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As wildlife photographers, finding new ways to portray well-covered natural phenomena is often one of the biggest challenges we face. We recently visited the Serengeti in Tanzania for the annual wildebeest migration and coming up with a new way to portray this incredible event was our primary objective.
The ‘Great Migration’ as it is known, is the largest mass-movement of land mammals anywhere on Earth – around 1.5 million wildebeest and up to half a million other grazers, undertake an annual 3,000km round trip as they follow the rains and fresh pasture. As the animals travel between the Serengeti in Tanzania and the Masai Mara in Kenya, they are forced to cross the Mara River. The sight of thousands of animals battling against this mighty river is one of the Natural World’s most dramatic spectacles.
When the wildebeest reach the banks of the Mara River, they congregate in massive herds, sometimes containing tens of thousands of individuals. The animals can dither on the banks of the river for many hours until one brave individual finally ventures into the river and the others then rush to follow it across. Sometimes ten thousand can cross in just half an hour.
It was difficult to convey the scale and the drama of the river crossings through still photographs alone so we decided to film some time-lapse sequences. Our clips show the wildebeest entering the river in waves and being dragged downstream by the current. We have never before seen wildebeest river-crossings recorded using time-lapse: this may in fact be the first time it has been done.
We also filmed some telephoto video clips using a Canon 1D Mark IV and a 600mm lens to show the mayhem and chaos as the wildebeest tried to drag themselves out of the water and up the steep riverbanks. We spliced together our time-lapse clips with this normal footage to create the following short film:
We recorded the time-lapses using a DSLR camera on a tripod, which was snapping around three shots per second. We ensured the camera was set to manual exposure and manual white balance so there was no flicker between consecutive frames. We then used Quicktime Pro to generate the time-lapses. For some of the clips we removed alternate frames to speed up the motion even more. The pan and zoom effect was added later by cropping in on parts of the time-lapse clips. Finally, we licensed the music from a royalty-free music library and compiled the film in iMovie.
Another technique we used to exhibit the scale of one wildebeest herds was to create a massive stitched panorama from over 30 overlapping images. This created the equivalent of a 300 megapixel photograph. If you click on the preview below you can explore a high-resolution version of this panorama (it has been shrunk to around 50% of the original size but is still over 16 thousand pixels wide!).
When creating this panorama, we again set the camera to manual so that each frame had the same brightness. We were careful not to change the focus or the zoom with each shot. A focal length of 80mm was used so there was very little distortion in each frame. This made it easy to stitch it together using the ‘Photomergeâ€ function in Photoshop.
We hope our work conveys something of the drama and the magnitude of this incredible migration. You can see many more pictures from our trip on our Wildebeest Migration page. You may also be interested to read about the rare pink hippo that we photographed during the same trip!