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National Geographic’s ‘Field Test’ reveals Michael Nichols’ Serengeti dream

National Geographic’s ‘Field Test’ reveals Michael Nichols’ Serengeti dream

© National Geographic/Ken Geiger

December 2011

When it comes to pushing the boundaries of wildlife photography Canon Ambassador and National Geographic magazine’s Editor-at-large Michael ‘Nick’ Nichols is your man – and his latest assignment in Tanzania is no exception.

For years Nichols has wanted to capture images of the lions of the Serengeti in their dramatic natural landscape. Now his dream looks like it might come true, thanks in part to the ingenious use of technology. He and his team, including his assistant Nathan Williamson and wife Reba Peck, are on a mission to photograph the lions as they have never been seen before. But that means getting their Canon cameras close enough without scaring the animals away.


Spread appears in the December 2011 issue of the National Geographic magazine. (Image courtesy of National Geographic magazine.)

To make this possible Nichols has been trialing a German-made device called MikroKopter (main picture above), a remote-controlled car, night-vision goggles, modified cameras and other gizmos. “We’ve been thinking about this for two years,” Nichols told CPN. “With the micro-copter we can get closer than you can with either a helicopter or a balloon, and we can drive it to a location and in five minutes we can launch it.”

He describes using the ‘micro-copter’ as a great way of achieving stunning landscape images. “It doesn’t require permits or kill anyone when it crashes,” he jokes. “We’ve been getting within about 20m without the animals even looking up.” Nichols is now planning to use a new version of the device with eight rather than six blades when he returns to Africa in January 2012. He says it will be smoother and therefore better for shooting video using the EOS Movie function in the Canon cameras.

To demonstrate the lengths to which its photographers go to get stunning images, National Geographic has launched a feature called ‘Field Test’, a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a magazine article, including the technologies used in the field and other insights, such as Nichols’ emails from the Serengeti to his editor in the US, Kathy Moran. The website also shows a film of the team using the micro-copter.

Nichols is only able to attach a Canon EOS Rebel T2i (EOS 550D) with an EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM lens to the micro-copter because of weight limitations. However, with the remote-controlled car it has been possible to install an EOS 5D with an EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens to capture higher quality image files from much closer to the subject.

© National Geographic/Michael Nichols

A lioness gets to know a new creature on the savanna.

“We approach [with the remote controlled car] real slow, showing it to the lions, letting them calm down…so that every five minutes we’d move it a little bit, and then they just chill out,” says Nichols.

That is sometimes easier said than done, of course. “When a lioness started to bite it Nathan jumped it and she backed off. We tried to keep them thinking that this thing could bite them.” A horn was added to the R-C car in case they needed to scare the lions off. “We can get a metre away from the lions so that they can go to sleep – well, one-eye-open sleeping – and when they wake up we’ve been getting really natural behaviour.”

What Nichols wants to achieve with the car is images taken from inches away and at the same height as the lions. “I switched to the EF50mm f/1.2 USM lens and it gave me less foreground. [I’m] trying to shoot very complex scenes with up to 20 lions in.”

Nichols plans to return to Africa early next year for three months to pursue his Serengeti dream using updated versions of the technologies. His images are due to be published in National Geographic magazine in 2013.