In past blog posts I’ve written exhaustively about elephants, which I’ve repeatedly identified as my favorite animal. I also have a favorite photographic subject, which is the plains zebra. My blog post dated April 18th of this year describes my strategies for photographing their extraordinary range of behaviors. But there is another species that holds a special place in my heart for deeply personal and historic reasons. That would be the elegant and beautiful, but highly implausible Maasai Giraffe. Here’s why …

In 2001 I traveled to Tanzania with a couple of friends to climb Kilimanjaro. Thinking our trip would be a “once in a lifetime” expedition, we programmed a few extra days into the itinerary to see Africa’s wildlife. Understanding perfectly well that one cannot travel to East Africa without a camera, I purchased my first SLR … the lowest end Canon edition with a ludicrously cheap kit lens. Before leaving Tanzania my friends and I visited a very damp Arusha National Park, Ngorongoro Crater, and the dry and dusty plains of the Serengeti. During the course of that initial 15 day trip I captured about 780 photographs, which at the time seemed an astronomical total (that figure now represents about a half day’s work). I was completely captivated by Tanzania’s landscapes and wildlife and spent a disproportionate amount of time looking through my photos after returning home. The months marched on but the desire to return never dissipated, and I became obsessed with finding a way to do that – often – without being consigned to debtor’s prison. I’d received some warm praise for those first photographs I’d shot, and it’s just possible that some of it may have been sincere. There was one particular image – which happened to be my favorite from the trip – that elicited a stronger response than all the others. Because of the encouragement and feedback I received on that one picture I began to study the art and science of photography. Here’s the shot:

First ever morning in Africa with a camera.  Sometime in mid-July of 2001.  Captured by a clueless photographer at Arusha National Park with Kodak 400 speed print film.

First ever morning in Africa with a camera. Sometime in mid-July of 2001. Captured by a clueless photographer at Arusha National Park with Kodak 400 speed print film.

And voila … by 2007 my images were not only fully subsidizing my travel, they’d enabled me to purchase a world-class arsenal of Nikon photo gear. So the giraffe, from my perspective, is in a class of its own. That’s because I’m deeply indebted to the animal for a life-changing encounter on a gray and rainy morning at Arusha National Park in July of 2001. And it’s about damned time I started making payments.

More to follow on this …

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Lilac-Breasted Rollers on a branch at Tarangire

Lilac-Breasted Rollers on a branch at Tarangire

There is a lovely species of East African bird that sometimes glides with a swinging, seesaw motion as it makes its final approach for a landing. That odd, fluttering movement has earned it the name “roller.” There are at least four regional sub-species in Kenya and Tanzania that I’m aware of … three of these I’ve photographed, and one I’ve never even seen.

The rufous-crowned, or purple roller, is uncommon and rarely seen on the African plain. It is a gorgeous bird, deep magenta in color with white eyebrows and chestnut colored wings. Its shape is classic roller … with its upright posture, slight forward lean and raised tail, it could easily be mistaken for one of its more common sister sub-species. I’ve laid eyes on the purple roller exactly twice … both instances were in the Maasai Mara and along the same stretch of road. The first sighting was in September of 2008. The bird was perched on a large bush very near my jeep … but it launched just an instant before my 500mm lens locked focus. The second opportunity was almost exactly one year later, and again the bird was perched on a large bush slightly west of the dirt road. It was profiled against a very bright mid-morning sky … and in my excitement, I neglected to adjust my camera’s exposure compensation. I captured several images, all identical, and all, at first glance, horribly underexposed. The bird was far too dark, virtually a silhouette against the powerful Mara sky. But Nikon technology and Adobe Photoshop combined to save me from my own rookie error. The telltale histogram indicated that the camera had indeed captured the requisite information to make an acceptable photo, and by sliding the exposure bar in Photoshop I managed to salvage a lovely picture of the purple roller.

Rufous-Crowned, or Purple Roller.  Almost hosed this photo but was saved by Nikon technology.

Rufous-Crowned, or Purple Roller. Almost hosed this photo but was saved by Nikon technology.

The Eurasian roller is much more common. I’ve now spotted it in the Serengeti, Amboseli and in the Maasai Mara. It is noticeably brighter than the purple roller, with gray and turquoise tinted wings and a blue-green and yellow underside. Like the purple roller, its tail is abbreviated, with the same general design as the average songbird. Like all rollers, it is an aggressive predator with a predilection for large insects. It is a photographer-friendly bird, often posing on a branch with a fresh grasshopper kill clutched in its beak. Its close cousin, the Abyssinian roller, is similar in color and temperament, but the tail design is distinctly different. The Abyssinian features magnificent, extended tail feathers that would seem to enhance its in-flight “rolling” capabilities. I’m still looking for the Abyssinian.

Eurasian Roller in the Serengeti.

Eurasian Roller in the Serengeti.

Female Eurasian with a kill in the Maasai Mara.

Female Eurasian with a kill in the Maasai Mara.

It’s unusual that the most beautiful of anything is also the most common, be it rare gem, flower, fish or bird. But a definite exception exists in the case of East Africa’s rollers. The lilac-breasted is common from Kenya to South Africa … and like the Eurasian, it is photographer friendly. The bird is indeed spectacular … and very nearly indescribable. It features every color of the rainbow … it is dazzling when perched on a branch and utterly breathtaking in flight. The lilac’s astounding beauty makes it a profoundly pleasant distraction for the wildlife photographer. It is nearly impossible to drive past a lilac without stopping to capture a few images. On many occasions I’ve foregone opportunities to photograph more popular animals – lions, giraffes, elephants, etc. – because of the near proximity of the lilac-breasted roller. Below are a few, probably too many, randomly selected images of this incomparable bird. Its colors are impressive in photos but majestic in person. The roller alone is well worth the expense of a trip to East Africa.

Lilac in the Mara ... completely glorious bird.

Lilac in the Mara ... completely glorious bird.

Yet another Mara lilac.

Yet another Mara lilac.

Lilacs sharing a kill ... Ndutu, Tanzania

Lilacs sharing a kill ... Ndutu, Tanzania

Lilac in flight ... must be physically seen to be believed

Lilac in flight ... must be physically seen to be believed

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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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My plane leaves for Kenya three weeks from today. The spare bedroom at my home is currently strewn with cameras, lenses, batteries, chargers, flashlights, pelican cases and backpacks. The hopes are to (a) accurately judge equipment requirements, (b) safely pack all the gear into a very finite amount of space, and (c) minimize the risk with baggage handlers by lugging the most critical items into the passenger compartment. For the first time I’ll take a fully paid for, brand new, Nikon 600mm lens. It will not fit in the carry on, so it must be secured and turned over to the airline. This is a horrifying proposition indeed. Checking that lens will certainly be one of the most traumatic events of my life. But there’s no choice. In my backpack I’ll have a brand new, never used, Nikon 200-400mm lens, which was about half the expense of the 600mm but an extravagant piece of glass nonetheless. It barely fits into my pack, but having it close guarantees that I’ll be able to photograph even if tragedy strikes the checked lens.

On to more pleasant thoughts. As I write this, I’m acutely aware that the wildebeest have already begun to descend on the Maasai Mara in monstrous numbers, and, if they’re on schedule, they’ll still be arriving when I touch down in late August. It’s been eight months since I last set foot on the African continent, which is about as long as I can tolerate being away.

Mara Wildebeest

Mara Wildebeest

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