Hippo Pool

Frans Lanting and Chris Eckstrom are leading exclusive photo safaris in Botswana in the spring and fall of 2015. Check www.lanting.com/phototours for details.

Just as fertile as the plains of the Serengeti in Tanzania or the inland delta of the Okavango in Botswana, the floodplains of Zambia’s Luangwa River sustain wildlife in spectacular numbers. Yet this region is far less known. The Luangwa Valley covers 20,000 square miles and the richness of its grasslands supports the largest concentration of hippos in Africa. During the dry season, thousands of these megaherbivores crowd into the few stretches along the river where the water is deep enough for them to submerge and keep cool. We pitched our camp at an oxbow in the river overlooking one of the valley’s largest hippo pools. I had to build blinds at some distance away to avoid disturbing the hippos because in this remote part of the valley they were quite shy.

Hippos leave the water during the cool hours of darkness to forage and I was keen to intersect with them early and late in the day. Over the years, I’ve experimented with different techniques for blending ambient and applied light during the magic hours of dawn and dusk. For this shot, I set up a Nikkor 600mm ƒ/4 on a heavy Gitzo tripod and rigged it with multiple Nikon Speedlights mounted on Really Right Stuff brackets, and equipped each strobe with a Fresnel attachment to increase the reach.

I focused on a small group of hippos who had been fighting over space during the day, but now that some of them had left, the others had calmed down. During a long exposure of several seconds that blurred the flow of the river, I sent out one burst from my Speedlights, which were underpowered in a synced TTL mode to preserve the mood of evening light as the main illumination. Yet the strobes added a crucial touch of detail to the hippos’ faces, reflecting the sheen of their pink, wet skin. In my favorite frame, the bellicose beasts are floating placidly, contented bathers in a pool of liquid blue twilight.

Frans Lanting has been hailed as one of the great nature photographers of our time. For more than two decades he has documented wildlife and our relationship with nature in environments from the Amazon to Antarctica. He portrays wild creatures as ambassadors for the preservation of complete ecosystems, and his many publications have increased worldwide awareness of endangered ecological treasures in the far corners of the Earth.