Buffalo Café

The Raw:

This photograph was made in the South Luangwa National Park in Zambia on a soaring hot afternoon late in the dry season. We were on safari staying at Mwamba Bush Camp, which has a hidelocated on an outcrop directly above an active waterhole. The hide at this waterhole is a fantastic opportunity to watch and photograph the animals coming in to drink. The orientation of the hide is actually best for photographing during morning hours as the light then comes from behind you; in the afternoon the light is right in front, which is ideal for making backlit  photos. That day in late September, it had been 42degrees Celsius in the shade already for some days on end, and the nearby river was completely dry. The waterhole at Mwamba was turning into a muddy pool, but then it was one of the last spots where the wildlife could turn to for drinking.

Earlier that day while on game drive in the morning we became aware of a large herd of Cape buffalo roaming in the area, and decided to spend a couple of hours that afternoon in the hide and see what happened. Four photographers and the lodge manager - also with camera - installed themselves in a baking hot hide, taking with us several liters of water. We sat down quietly resting the cameras on bean bags on the frames of the opening of the hide and waited patiently, estimating and hoping that the buffalo would come down to drink at the waterhole. Which they eventually did.... and how !

First around 4 pm a couple of bulls appeared cautiously at the edge of the open space near the waterhole checking out the situation. Five minutes later the rest of the herd started coming down to the waterhole in smaller groups at the time. This group of savannah buffalo consisted of more than an estimated 200 animals: bachelor males, females, juveniles and young calves. It was a most impressive sighting as the distance between the closest buffalo and us in the hide was not more than 6 to 7 meters !

Because of that it was first of all of utmost importance to sit very quiet without making any abrupt movements or sounds at all. We really would not want to disturb them in any way while drinking the water that they need daily to survive in the hot dry season. Secondly, we absolutely would not want to startle them by any means risking them to stampede in our direction. Their unpredictable nature and their habit of charging en masse makes the Cape buffalo notorious and widely regarded as a very dangerous animal. Out of precaution I switched my camera to quiet mode and took care to have my lens and beanbag not protruding outside the contour of the hide.

Meanwhile the air was full of dust caused by the trampling of the hooves on the dry land. The dust worked wonderfully as a natural filter softening the still rather harsh sunlight coming from the opposite direction, and turned the light in an array of maroon tones. Together with the brownish color tints of the buffalo it made for a quite balanced tone on tone image. The scene evolved for some half an hour during which I shot about 250 images and one sequence of 5 minutes of video. Composition wise I wanted to portray them environmentally so to speak, in their natural habitat. Furthermore I looked for a repetitive pattern in their profiles while drinking, and wanted their profiles to fade a bit in the dust when they stood more distant from the hide. Out of a larger series I picked this photo because the buffalo in front for a moment looked in my direction, and so some connection with the viewer is made.

Technically this photo was made at a focal length of 155 mm. I used the central focal pointto focus on the head of the buffalo and recomposed as it was on the right of the scene. Aperture of f/8 gives some depth of field in the profiles of the buffalo drinking but leaves the animals in the back in the dust out of focus, so the image does not look "too crowded". Because the difficult lighting situation which constantly changed as this was a scene in continuous motion, I did not have the opportunity to use manual mode. I used spot metering in aperture priority mode, and +2/3 of a stop exposure compensation. I chose this setting after a few test shots in the beginning of the shoot, checking my histogram on the LCD screen on the back of my camera. I wanted to fully expose to the right which means I wanted to have the histogram to spread across the complete spectrum without cutting off the curve of the highlights on the right (nor the blacks at the left) of the diagram. In that way the sensor of the camera acquires the most optimal information in the RAW file which gives you more latitude for working with the file afterwards in post processing if needed. 

The Post:

For post processing I used Lightroom for steps 1-10 and Photoshop in step 10.

Global adjustments:

1. Left the white balance untouched because I found the warm tones pleasing to the eye, and a true reflection of the scenery.

2. Diminished the highlights by pulling the slider down to -100 to regain some silhouettes of the buffalo in the back.

3. Accentuated the blacks by moving the slider to -45 to have more texture in the skin of the buffalo in the front.

4. That made the frontmost animal too dark, so compensation followed by moving the shadows slider to the right to +28.

5. Basic sharpening amount slider at 40 with radius 0.8 and detail 35 in combination with ever so slightly a bit luminance noise reduction of 11 with detail at 50. This is really all the sharpening I do in post processing. Further sharpening takes place later depending on the output and use of the image.

6. Very slight cropping on the bottom and left of about 3 % to get rid of a branch that did not add anything totthe scene.

7. To lead the eye to the center of the drinking scene a highlight priority vignette (which is a post-crop vignette) was added with amount -37 and feather 56.

Local adjustments:

8. With the brush tool set to a size of 31, feather 74 at 100 % flow, I added some local clarity up to +36 over the four buffalo heads, enhancing local contrast and thereby adding some character to them.

9. As it had been a very dusty environment, I checked the image meticulously for dust spots at 100 % enlargement and cloned out a couple of dust particles with Lightroom's spot removal clone tool.

10. Cloned out a tiny fragment of an ear intruding the frame on the upper right corner of the frame as well as a very small branch sticking in the frame on the left border. For this I edited the photo in Adobe Photoshop CS6 and used the content aware cloning tool, even for this very small correction.

The result is an image that reflects the scenery at the time very well. In fact in this case it was for 95 % created in camera, and just needed a little tweaking of some parameters influencing contrast to make it really pop. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to witness this wildlife scene of Cape buffalo coming in for their daily drinks, and because of that titled the photo as Buffalo Café.

The Tips:

A) Rather than sheer luck, patience and previsualization are key to wildlife photography. Knowledge of behavioral aspects of the wildlife subject you want to photograph is essential to get the best opportunities.

B) Dust and sand particles in the air act as perfect natural filters for harsh light during the day. Game herds cause a lot of it when moving around on dry land. Do protect your gear though by using a rain or dust cover over camera and lens...

C) In quickly evolving scenes as these with a high dynamic range, be careful to check the exposure on the histogram and adjust with exposure compensation where needed. It is all too easy to get carried away by what you see, and forget about your settings !