A Wider View of the Mara

Morkel Erasmus All Authors, Morkel 2 Comments

I’ve been on a personal mission to get more wide angle images of wildlife when I am out on safari these past 2 years. I’m not just talking about animals-in-environment type of shots that we often talk about here in the Wild Eye team… I’m talking about “animalscapes”, a photo that is more akin to a landscape photo that has a wild animal as a key compositional element.

It’s easier to say than do – since much of the time you are bound to a vehicle when in the bush and you really need to get close enough to the animals to make it work – furthermore you are even more dependent on the kind of light you work with, the sky and clouds if there are any, the placement of other compositional elements like hills and trees.

In this post I will take you through a couple of photos I took during the recent Great Migration Photographic Safari that I hosted with Marlon, and share my thoughts around the composition and exposure choices. These images were all captured at focal lengths between 24mm and 100mm. Obviously including the environment is easier in places like the Mara Triangle with its wide open spaces and iconic big skies and Mana Pools with its iconic albida forests coupled with the ability to walk around at leisure, but I have been able to create these kinds of images in almost every reserve and wilderness area that I’ve visited. You just need to learn how to look for them!

A few principles that I would like to point out that are in the back of my mind when I reach for my wider lens on safari:

1. Identify Key Elements – main subject, sky, clouds, horizon, mountains/hills, prominent trees/bushes, space for the subject to move/look into, where will these fit into your overall story?

2. Visual Flow of Elements – take note how the viewer’s eye will “travel” through the scene. This would include the use of leading lines, “heavy” elements (elements that add visual mass to the scene and draw the eye, they don’t have to be BIG elements, just IMPORTANT elements), etc.

3. Subject Placement – it’s still a wildlife photo, just with a different flavour, and the correct placement of your subject will make or break the photo. This is compounded by the fact that the subject is often moving and won’t stay in one spot or pose for too long, so you need to be quick on this, or you might need to be patient on this as you see your subject moving towards a spot that would be better for your visual flow.

4. Subject “Size” – ie how far would you want to “zoom in” on this scene. Images taken at wide angles like 14-35mm come with an inherent amount of distortion and perspective issues (objects at these focal lengths will appear further away than what they actually were, due to the wide field of view and corresponding perspective distortion). Obviously large animals like elephants and giraffes are easier subjects to work with as they can still be some distance from your lens yet still feature prominently.

I’ll leave it at that. Hopefully you get the picture by now that it’s about more than just whipping out a wide lens, zooming out and snapping a quick pic.

Let’s get to some images…these images tend to just display better when displayed larger – so please do CLICK on them to view and evaluate them properly…

Image settings and focal length will be included in the captions.

This photo was taken on our first afternoon drive not even properly out of the road leading into our campsite (Dirisha). This particular bend in the river was a hotspot for activity at midday as plenty of animals came to drink. On this first afternoon, though, a family of elephants fed in the bushes on the opposite bank. I just liked the curve of the river, the gloomy skies and the elephant that stood out despite the scale of the scene. I love how an animal as big as an elephant can become a cog in a much bigger story/perspective when you frame wider.

Nikon D3s | 32mm focal length | f8 | 1/400 SS | ISO-1250

This second image was also captured on our first afternoon drive. The Mara is one of the real places where the term “big sky country” is front-and-centre. This family of elephants provided us with some nice images with a backdrop of the migrating herds of wildebeest, but somehow I enjoy this image more, which was taken after they crossed the road and headed up the hill towards the building storm. It’s a “bum shot”, yes, but it works – a family’s journey into the storms of life, as it were. What do you think?

Nikon D3s | 24mm focal length | f4 | 1/125 SS | ISO-640

Take note that I didn’t use very large aperture settings like f16 or f22 as one would initially expect if you want the whole scene sharp…why? Well, at these short focal lengths you will be focusing beyond your hyperfocal distance 99% of the time when focusing on animals within the landscape. This means the lens should render everything sharp from a few meters from you up to infinity at apertures as small as f4. This way you can save valuable stops of light in terms of ISO and shutter speed.

Make sense?

Fast forward to later in the safari – we were fortunate to find a female cheetah called Kakenya for the second afternoon in a row. This special lady has 5 adorable little cubs that she needs to feed and protect. This was still early in the afternoon, and they were resting up under a Balanites tree. I framed wide to include the tree as well as the Oloololo escarpment in the background, but not too wide so as to lose the cheetah in the frame – the cubs were lying down and would have been too small anyway, so I waited for a moment when Kakenya sat up straight so she can be definable in the frame.

Nikon D3s | 80mm focal length | f7.1 | 1/1000 SS | ISO-320

This big elephant bull was quite relaxed and allowed our vehicle to park off next to him for about 15 minutes as he fed late one morning. I encouraged the guests who were with me to pull out their wide angles, andpolarising filters if they had them, and work the scene.

These two images show what I was able to capture by using the subject, the sky, the landscape and my own focal length variability (zoom lens) and portrait-or-landscape orientation to get different versions of the story playing out in front of us. The polariser helped with the sky and clouds and to tame the patchy light that we had.

Nikon D800 | 52mm focal length | f5.6 | 1/400 SS | ISO-320

Nikon D800 | 24mm focal length | f4 | 1/400 SS | ISO-100

The one challenging aspect of going to see the Great Migration, is capturing the vastness of the herds! I have yet to come back with an image that really satisfactorily captures it, but I will keep going back to keep on trying, that’s for sure…A wide angle lens just doesn’t give you the perspective you need to show the multitude, because of the perspective distortion and how small far away objects really look. You need to zoom in a bit for the herds – 70 to 300mm preferably. And you’ll need a good higher vantage point, so you can look down over a swathe of animals as opposed to driving among them. This panoramic image below is nearly there for me, but like I said, I’ll keep plugging away!

Nikon D4s | 70mm focal length | f4.5 | 1/160 SS | ISO-2000

I hope these images have inspired you to try more wide-angle animals scapes on your future travels! I also hope that it’s inspired you to join us in the Mara in 2015!

Using wider perspectives is just one of the ways that I enjoy expanding my portfolio of a location. It takes practice and patience and a lot of images destined for the bin, but it’s worth it. I’m sure to be talking a lot more about this and other aspects of creating context and telling the holistic story of the wildlife we photograph in my keynote presentation at the inaugural Wild Eye Wildlife Photography Seminar next year.

Thanks for reading, and have a blessed day!

Morkel Erasmus

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Comments 2

  1. Derek Evens

    Hi Morkel, I have been following your “wider” perspective thoughts over the past few months and thank you! this has opened up a whole new realm of photographic ideas for me. You do need the right locations though and as you know the bush clutter in Kruger National Park does not always lend itself to the wider perspective. What I can say though is I have been selecting areas to practice what you have taught and now look forward to the open areas of Kruger. H6 Satara to N’wanetsi and Boyela water point in the northern section taking on a new meanings. Thanks for all the constructive information you and the Wild Eye team produce for us all. Have a good day.

    1. Morkel Erasmus

      Hey Derek. Thanks for your comment, I am glad you have found some inspiration to shoot wider.

      Yes, in Kruger it can be a challenge but the open areas you mention between Olifants and Satara and between Shingwedzi and Boyela are great for this if you have a willing subject.

      I look forward to meeting you and shooting with you one day my friend.


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