Mandy takes us on a safari through East Africa’s Ngorongoro to share how she shot her arresting image of a lone elephant framed by birds in flight.
Words and Photography by Mandy Sham
This photo was taken on a beautiful January day in the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. My travel mates and I stirred awake before dawn to make our way here.
The Ngorongoro, so-named for the Maasai pastoralists’ onomatopoeia of a cowbell ringing, is a conservation area home to tens of thousands of animals: wildebeests, lions, antelopes, black rhinos, hippos, and of course, elephants. It occurred to me in those early hours that I’d never truly seen animals in the wild. The revelation sent goosebumps down my spine. I stared and captured what I could with childlike wonderment. This photo is perhaps the pinnacle of that experience.
“I love the way it feels so fleeting and singular.”
Why did you want to take this photo?
Safari vehicles are a container for the entirety of the experience in the Ngorongoro. What we see is beautiful beyond measure, but there is no way to circumvent the feeling of being physically limited and boxed in. For photographers, this presents plenty of limitations. (For starters, you can’t elbow your fellow sightseers out of the way to get the shot.)
Despite being confined to the vehicle for much of the experience, my own inner emotional journey felt incredibly freeing. I wanted to evoke the feeling uninhibited wildlife and nature roused in me, and condense it in my work. I considered that there were plenty of opportunities to shoot animals everywhere — the Ngorongoro and Serengeti are saturated with them — but to simply point and shoot wouldn’t quite capture the magic of it, in my eyes. It wasn’t just the animals, but also the magnitude of them; the resplendence of open plains and acacia trees; the smell of dew in the morning.
To imbue my photos with that ambience, timing was key. I looked for opportunities to shoot animals in relation to the landscapes they tread, along with the occasional inclusion of the safari vehicles to illustrate a fuller picture of the experience.
What gear did you use to take this photo?
I shot this using a Fujifilm X-T10 mirrorless camera and a Fujifilm XF f/2.8 16-55 mm lens. The Fujifilm X series renders colours beautifully — perfect for the wide-ranging beauty of nature tones. I also find that the light weight is ideal for travelling unencumbered. It has a real tactile grip to it, and I love manually adjusting with the shutter dial. I’ll speak more to my lens choice below.
“I waited with my camera trained on the elephant, and clicked at the moment the birds flew in.”
What camera settings did you use for this photo?
My shooting style conventionally follows that of street photography, which for me emphasises the moment. I enjoy fluidity on the part of both photographer and subject. As a result I tend to gravitate toward using a high shutter speed and auto-focus with a prime lens. I try to use the manual shutter dial as my sole adjustment, or variable, as I shoot.
In this case, I used the highest available shutter speed of 4000 — given that we were in a moving vehicle, and there was ample daylight to allow for it. In the Ngorongoro Crater, game drivers take a prescribed path along the caldera. I used a 16-55 zoom lens to allow for more flexibility in the shooting process, and to take advantage of the wide shot as a way to communicate the sheer vastness of the land — alternatively, to zoom in if animals were too far out of sight. In the context of wildlife photography, telephoto lenses are an obvious choice, but I believe they can suppress creativity in some ways. For example, the accessibility a telephoto lens provides can nudge photographers to focus too singularly on animals in lieu of the richer context of their surroundings.
I felt it would be lovely to contrast the lush grandiosity of the savanna with the singular elephant. I’d noticed there were all kinds of colourful birds flying around, and wanted to get them into the shot — so I waited with my camera trained on the elephant, and clicked at the moment the birds flew in.
“I’m always looking to capture the fateful coincidences, the little nuanced poetry threading through our lives.”
What do you think makes it a great photo?
I love the way it feels so fleeting and singular — the confluence of an elephant wandering by its lonesome, the birds flying about, and a camera trained on them by a photographer at that particular moment. I’m always looking to capture the fateful coincidences, the little nuanced poetry threading through our lives. I like to believe this is a defining feature of my best work. Plus, there’s an air of whimsicality of this one — magic wrought by something as simple as nature.