So what do you get photographically when you have arguably the largest lion pride in the world – I counted 49 individual members – some large open areas with grass heights ranging from very tall to residential lawn height, thousand of resident Burchell Zebras, thousands of Topis and vast numbers of White-bearded Wildebeest that just kept on arriving with many of them starting to deliver their calves ? For me the answer is simple. You get enough prey to support arguably the largest lion pride on the African continent and with the right timing the stories of The Serengeti Lion Mating Game. The north western Serengeti at the Grumeti river is a lion photography destination without equal. For practical purposes the mega Grumeti pride divided themselves in roughly 4 groups, three with pride males and lionesses and the fourth group, lionesses with six one year old cubs – by far the most skittish of them all. In all three of the other groups there where females in oestrus and the group dynamics were fascinating to photograph. Not having ever had the opportunity to photograph uninterrupted mating behaviour for nearly a week I was previously under the impression that when serious mating between lions takes place the pride male and lioness are always separated from the rest of the pride. Not so, and what is more, I photographed pride males changing partners and jealous lionesses working themselves between males and other females to the extend that they will even hassle a very irritated male while he is mating with another lioness!
Image 1: In the image below Rusta, a scruffy old male, must deal with an agitated lioness who forced herself between the lioness of choice and a bemused Rusta.
Nikon D800/70-200mm F2.8 at 170mm/ISO640/F13 @1/1250sec EV -1.0 Score 3/5
Note: When I photograph a busy scene like this I shoot everything sharp to give depth and context. If I had to deal with only the front 3 lions I would have chosen F5.6 on the 400mm F2.8 fixed lens to make sure the male’s tail is sharp.
Image 2: Clearly the chosen lioness soon realised that Rusta ain’t what he used to be and tried to run away from him.
Nikon D800/400mm F2.8 VR/ISO 640/F8 @ 1/4000 sec/EV -1.3 Scor 3/5
Note; Advancements in camera sensors allows not only for faster shutter speeds but also for much better depth of field control. If the lioness’s tale tip was unsharp I would have trash this image.
Image 3: Rusta was clearly not having any of this fickle behaviour of the chosen lioness and ran her down and constantly blocked her from moving away. I never actually saw the two of them mating.
Nikon D4/400mm F2.8 VR+2.0 X Converter/ISO 1250/F11 @ 1/2500 sec/ EV -1.3 Score 3/5
Note: Although very similar in appearance this is a much more complicated image due to the fact that I was shooting with a 800mm lens. The shutter speed is high enough but not so the depth of field . The tail tip is not as sharp as I would have liked it to be. The solution ISO 1600 and F16 should do the trick- another reason to go back to the Serengeti!
Image 4: The same could not be said about Thor. This was a majestic pride male and the lionesses loved him. They would even risk their lives irritating Thor while he was mating with another lioness.
Nikon D4/400mm F2.8 VR + 2.0 X Converter/ ISO 800/F5.6 @ 1/6400 sec/ EV -0.7 Score 3/5
Note: There are clean backgrounds and then there is the blue sky in this image- right out wildlife photography heaven! All this allowed me to shoot at maximum aperture and do justice to a portrait of a truly magnificent male lion.
Image 5: But then again this lioness had his number and she totally mesmerised him.
Nikon D800/400mm F2.8 Vr + 1.4 X Converter/ISO 400/ F4.0 @ 1/3200/ EV -1.0 Score 4/5
Note: Using the D800’s more pixels allowed me to rather use the 1.4 instead of the 2.0 X Converter and open up the lens to a maximum of F4. The next link in the golden chain was a high shutter speed that allowed the ISO to be dropped.
Image 6: He would always keep a close eye on her and would not allow her to get close to one of the other pride males.
Nikon D800/400mm F2.8 VR +2.0 X Converter/ISO 800 /F8 @ 1/4000 sec/ EV-1.3 Score 2/5
Note: Running at a slight angle I opted for F8 on a long lens for more depth of field. If I could have a rerun I would rather shoot at F11.
Image 7 : In some of the other mating rituals the females went over to the males and initiated the mating but with Thor it was alway different. He mostly initiated the mating.
Nikon D800/400mm F2.8 VR +2.0 X Converter/ISO 800 /F8 @ 1/4000 sec/ EV-1.3 Score 3/5
Note: A slight rear angle required F8 for the expected break away that never happened.
Image 8: One of the senior pride lionesses bemoans the fact that Thor is mating with another lioness although she had the luxury of his attention not long after that.
Nikon D800/400mm F2.8 VR +2.0 X Converter/ISO 500 /F5.6 @ 1/8000 sec/ EV-1.3 Score 4/5
Note: A clean background meant a maximum F5.6 @ 800mm came off but a bit risky. Ample shutter speed allowed me the freedom to shoot at F11 or even F16 which I failed to do. Better concentration required next time around.
Image 9: With a soft stroke of her tale on his chest this young female tells Thor that she is ready to mate.
Nikon D800/400mm F2.8 VR +1.4 X Converter/ISO 3200 /F20 @ 1/3200 sec/ EV-1.3 Score 3/5
Note: I really pulled out all the spots with this shot . Shooting with a 560mm F4.0 lens and the lions walking straight at me at close ranch I decided the image WILL be sharp come hell or high water. I pushed the D800’s ISO to what I thought was a ridiculously high ISO 3200 and ran the F Stop down to F20. Not only is the image sharp from tongue to tail tip and what is more with no noise. The surprise for me was relatively clean back ground. I just love it when a plan comes together!
Image 10: Two of my favourite mating images of the same two lions. The first one later in the morning.
Nikon D4/400mm F2.8 VR /ISO 500 /F5.6 @ 1/4000 sec/ EV-1.0 Score 4/5
Note: I have been photographing these mating lions for a hour or two this particular day and could get the vehicle in position early and knew I had to allow for a bit more depth of field to cater for the enthusiastic break away. As time goes on in the mating process, that can last up to a week , lions get more lethargic after mating. This was still early days in the mating game.
Image 12: With the one below image taken moments after sunrise.
Nikon D4/400mm F2.8 VR /ISO 1250 /F4.5 @ 1/4000 sec/ EV-1.0 Score 5/5
Note: When I came across this mating pair at first light I had good reason to think that I would get multiple opportunities to get this shot right so I went for broke and luckily pulled it off. Shooting at F4.5 I knew that I just had to get focussing spot on. So I lowered the focus sensor and focus on the lioness’s head. If the focus was on the males mid body the lioness’s head would not be sharp and therefore dooming this lovely image to the dustbin.
Whether I am on a reconnaissance trip like this Serengeti trip, or working on my own, or with clients, I always photograph by the same principle- “Work the scene” Unique behaviour like lions mating is not something that photographers get to experience and photograph every week. So when I came across the mega Grumeti pride’s mating frenzy all my photographic systems went into lock down and I concentrated on something that I might not actually see again . The end result is some fairly unique behavioural images that me and the clients that accompanied me will treasure for many years to come. So yes I am sold on the Serengeti and we will run a few months of Seringeti photographic trips the CNP style in 2016. Expect communication on the green season Serengeti promotion soon from the CNP team. East African greetings ! Lou Coetzer