In search of lions

I’m not yet over the thrill of seeing lions in the wild. A leopard or a cheetah may be harder to see, and equally beautiful, but nothing stops traffic in one of Africa’s parks as surely as a lion. Visiting Kruger national park in South Africa, and Etosha national park in Namibia, we saw lions on about half a dozen separate occasions. Rather than just post the best images I obtained, what follows is a chronological list of our sightings in an attempt to give an idea of the sorts of different pictures that are possible. In that spirit, there’s deliberately no great consistency in the processing I’ve applied!

Lions are nocturnal, and if one’s sole goal is to see a lion a game drive at night is a good option. You’re not allowed to blunder around after dark yourself in either Kruger or Etosha, but some of the Kruger camps offer guided night drives in open sided vehicles. These leave shortly after dark, and give you typically a couple of hours during which both guide and visitors scan the roadside with spotlights for wildlife.

Leaving Skukuza rest camp in Kruger on our first day in the park, a pair of lions stood on the verge no more than a mile or so outside the gates.


In addition to spotting the game, the guides on one of these excursions give a commentary on what you’ve seen (normally after the vehicle has stopped, photographs have been taken, and the animal has moved off into the bush). I’ve done guided drives before in Denali and in Yellowstone during winter, and it’s a similar experience. In Kruger, one of our guides suggested that lions hang out near the paved roads because prey, fleeing in panic, will often slip trying to cross the tarmac. Whether that’s true or not I don’t know, but it’s certainly the case that our lions showed very little inclination to head into the bush. Despite the presence of a large vehicle, filled with tourists doing a terrible job of keeping quiet, they walked along as the vehicle kept pace without paying us very much attention.


Later that night, we found a second small group resting at a waterhole.


This kind of sighting is a tough gig photographically. For some reason I’d supposed that the spotlights on a safari vehicle would be extremely bright, but they’re not. The above images are at ISO 6,400 and 12,800, at shutter speeds as low as a tenth of a second. High ISO and image stabilization are essential, and even then you’ll likely be looking at black and white conversion and / or a slightly arty look.

During the day lions will often be resting up. In Kruger, even during the dry season, there’s quite a bit of undergrowth, and a resting lion is hard to spot even at quite close range. A lion jam of cars on the road is more conspicuous, and we caught fleeting views of lions on a couple of occasions that way. Mostly you end up not with artistic glimpses of a lion, but simply obscured and unsatisfactory images. We waited for the lions to get up, move out of the undergrowth, or in fact to do anything, but a fed and watered lion is not in a hurry during the day.


Moving on to Etosha national park in Namibia the quest changed completely. Etosha in the dry season (we visited in mid-September) is very dry, and predators and prey alike are guaranteed to be found in the vicinity of the park’s waterholes. Driving up to Nebrownii on our first day in the park a pair of lions sat on one side of the water, while springboks, giraffes and onyx milled around uncertainly on the other side. Some of the park’s lions are fitted with tracking collars (typically males, and one of the females in a group), but apart from that the environment is much more open and easier photographically than in Kruger.


The scene at Nebrownii changed as the morning wore on, slowly. A jackal came to drink, and eventually departed. A giraffe, either paralyzed by fear or desperately thirsty, approached the water at an agonizingly slow pace before eventually deciding not to risk drinking. A third lion came to the water on the other side, prompting the springboks to retreat to some invisible line demarcating safety.


This is probably my favorite image from the morning.


Around noon, a trio of elephants appeared on the horizon and made their way to the water. The lions gave them plenty of space, but there were plenty of opportunities for pictures that – if not actually showing interactions between elephants, lions and giraffes – at least had them in the same frame.



After a break for lunch, we returned to the waterhole. Variants of the same scene were still playing out. This lion looked a bit thin.


Photographically, our best images came on our last day in Etosha. Entering the park from the south as the sun rose, lionesses were grooming each other next to the water while a male lion – unfortunately tagged – sat nearby near a fresh kill. The image below was shot at long range… 400mm on a Canon 7D cropped sensor body.


After maybe ten minutes, the lionesses got up and followed a trail that crossed the road just in front of our vehicle.


I kept shooting, but took care to also just enjoy the experience of seeing these magnificent cats at a range of no more than ten yards.


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