland through Africa to Europe. The one day we had in  Cape Town  we hired a car and toured the beautiful Cape Province area before returning to our ship and continuing the rest of the journey to Genoa Italy , vowing to one day return to the Africa continent. Life intervened and 40 years later the day had now arrived.

Why here, why now.

Two years ago I returned to a teenage passion, photography. I was contemplating retirement but knew I needed a hobby that would fill my retirement days, I had studied photography in college and had had my own darkroom but had dropped it as a hobby when we had children. On returning to it I focussed on  seascapes and landscapes around the New Zealand Coast. The experimentation turned into a passion and we started to discuss possibilities of combining travel and photography. Naturally we discussed our vow to return to Africa and following extensive internet research and discussions with the many expat South Africans amongst our friends in NZ we decided to focus on locations where animals still migrated naturally and where the habitat was largely untouched by man. We finally settled on the Masai Mara in Kenya , and Botswana and the Okavango delta as areas that fitted the bill.

As a landscape photographer I wanted areas that had great natural beauty and light as well as the opportunity to watch wildlife in its natural habitat. It only became apparent when discussing options with the Wild-Eye team that 10 days in the Mara with fellow photographers and with professional tuition from Gerry and  Andrew that perhaps wildlife itself could become more important than the scenery

Once we decided on locations then the next decision was equipment, As a landscape person I had decided that mirrorless  camera technology , with its lowlight  capability, small weight and footprint was ideal to get to hard to get spots around the coast and good range of wide-angle lenses was my technology of choice, however when it came  to wildlife I had real reservations as to whether the technology was suitable. We all see pictures of wildlife photographers with their Canon or Nikon DSLRS with large 400 to 600mm telephotos lenses , but this did not suit our 30 days travelling in small planes around multiple countries in Africa, particularly as we  were limited to a maximum of 15KG each for baggage and camera gear. The thought of leaving and trying to retrieve baggage in different spots in Africa was to horrifying to contemplate for us inexperienced visitors, so in the end the weight factor forced the decision. We would go lightweight which meant small cameras and lenses and for me this meant Sony 6000 APSC 24 meg exchangeable lenses with travel 18-200 zoom (24 to 300 zoom with crop factor), my backup camera was the older sony nex 6 with a 14 to 24 wide-angle for star shots and time-lapse and a 24mm to 50mm zoom for video). Lenses were interchangeable between cameras.

This gave me a 2 cameras three lenses and the ability to shoot video, stills, and timelapse. All up with a tripod, backpack, batteries and cable the total weight came to 8 kg, leaving a small amount for clothes but as we were travelling in the dry season with temperatures in the 20’cs to30’c we thought we would be OK. The big issue was would a 300mm telephoto be enough to capture good wildlife shots, I knew the camera was suitable for landscapes and time-lapse but wildlife? The other question was my technique for landscapes I shot in aperture priority and manual focus, which Andrew and Gerry recommended for wildlife, but of course the only movement I had to worry about was water and clouds , wildlife was quite another beast. (pun intended)

On the way over from NZ I carried my camera everywhere and the (24 to300 zoom) was a great travel lens suitable for cityscapes, street shooting and genera tourist shots.

Through our internet search I had discovered Wild-Eye team  and the idea of spending time with professional wildlife photographers on safari was very enticing. Our travel time of September tied in perfectly with the 10 day Great Migration extended Masai Mara Photographers safari and so after many emails back and forth Andrew from Wild-Eye answering the myriad of questions newbies to Africa and wildlife photography would ask we finally committed and booked making this the 1st 10 days of our 30 day African trip. A decision we never regretted for a moment, if you are planning an extended trip into Africa, the earlier in your trip you can get on a Wild-Eye tour the better, it will make your whole trip better.

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After landing on the grass runway on the Masai triangle we were introduced to our drivers and then set out on the 40 minute drive to our campsite on the Mara River our home for the next 10 days.

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Our first siting of the Mara River, our base for the next 10 days, A herd of wildebeest were building on the far side, would we see a crossing on the first day? Alas the herd moved on but we were not to wait for long.

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Our first elephant siting on the river just around the bend from our camp. Of course for us new to Africa everything was a first siting, it was around the 3rd day before this initial excitement died down and we could start to focus on things like animal behaviour, light and composition in the photograph.

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The evening light was spectacular so had to be true to my landscape roots. Now I just have to get some animals in my landscape shots.

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Day 2 and the wildebeest herd we saw yesterday had returned and continued to build , our guides were confident we would see a big crossing.

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The crossing was  every bit as dramatic as we had hoped.

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Yes landscape with wildlife my two styles of photography are starting to come together.

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Our camp was surrounded by lion prides or so it seemed, within minutes on our early morning drive we would come across one of the many local lion prides. As they were active at this time we spent many hours with them and witnessed the full range of behaviour, resting, hunting, mating, killing, eating, playing, they were a real highlight of our trip.

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We came across this male lion walking with his brother through one of the many drainage ditches, a common place to find lions we were to discover. Initially I thought he was brushing the flies off but he seemed to really enjoy brushing and smelling the brush.

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The kill , not what we expected , we thought it was the females that do the hunting , here a male takes down a wildebeest on his own, his coalition male partner just stood and watched him until he had subdued the wildebeest and then joined for the meal.

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The other male joins in the feed.

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Not the prettiest birds but a critical part of the food chain, as newbies it amazed us how that in a couple of days a fresh kill, could be reduced to skin and bone.

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We were to see many lions sleeping but not always in such a scenic spot as these three.

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We started to explore further from our camp as the days progressed , the mara triangle really isi a beautiful part of Kenya, and getting the odd day of rain and soft light suited me down to the ground.

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Zebra, a chance to get creative in composition and post processing

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Photo bombing zebra, whilst trying to get a shot of a herd of buffalo, one of the harder animals to photograph well in my opinion. (buffalo not zebra)

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We had to travel a reasonable distance to get a shot of our first cheetah mum but wow it was worth it.

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Cheetah shake, we spent 4 hours in the rain with this cheetah and loved every minute of it. We found the Wild-Eye team will wait as long as it takes for us to get the shot we want, giving all the guidance but never over specifying the how, always giving you the creative licence to get the shot your way.

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Elephants herds are plentiful  and endlessly fascinating but again patience is required to get an interesting composition.

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Elephant butts we had a standing joke that the animals would turn away and leave you with only a butt shot, in this case I think it makes the shot.

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“Once you have banked some shots then you can start to experiment”

Great advise Gerry!

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At last a buffalo shot I am reasonably happy with although it took a bit of post processing to get the effect I was after.

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Vulture flying. This shot is dedicated to a fellow traveller and great bird photographer who shared the 10 days with us , I had never been really interested in photographing birds but Roberto’s love of them and his expertise rubbed off on us and so Roberto this is for you.

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Lioness hunting.

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We had hoped whilst on the Mara to meet some of the local Masai people, it was a special surprise to find that we would have them as part of our ground crew while we were there. Their pride of their culture and the manner in which they went out of their way to make us feel at home was a very special highlight of the trip

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Moon above the Mara.  A trip and an opportunity of a live time, so many highlights, the mara is even more magical than everybody says it is,  to be able to spend 10 days immersed in it , never leaving the reserve, returning every night to its life blood the mara river, makes it in a way a spiritual journey , to be alongside fellow travellers and professional photographic guides ,  enriching  every aspect of the trip, makes this far more than a photographic exploration , it is a transformational journey.

If you have the chance, try it yourself, you will not be disappointed.

Guy Parkes

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Comments 3

  1. Marilyn Hallett

    Hi Guy

    Thanks SO much for sharing your experiences and thoughts with us. I found your blog to be really interesting, entertaining and deja-vu-like – we had been on the trip prior to yours, and we agree with everything you say about the Mara, Wild Eye, the staff, the legend photographers etc. A truly awesome experience, made even more special by the people that were were privileged to be with. Thank you for sharing your eloquent thoughts and amazing images.

    1. Guy

      Hi Marilyn, glad that it brought back memories for you, it was a lot of fun putting it together and of course a lot f shots had to be left out. Thanks for your kind comments

  2. Gerald

    These are National Geographic quality pictures.. with a caption to match. Very Beautiful!! It is indeed a privilege to witness the wildebeest’s annual migratory river crossings. Masai Mara and Kenya in general has an exceptional diversity . Thanks so much for sharing this Guy

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