The anticipation and excitement were palpable as photographers and guides gathered on the rooftop of Unseen Nairobi for the announcement of The Greatest Maasai Mara Photographer of the Year for 2023. It is the sixth year of the competition but it was my first year being involved behind-the-scenes and I couldn't wait to see it all come together after months of preparation and judging.
This year, the judges sought images that evoked an emotional and visual response. As in previous years, they were looking for creativity and a fresh perspective while paying attention to the technical difficulty and execution — determining whether the composition, lighting and background took the image to the next level. I had a call with the judges every month to determine their top five from the hundreds of entries that had come in; I was also the only one who knew the story and photographer behind every photo as the competition adopted a 'blind judging' approach.
It wasn't the first time for any of the judges as Adam Bannister, Federico Veronesi, Piper Mackay and Gurcharan Roopra prepared for another year of incredible entries from the Maasai Mara. I quickly learnt that whittling each month's entries down to five was no simple feat.
This was not an easy year as there were incredible entries from over 350 photographers from 40 countries around the world; each one capturing a moment in the Mara from the past 24 months. From January through October, there were over 1,160 entries and the judges worked through each month’s entries, eventually making the difficult decision to select just 10 Finalists and finally, the ultimate winner.
Early in November, we had the final judges' call and after 2,5 hours of scrutinising, zooming in and multiple voting rounds, the winner was chosen. The main thing was to keep going back to the criteria for the year and there is no wonder why Shravan Rao's 'Night Rains' took the prize for its creativity, fresh perspective and execution.
“The original idea was to get a backlit lion at night. We got lucky with the torrential rains. The spotlight from the other vehicle lit up the lion perfectly, but the real bonus was the heat emanating from the lion's back and the heat from the ground that gave it a surreal, almost vintage look. The camera struggled in the very low light. Rain poured into the vehicle, drenching us completely, making it very hard to see and very hard to keep the camera and lens dry enough. Nothing has been added or removed from this image. It is a real image with usual edits for contrast, sharpness and noise reduction.”
“One evening it was mostly overcast and raining intermittently so my guide, Lenkoko, and I drove around chasing clouds and light. I was very happy to capture this group of eland posing under a big Kenyan sky. One of my photographic goals on this safari was to capture wildlife images which included the environment/landscape in which they live. Including the landscape provides a more complete story of the tranquillity and beauty of life in the Mara. Although 14,000km away, this scene reminds me of Alberta, where I grew up. Rolling prairie grassland under a dramatic sky with a slash of light in the foreground, a curtain of rain in the middle distance, along with sunlit clouds and foothills in the distance.”
“Rain of the Mara opens doors for some unique and magical frames. One such afternoon we saw some lions drenched in the rain with an eland kill and we waited patiently for it to shake. Choosing the right background matters for such frames.”
“We were enjoying a warm afternoon game drive along a river when we found the mother lion and her sister showing protective behaviour over the area. After a while, the mum approached the hiding spots of the cubs and called them. We just caught a glimpse of them as they tried to climb out of a hole hidden inside the wall of the winded little river to greet the mum. We watched and waited around 3 hours and finally as the sun was going down the mum felt confident enough to relocate the cubs. It was a very rewarding sighting, we remained the only witnesses of this special moment.”
“That morning, we decided to follow four cheetahs on the hunt. We followed them for hours. We passed herds of topis, gazelles, and zebras. We knew something was going to happen. When, five hours later, our Maasai guide whispered, ‘they are going for the zebras,’ I was convinced they would attack the topis or gazelles dotted across the valley. Seconds later, the cheetahs burst into a small group of zebras. One cheetah ran towards us, clinging onto a foal. In those seconds, I took this picture of the mother zebra launching a last attempt to push her foal away from the attacking cheetah. She failed. I will remember those last seconds for the rest of my life.”
“It's always great to get some moody rain opportunities on safari and I never seem to get enough. We were thrilled when the rain came down in droves and we used a relatively slow shutter speed in order to capture some streaks rather than dots. It wasn't long before we had to zip up the canvas windows in order to avoid getting completely drenched ourselves, but the cheetahs didn't seem bothered by the rain at all. A bit later, a rainbow emerged.”
“As the sun was slowly dipping in the horizon, we were lucky to have chanced upon this beautiful lion from a distance. He calmly inched closer to us which made my heart beat faster. He eventually came to a halt and at that fleeting moment, I did not know whether to simply watch him in awe or to photograph him without releasing the shutter of my camera. His majestic pose as he surveyed his kingdom right in front of us was truly a sight to behold!”
“We came across this very newborn giraffe calf - still wet from birth and doing its very first steps, still very wobbly and still having to sort its legs. The next thing we saw were two lionesses, trying to attack the little baby while the mother desperately and furiously tried to protect its little one. Courageously she kicked at the lionesses again and again until the baby slowly but surely got more and more sure-footed. However, the lionesses attacked the baby twice – the image shows one of these incredible attacks. It’s nature for sure but was still hard to watch.
Unbelievably but true: the baby managed it to get back to its feet and finally galloped away with its mother until they disappeared behind the horizon.”
“After a long day spent in the Mara Triangle following the large herds, we returned to the reserve to find raging fires all over the plains. The controlled burning had taken place while we were away, amidst the post-apocalyptic landscape, we spotted a herd of zebra, with the fires right behind them. A perfect opportunity to capture silhouettes with the flames. As I was shooting, I noticed a mother and her foal, separate from the rest of the herd. Then they shared an embrace, completing the perfect moment, full of emotion and a joy to capture.”
“A controlled burn spewed thick smoke clouds across the savannah while I watched from the road. Against the backdrop of plumes, animals of all species were desperate to flee the flames. None were more dramatic, in my eyes, than the tower of giraffe that stampeded to safety.”
The Greatest Maasai Mara Photographer of the Year will reopen for entries on 1 January 2024. Once again, the winner will receive US$10,000 and a five-night safari to Angama Mara, while the winning guide will go on an all-expenses-paid trip outside of Kenya. The fee is US$20 per entry, with the full amount going to a Mara-based conservation partner of the photographer’s choice: Angama Foundation, the Anne K Taylor Fund, the Maa Trust, the Mara Conservancy, the Mara Elephant Project and the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. In 2023, more than US$18,000 was raised for the conservation partners through entry fees.
Filed under: Inside Angama
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