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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Wildebeest in a scramble away from the Mara River after a croc scare.

Wildebeest in a scramble away from the Mara River after a croc scare.

Most of my visits to Africa coincide with the timing and location of the great wildebeest migration. The wildebeest is not a particularly photogenic animal, but the migration as a physical event is one of the most awe-inspiring sights mother nature has to offer. The sheer numbers of wildebeest are astounding. I’ve heard estimates as high as 4 million but none lower than 1.5 million. It seems to me that someone should send a couple of graduate students into the game reserves with clipboards and calculators and actually count them just to get a firm and accurate number (just kidding).

Taking it easy in the southern Maasai Mara.

Taking it easy in the southern Maasai Mara.

The wildebeest do not travel alone. They are accompanied by hundreds of thousands of zebras, and there are usually a few adventurous gazelles on the circuit as well. Much of the appeal – certainly from the photographer’s perspective — is the dynamic level of energy and activity that are the natural by-products of the movement of such an incredible mass of living creatures. They form enormous, bawling queues on the riverbanks and in the open fields as they prepare to run the crocodile gauntlet in the Mara, Talek and Grumeti Rivers. They coalesce into a dark, staring phalanx at the sight of a cheetah … and they lock focus onto lions of any size, ready to bolt in an instant if the big cat even looks their way.

Forming a wall against the danger.

Forming a wall against the danger.

I’ve been witness to the migration in the central Serengeti, at Ndutu (southern Serengeti) and in the Maasai Mara. Each location is spectacular in its way. The great herds can usually be found in the middle of the Serengeti in the May and early June time frame as the rainy season comes to a close. The grass is green and tall in places, but it fades quickly as June wears into July. Then the monstrous aggregation of animals works its way north, arriving in the Maasai Mara in late July or early August.

On the move to greener grasses.

On the move to greener grasses.

The Maasai Mara in the months of August and September is certainly the most vibrant place on earth. The rolling hills are speckled with wildebeest and zebra, and the lions are on patrol and open for business. The Mara, during this season, certainly hosts the largest and most visible concentration of wild lions in the world. As the short rains begin in late October and early November, the migration swings south again and lands at Ndutu by February. The cycle begins anew here … nearly all the wildebeest in the region are born at Ndutu in late January and throughout February. It all makes perfect sense. The grass is green, thick and nutritious … the mothers eat well and manufacture plenty of milk for their little ones. But Ndutu also illustrates how cruel nature can be. One lazy charge from a half-interested predator is sufficient to scatter a herd and separate mother from newborn. A young wildebeest’s life is measured in hours if it loses track of Mom … and the shores of Lake Ndutu are dotted with the carcasses of little ones who strayed too far from their mother’s protection. The sight of a baby wildebeest looking for a parent is heartrending. This past February my guide and I found a solitary young one on the beach at Lake Masek looking for its mother, but attempting to bond with anything … zebras, gazelles or even the trunk of a large tree. We sat and watched the confused animal for several minutes and it eventually ran to the shade of our land rover, clearly hoping that we’d become its adoptive parents. I was tempted to exit the vehicle and give it some much needed comfort and affection. But that interference, although well intentioned, would ultimately only prolong its misery. Toward sunset we turned back toward camp and the newborn followed our rover … we eventually lost sight of it in the dust and darkness.

Very young wildebeest (see the umbilical stub on its underside) orphan looking for anyone or anything to adopt it.

Very young wildebeest (see the umbilical stub on its underside) orphan looking for anyone or anything to adopt it.

The wildebeest may number in the millions. But on an individual level, the 24/7 goal is to stay alive. And this applies to newborns as well as migratory veterans.

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