This was one of those morning when more lessons were learnt than anything else. An epic sighting after which I was kicking myself for not being ready, so ended up missing the main action, either due to the wrong lens, haste, or simple forgetfulness.
The fact that it was 05:40 and I’d only had two cups of coffee was no excuse.
We’d found the Ntsevu pride lying in the middle of an open clearing. All thirteen cubs were with them along with the Birmingham males. That’s 22 lions. Pretty cool.
As the sun crested the horizon the cubs became restless and started moving between males and females. We were testing some photographic gear combinations, and the first thing we worked out was that a 600mm Canon lens combined with a 7Dmkii body was not the combo we wanted. The 7D has a crop sensor on it which results in a magnification of the image, so in reality what you’re getting is an 840mm result. Even though the lions were in the middle of a huge open clearing, we would have had to park very far away to be able to get decent photographs. This would have been okay, but we were wanting to film a bit too, and parking at that distance wouldn’t have allowed us to record the sounds the cubs were making as they jumped on their mothers and got snarled at in return.
Lesson 1: Know what shots you want to take and get the lens setup right.
Easier said than done as you don’t always know how a sighting’s going to pan out, but in this case I either had way too much zoom or too little (the other lens I had with me was a 24-105). The ideal scenario would be to have a number of bodies on a number of lenses to save one from having to constantly be changing out, but this can get pretty expensive pretty quickly.
Lesson 2: Plan for the Money Shot
There was a bull elephant that came lumbering out of the thicket line, not far from where one of the females and a male were lying. We saw him come closer to the pair then start to amble off back into the woodland. Assuming he was going to carry on in that direction, I persisted with he 600mm from a distance. Elephants will usually chase lions when they get too close, so what I should have done was to prepare for such an eventuality, as unlikely as it might have seemed. Because what happened was the elephant bull suddenly caught a whiff of the nearby male and lioness and came charging in, trumpeting and ears all a-flare. I leapt madly for the wider lens, scrambling to attach it in place of the 600mm, and in my haste (I just managed to get it on in time), didn’t adequately push the record button. SO the first 15 seconds (which is when the real action took place), I missed.
And I hadn’t got the camera set up in a stable position which resulted in shaky footage.
AND I forgot to turn off the image stabilizer on the lens, which leaves an irritating whirring noise when filming (evident in the first part of the clip):
Despite all this, it was still incredible to see 22 lions scattering in front of a 4-ton behemoth. The elephant had picked out the first male and female and had them in his sights the whole way, not letting up on his chasing for a good 100m or more. The male lino actually turned and faced him at one point but then chickened out as the elephant came rushing back in.
Thankfully the bull only had eyes for the lions and didn’t bother with the Land Rovers. We were in a nice open clearing so had plenty of room to move, but you still don’t want an enraged elephant bearing down on you at speed.
As the pair fled in front of the pachyderm, the other 5 females and two males all began roaring; a wonderful serenade on the still morning air. One by one the cubs trickled back out of the thicket they had scurried into, and peace was restored.
In photography – as in life – it’s usually from our biggest mistakes that we learn the most. We just hope the sighting repeats itself someday so we have a second chance to nail the shot!