Topi in the Tall Grass : camera angle and lens choice

topi in tall grass with dark storm approaching

Dark storm clouds were moving in. We had been hearing the thunder for hours, and now lightning flashes were arcing across the sky. Our evening game drive would be over soon. Heading back to the camp I decided to stop beside several topi grazing on a hillside. We had driven by literally hundreds of topi, but something about the position of these topi; the clear background, dramatic sky, and soft light caught my eye.

My first few shots did not do justice to what I had in mind. I wanted less clutter and more drama.

topi in short grass

One of the best ways to eliminate distracting things on the ground is to get lower and point the camera up. So that’s what I did. In this case it meant moving the vehicle to a lower place finding a topi on higher ground. I took some images without the the tall grass in the frame, but I decided that I liked the foreground framing that it provided.

Satisfied with the shot recorded on my card we started to move away. Looking back a wider view caught my eye. So I switched from my 400mm lens to my 70-200mm set at the 70mm end and captured this frame before moving on.

single tree on open plains with approaching storm

Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Posted in Masai Mara, Parks & Reserves | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Topi Sunrise highly commended

herd of topi silhouetted in front of vivid sunrise

Topi Sunrise : highly commended

The Wild Eye nature photography competition, based in South Africa, has awarded my Topi Sunrise image a high commendation. This competition features a lot of stunning photography. I am honoured to have one of my images chosen. I would highly recommend that you visit the Wild Eye competition page and have a look at the other winning images.

We had been in the Mara for three days. Each day we experienced pounding downpours of rain. One of my friends commented that it was more like driving through the Florida Everglades than an African savannah. River crossings entailed lifting all gear and our feet off the floor of the Land Rover so that the water could flow unimpeded in one door and out the other.

On the morning of our last day we slept in until 5:30 am since it was still pouring rain at 5:00. We headed out at 6:20 in complete darkness. A light drizzle was still falling. Within a few minutes we were encouraged to see a warm glimmer of light on the eastern horizon. As the anticipation of a stunning sunrise started to build we began scanning for a suitable foreground element. The plains right around us were pretty much devoid of anything interesting. There were however some animals moving on a ridge on the eastern horizon. Switching to long (400mm lenses) we worked on framing up an interesting composition. The the sky came to life we were thrilled with the scene that materialized in front of us.

The image required virtually no post production editing other than a slight crop to correct a tilting horizon and a minor boost to the contrast in the RAW file. The only difficult thing about this image was forcing ourselves to get out of our warm beds and head out in the dark and the rain.

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Cheetah Brothers in Low Light

Cheetah brothers on a termite mound taken in low light.

Cheetah brothers on a termite mound taken in low light.

As photographers we have conditioned ourselves to recognize beautiful light, to seek it out, and to direct all of our skill into capturing it. In the days of film you either nailed it, or failed. The early days of digital were much the same. But the game has changed. Good light just isn’t what it used to be.

A couple weeks ago I was in Masai Mara. If you have been following the news there recently you know that the place has been deluged. Terrific clouds have dumped huge quantities of rain. Dark rain clouds can make for amazing landscapes, but I hadn’t really considered them to be particularly great for capturing compelling animal portraits. In that respect I was quite mistaken. After being bombarded with the the low light claims of modern digital cameras I decided to try something new. I had no other choice really.

It was 6:30 pm. On the equator that means 15 minutes to sunset. However, there would be no sunset tonight. Heavy cloud had been obscuring the sun all afternoon. We would have been headed back to camp if it were not for three cheetahs (two brothers and their mom) that had risen from their afternoon nap and were on the prowl for dinner. The three hunters were headed directly into the wind. We noticed a large termite mound in their path so we maneuvered the Land Rover into position to intercept them as they reached it.

Sure enough, first one, and then the other brother, jumped up onto the mound and began to scan the horizon. Everything was set for great pictures except for the light. The light was fading fast, and was now so dim we could barely focus with our long lenses. To make matters even worse, they were facing east, away from the setting sun. In desperation I did two things I thought I knew were bad ideas; I set my shutter speed to 1/200th (too slow for a 400 mm lens), and set the ISO to 1000 (ugly noise for sure).

Well, despite my misgivings, most of my images were fairly sharp thanks to careful technique. I had created a nice little cradle for my lens by karate chopping my bean bag. I then used my left hand to firmly press the lens down into the groove I had created. I then gently rolled my finger over the trigger and set off a burst of three quick frames. Most of those three frame bursts had at least one or two tack sharp images.

Back home I pulled up the images in Lightroom and was presented with scores of flat, dull, lifeless cheetahs in front of a noisy sky. Pretty much what I expected.


Unprocessed RAW capture.

What I did not expect was how good a job Lightroom could do with transforming these images into really nice photographs. I began by warming the image up a little with the temp slider. A boost in the exposure slider shifted the histogram into proper position for the white point and dialing in a 7 on the black slider established some nice solid blacks.  Slight increases in brightness, contrast, clarity, and vibrance all enhanced the tone of the image and brought it to life.

Lightroom basic sliders

Lightroom basic slider adjustments.

I was pretty happy with how things were shaping up, but I still feared that noise would end up disqualifying this image as a ‘keeper’. In Lightroom’s detail panel I was pleasantly surprised to discover that a moderate increase in the color noise slider pretty much eliminated the noise in the smooth tones of the sky. An 8×10 inch print revealed absolutely no sign of noise (even when I was wearing my classes!).

So, lesson learned, bad light isn’t really bad light any more. This is especially good news on safari, because most animals are far more active when the light is at its worst.

Safari njema!

Posted in Masai Mara | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Spotless Cheetah

spotless cheetah

Young cheetah I photographed near Athi River, Kenya, two years ago.

There is a lot of interest in morph animals on the web tonight. It seems that Guy Combs has photographed a spotless cheetah on a ranch near Athi River in Kenya. I am wondering if it is the same cheetah that I photographed near there two years ago.

It was April 15th, 2010. I was visiting friends on a private ranch near Athi River, just east of Nairobi, Kenya. I had a few days before I had to be back in the classroom at the international school where I teach. As always, I take advantage of every opportunity to get out into the African bush with my camera. On this particular safari a psychiatrist, Reed Johnson, was joining me (as my friend, not my doctor!).

We arrived at the ranch around mid day and right away we were informed that one of the other ranch residents had spotted a white, ‘spotless’ cheetah near the runway as she was landing her plane. Reed and I headed out in that direction to see what we could find. Several hours of driving back and forth around the area of the airstrip resulted in a mediocre picture of a very cool tree, but no cheetahs. The light was failing and we decided to head back to my friend’s place for supper. As we passed by the dam I caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of my eye. It was about 20m off the road. I stopped and we waited. Eventually two ears popped up out of the grass followed by the dark, tear stain markings distinctive only to cheetahs.

Eyes and ears of cheetah. 200mm lens with 2x converter.

Eyes and ears of cheetah. 200mm lens with 2x converter.

Looking carefully through the lens I caught sight of a second cat further back in the bushes. It seemed to be paler than the first cat and very timid. We decided to move in for a closer look.

two cheetahs in brush

Look carefully to the right and you can see the pale face of a second cat.

As we moved in, the two cheetah started to slink away. It was then that we clearly saw that one of the cats was mostly white, with only a few speckles along the ridge of his back.

cheetah stops to look at us

The pale cheetah stopped to take a good long look at us before moving into the thick brush.

At this point the adrenaline pumping through me was making it hard to hold the camera still. That in combination with the fact that Reed was now leaning over and steering from the passenger seat as I operated the pedals and continued to fire off shots of the receding cats. The pale cat stopped for a good look at us and I managed a mediocre picture of it. Then they moved off into the thick brush where we could not follow.

We thought the cats were gone and so I decided to snap a few shots of crowned cranes that were wading in the marshy area by the dam. As we sat there watching the cranes, both cats strolled right passed us; between my car and the cranes. That is when I captured this image of the spotless cheetah.

original RAW capture of spotless cheetah

Here is the original RAW capture of spotless cheetah.

Please note that for the sake of authenticity, all of the images in this post are un-adjusted JPEGs of the original RAW files, except for the first image which has been brightened and sharpened.

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Exhibitions Without Walls Interviews Me

Last month I was selected to be interviewed by Ed Wedman of Exhibitions Without Walls. This is my first interview and I was thrilled to participate. Ed asked some very insightful and probing questions.

Here is a sampling of the interview:

EWW: You write about Africa and African Wildlife as a great inspiration for you?  Can you elaborate on this?

Mike: Nature documentaries on TV are filled with beautiful imagery, but as wonderful as they are, nothing can match the intensity of gazing into the eyes of a giraffe as it gazes down at you, or the serenity of spending an hour with a herd of elephants as they graze in silence or frolic in a waterhole, or the thrill of driving through a herd of several hundred cape buffalo, or feeling the hair on your neck bristle at the sound of a lion’s guttural roar from only a few feet away, or being entertained by the slapstick antics of an ostrich as it rummages through your camp dishes and swallows your matches. This is the Africa I want to share in my images. (read more)

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A Night at the Ark

One of the most unique Kenyan photo safari experiences is a night at the Ark in Abedares National Park. Nestled beside a waterhole on the edge of a deep ravine high in the Abedare mountains, the Ark provides an African wildlife viewing extravaganza. This particular location was chosen for building the Ark because of the rich mineral deposits that attract a variety of animals.

The Ark game lodge in Abaedare National Park, Kenya.

The Ark game lodge in Abaedare National Park, Kenya.

One of the coolest features at the Ark is a ground level bunker that allows you to get lens to kneecap with dozens of elephant at a time. The hide is constructed of stone and sunk 3 feet (1m) into the ground, so it is very safe. It is an unforgettable experience to be so close to the massive beasts that frequent the waterhole.

Mike taking pictures of elephant through opening in the elephant hide.

Mike shooting elephant from the safety of the bunker. Photo by Steve Taylor.

The hide is well designed to allow several photographers clear viewing of about a 100 degree viewing angle. The edge of the water hole (not visible in the image above) is only 20 feet (6m) away, so the animals come in quite close. A pile of large boulders stacked up around the hide make it impossible for animals to get any closer than 6 feet (2m).

I chose to use my 10-20mm Sigma zoom for wide angle shots, my 70-200mm for frame filling animal portraits and 400mm for close-up detail shots. A bean bag provided ultimate stability and with ISO’s up to 800 I was able to keep shooting right up til dusk. The Ark does not allow flash at all, so fill flash was not an option in this case. One nice feature was the fact that the glass front wall of the Ark acted as a giant reflector as the sun rose behind the elephants. It was enough to fill in the deep shadows, and create some dramatic lighting (see the 400mm close-up below..

Elephant playing in front of waterhole at the Ark in Abedare National Park, Kenya.

20mm, f-6.3, 1/125s, iso 400

baby elephant in the mud

200mm, f-2.8, 1/200 sec., iso 320

close-up of elephant's eye

400mm, f-5.6, 1/125s, iso 320

We experienced some rain through the night, but it eventually cleared up. At dawn we were treated to a crystal clear view of Mt. Kenya. Although the strong back lighting made images around the waterhole difficult, the design of the Ark allowed shooting from both sides.

sunrise over water hole with bird on rock in foreground and Mount Kenya in background.

Sunrise over the waterhole with Mt. Kenya in background.

bush buck in mud with oxpecker on neck

A bush buck doe strongly side lit by the sun. Sunlight reflected from the windows of the Ark lit her face. The oxpecker on her neck was a nice bonus. 400mm, f-5.6, 1/125s, iso 200.

The Ark is a bird-watcher’s paradise with raised platforms and boardwalks reaching out into the forest. The birds are fed each afternoon, but the real feast for the birds were all the moths and insects attracted by the powerful lights that shine on the waterhole all night. Flowering bushes and trees surround the Ark attracting sunbirds as well. Cranes, heron, grebes, and other water fowl enjoy the waterhole.

grey heron standing on shore with reflection in water

A grey heron basks in the light of the rising sun. Shot from the hide. 400mm, f-7.1, 1/250s, iso 200.

red, yellow, and black bird perched on stick

A Doherty's bush shrike sings joyously from his perch beside the Ark. 400mm (cropped) f-6.3, 1/125s, iso 400.


grey crane with white cheek, red wattle, and golden crown

A grey crowned crane, beautifully side-lit by the rising sun. I waited until the bird moved in front of the water so that the blue background would compliment the bird's golden crown and bright red wattle.400mm, f-5.6, 1/1600s, iso 200.

The food was excellent, the service was friendly and prompt, and the manager, Philip Nyagah, personally ensured that we enjoyed our stay.

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Welcome to KenyanPhotoSafari

giraffe peering intently at photographer

This site is dedicated to sharing images from the Kenyan photo safari experience.

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