An Alternative to The Great Migration
The mention of an African safari often evokes images of dramatic scenes like this Crocodile Vs. Zebra encounter. Perhaps you’ve seen hungry wild lions pursuing their prey or herds of wildebeest charging across rivers. While these events do occur, most hunting attempts are unsuccessful, especially for smaller prides. At river crossings during peak periods you usually find over 200 vehicles, 10 deep. Photographers end up coming home after a very long day capturing nothing more than the backs of their counterparts.
For the past two decades, I’ve intentionally avoided the summer months and ‘The Great Migration’. Finding it somewhat akin to observing cattle herds in the Midwest. While it may be thrilling for a few hours, it quickly becomes monotonous. Opting for less crowded periods means fewer vehicles and photographers. In addition, you get a budget-friendly trip with a perfect excuse to acquire additional gear. Something every photographer knows is never enough!
Although the chances of witnessing the iconic river crossing decrease, I prefer obtaining a photograph that aligns with my vision. The alternative is settling for images taken even with a 600mm lens that is still too far. My preference lies in capturing unique shots not replicating the same scene hundreds of other photographers are capturing simultaneously.
Despite zebras’ cautious and skittish nature, their forgetfulness, particularly when drawn to water, tends to override any sense of danger. Having scouted the location the day before, I had noticed a sizable crocodile. Based on the bubbles, I suspected that at least four more were present in the pool. Ironically, just around the corner, there was a similar pool devoid of crocodiles.
The Encounters and Gear
My kit consisted of a mirrorless camera with a 28-300mm f/5.6 lens and my 200-400mm f4 lens on a DSLR. The bright afternoon allowed for a high shutter speed and manageable ISO settings. I always shoot in full-resolution RAW and low-resolution jpeg. The latter was sent to my phone via Bluetooth for immediate viewing.
As the only observer in the area, I enjoyed the privilege of choosing an optimal viewing point. These ranged from different elevated positions on the embankment. Selecting the perfect spot required careful consideration. Factors included distances, sun direction, crocodile kill zone, and crucially, the point at which the zebras entered the water. I entrusted safely navigating the terrain to my experienced guide and driver.
While most zebras approached the water cautiously, one brave individual ventured in. I captured a few wide shots at 36mm to encompass the entire scene before switching to my 200-400mm lens. I occasionally use a support rig, however, my settings and the fast-moving action led me to handhold. Vibration reduction is something I never use.
Surprisingly the zebras went in the water well past their legs. After two skittish retreats to the bank, the first crocodile attack occurred. Each interaction lasted about five seconds, from the attack to the zebra exiting the water. I typically set up for single-frame shooting but switched to Continuous Low, yielding six 45-megapixel files per second. I avoided using the High setting to prevent buffer overflow, considering I wasn’t using a super-fast card. Understanding the specifications and limitations of your gear is crucial, even if you don’t anticipate using all of them.
Given the presence of water and reflections, I opted for matrix metering instead of center average metering. My chosen configurations were 1/2500, f/4, and 200 ISO. The initial crocodile attack yielded a couple of captivating shots. Surprisingly, within a minute of the zebras departing from the water, they commenced their return. A few instances of ‘false alarms’ ensued. The subsequent encounter unfolded under the bright sunlight, prompting an increase in my shutter speed to 1/3200.
Adhering to the 200-400mm f/4 lens, I captured the majority, if not all, of the images at 200mm ensuring the action wasn’t cropped at the time of shooting.
In total, the zebras entered the water five to six times before finally giving up and wandering off. This really helped in ensuring I had lots of opportunities to get things right. This Crocodile Vs. zebra encounter didn’t result in a kill. However, the experience emphasized one thing. Television depicts the success rate of kills as far more instantaneous than it actually is.