During a recent Photo Tour to Africa with Journeys Unforgettable I spent some time shooting from an underground hide in Mashatu, Botswana. The hide had been crafted from an unused shipping container and was buried next to a remote watering hole. Purpose-fitted for photography, it is accessed via a trapdoor at one end, while logs have been stacked on top to prevent wandering elephants from walking over it and dropping in for a visit. A rubber floor to keep it quiet and a chest-level rubber-coated bench for storing lenses for easy access make it a dream to work from.

I used a Manfrotto super clamp and cradle-style tripod head to support my camera and enable easy use of the long lenses I intended to shoot with. However this plan was short-lived, I started out using a 500mm lens but was pretty soon shooting as wide as 14mm. With our photo tour taking place during the dry season there was a constant flow of wildlife visiting the waterhole providing us with endless photographic opportunities in this exclusive location.

The highlights for me were the several large breeding groups of elephants (Loxodonta Africana) that came by to drink. It was a humbling experience to have huge elephants and babies alike venturing as close as a metre from the hide. Witnessing the elephants from this close gives you a true appreciation of their size — if I had wanted to I could have easily reached out and touched them. In fact it was a challenge to keep them from spraying water on the front of my lenses.

I love the complex lines and textures in their weather-beaten hides and combined with their grey colouring I knew immediately I wanted to process many of my images in black-and-white. This breathes life into the tones and textures of these magnificent creatures and takes away any background distractions caused by colour. This area hadn’t seen rain in several years and we were told by the locals that there would be no clouds that day, but we were lucky to witness the first cloudy sky seen in months, which only contributed to the drama and interest in what would have otherwise been stark blue skies (often the desire of outdoor photographers, but not what I wanted).

One of my favourite shots from this trip is the close-up head shot of a large elephant as it locked eyes with me — it was so near I could literally smell its breath. I took this on the 70–200mm lens at 135mm focal length. Whilst all the rest of the images in this series are monochrome, this one is still in colour as shot — I wanted to retain the subtle warmth of the sunlight falling on the right side of the elephant’s face.

Another favourite is the overview of the entire waterhole with a herd of elephants in attendance. This isn’t a stitch but was cropped from an image shot on an ultra-wide 14mm prime lens.

In the shot of the elephant walking directly towards me, I waited until he thrust his ears forward — which increases the elephant’s size and makes for the perfect portrait in motion. By using a shallow depth of field the trail of slightly out-of-focus elephants walking behind him set the scene but don’t detract from my main subject matter, while the low angle dramatises the elephant’s size and its position as one of nature’s most mighty beasts.

I was also lucky to witness and photograph a number of baby elephants, including one of a baby walking under its mother with another large elephant framing the picture on the left. The mothers and aunts are very protective of their babies and crowd around them at all times. So it was fantastic to get this angle showing the very intimate interaction but with a clear view of the baby as it peaked from beneath its mother’s belly.

Photography in Africa is infectious and I will be back again soon to host additional photography tours. If you decide to join me my advice would be to bring plenty of memory cards! Details of upcoming photo tours can be found at www.cmphoto.co.nz/phototours.

As published in the February/March Issue of D-Photo Magazine.  All images copyright Chris McLennan.  Download the full PDF here..

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