Photographing the Great Migration

With the Great Migration now in full swing, our expert photographic guides share their expertise…

Declared by nature, wildlife and photography enthusiasts as one of the greatest spectacles on earth, East Africa’s Great Migration is something that just has to be seen to be believed. The sight, not to mention the incredible and unmistakable sound, of more than 1.5 million wildebeest, 500 000 zebra and 200 000 Thompson’s gazelle on the move is mind-blowing. Undeniably one of Africa’s most sought-after travel adventures, the annual wildebeest migration is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience that should be on every wanderlust adventurer’s bucket list.

The Great Migration is a gruelling, unforgiving and never-ending trek, as enormous herds of grunting gnus forever traverse the endless Serengeti/Mara plains in relentless pursuit of lush new vegetation to graze. We’ve all seen it on countless wildlife documentaries, however, to witness its sheer magnitude in person is indescribable.

This world-famous journey happens all year, every year, yet no two years are ever the same in terms of timing and routing. The animals’ path is entirely dictated by the ever-unpredictable Mother Nature herself, whose constantly changing rainfall and drought patterns either entice the herds to new pastures or drive them off quickly in search of greener ones. The one thing that does remain constant is the fact that curious travellers from all around the world continue to flock to Kenya and Tanzania to watch in awe as the exciting drama unfolds.

Tirelessly seeking lush new shoots of fresh grass to munch on, these hungry, roaming herbivores literally never stop moving as they traverse enormous plains, hurl themselves off steep, rocky riverbanks and brave the dangerous hippo and crocodile-infested rapids of both the Grumeti and Mara Rivers. Of course, this continuous mass of thundering hooves is forever being stalked by predators lurking nearby, giving onlookers the most jaw-dropping, action-packed wildlife sightings imaginable.

Seeing is believing, and you’ll definitely want to take some postcard-perfect photographs of the unfathomable herds and nail-biting action so that your friends and family will actually believe your stories once you get back home.

And so, with the dramatic Mara River crossings now in full swing, we asked two of our renowned professional photographic guides, Grant Telfer and Andrew Schoeman, for some expert advice on how best to photograph the Great Migration. Here are their tips. We hope they will help you capture the magnitude and the magnificence of this natural phenomenon.

Grant Telfer

Patience and planning are key. Give yourself a few days to maximise your chances of seeing a river crossing. Remember, the migration is forever on the move and predicting the exact movement and location of the herds is impossible, so try to avoid lodge-hopping and stick to the same location for a few solid days.

Make a point of sitting down with your guide beforehand to think ahead, discuss your options and determine your photographic wish list. Then together, you can plan the perfect location, so that less time is spent driving around deciding on where to position the vehicle.

Extreme patience is crucial, as hour upon idle hour can be spent waiting for the build-up of herds to happen. Once the animals finally start gathering in numbers, then you continue waiting for that ultimate moment when one brave soul finally plucks the courage to take the daring plunge.

Even before considering your photographic equipment, some other tools are essential. Be sure you have plenty of food and drinks on hand because once your vehicle is positioned and waiting for the action to unfold, you can’t get out of the vehicle. So do have something on hand to keep your energy levels high. Equally important are sunscreen, sunglasses and cover to protect you from the sun. Remember, you might not always be positioned in the shade and could very well end up spending hours sitting out in the sun’s direct rays.

The action happens quickly, so make sure your ISO is set high enough to capture the constant movement and avoid blurriness. If you only have one camera, switch between taking stills and video footage, so you can document different angles of the unbelievable action.

Most importantly, just have fun and remember to take a step back from your camera every now and then to truly absorb every aspect of your surroundings. Take in the sights, sounds and smells. Noise and total chaos surround you and it really is incredible, not to mention emotional, thing to experience. So often, photographers forget to take it in through their own eyes, as opposed to their lenses.

~ Grant Telfer

&Beyond Private Guide

& Regional Ranger Trainer for East Africa

Images © Grant Telfer.

Andrew Schoeman

The Great Migration is an amazing spectacle and sometimes trying to capture the essence of it can be a bit daunting. The first thing I would recommend is to try and capture the vastness of the migration showcasing the wildebeests’ great numbers. This is, after all, why we want to see the migration is to witness hundreds of thousands of animals together.

To achieve this, there are a number of things that you can do. Use a short focal length lens to capture the huge number of animals gathered together. Visit the river crossing points along the Mara River searching for a build-up of animals on the riverbank and use your wide angle lens to include the throng of animals in the environment. Just be aware that when they start to cross, they can kick up huge clouds of light dust that can alter how your camera exposes. In a situation like this, take a few test images and look at the exposure and histogram. Then consider possibly overexposing on your camera if necessary.

Secondly, a great way to photograph the vast herds is from the air. Go on a hot air balloon safari or a flight in a small plane and use your wide angle lens to photograph the vast groups of wildebeest from above. Just be aware of your shutter speed and ensure it is fast enough to capture sharply focused images from a moving balloon or plane.

Another way to try and capture the Great Migration is to go in close and try and depict the chaos and confusion. For this you will need a long focal length lens, I would say anything from 400 mm to 600 mm. This will allow you to isolate individual animals in the chaos. Try and capture any action or predation that could occur, just remember when zooming in on dark subjects that you may need to underexpose on the camera as the dark animals can confuse the camera exposure meter.

Lastly, the migration is fluid and always on the move, so try and capture this continual motion by creating deliberate motion blur images. You can isolate individual animals or even herds of animals as they continually move across the Mara. I find that the best way to do this is by selecting a low ISO and switching your camera into Time Value or Shutter priority. Dial in a relatively slow shutter speed (e.g., 1/30th of a second exposure) and also set your camera onto the motor drive so you can take multiple images in quick succession. As you photograph the moving animals try and move your lens to match the movement of the animal you are photographing and keep your shutter release button down so the camera continually takes photos. The idea is to get the animal reasonably in focus while the background is out of focus. You will need to change your shutter speed based on how fast the animals are moving (faster moving animals require a faster shutter speed otherwise they can be too blurred). It’s a fun way to photograph and you can get some very interesting results.

~ Andrew Schoeman

&Beyond Specialist Photographic Guide

Images and banner © Andrew Schoeman.


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