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Wildlife in Kenya

Ian Plant photographed hippos, lion cubs, and the fascinating wildebeest with the Tamron SP 150-600mm VC G2 lens.

By Jenn Gidman
Images by Ian Plant

Last July, Ian Plant traveled to Kenya and spent two weeks in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, world renowned for its abundance of wildlife, especially big cats. "The Maasai Mara is home to a variety of large African animals, including lions, cheetahs, elephants, gazelles, cape buffaloes, hippopotamus, zebras, crocodiles, hyenas, jackals, black rhinos, and leopards," he notes. "It's the wildebeest, though, that are the dominant inhabitants of the Mara, with millions passing through the reserve in July and October. It's known as the 'Great Migration,' and it's one of the most amazing wildlife events on the planet."

For this trip, Ian brought along the Tamron SP 150-600mm VC G2 lens, which allowed him to capture everything from faraway shots of the famed wildebeest to close-ups of playful lion cubs. "Nothing else particularly special was required for this trip, other than to mentally prepare myself for hot, dusty conditions and lots of time spent bouncing around in a cramped safari vehicle," he says.

Heading out early each morning to try to photograph the animals in the best light, Ian would also venture out every afternoon, hoping to find his subjects at sunset. "As always, I was looking to move beyond merely documenting my subjects," he says. "Instead, I wanted to creatively use composition, light, and movement to produce a more artistic expression."

Ian traveled in a small 4x4 safari vehicle, with a guide who was able to obtain an off-road permit so they could get very close to the animals. "One day, a pair of cheetah cubs came running right toward my vehicle," Ian recalls. "It looked like they were going to jump into the open window, but at the last moment they ran under the vehicle and continued to the other side. It was a thrilling encounter!"

Hippos are one of the most well-known mammals in Kenya, and when a group of them appeared in front of Ian's camera, he was drawn to the pattern they formed in the water. "Since I needed to get all of the hippos in focus, I focused on the hyperfocal distance and stopped my lens down to a small aperture to extend the depth-of-field over the entire scene," he notes.

© Ian Plant
250mm, F/14, ISO 100, 1/50 sec.

Crocodiles are also often spotted in Kenyan waters, but capturing them on the move isn't easy. "A bunch of crocs I saw were feeding on a dead hippo in the water," Ian says. "Each would go in for a bite and swirl around to tear the meat off the carcass. Then the crocs would briefly lift their heads out of the water to chew and swallow the meat. The action was happening very fast, so I choose a fast shutter speed to achieve sharp captures."

© Ian Plant
600mm, F/6.3, ISO 640, 1/800 sec.

And then there were the wildebeest, which Ian was lucky enough to catch as they were migrating across the Mara River. "This is a harrowing event for the wildebeest, as crocs lurk beneath the waters, looking to snatch unwary victims," he explains. "After the wildebeest swam across the river, they massed and surged up the far bank. I was once again fascinated by the pattern they created, so I spent several minutes photographing them as they passed by this point. I took many shots, as that pattern kept changing."

© Ian Plant
600mm, F/6.3, ISO 1000, 1/400 sec.

Working with fast-moving subjects, such as when a large herd ran past him early one morning, can be challenging. "I chose a relatively slow shutter speed and panned my camera sideways with the action," Ian says. "This allowed me to capture the moving wildebeest as sharp, but while simultaneously blurring the background. I had to experiment to figure out the best shutter speed, then shoot a lot as I practiced my panning speed and timing. Luckily, there were thousands of wildebeest running back and forth!"

© Ian Plant
600mm, F/7.1, ISO 125, 1/100 sec.

The speedy, regal-looking topi, an antelope subspecies found throughout sub-Saharan Africa, can often be found wandering the plains in the early morning glow, which offered Ian an ideal opportunity to work in one of his favorite lighting scenarios. "I took this photo in backlight at dawn," he says. "I love working with backlighting, especially during sunrise and sunset when the light is warm and colorful."

© Ian Plant
600mm, F/7.1, ISO 1250, 1/250 sec.

Ian was always considering composition as he roamed the Kenyan landscape, incorporating traditional artistic techniques when it worked and also keeping an eye on how the sky could play into some of his photos. "As these three zebras passed by, I noticed the attractive storm clouds above them," he says. "So I zoomed out a bit to include the entire scene, including that dramatic sky."

© Ian Plant
150mm, F/5.6, ISO 125, 1/500 sec.

Sometimes it's all about timing, and an animal's willingness to look into the lens—which happened when Ian stumbled upon a lioness fresh off a kill, as well as a more playful scene with a lion cub. "This precocious cub was frolicking on this log for several minutes," he says. "It wasn't very hard taking these photos, as the cuteness factor was abundant! The cub just kept striking a bunch of photogenic poses—all I had to do was trigger the shutter."

© Ian Plant
600mm, F/11, ISO 6400, 1/500 sec.

© Ian Plant
375mm, F/6.3, ISO 2000, 1/250 sec.

To see more of Ian Plant's work, go to www.ianplant.com.