So you pull up to the sleeping lions and whip out your camera, ready for action. It is just before 5pm and lions are supposed to be active by now.
After 20 agonising minutes you decide to look for something else. These lions won’t do anything anyway and it will be dark soon.
Sound familiar? Talking to the right people?
Wildlife photography is first and foremost about the experience as a whole. The excitement of seeing these lions in the wild, and the anticipation of anything happening at just about anytime. If you are doing it for any other reason then in my opinion you have lost the plot.
Then comes the question of how to photograph the scene set before you.
Many different aspects now come into play.
What is the light quality like? Is it hot or cold? What type of terrain do the lions find themselves within? How much can I move around?
I recently hosted a private photographic safari with one awesome guest to Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe.
Below is an account of how I approached our first lion sighting.
1/2500, f/6.3, ISO400
This is the scene that greeted us on our first day out at Davison’s Camp, a part of the Wilderness Collection. We were beyond ourselves and had our cameras out in no time. Thanks to the cool winter weather and the presence of this distinct termite mound, the lions were out in the open enjoying the last bit of sun before the evenings chill set in.
There was not a huge amount of activity and before long we had taken a couple of wide-angle shots, capturing the essence of the lovely scene before us. These shots are important as it conveys a sense of location and space to the viewers.
1/2000, f/5.6, ISO400
I then prompted my guest to get in a little closer to the two lions on the left-hand side. They were posing nicely and the light and clean background was perfect. We just had to wait for them to open their eyes.
That was about all we could do for the time being. The cats lazed around enjoying the warm sun. Every so often one would shift position but nothing that prompted me to take a photo. Regardless we were enjoying the sighting and spending the afternoon with these amazing creatures.
A few elephants ambled by and some were making use of the mud wallow a few hundred meters west of us.
This is often the time that many people leave, hoping for another more active lion or leopard sighting. I can tell you from experience that this is often a mistake. The odds of finding something else before sundown are slim. You are better off where you are.
Don’t let the infamous fear-of-missing-out symptoms play its hand on you.
1/500, f/6.3, ISO800
Some 30 minutes later we changed position. The sun had become softer and more suited to generally shooting towards it. When the sun is too high the shadows and whites are too harsh and ruins the soft moody images you are after.
I do understand that being on a private reserves allows for more flexibility when it comes to moving around your subject. Just do the best you can, and see what the differences are.
If all else fails it might be time to join me in the field on one of these excursions.
1/800, f/6.3, ISO800
As the golden ball in the sky drew closer to the horizon I once again changed position. Due to the dust in the air and the softer sun we were able to shoot more directly into it, making use of that stunning golden backlit light. Sadly the lions were fast asleep and at best they had a head up here and there. I was earnestly hoping for some of the adult lionesses to groom one another before the evenings hunt, as they so often tend to do.
Also, keep in mind that when shooting into the sun you will need to drop your ISO since you will have more direct light than before.
Notice how my settings change with time…
1/200, f/5.6, ISO800
I had to wait another 8 minutes for this magical moment, but it happened. This may not seem like a long time, but when you are watching that beautiful light fade away 8 minutes could feel like an hour!
An adult lioness stood up, walked right up to one of her sisters and started grooming. The moment was perfect and beautiful and thanks to good anticipation we were in the right position to take full advantage with a setting sun behind them. Their timing could not have been better!
Right, what now? Do we pack up because the sun had set and the golden light has passed?
1/250, f/4.0, ISO3200
There are two things I want you to notice here…
Firstly, do you see how absolutely stunning the soft light is here? There are no shadows, her eyes are wide open and the light and colours are rich, almost pastel-like. Do you really want to miss out on this because there’s no golden sunlight?
Secondly, notice that my ISO went from 400 to 3200 in a space of 5 minutes! At ISO400 I was shooting into a setting sun, filling my sensor with great light! For this shot we moved back to the front of the lions with the sun at our backs, in order to capture that lovely post-sunset colours on her golden coat. The available light now dropped and I had to make up for this by pushing my ISO.
Very important to keep this in mind!
1/80, f/2.8, ISO4000
This is the last image I took. The light was just about non existent. As this young male lion watched more members of the pride approaching from the North I could not help but lift my lens. I had no support for my Canon 400 2.8 IS L and knew I had to hold it real steady. I fired a few shots in the hope of getting his foot moving through the air, with eyes nice and sharp.
It worked perfectly.
All in all we spent just over an hour with the lions. We used all possible angles and exploited all available light, making the most of what nature gave us. My guest was beyond himself with the images he had captured, and so was I. It was pure quality.
Work hard at your photography. Understand what you can achieve with the light provided to you, and more importantly understand what your camera’s able to achieve.
Sometimes the lions will move around, and sometimes they will sleep. Most often with lions it is the seconds, literally seconds of activity that you are after.
Don’t lose patience and never ever forget to have fun!
Till next time,
Marlon du Toit
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