By Will Fortescue with Governors’ Camp Collection
Arriving back in Kenya on August 1st, I was intrigued as to what awaited me in the Masai Mara. Having followed the updates closely from those that remained in camp, I knew that the wildebeest migration was close to full swing and lion, elephant and cheetah sightings were high. Kaboso the leopard had a cub and a large male had been seen relaxing on the veranda of tent 36, a matter of meters from my cottage at Governors’ Camp. The signs were encouraging.
Being out on safari again, having spent five months in varying states of lockdown in the UK, was a lovely feeling. We drove straight to the Billa Shaka area, named for its famous reliability to provide lion sightings (Billa Shaka is Swahili for ‘without doubt’) and there, not 10 minutes from camp, were the Marsh Pride. It was great to be back!
The aim for these wildlife photography articles is to provide an insight in to the way I approach a safari as a photographer, as this can vary greatly from the way I would without a camera. You will often hear photographers say an image is all about the light and not the subject. I strongly agree and would far rather spend an hour photographing an impala in great light than I would a lion in dull light. For this reason, prime hours on safari are often the first and last of the day. The soft light emanated from a rising or setting sun covers the Masai Mara in golden tones and coincides well with the hours that the wildlife is at its most active. This does not mean that outside these hours a photograph is redundant, indeed some of my favourite images come in harsher light, but it’s vital you take advantage of the ‘golden hour’. You haven’t come on safari for a lie-in I’m afraid!
With that in mind, the first images I will talk about this month show the difference between photographing in to the sun (back lit) and photographing with the sun behind you (front lit). Back lit refers to having the subject you are photographing between you and the sun, whereas front lit means that you are between the sun and the subject. The difference this can make to an image is enormous, as demonstrated below.
f/5 | 1/80 second | ISO 200 | 400mm
This image of Fang was taken in the Musiara Marsh just after 7am. The sun had risen 20 minutes previously and so it was still low on the horizon, which is a key factor when shooting a back lit image. Not only did it beautifully illuminate the last remaining dew drops, but it also created a great contrast between the subject and background. The angle of the sun meant that it highlighted the outline of the subject therefore allowing it to stand out from its environment. This effect is not possible when shooting front lit.
With the position set, the technical aspects were relatively simple. I used a wide aperture (f/5) to allow enough light to pass from the lens to the camera sensor, and a shutter speed of 1/80th to ensure that I captured the detail in Fang’s face. A recent altercation with another male lion had left him with a scar on his cheek, that I was eager to include as part of the image. A faster shutter speed would have meant I lost that detail and created a darker image. This would have made for an interesting silhouetted effect, which I experimented with when an elephant appeared in the background (displayed below), but it was not the composition I was after.
f/5 | 1/640 second | ISO 200 | 400mm (Significantly higher shutter speed resulted in darker shadows and a more silhouetted effect)
So from back lit to front lit, and the crucial difference it entails – typically, front lit images are more evenly lit. By having the light behind you it creates a consistent tone to your image and will generate less contrast (usually). The below picture of an elephant was taken on the same day as the lion images, in almost exactly the same spot. I was facing the same direction, only being 10 hours later the sun was now behind me.
f/4.5 | 1/640 | ISO 400 | 200mm
I rarely take a long lens with me when photographing elephants, instead choosing a 24-70mm and an ever trusty 70-200mm. If you put the hours in, especially in the Mara, they will almost always accept your presence and allow you phenomenal access. On this particular evening in mid August, I had been with the herd for almost an hour and the calf was becoming increasingly confident around the car and chasing the egrets you so often see surrounding large grazers. Just before we headed back to camp, the moment I had hoped for happened; the calf returned to mum for a break and a feed, gifting me an intimate moment I have always wanted to photograph.
A few days later, I captured a similar moment but in wildly different conditions; rain. While I understand the frustration many guests may have by a rain storm on their holiday, for me it is brilliant news. Falling water droplets can add an entirely unique element to an image – so as soon as it rains, I call a guide and we get out on safari.
f/3.5 | 1/1600 | ISO 400 | 180mm
To capture the rain as clear droplets, rather than streaks, I set my shutter speed to 1/1600, and to compensate, lowered my aperture to f/3.5. This had the added advantage of creating a very muted background to my image as well. After 10-15 minutes photographing, the rain got a little heavier and the calf took shelter under its enormous mother, the perfect moment to accompany the falling rain.
My final couple of images from August tackle the question I get asked a lot: ‘Is my zoom lens long enough for a safari’? The short answer is yes, and in fact, carrying a wide angle lens is a safari essential. The Mara landscape, with the Oloololo escarpment, huge skies and sporadic acacia trees offers a vibrant backdrop to your images and should be embraced. Particularly at migration crossings where one of the best ways to capture the chaos in its entirety is to zoom out and show as much of the scene as possible.
f/20 | 1/60 | ISO 100 | 16mm
This crossing took place just below the Kichwa Tembo airstrip and lasted from 7am – 4pm. In order to fully display the numbers of wildebeest crossing, awaiting their turn or spilling in from the plains, I used the Nikon 16-50mm and in doing so was able to capture the herd, the bend of the river and the looming escarpment in the background.
My final, and perhaps favourite image of the month, came from a rare occasion when I was photographing lions with a wide-angled lens. This is often not too successful from a safari vehicle as the cats, being small, can lose scale in the landscape. On this occasion though, a lioness we had spent a couple of hours with climbed the trunk of a tree leaning over a river. I missed the moment she climbed up but caught it as she leapt down. Given that the Mara is famous for its open plains and big skies, it was not the style of image I imagined capturing here.
f/5.6 | 1/800 | ISO 100 | 48mm
In all, August was a fascinating month here in the Mara, with a variety of abundant photographic opportunities, especially as the rains that drew the wildebeest made regular appearances throughout. Roll on September!
By Will Fortescue, in-house photographer at Governors’ Camp Collection