Zebra Photography - Favorite Subject.
Text and photographs by Billy Dodson - www.savannaimages.com.
I tell anyone who’ll listen to me that elephants are my favorite animals. I sincerely believe that the depth of their feelings and power of their love make them unique in the animal world. But elephants are overwhelming... and for me that can make them difficult to photograph at times. Zebras, on the other hand, are eminently beautiful and forever entertaining. They are an impeccable combination of aggression and vulnerability most beautifully parceled in black and white. For these and a succession of other reasons, they are far and away my favorite species to photograph – and have been since my first visit to Africa many years ago. And as with the giraffe, I’ve subconsciously evolved specific strategies for photographing them.
Zebras are social animals, and as they interact with each other they exhibit an absorbing range of moods and behaviors. In peaceful groups they often use each other for headrests, or stand in rows, alternately facing opposite directions – a twofold strategy to (1) optimize the predator watch by expanding the field of view to 360 degrees, and (2) take advantage of the next door neighbor’s tail to swish flies from their respective faces. These positions and postures represent a cornucopia of opportunities for the observant photographer.
The babies of all species are photogenic, even those of the most visually unappealing adults (e. g., the hyena). Zebra youngsters are not only spectacularly beautiful, they are wonderfully curious. They have been known to elude the protection of their mothers and bounce directly toward the camera for a close-up portrait. They also make excellent subjects when huddled close to Mom or bucking through a field, trying out the spindly new legs. Some samples:
Peace and harmony are not universally practiced in zebra society. When observing a large herd spread across a hillside I usually set the camera down (but leaving it in the ready position) and take a few minutes to study the herd as a whole. The animals graze quietly but audibly, companions form tight groupings and mothers maintain a wary eye on their vulnerable offspring. But somewhere in the crowd there will unfailingly be a single animal bawling incessantly, prancing through the host with head elevated and ears pointed skyward. This zebra should be observed and tracked closely, because he is, in fact, a troublemaker. And he will almost certainly generate the raw behavioral material for many an interesting photograph. The action will begin when the rogue zebra physically intrudes on a peaceful group and harasses them to the limit of their collective endurance. Eventually, one of the imposed upon animals will stretch neck and head backward to his flank and touch noses with the intruder. The action then begins within seconds. By this time the viewfinder should be clamped against the head to capture the imminent sequence of bites and kicks.
An all out zebra fight for mating rights can be a very serious matter. The wild-eyed animals grab sizable chunks of their opponents’ flesh and deliver powerful kicks that occasionally find their target. Most dangerously, they circle each other aggressively, attempting to clamp down on their rivals’ lower legs. A zebra with an injured leg, particularly a foreleg, is a doomed animal. East African predators have a natural instinct for identifying and eliminating the vulnerable.
I don’t know of any African animal that isn’t photogenic in its way, but for me the plains zebra is the most consistently cooperative subject. Other opinions are, as always, very welcome.
All images with permission to publish on Safaritalk courtesy and © Billy Dodson.