Before my trip to Kenya, I thought rhinos were critically endangered, and photographing them in the wild would be impossible. So I didn't even ask my travel agent for it.
I survived yet another presentation last night at the Sierra Club. (Thanks Alan Jacknow for the invitation!) That's two talks in a span of 5 days, with the last one at South County Photo Club. (Thanks Bob Greenberg for the invitation!)
Phew… After sleeping for 12 hours, I survived. Not sure if it was a cold, fever, heat stroke, or if I ate something wrong, I was feeling nauseous, without strength, kept sneezing (if you had back pain before you knew how scary each sneeze was. One wrong pose and it could ruin my back…), wanted to puke and motionless for a whole day.
One Painful Mistake First of all, if you have 5 minutes to spare, please check out one of the most memorable and moving encounters I had in Kenya. A story of a mother and her baby during the big migration in Kenya.
Can money buy time? The answer is yes.
Don't close the page yet…lol
The Best Three Lenses For Wildlife Photography In Kenya
Both of my legs had lost the strength completely as if they were numbed. Sitting in the open-top land cruiser, I was biting the nails of my right hand.
“Is there anything we can do?” I asked Federico. I knew it was a meaningless question, for that we should never interfere when nature took its cause. But it's different this time.
The lioness kept sniffing, and was walking closer and closer to where Luluka, the mother leopard, and her newly-born cub, were hiding, a little hole under the ground, with just a small patch of tall grass covering it. The lioness was just 25 feet away. She stopped, looking forward, so focused.
If she knew Luluka was just such a short distance away, she could easily strike and kill them both. Lions would not allow other animals to compete for food in the same territory. And much worse, it seemed that she was with a male lion, sleeping not too far from here. They were a mating pair. Luluka stood no chance if these two lions saw her.
I couldn't breathe.
A few seconds felt like an eternity.
My palms were all sweaty. I felt helpless.
Just a few minutes ago, I had one of the best animal sightings in my whole life. And now, all the joy was gone. I feared she may not make it.
Our group was originally hoping to find some lions at sunrise that morning. But we stopped by a spot where our leader knew of a female leopard that frequented.
We quickly saw her hiding behind some tall bush. It was still predawn and it was pretty dark. There was no photography opportunity. ISO 8000 and 1/30s kind of crappy photography.
Sensing that a male leopard was also nearby, this female leopard looked a bit tense and skittish.
“She has a very young cub. She's going to hide with the cub and not come out,” our leader said. “Maybe we should move on.”
After watching her for about half an hour, she disappeared into the tall bush for good, and most of the other vehicles left. Some buffalos were nearby in golden light, and rumors were that some lions were not too far away. Golden buffao or lion seemed like a better choice than a hidden leopard…
I almost tempted to leave the spot to take some pics of buffalo, when Luluka reappeared again behind the tall grass.
Then she disappeared again, and it looked like she went into a hole underneath the ground. Didn't see clearly as it was behind tall bush.
“Oh my, she may be moving her cub. Get ready,” our leader whispered.
Lo and behold, in a blur, she came out from the tall bush, and… I had to rub my eyes to be sure… she really had something in her mouth, dangling.
“Holy shit…,” I screamed in my lowest voice to myself, while grabbing my camera even though my arm felt as if its numbed by excitement. That dangling “thing” was her cub. Still so small the eyes were still closed.
Such was my first ever encounter with a leopard in Maasai Mara, Kenya, a place I dreamed to visit since I was a kid.
Quite clearly knowing that it might be the only chance in my life, I kneeled down next to my seat in lightning speed, dialed my settings for the optimal fast action in low light condition, and I tried to lock focus and blast the shutter of my camera. My thumb almost didn't listen to me as my adrenaline was rushing.
Luluka and her cub. Nikon D850, Nikon 180-400 f/4, f/4, 1/1250s, ISO 1000.
I would have never imagined my first trip to Africa would have started like that…
I visited quite a few places in this trip, including Maasai Mara, Samburu, Amboseli and Ol Pejeta. If you haven't been to Kenya, these may all sound completely new to you, but very soon you will know these places very well.
Having started photography 20 years ago, and getting serious in wildlife photography for 10 years, I spent my time mostly in Alaska, Yellowstone National Park, Washington, Florida, and here in California. Due to a lot of reasons, this was only my first time to go to Africa, even though I had been reading books, drawing lions, leopards and cheetahs, and watching African Wildlife documentaries repeatedly all my life.
Now that I just finished my Kenya trip, I looked back and concluded that these 3 lenses are a must-have if you want to get the best images in Kenya, for those who will be going to Africa soon, or plan to do so in your bucket list.
Since I am using a Nikon D850 as the camera body, I will talk only about Nikon lenses. For the reasons why I chose D850, please check out my youtube channel.
“Human eyes see things at f/4. For low light photography, you need f/2.8 to see twice better” –Tin Man Lee
Even though I used the 180-400 f/4 to photograph this leopard, my favorite lens for this trip, SURPRISE, was the 400mm f/2.8.
Lens #1: 400mm f/2.8 FL VR
Just a year ago, I would have never thought about 400 2.8. My go-to lens had always been the 500mm f/4 and 600mm f/4. That's what all the “Pros” used. That's what the gurus taught us to buy.
And it's true, the 500 and 600mm primes produced images with absolutely stunning image quality. One can't think of any way that an image could be sharper than those produced by these lenses.
I thought 400 2.8 was a joke. It's as heavy as the 600mm f/4. And it's so… short. I constantly needed to put a 1.4x teleconverter on my 600mm for most of my photography, giving me an effective focal length of 840mm. How would a 400mm be enough?
And with the Nikon 500mm f/5.6 PF weight like a feather with an extra 100mm reach and $7,000 cheaper, why would anyone ever needed the 400 2.8?
Everything changed from a tiger trip to India when I bought it in the last minute just hoping that it could help blur the messy background of India forest.
Whenever I used the 400mm 2.8, the images all came out MUCH sharper than my 600mm. And the focus speed was AT LEAST twice as fast. I had since used the 400mm almost exclusively in India, Japan, Chile and Alaska.
It didn't dawn on me at first, but turned out the focusing speed and image sharpness was closely related. It's NOT about the glass in this case because both used top-notch glass.
I don't want to go into details, but a f/2.8 lens let in double the light compared to a f/4 lens, so it allows for a much quicker auto-focus.
The biggest difference between photographing in Alaska and Africa is that the sun appears to be rising and dropping much quicker in Africa because it's close to the Equator.
I was in disbelief the first time I saw the sunrise. It was like watching the typical sunrise in fast-forward mode. From breaking thru the horizon to having harsh light literally took less than 30 minutes. And that's it. Being mostly sunny in July to September, that's it. Good light only lasts for 30 minutes at sunrise and 30 minutes at sunset.
In many occasions, the f/4 lenses would stop auto focusing a few mins before sunrise or after sunset, but the 400mm f/2.8 would still auto focus without any issues. That means a few more minutes of photography in relatively low ISO below ISO 1600, and the photos would still be usable.
With wildlife a lot closer to the vehicle than places like Yellowstone National Park, it's no question that the 400mm 2.8 is the best lens for Kenya.
Nikon 400mm f/2.8 FL VR
Here's a photo taken by 400mm 2.8 at 1/800s, f/2.8 and ISO 640:
Next, I will talk more about ISO and the other two must-bring lenses to Kenya.
To be continued… Let me know what you think in the comments.
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Hi, 7 things in this newsletter:1. Updates2. A photography test for you3. Quotes that made me ponder…4. Da Vinci5. Photo contest deadline6. More wolf photos7. Answer to the test 1. UpdatesIt felt like yesterday when I had to immediately fly back from LA to Hong Kong back in September because my mom’s hand surgery got complicated… Now Chinese New Year is coming, I have lots of things to be thankful for. My mom’s hand is gradually healing. I’m back to 30 pounds less than my weight in Oct, and my injured back felt a lot better. Still no heavy lifting but the severe hip pain and numbness on my right foot is gone. I no longer need to rush back to lie on my inversion table in an upside down pose in agony every day after work. Can’t even look back at those days. I’m finally working on something related to deep learning that I truly love. And the two online photography classes are going well with over 300 students. Seeing them having great success (mostly because of their talent. I am just helping them a little bit) is a special feeling I still don’t know how to describe. 2. A photography test for you (answer at the bottom)So I have been testing some different compositions and B&W lately, trying to understand more about visual confusion. Can you tell me from this photo:What animal is this?Is this the left or right eye of the animal?Is he/she looking to the left or right?3. Two Quotes I enjoyedMy thesis advisor recently sent me a link about a 30 year old entrepreneur whose company is valued at $1 billion. Turned out I’m a user of the service of that company, called Canva. Below is an old banner I created with Canva in 30 seconds, for free, and I loved it.I read some interviews of the founder Melanie Perkins. Very inspiring. I like a quote she mentioned in her interview about how she dealt with being rejected over 100 times by potential investors while starting the company in her mom's living room: “The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” – Steven Furtick While walking towards the gate to board my flight from HK to LA two weeks ago, I stopped by a convenience store at the airport and bought a ton of Chinese books that caught my eye. It’s just so hard to find Chinese books in LA and I love the nostalgic feeling of reading paper books in Chinese. One of those books was by author Daisy Wong. Yup I confess I love her books. I ended up buying all of her books online from her website few days later after finishing that one. Here’s a quote she mentioned in her book that made me pondered. “Whether it's the best of times or the worst of times, it's the only time we've got.” – Art Buchwald 4. Leonardo Da VinciSome of you may know that my recent online course (DTS: Dynamic Tension Stacking) is based on a method that I “believe” is the vision and approach of how Da Vinci painted his masterpieces. Yes. Call me crazy. But the results can’t be denied. I have seen many of my clients who took this course almost instantly dominated Instagram and Facebook after incorporating this workflow on their photos. Anyways, yesterday my good friend Tom recommended me a book called Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Issacson, the same author who wrote a favorite of mine, the biography of Steve Jobs. I immediately purchased the Kindle book, physical book and the Audible version (who said I am not obsessed) and have been immensely enjoying the book this morning, while sipping coffee and enjoying a toasted chocolate Croissant at Starbucks (shhhh..). It was a good escape for me, especially after some roller-coaster emotionally in life the last few days. In one chapter, the author mentioned that Da Vinci came upon a whale fossil in a cave. Da Vinci wrote in his famous notebook (just a part of this notebook costs $30 million) “You lashed with swift, branching fins and forked tail, creating in the sea sudden tempests that buffeted and submerged ships.” Then he wrote, “Oh time, swift despoiler of all things, how many kinds, how many nations hast thou undone, and how many changes of states and of circumstances have happened since this wondrous fish perished.” Such great imagination. I think it’s beautiful. And it reminded me of the most famous poem in Chinese by my favorite Su Dong Po. “大江東去，浪淘盡，千古風流人物。亂石穿空，驚濤拍岸，捲起千堆雪。江山如畫，一時多少豪傑。” For those who want to read the English translation of this poem, I just googled a website. Scroll down on that page to see the English. 5. Photo contest deadline reminderFeb 20 for Nature’s Best Photography Windland Smith Rice International: A journey from the wild to the walls of the Smithsonian’s. 6. Some more wolvesIn my last newsletter I showed you links to some beautiful wolf photos by my friends. Here’s a new blog post with high-res photos by photographer Scott Dere. He talked about how it took him 10 years to have this once-a-lifetime opportunity. 7. Answer to the photoDrum roll… That’s a bison, left eye, facing to the left. Did I trick you? By subtle adjustment of the composition it can confuse our brain, don’t you think? I will talk more about creativity in wildlife photography in the next newsletter. Until next time!Tin Man
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