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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I’m often asked if I have a favorite animal. The answer is “yes” … twice over, in fact. My favorite to photograph is certainly the plains zebra. There’s something magical about their patterns and the way they manage to be beautiful against any backdrop and in any light. They seem to pose with even the slightest movement … and in groups they’re incomparable. They are at their most photogenic when they’re draped across each other and staring curiously at the camera. They’re also spectacular when they’re in a tussle, competing for the attention of the ladies, pulling the flesh on their opponent’s neck and snapping at each other’s forelegs.

But my real favorite animal is the African elephant. They are the epitome of physical implausibility, with their enormous leaf-shaped ears fanning the warm air and their pylon legs extending down to flat-bottomed feet that are truly unique in the animal world. Then there’s the gray corrugated trunk that represents an almost incomprehensibly sophisticated assemblage of muscles … so flexible that it can pick up a pea from the sand and place it onto the tongue but so powerful that it can rip a young acacia tree right out of the ground.

But these attributes are peripheral to what really makes this the most majestic of all creatures. The love elephants feel for their family members is both deep and permanent, extending beyond life itself. Elephants routinely visit the remains of their loved ones, lingering for hours, gently holding and caressing their bleached bones. Unlike so many other animals, their existence transcends the immediate present. They certainly recall the distant past and, I think, consider and prepare for the future.

Elephant researcher Joyce Poole relates the story of a mother elephant that refused to leave the body of her dead calf, standing guard over it for hours in the African heat. Out of pity for the mother, Joyce temporarily abandoned the scientist’s unwritten code of non-intervention and drove to camp to bring water to the grieving mom. She filled a tub from her water cans and then drove a short distance away to allow the elephant to drink. She repeated this kindness twice more, until the mother elephant sprayed herself with the water, signaling that she’d drank her fill. Joyce then settled into her land rover to wait with the elephant. But after a few minutes, the mother elephant cautiously moved to the driver’s side of the rover, paused, and in an unmistakable gesture of gratitude, gently placed her trunk into the vehicle and across Joyce’s chest.

I was moved, but not surprised by this story. The eyes of the elephants are as expressive as our own, and their feelings are at least as deep. Many times I’ve seen those eyes filled with joy, and on at least one occasion I’ve seen them lit with extreme displeasure (this was on the banks of the Zambezi River on the Zambia side … a sufficiently noteworthy incident to merit its own post later on).

Each animal of the plains is unique and interesting in its way. But the elephant surpasses all others in my estimation … not just because of its physical magnificence, but for the strength of its love and the power of its intellect. They are and always will be my favorites.

Male Zebras fighting at Ndutu, Tanzania

Male Zebras fighting at Ndutu, Tanzania

Young elephants at Tarangire

Young elephants at Tarangire

Elephant Family at Amboseli, Kenya

Elephant Family at Amboseli, Kenya

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