Focus on Piper Mackay ~ Africa in her Heart

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Piper Mackay, a California-based photographer, and I first met about a year ago via social media.  When I first saw her images of Africa, I immediately recognized her passion.  It’s the same passion that drives many of us to capture the world with our camera every day.  Her love for Africa resonates in her work.  She kindly took the time to answer a few questions for Digital Photography School readers.  Whether you have actually visited these far-away places or have just dreamt about them, I urge you to visit Piper’s website.  As you follow her adventures, you will experience the beauty of Eastern Africa through her lens.   

– When and how did your passion for Africa and photography start? 

I’ve had a passion for Africa for as long as I can remember. In 2004 while going through a painful life experience, I decided to do the one thing I had dreamed of for a long time — take a trip to Africa. It was magical and I fell in love with the people, wildlife and continent from the first moment my feet touched down on its rich red soil. I actually signed up to go with the Sierra Club and not with photographers. Prior to that I had never really owned a camera other than a disposable one. I received a list of  recommendations on what to bring on this trip and the list included a 300 mm lens. I simply walked down to my local camera store and purchased the Canon 10D, one of the first digital cameras, and a 75-300 mm canon lens. With my first semi-professional camera in hand and only a few lessons on how to use it, I began to capture what I was experiencing. This was the calling to pursue one of the deepest passions I have ever felt. I returned to Los Angeles with a new perspective, a new passion and new possibilities. I returned to Africa two more times in the next five months and made the decision to purse photography and my dream to live part of my life in Africa.

– What is your favorite location?

I think it would be hard to narrow down my favorite place to just one location. My work is focused in Eastern Africa, which is my favorite area on this planet. The Masia Mara and Amboselli are my favorite reserves for photographing wildlife in Kenya. The Omo Valley in Southern Ethiopia is my favorite place to photograph tribes and indigenous cultures.

– What is your favorite subject to shoot now?

The tribes of the Omo valley — they have captured my heart. Right now I am working on a long term project in the Omo Valley. A project that I hope will help bring awareness and support so the tribes can to continue to live freely on their land. Drastic change is coming to this region — dams, roads, bridges, sugar farms and factories, and cell towers are under construction. The largest change is the Gilbe III Dam which is due to be completed towards the end of  2013. This major construction project will forever change their ancient ways of life if the government is not successful in removing them from their land first.

– Many of our dPS readers will want to know what gear you use and what you pack for such an adventure.

I am a Canon shooter. When on Safari I shoot with my 1D Mark III and 7D bodies, 500 mm, 70-200 mm, and ¼ extension.  When I am photographing tribes and indigenous cultures, I mainly use my 5D Mark II because of its full frame sensor and also the 1D Mark III. For lenses I use the 16-35 mm, I  like to shoot with a wide angle, get up close to my subjects and include a dramatic background. I also use the 70-200 mm, two Canon speedlite 580EX, and pocket wizards.  The unbelievable thing is that it all fits in my Kiboko 30L bag by Gura Gear except for one of my flashes. I may not be able to travel light because I am usually photographing both wildlife and cultures on the same adventure, but I can be as compact and organized as possible. I also carry a Macbook pro and 2-3 LaCie Rugged T drives. I back up daily and keep the drives separately just like having off site back up at home. One stays in my bag or on me at all times. The other drive stays in a vehicle, with my guide, or where I am sleeping.

– What is the one item, not photo related, that you would never travel to Africa without?

A small medical pouch containing cold and flu medicine, cough drops, antibiotic ointment, hand sanitizer, aspirin, sleeping aid, antibiotics and antimalarial meds. There is nothing worse than being sick and tired on location, especially in a very remote area. This would apply anywhere I travel and not just Africa. I also never leave home without a couple of power bars with a plug in the electrical current of the countries where I will be traveling.

– Could you give 3 tips to someone wanting to experience remote parts of Africa on their own?

Do your research and find the right guide, get to know them by email first if possible. Once in the country meet for coffee, test their knowledge and experience. Have they worked with photographers before? How flexible are they and can they take you to where you want to go and get you there on time? Do you feel safe with this person, can you trust them with your life? Trust your gut. Take time to negotiate a price with them, in most cultures it is part of the relationship building process.

Learn about the local religious customs and beliefs and respect them. Leave your own beliefs at home where they were created – enrich your own life. Be curious, ask questions, show interest and participate with your subjects. Slow down to the rhythm of Africa, put down your camera, enjoy the experience and then photograph the experience.

Be prepared. Things can happen anywhere at any time but, when something goes wrong in a remote location it can be much more difficult to deal with. Have insurance for both you and your gear. MedJet Assist will send in a private jet and medical team and bring you all the way back home. Scan and email your passport and tickets to yourself. Put color copies of your passport in all bags. Email yourself your credit card and contact numbers.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

I love what I do and I hope that I’ll be doing the exact same thing. Traveling to remote locations, photographing wildlife and indigenous cultures.  Using powerful images to help shape the view of the world. Images that play an important role in disseminating how cultures and wildlife are coping with the rapid changes happening in the developing world. I plan to continue my tours and share the experience of a lifetime with other photographers. I also want to keep shooting for Getty Images, show my work at exhibits and share my passion through speaking engagements and teaching.  I would like to be more involved in collaborating with NGOs working in the areas I am photographing.

Good luck Piper!


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Valerie Jardin I live and breathe in pixels! Photography is more than a passion, it's an obsession, almost an addiction. When I'm not shooting or writing, I spend my time teaching this beautiful craft during photo workshops all over the world! I am also thrilled to be an official X Photographer for Fujifilm USA. Visit my Website Follow me on Facebook , Twitter , Instagram. And listen to my Podcast!

  • Thanks so much for this. How timely! I’ve been thinking about these very issues as I plan for a visit in March to Kenya for two weeks, The visit will include shooting for a non-profit series of schools we support in Nairobi and to Masia Mara for about 5 days. I’m been pondering a lot about which equipment to use because it will incude both urban people and wildlife in nature as subjects. Thank you so much! — Steve

  • Scottc

    INCREDIBLE combination of photos from the Continent, and wonderful tips as well, TFS.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/sets/72157623473603767/

  • Mei Teng

    Awesome images. My fav image is the last one.

  • What a set of photos! My favorite is probably the last one, but they’re all something to strive for!

  • AMAZING photography. Thank you for sharing your gift with us, Piper.

  • Jo Williams

    When a passion comes from the heart and soul it always works. BEAUTIFUL.

  • raghavendra

    I Have read about Africa through books and blogs.
    Have you been to “mattaw” .
    it is a small homage for the orphans, it is around kenya.

    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.com/

  • very beautiful… really enjoyed it…thanks 🙂

  • Love the elephant.

    http://bit.ly/oufr4c

  • Piper your story is eerily similar to how I started just a year ago! I literally flew from America to Ethiopia with a d700 still wrapped in the plastic. fortunately – 3 photographers were on the plane who gave me a “quickstart” tutorial… I landed on the ground in Addis and spent two weeks shooting while we did humanitarian work there and in Burundi. It ignited a passion in me for photography of faces and people and things and I’ve been enjoying myself ever since. Thanks for sharing your story – it was so encouraging to me!

  • I like Piper’s clear, distinct and intimate style. The images presented here give me a true sense of the people and wildlife there. I will visit her website for more inspiration! Thank you for this article!

  • Beautiful work! And a fine interview. Best for continued success. Cheers from Chicago.

  • Jim Palfrey

    Fabulous images taken by somebody who obviously has a great passion for what she is doing and where she is.
    I’m too old now to start over but if I was younger I would love it!

  • I recently started my photography course,looking at those pictures inspire me so much .I know I have a lot to learn. The images are great .Thank You

  • Thank you everyone for the wonderful comments. I am honored that is has inspired many of you on your own journeys.

  • Sue

    Some of the most beautiful photography of African wildlife and culture I have seen. Quite extraordinary. Your use of lighting to create emotion is amazing. I hope you have a website. as I am about to do a google on you now 🙂 Thanks

  • Simply stunning images.

Some Older Comments

  • PaulB January 13, 2012 03:20 am

    Simply stunning images.

  • Sue December 20, 2011 08:54 am

    Some of the most beautiful photography of African wildlife and culture I have seen. Quite extraordinary. Your use of lighting to create emotion is amazing. I hope you have a website. as I am about to do a google on you now :-) Thanks

  • piper December 19, 2011 03:47 pm

    Thank you everyone for the wonderful comments. I am honored that is has inspired many of you on your own journeys.

  • kumar ramsingh December 18, 2011 12:29 am

    I recently started my photography course,looking at those pictures inspire me so much .I know I have a lot to learn. The images are great .Thank You

  • Jim Palfrey December 16, 2011 06:23 pm

    Fabulous images taken by somebody who obviously has a great passion for what she is doing and where she is.
    I'm too old now to start over but if I was younger I would love it!

  • Matt Golosinski December 16, 2011 08:10 am

    Beautiful work! And a fine interview. Best for continued success. Cheers from Chicago.

  • janina December 10, 2011 08:28 am

    I like Piper's clear, distinct and intimate style. The images presented here give me a true sense of the people and wildlife there. I will visit her website for more inspiration! Thank you for this article!

  • Jenny December 10, 2011 07:44 am

    Piper your story is eerily similar to how I started just a year ago! I literally flew from America to Ethiopia with a d700 still wrapped in the plastic. fortunately - 3 photographers were on the plane who gave me a "quickstart" tutorial... I landed on the ground in Addis and spent two weeks shooting while we did humanitarian work there and in Burundi. It ignited a passion in me for photography of faces and people and things and I've been enjoying myself ever since. Thanks for sharing your story - it was so encouraging to me!

  • Gnslngr45 December 9, 2011 11:44 pm

    Love the elephant.

    http://bit.ly/oufr4c

  • Keivan Zavari December 9, 2011 08:02 pm

    very beautiful... really enjoyed it...thanks :-)

  • raghavendra December 9, 2011 06:11 pm

    I Have read about Africa through books and blogs.
    Have you been to "mattaw" .
    it is a small homage for the orphans, it is around kenya.

    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.com/

  • Jo Williams December 9, 2011 01:32 pm

    When a passion comes from the heart and soul it always works. BEAUTIFUL.

  • Patricia (Pollywog Creek) December 9, 2011 12:15 pm

    AMAZING photography. Thank you for sharing your gift with us, Piper.

  • John December 9, 2011 11:45 am

    What a set of photos! My favorite is probably the last one, but they're all something to strive for!

  • Mei Teng December 9, 2011 11:07 am

    Awesome images. My fav image is the last one.

  • Scottc December 9, 2011 10:38 am

    INCREDIBLE combination of photos from the Continent, and wonderful tips as well, TFS.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/sets/72157623473603767/

  • Steve Kotvis December 9, 2011 10:32 am

    Thanks so much for this. How timely! I've been thinking about these very issues as I plan for a visit in March to Kenya for two weeks, The visit will include shooting for a non-profit series of schools we support in Nairobi and to Masia Mara for about 5 days. I'm been pondering a lot about which equipment to use because it will incude both urban people and wildlife in nature as subjects. Thank you so much! --- Steve

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