The problem with digital photographs is that the vast majority never get a second look. Particularly so when it comes to wildlife photos.
With high-end cameras firing away at 12 frames per second, it’s not hard to quickly bank 500 images from a sighting, probably 80% of which are going to look almost exactly the same, with just a whisker out of place here or an ear turned there.
Then one has to be ruthless when it comes to choosing which ones to edit and maybe even print, with only maybe ten at the most making the cut. I’ve heard professional photographers talk about knowing they were getting good when they started getting five take-home images per sighting, instead of only one or two.
That may not sound like a lot, but when you consider how many pictures are actually taken out on safari, 5-a-sighting as bankers is pretty good going.
My point is simply that when it comes to digital media, by far the bulk is going to remain saved on a memory card or hard drive somewhere, unlikely to grace a computer screen ever again after first viewing (if it wasn’t deleted immediately).
I’ve never been able to be that ruthless when it comes to deleting shots. Even though the actual photograph might be awful, I still enjoy the memory of when that picture was taken. Even after over 7 years at Londolozi, I can still remember almost every detail about the sighting in which photos were taken. Obviously the exciting big cat viewing has been more indelibly imprinted in my mind, but even random random impala or wildebeest photographs I can generally place on the property and contextualise.
Because of that, I’ll often troll back through the Londolozi archives to see what I come across. As my understanding of photography has progressed, and editing software has become easier and easier to use, the occasional photo I come across from way back when might present itself for editing or use. Frustratingly most of my early shots were in JPEG format, which don’t lend themselves as well to editing. With the rate at which both cameras and editing software are being reinvented, I’d urge most people photographing wildlife to shoot in RAW. You never know when you might want to conduct an edit on a photo, and a JPEG tends to look over-edited very quickly.
In all honesty I just needed something as an intro to these photos, so having taken care of that, I’ll get into them now.
With the Tsalala Pride flirting with disaster, often going unseen for many days at a time, I was looking back at some old pictures of them when they were featuring far more prominently in Londolozi’s lion viewing. 2011 in particular was a golden time for them. 8 cubs in the pride and pretty localised movements made for some incredible sightings.
All these photos were from that era, but most have never seen the light of day, so I’ve retouched a few and tried to provide some context for each.
Maybe one day the Tsalala Pride viewing will be as prolific as it was 6 years ago, but for now, much of it will just be in memory…
This photo, as well as the two above, was taken in one of the most remarkable lion sightings I’ve ever been in. The pride with their 8 cubs was moving through a very rocky area, and we were trying to anticipate their movements to get ahead and get some oncoming photos. As we rounded a large boulder, I suddenly realised I had parked us into a dead end, unable to go further because of a large rock, but we were eye-level with the boulder next to us, literally touching distance away on our right. We decided to wait for a few minutes to see if the pride would move past, but were not expecting them to come and lie on the rock almost on top of us, totally unfazed by our proximity. Their height advantage acted as a natural barrier, and the cubs would take it in turns to eyeball us from less than two metres away at times. After a short while they became disinterested in us, and went back to stalking each other, as this one is doing.
Sometimes lion cubs do relatively stupid things. Quite often in fact. This cub had found something to play with and became totally engrossed in what it was doing, not realising its mother and pride were moving on and getting further and further away. Eventually it looked up and couldn’t see any other lions, so started calling for them. If there is any audible communication between animals going on, especially young cubs, we keep the vehicles switched off so they can hear each other, as ranger Rex Miller was doing in the background here, but thankfully the cub’s mother was already on her way back to fetch it, and upon hearing her contact calls the cub scampered on to rejoin her.
This is one of the few photos that I can’t quite remember, but I’m 99% sure it was in a sighting on the northern bank of the Sand River, in which the pride had just killed a big kudu bull in the thickets. Tom Imrie was the other ranger there with me. Visibility was limited but after we waited a while, some of the cubs came and lay out in the open. This was also during a time in which I was using portrait style far too much for photographs. 90% of the time shooting in landscape is what you need.
2011 was also when both adult Tsalala females still had tails. The older Tailless female was still off with the Breakaway pride (later renamed the Mhangeni pride) and would only rejoin much later. This sighting had Richard Ferrier and I think John Holley in it as the other two rangers. The lionesses had killed something, again near the Sand River, and were fetching the cubs to the kill. This was also the first of the two 2011 litters; the second litter had yet to be born, or if they had been, were still too small to be taken to kills.
All 8 cubs from 2011 can be seen here. The fourth of the younger litter is tricky to see; it’s just behind the left hand one of the front three. The lionesses had been walking with the cubs but had decided to go off to hunt, so left them on this termite mound. In retrospect it wasn’t the wisest place to leave them, as they were visible for a long way in each direction.
Still being relatively new to the photography thing, my settings were almost always wrong. My white balance was far too warm here (hard to recover if the file is a .jpeg), and I also didn’t think to include the reflection. It’s from situations like these that you learn the most though, as a return to the rangers room to show off the photos you’re so proud of will often be met with raucous laughter from your fellow guides as they point out what your settings should have been. It’s all in a fun, competitive spirit, and your biggest mistakes almost always result in the biggest improvements.
This sighting was as serious punctuation mark in the Tsalala Pride’s turbulent history, as the young Breakaway females (foreground) had met up with their mothers, and the original Tailless female – who had been caring for them for over 18 months – was rejoining her daughters. No one knew what the outcome was going to be, but this encounter, although relatively peaceful, certainly wasn’t the joyous reunion many of us expected, and as it turns out, the four young lionesses did end up going their own separate way.
Simple things can provide endless hours of entertainment for young cubs. This small marula tree acted as a jungle gym for more than an hour as all the cubs in the pride took turns chasing each other up, down and around it.
As I’m sure you can see, this was shortly after the Tailless female (younger one) had lost her tail to hyenas. Her stump (right of picture) had not fully healed, and she had only just rejoined the pride after spending quite a long time away from them while she recovered, even hovering at death’s door for a couple of days. If one looks closely you can see that she was still suckling her cubs, as one is nursing in this photo. One can also see the size difference between the two litters from 2011 starting to be more evident, as the cub doing some grooming is far bigger than the one it is licking.
Totally unexpectedly, the old Tailless lioness gave birth to a single cub in 2012. Although lions generally abandon single cubs, she made an attempt to raise this one, possibly realising that it would almost certainly be her last litter. Sadly the cub disappeared at only around 4 months, but we still enjoyed some wonderful viewing of this tiny lion while it was with the pride.
Probably my favourite picture of a Tsalala lion. This was in the same sighting as the top three photos. I don’t know what the cub was looking at, but its expression is, at least for me, enchanting.