During an assignment in the Serengeti in Tanzania, I was photographing a group of hippos congregated at a pond that had formed as a result of the recent “long rains” season. There were literally dozens of hippos of all ages and sizes in an area no larger than half of a football field. There was little running water going into this natural pool, but the hippos did not seem to mind the seemingly unsanitary conditions.
Hippos can be territorial, aggressive and unpredictable, so my first priority was safety. I found a spot on the shore that was protected by a high bank of granite, and my guide doubled as a spotter and lookout.
I had a wide area to cover, with photographic opportunities involving the entire scenery, the far banks, as well as up close action. I prepared 3 Nikon cameras, one with a 200 – 400 mm f4 lens, one with a 24 – 70 mm f2.8 lens, and the last one with a 70 – 200 mm f2.8 lens. The sun would be setting during the shoot, so I had to be conscious of my shutter speed, aperture and ISO as the light conditions changed. I always keep my cameras turned on, in continuous shooting mode, and I prefer to shoot shutter priority to ensure sharp images. I held my long lens on a folded tripod with a ball head, and sat on the rocks to get closer to the animals’ eye level.
While I was photographing two hippos mouthing directly in front of me, my peripheral vision caught some movement on the bank to my left. To my surprise, I turned to find a cow (female hippo) out of the water along with her newborn calf. Such sightings are rare in the natural world as hippo mothers are very protective of their young, rarely allowing them out of the water.
To capture the moment I had to drop the camera I was using, grab my second camera with the long lens option, focus, and take the shot. I was able to take only three rapid sequence shots before the pair disappeared back into the murky waters. The moment lasted less than 20 seconds. I went on to capture many more images that afternoon, the whole time praying that I had not messed up this once in a lifetime shot.
When I was finally able to download and backup images that night, I was thrilled. I had captured a very tender moment between the mom and baby that afternoon. On close examination, I noticed that the baby’s eyes and ears are almost the same size as the mother’s, yet it will take years for the baby to grow into a full size adult.
These are the moments we live for in photography – a single image that conveys an emotion, a feeling, or brings back a flood of memories. So, be prepared. You do not want to miss too many of these opportunities!
Boy scouts and assignment photographers have one thing in common – be prepared!
In the 44 years that I have held a camera in my hands, I can literally recall hundreds of images I wish I could have made, if I had only been a little better prepared. These lessons are often difficult to take, but they ultimately make you a better photographer.
Being able to anticipate the action and having the right equipment with you are the first steps to improving your chances of getting that once-in-a-lifetime image. For wildlife photographers this means understanding the behaviors of the animals along with the environment you will encounter during an assignment. Researching patterns such as feeding, mating, play and migration can be the critical difference between getting the shot and missing it entirely. As for equipment, having the right lenses on multiple cameras, charged batteries and plenty of memory cards are a must. It is a rule in nature that the best photographic opportunities will come when your batteries are dead, or your memory cards are full!