Photographing the Wildebeest Migration
The Serengeti and Masai Mara ecosystems see huge herds of wildebeest and Zebra migrate in a continuous search for food and water. When the rains fall the migration happens. The exact timing of the migration can vary on the timings of the rains. A similar route is followed each year.
The wildebeest and zebra migration is the largest land migration in the world, there can be between 1.5m and 2m animals on the move each year, mostly wildebeest and zebra but also other animals like gazelle join the herds, with the animals travelling 800km or more in the full cycle. All of this is in search of better grazing and good sources of water.
The herds tend to move in a clockwise direction up from the south of Serengeti, through the Ngorongoro Conservation area, the Loliondo Game Controlled Area, and the Grumeti Reserve. They then leave Tanzania briefly to spend time in the Masai Mara in Kenya. After a period of only a few months they start the journey back south again.
The below map from Africa Geographic illustrates the journey of the migration very well.
Up to 250k wildebeest and 30k zebra can die each year due to many factors like predation by carnivores, hunger, exhaustion and drowning.
This is one of the main reasons why Masai Mara is so popular to view the migration. Masses of wildebeest crossing the mara river trying to avoid the huge crocodiles in the water or the many lion prides waiting for them on the other side.
When people say they have come on safari to Kenya to see the migration they really mean they have come to witness the river crossings. These crossings are spectacular and there is nothing quite like the experience of 10,000 plus wildebeest and zebra jumping in to the river one after the other and swimming across, the noise, the dust the chaos and the frenzy is incredible and it is rightly top of many wildlife photographers bucket lists.
If you go to the Masai Mara with the focus of photographing the wildebeest migration and especially the river crossings then where you stay is key, a lot of the cheaper safari options will provide accommodation outside of the reserve or a long way away from the river, it can sometimes be a couple of hours to get to where you need to be. I ran a lot of my photographic safaris from River Camps. Drive out of the camp and you are right where you need to be. You will pay more, but the location of your accommodation is key for crossings.
It can be extremely challenging to capture decent images of a crossing not because there is a lack of opportunity but to do something so spectacular justice is difficult. I have seen many photographers that I have guided get caught up in the moment and just fire off thousands of images. It is easy to do, I did the same when i photographed my first river crossing. The problem with this of course is that you just end up with a whole load of images that are identical with very little planning or thought.
Photographing the migration for the first time is spectacular and nothing can prepare you for what it is like. But you somehow need to disconnect yourself from the chaos and the frenzy and plan your images to maximise the opportunities that are there.
I have been guiding for years in the Masai Mara and have photographed hundreds of crossings and over the years I have developed an approach that gives good results. I have shown this to clients and helped them achieve some incredible crossing images that look different and show every aspect of one of the most amazing wildlife spectacles in the world.
I split the crossing in to 5 visual zones.
- Riverbank – Capture Images of the herds building up and the dust, look for patterns and shapes.
- Jumping – Find an area where the wildebeest are jumping in to the water and focus on the splashes and capturing them mid air.
- Swimming – Focus on the herds swimming across the river.
- Predator Action – look for crocodiles and hippos, any interaction between them or attacks.
- Exit from the water – the wildebeest running up the bank. Exiting with water on their body.
Zone 1 – Riverbank Images
Zone 2 – Jumping Images
Zone 3 – Swimming Images
Zone 4 – Predator Action Images
Zone 5 – River Exit Images
Some other things to consider when photographing a crossing.
It is too easy to get caught with viewing the whole scene through your camera, take some time to look outside of the camera and just watch the crossing. Doing this can help you observe how light changes the scene, any interesting behaviour etc etc.
If you have a zoom lens you will really see the benefits here. When focusing on each of the above “zones” shoot some images zoomed as close as you can and some zoomed out as wide as possible.
In all of the “zones apart from predator attacks try different shutter speeds to show motion blur, get your sharp fast shutter speed shots first and then be creative.
In all of the excitement it is easy to forget where the sun is and the light available. My first crossing every shot was over exposed as the light was very harsh and all of the water and splashes were over exposed.
Exposure compensation is key – check your histogram before middle and after each “zone”.
You can see from the 20 images above that the migration is a real epic wildlife moment. The images hopefully help to tell a story of the event and helps to document the different stages of a river crossing.
If you follow this guide you will come back home with a very diverse and different portfolio. You could be lucky and get many crossings if you are there at the right time, but sometimes you may only get one opportunity.
By splitting a sighting in to zones or separate sections it can help you to put some order in to what otherwise can be a chaotic and overwhelming situation.
It is also worth mentioning at this point. Crossings are often very busy – it is not unusual to have over 100 vehicles waiting for the wildebeest to cross. The high season in masai mara can be frustrating for a wildlife photographer as there are so many vehicles, but as the crossings are the main draw, if you get your crossing images it can be worth staying away from the river and exploring other parts of the mara, vehicles tend to congregate at the river and therefore other areas can as a result be quieter and offer rewarding opportunities.
Over the past 20 years the Masai Mara has grown in popularity and I have seen significant changes, but there is no doubt witnessing the Great Migration is a once in a lifetime event.
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