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Zebra smackdown in Ngorongoro Crater.

Zebra smackdown in Ngorongoro Crater.

I mentioned in a long ago blog post (July 31, 2009) that elephants are my favorite animals. The logic offered in that article was exhaustive, but at the heart of it all was my sincere belief that the depth of their feelings and power of their love make them unique in the animal world. But elephants are overwhelming … and for me that can make them difficult to photograph at times. Zebras, on the other hand, are eminently beautiful and forever entertaining. They are an impeccable combination of aggression and vulnerability, most beautifully parceled in black and white. For these and a succession of other reasons, they are far and away my favorite species to photograph – and have been since my first visit to Africa many years ago. And as with the giraffe, I’ve subconsciously evolved specific strategies for photographing them.

Zebras are social animals, and as they interact with each other they exhibit an absorbing range of moods and behaviors. In peaceful groups they often use each other for headrests, or stand in rows, alternately facing opposite directions – a twofold strategy to (a) optimize the predator watch by expanding the field of view to 360 degrees, and (b) take advantage of the next door neighbor’s tail to swish flies from their respective faces. These positions and postures represent a cornucopia of opportunities for the observant photographer.

Zebras as headrests ... central Serengeti.

Zebras as headrests ... central Serengeti.

Alternating strips ... widens the field of view and enables usage of the neighbors tail to swish flies.

Alternating strips ... widens the field of view and enables usage of the neighbors tail to swish flies.

The babies of all species are photogenic, even those of the most visually unappealing adults (e. g., the hyena). Zebra youngsters are not only spectacularly beautiful, they are wonderfully curious. They have been known to elude the protection of their mothers and bounce directly toward the camera for a close-up portrait. They also make excellent subjects when huddled close to Mom or bucking through a field, trying out the spindly new legs. Some samples:

Baby zebra approaches the camera at Amboseli.  Mom in the near distance.

Baby zebra approaches the camera at Amboseli. Mom in the near distance.

Mother and very young one standing in Lake Masek at Ndutu, southern Serengeti.

Mother and very young one standing in Lake Masek at Ndutu, southern Serengeti.

Peace and harmony are not universally practiced in zebra society. When observing a large herd spread across a hillside I usually set the camera down (but leaving it in the ready position) and take a few minutes to study the herd as a whole. The animals graze quietly but audibly, companions form tight groupings and mothers maintain a wary eye on their vulnerable offspring. But somewhere in the crowd there will unfailingly be a single animal bawling incessantly, prancing through the host with head elevated and ears pointed skyward. This zebra should be observed and tracked closely, because he is, in fact, a troublemaker. And he will almost certainly generate the raw behavioral material for many an interesting photograph. The action will begin when the rogue zebra physically intrudes on a peaceful group and harasses them to the limit of their collective endurance. Eventually, one of the imposed upon animals will stretch neck and head backward to his flank and touch noses with the intruder. The action then begins within seconds. By this time the viewfinder should be clamped against the head to capture the imminent sequence of bites and kicks.

Trouble maker takes a chin shot.  Central Maasai Mara.

Trouble maker takes a chin shot. Central Maasai Mara.

An all out zebra fight for mating rights can be a very serious matter. The wild-eyed animals grab sizable chunks of their opponents’ flesh and deliver powerful kicks that occasionally find their target. Most dangerously, they circle each other aggressively … attempting to clamp down on their rivals’ lower legs. A zebra with an injured leg, particularly a foreleg, is a doomed animal. East African predators have a natural instinct for identifying and eliminating the vulnerable.

Another zebra smackdown in the southern Serengeti.

Another zebra smackdown in the southern Serengeti.

Zebra fight at Ndutu.  Serious business here ... an injured foreleg can be fatal for one of these animals.

Zebra fight at Ndutu. Serious business here ... an injured foreleg can be fatal for one of these animals.

I don’t know of any African animal that isn’t photogenic in its way, but for me the plains zebra is the most consistently cooperative subject. Other opinions are, as always, very welcome.

Drinking in the Mara River.

Drinking in the Mara River.

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Maasai giraffes in a driving rain.  The giraffe on the far left has at least five birds on its forelegs.

Maasai giraffes in a driving rain. The giraffe on the far left has at least five birds on its forelegs.

A friend of mine recently asked  …”how do you photograph giraffes?” My initial but unspoken reaction was … (1) hold camera to eyeball (2) peer through viewfinder (3) lock focus, and (4) depress shutter button. But after a few minutes of consideration it struck me that it really was a damn fine question. That’s because, without actually thinking about it, I’ve evolved a specific strategy for photographing not only giraffes, but most all of East Africa’s animals.

The giraffe is both a beautiful and beautifully implausible animal. Outlandishly designed, they are photogenic even if they’re standing at a roadside doing nothing. But under certain circumstances they offer opportunities for world class images. I’ve outlined a few of those circumstances in the subparagraphs below …

a) Kenya is home to a couple of varieties of oxpecker … the red-billed and the yellow-billed. These birds ride the large mammals to pick off insects or stray vegetation… and as a general rule the big critters appreciate having them around. Oxpeckers love giraffes, and if the photographer catches one in just the right location the results can be spectacular. A photograph like the one below requires luck, to be sure … but it’s also made possible by maintaining awareness of the birds, where they are, where they’re likely to perch, etc. Patience is also important … sometimes the birds won’t immediately move into position, the giraffe looks away, etc. But good things come to those who wait (sometimes) and watch.

Giraffe with yellow-billed oxpecker in the launching position.

Giraffe with yellow-billed oxpecker in the launching position.

b) Male giraffes compete for mating rights in the traditional way … by fighting. But they don’t have fists, large antlers or disproportionate incisors … they only have necks. And they use them to swing their heads at each other in hopes of achieving violent contact anywhere north of their opponent’s forelegs. The squabbles may seem ridiculous to the casual viewer — like slow motion play fighting — but in reality the process is executed in deadly earnest. The animals are quite capable of inflicting serious injury on each other. But what’s dangerous to the animals in this case is fortuitous for the photographer. Their lunges and contortions make them exceptional subjects for the camera. The “necking” pair below was captured at Samburu.

Reticulated giraffes "necking" at Samburu ... winner gets to mate.

Reticulated giraffes "necking" at Samburu ... winner gets to mate.

c) A solo giraffe portrait can make a memorable photo, but I’ve found that if you catch two together in a close up the results can be much more dramatic. The key to success on this is locking focus on the nearest giraffe and waiting patiently for a second or even third one to move into the frame. There are also times when the giraffe(s) to the rear of the subject don’t necessarily need to be physically close. The second shot below illustrates this point. The two “necking” animals in the near distance make this photo much more successful than it would otherwise be.

Maasai giraffes ... central Mara.

Maasai giraffes ... central Mara.

Young reticulated giraffe with necking males in the background.

Young reticulated giraffe with necking males in the background.

d) Giraffes tend to be shy. They’re a little less shy, I think, while they’re eating. Their facial expressions become almost comedic as they chew … and if you can catch a full on frontal shot while they have a mouthful of leaves you can capture an amusing image. If you’re a professional this is a particularly good thing, because there are many animal lovers who collect unusual or whimsical giraffe shots.

Mastication in progress ... Samburu.

Mastication in progress ... Samburu.

e) There are times when you fill the frame with the animal and there are times when you want to capture some of the surrounding environment to place the subject in context. That’s why it’s important to look up from the viewfinder occasionally and maybe even shift to a wider angle lens. The shot below captures some of the acacias and scrub vegetation at Ndutu, Tanzania … I think it’s much more effective than a straight up, full-framed portrait of one of these animals would be.

Bookends at Ndutu.

Bookends at Ndutu.

d) Baby giraffes are precious and cute … and they make lovely photo subjects. This pretty much applies to the little ones of all species. Evidence below:

Baby reticulated giraffe peering around mother at Samburu.

Baby reticulated giraffe peering around mother at Samburu.

I’ll be writing about techniques for photographing several other species in the coming weeks but I certainly welcome questions from anyone at any time. Both my cell number and email address are listed on my website at www.savannaimages.com. Up next … Zebras.

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The hippo pool at Ngorongoro Crater.  Nikon D70 converted to infrared.

The hippo pool at Ngorongoro Crater. Nikon D70 converted to infrared.

After a half dozen or so photo trips to Africa, it occurred to me that it might be time to try something a little different.  I’d always been a color shooter but I thought it might be nice to see how the animals and landscapes look in black and white.

Zebra and wildebeest cautiously drinking at a stream in Ngorongoro Crater.  They were right to be wary ... there was a lioness in ambush on the opposite side.

Zebra and wildebeest cautiously drinking at a stream in Ngorongoro Crater. They were right to be wary ... there was a lioness in ambush on the opposite side.

Back in late 2004 I purchased a Nikon D70 camera … it was state of the art equipment at the time but has been relegated to a backup role since about 2006.  Late last summer I sent it to a company in Washington state called Lifepixel to have it customized.  Lifepixel removed the infrared filter, which means that now all the photographs it captures are black and white, with the general effect looking a little like an old black and white negative after it’s been processed.  The adjustments the company makes to the camera do affect its focusing and metering … Lifepixel advertises that, unless instructed otherwise, they calibrate the Nikon SLRs for optimum shooting with a Nikkor 18-70mm lens.  After the camera was returned to me, I bought and tested a used 18-70mm, but also experimented with a 17-35mm and a 28-70mm.  Everything worked well as long as the aperture setting was F8 or smaller.  Assuming that the camera could be made to work with any lens, I took it with me to Kenya last September and married it to an old 24-120mm lens … this is a near perfect focal length for general use.  It’s sufficiently wide angle to achieve dramatic sky effects but has enough zoom to capture quality detail in the wildlife shots.

Very young lion cub watching mother leave to hunt wildebeest.  Taken in Ngorongoro Crater.

Very young lion cub watching mother leave to hunt wildebeest. Taken in Ngorongoro Crater.

I should have tested the 24-120mm with the converted camera prior to departing the states.  Every image was soft and I can’t find a single one of the 300 or so that’s even close to usable.  In November, prior to the most recent trip, I took tripod, D70, and all my lenses to the back yard and set them up near the bird feeder for testing.  The 18-70mm was the best, but my other two wide angles were nearly as good.  The 24-120mm hadn’t improved any … the images were still poor.  In fact, they looked even worse because I had something to compare them to.  I learned this lesson the hard way.  Lifepixel steered me right on all fronts and they did a superb job with the camera.  I made an inaccurate assumption and paid the price for it. The testing I did in the back yard consumed about an hour and a half of my life … it could easily have been done prior to the September trip.

Lions sleep about 20 hours a day.  These were down for the count, oblivious to the looming storm.  Captured at Ndutu, Tanzania.

Lions sleep about 20 hours a day. These were down for the count, oblivious to the looming storm. Captured at Ndutu, Tanzania.

So … I took the 18-70mm with me to Tanzania and Kenya in February and used it almost exclusively with the D70.  I’ve only looked at about 10% of the images, but they’re clearly much better than last year’s.  I’m including a few samples with this post and will upload more as I work through them.

The great zebra/wildebeest migration is at Ndutu in February of each year.

The great zebra/wildebeest migration is at Ndutu in February of each year.

The large elephant herds at Amboseli seem to have recovered from the effects of the recent drought.

The large elephant herds at Amboseli seem to have recovered from the effects of the recent drought.

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