Part of being a commercial photographer for over 25 years is that people start to ask you lots of questions. The photographic industry is still a dynamically changing and growing one, and the number of young folk now looking to a career in the image making sector is probably more than ever. For Chris, who started his career during the “dark ages” (aka darkroom) of film photography back in 1988, this is a great opportunity to offer his experience and share all he has learned over the years – as well as stories and ideas – with enthusiastic listeners. After all, that’s all part of the fun when you’ve been doing something as long as he has!
Which is why the African Photo Tours he does each year have become such a highlight in his calendar. They are a wonderful opportunity to spend a bunch of time with like-minded individuals, all passionate to learn more about photography and improve their skills, all while enjoying arguably one of the world’s greatest photographic highlights – seeing and photographing wild animals in their natural environment.
And no animal is a better example of “wild” than the mighty lion or Panthero Leo. Once the most widespread mammal in existence (after human beings), lions have captured our imagination throughout the ages. From the cowardly lion in the Wizard of Oz through to cool and quirky “Alex” in Madagascar, Thundercat’s “Lion-O” and Disney’s Lambert the Sheepish Lion. There’s even a whole generation of kids who grew up with the Lion King as their vision of the African plains – mine included.
The worlds’ outrage at the death of Cecil to an American hunter – which was headlined around the globe – shows just how highly people value the lion’s right to its position as supreme predator in the great “Circle of Life”. Yet as a Vulnerable Species (International Union for Conservation of Nature) their numbers have dramatically declined with lions now found only in Eastern and Southern Africa, with a small subspecies surviving in and around the Gir Forest in India (500+ animals). We have no idea how much longer they will genuinely roam free in the wild, now mostly restricted to nature parks and wilderness reserves due to habitat loss and conflict with humans.
Yet from Richard the Lionheart to the lions of Trafalgar Square, from gladiator arenas to circus lions, these mighty predators have represented the wildest of beasts in human culture for as long as they have existed. (And I’m not just saying that because my star sign is Leo)… Which is why the opportunity to photograph them remains top of the wish list for so many nature and wildlife photographers (let alone the rest of us hobbyists, like me)! And why, once presented with that opportunity, many ask what they can do to ensure they get the best wildlife photographs they can. So for those of us lucky enough to have this opportunity, I want to share a few of Chris’s most common pointers below:
Prepare. Before heading off on any wildlife shoot make sure you have some idea of what you expect to see and photograph, and how best to react when you do come face to face with your subject. Plan to photograph the animals in a way that is safe for you, safe for them, and safe for the environment. To do this you will need to do some research beforehand about the area you are visiting and the animals you are hoping to see, and what their natural habits are. Or easier still, hire a decent guide!
Equipment. There are so many professional and non-professional photographers out there capturing amazing imagery on so many different cameras, don’t get fooled into the “I need this camera or that lens to photograph wildlife”. Obviously certain items can make your shoot easier, but by simply using the best equipment you have access to and by learning it well, you can achieve great things. In fact, knowing your gear well is far more important than which camera or lens you use! When shooting wildlife you often won’t have time to be fiddling with camera settings, so know your gear well enough that you can respond instantly. Don’t take time away from the creative process because you don’t know how to change your exposure settings. You are far more likely to get a great shot looking through your camera than you will by constantly looking at the back of it.
Content. When shooting wildlife of any species, maintain concentration and try not to get lost in the moment (sounds simple but is often pretty hard)! Especially when photographing one of the “Big Five” such as the lion… So don’t put your camera on motor drive and shoot everything that moves simply because it is a lion. Spend time to compose and structure your images like you would normally. Better to have one great shot than one hundred average ones.
Rules. Remember the rules of photography within the context of what you are shooting. The best wildlife images still adhere to good techniques with regard to composition, lighting, focal point, framing, leading lines etc. And then go one step further and add in some creativity. Can you move so that your subject is backlit? Are their groups of animals or patterns in a single animal’s fur that will make a more graphical image? Will a shower shutter speed add dynamic movement to your shot? Are their leading lines or framing elements you can use to compose your image better? Are their items you should be including, or excluding, to tell the story more completely?
Your subject. And lastly, keep your eyes glued on your subject and watch for the best moment to take your shot. The flick of an ear or a tail, a glance back over a shoulder, an aggressive movement or a tranquil stretch, these are all things that can make a standard image that much more appealing. We can’t pose our wildlife, but we can watch and wait and be patient…
Maybe one day I’ll get to try all these technique out myself (on more than just the family dog), but for now I simply enjoy sharing some of Chris’s images of this incredible species with you.
All images copyright Chris McLennan