Seeing the Big Picture - How I photographed the Lion and Landscape

- by Joe McDonald

Lion and storm sky

The short rains often begin in late October in the Masai Mara, and although one risks a wet, unproductive game drive the rewards are worth it, as dramatic clouds and lighting grace the landscape.

This afternoon had started clear but within only an hour towering storm clouds had moved in from the east, creating ideal conditions for spectacular animal-in-habitat photographs.

We looked desperately for some subject where we could position ourselves close enough to use a wide angle lens that would allow us to include the ever-changing and dramatic cloudscapes. We were lucky and found a lioness near the roadside and we got our shots before the cat moved off into very tall grasses.

While the scene looked great in the viewfinder and on my camera's LCD monitor, the image looked a bit flat when I later viewed it on my computer. That's expected, as raw captures are muted and most final images will benefit with a little time spent in the RAW converter. Thus, although the image of the lion and landscape was dramatic, the initial raw capture did not do justice to the scene.

For this image I first did my usual adjustments in the Basic tab of the ACR. Next, I used the Gradient filter, applying it twice, where I first applied the filter to darken the sky and then I applied the filter again, this time lightening the grasses and foreground.

In the HSL panel I increased the brightness (luminence) and saturation of the grasses by working with yellows and green.While still in the HSL panel I also increased the contrast and darkened the sky by working with the blue hues.

That's how the shot was enhanced and resulted in an image that reflected what attracted me to the scene. After the lioness disappeared we moved on and soon encountered a pair of lions and some other photographers, and herein lies the real lesson of the story behind the photograph.

Although the lions were beautiful subjects in their own right, the shot was not the portraits they were attempting to make with their 400mm and 500mm lenses. True, the cats were bathed in a late afternoon golden light but behind them the sky was black and roiling, and the opportunity to obtain a truly unique image was there. Instead, the photographers were focused only on the cats, appreciating the golden light but not the ambience and the opportunity they had.

Just as we arrived the lions flopped on their sides to sleep, and were nearly invisible in the tall grasses. We waited for the lions to sit up while we anxiously watched the sky and the advancing clouds that soon swallowed the sun and muted the scene in drabness.

We never got the shot, and instead we had to content ourselves with the striking landscape which shows all of the elements that would have made a spectacular shot had the lions only cooperated!


Picture the above scene with a male lion or two, both with full manes, standing in the grasses within range of a 70mm lens - that's seeing the big picture!

That’s the shot the photographers could have had but missed with their tunnel-vision focused only on the lions.

To find out more about Joe and Mary Ann McDonald please visit their website and read their most interesting interview

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