It is that time of the year when all eyes are on the hundreds of thousands of zebra and wildebeest that are currently dominating the northern reaches of the Masai Mara & Serengeti eco-system. It's a phenomenon that has captured the imagination of both wildlife enthusiasts and wildlife photographers from around the world with many people returning year after year to get their great migration fix.
So, as a returning guest who knows what to expect and has already been privileged enough to capture images from this special part of East Africa, how do you make sure you return with something different this time around?
I'd like to share a handful of suggestions that I share with the multiple repeat guests that I've had the privilege of hosting in the Wild Eye Mara Camp over the last 10 years.
Take Stock of What You Have Already
This might sound obvious but if you're wanting to capture something different on a return visit you'll need to know what you already have in the bank. Now, in the lead up to a trip, the last thing you think about doing is revisiting images from a previous trip.
I'd suggest that you take the time to work through not only your favorite images, but also the ones that don't feature at all in your "cream of the crop" selection. The best images will remind you of what you have already banked whilst, more importantly, the images that aren't so good will remind you of what mistakes were made (so that you can avoid making them again) and what didn't work (so that you can learn from those too).
Take the time to unpack some of the images that didn't work and try to identify the reasons why. Was it a autofocus issue? Was your shutter-speed too slow and ISO too low? Could you have underexposed a bit more than you did? Is the horizon line skew? Did you clip the tail of the cheetah as it started to run at full speed?
These are the sort of things to make mental notes on and keep in the back of your mind so that whilst you're in the filed you can call on that little voice of reason to remind you to "pull back a little and leave some space for that flicking tail".
Get in Tighter
Not so tight that you cut off the tip of the tail of course - unless thats intentional!
This is not an easy one for many people to wrap their heads around although we all seem to have that desire to get in tighter.
Make no mistake, the Masai Mara and East Africa in general is one of the few places that you'll really enjoy working longer focal lengths. I've captured many a favourite image at 600mm, 800mm and even 1600mm. Yes converters come into play and I'm not even going to enter whether they can be used to good effect or not.
The point that I'd like to make with my recommendations around getting in tighter is that I'd encourage you to get in tighter and start to think out of the box for your compositions. The big guns like the 600mm and 800mm primes don't give you any flexibility on composition and will quite literally force you to find a way of making something from nothing.
One of the best examples I can offer of this revolves around sleepy and lazy lions who are right next to the vehicle. Theres no chance of you blurring the background or getting anything all that special unless you go in tighter and start to explore different and unique compositions.
The detail in the eye, the mane, the chin, the ear. Anything really, just explore with the intention of creating something different.
Yip, polar extremes when it comes to focal lengths in the Masai Mara.
East Africa is home to what feel like some of the largest skies in the world and if you throw in some dramatic clouds and a bit of wildlife to anchor a scene you're bound to capture something rather special.
The wider we go the more of the environment we include and the more potentially distracting elements we introduce into the frame. That's where the uniformity of the landscapes in the part of the world really do just lend themselves to these sorts of images.
Be on the lookout for small features that can pull the viewers eye away from the key elements in the frame and try to adjust your composition to keep these to an absolute minimum.
Don't Fight the Light
I don't know about you but the light in the Masai Mara is either nothing short of spectacular or completely absent. When it's on its on but when it's gone it's gone.
Don't let the cloudy conditions detract from your experience and ability to capture interesting and unique images. Rather than fighting the light and cranking your ISO values as high as possible, why not try and work with the low light and create something unique and different. After all, isn't that why you're returning to (and probably will come back again) this destination?
I've enjoyed great success using slow shutter speeds that were pretty much forced upon me in the early hours of the morning or later afternoons where there was simply no other option but to work with the light.
Panning and capturing movement will undoubtedly be very frustrating with maybe 1 in 10 images yielding something that could potentially work but rest assured that when it all comes together it will all be worth it.
Risk and reward!
This is a big one.
It has become increasingly difficult to disconnect and to simply be present in the moment. Don't trawl through images shared by other safari goers and wonder why they've seen that leopard or those lions or why you might have missed that crossing.
Try to disconnect and be present in every moment where you are. Enjoy everything that you are seeing. Not only will you be all the better for it but you'll probably find yourself in a more creative space than if you were simply looking at a scene and thinking to yourself "nothing to see here lets move on".
I have a favourite saying and stand by it.
Patience pays. Always.
Whether you're waiting for the mammoth crossing or for sleeping cheetah to wake up and start hunting. Be patient, be present, and I can assure you that more often than not, you'll be rewarded.