African Photo Safari - Blinking Lions
(with Nigel and Wendy Dennis)
Can humans communicate with wild animals? There has been a great
deal in the press and TV recently concerning an American lady,
Jann Weiss, who claims to be able to talk to elephants telepathically.
Apparently the elephants talk back! Although Wendy and I spend
a large part of the year among the wild game of Africa, we have
yet to experience anything approaching telepathic communication.
We are convinced, however, that the animals we photograph can
somehow sense our purpose or intent. In fact we have discovered
a way of communicating a feeling of calm to lions that works just
about every time. I guarantee it will work for you as well - and
you do not need special telepathic powers to do it!
It all started with the domestic tabby at home. We discovered
that if you blink slowly to a cat the chances are it will blink
back. Continue blinking and slowly lower your head, as if you
are about to doze off, and the cat is likely to do the same. I
guess in cat body language this is like saying "I feel so
relaxed that I am going to go to sleep".
Exactly the same applies to wild lions. When you next find lions
on a game drive, first look directly at the animal to engage eye
contact, then begin slowly blinking. They sometimes take a while
to get the hang of this, but if you continue blinking slowly,
it is very likely the lion will blink back at you. Carry on blinking
for a while whilst gradually lowering your head and the lion will
probably fall asleep! Now, being the most social of all cats,
lions are great copiers. If one lion claws a tree the rest of
the pride will usually do the same. If one individual yawns the
rest invariably copy. If you put one lion to sleep by blinking
at it, the others in the pride will probably do the same. On occasions
using our blinking technique we have put the whole pride to sleep!
I am sure you are wondering, why on earth would wildlife photographers
want to put lions to sleep? Surely this is not going to produce
much in the way of interesting photography? True, but in our more
popular game reserves a lion sighting attracts a great deal of
attention from visitors. In the Kruger Park in particular it is
not unusual to find upwards of twenty cars on a lion sighting.
Often the cars completely block the road - we call this a "lion
traffic jam". If everyone stays quiet this does not bother
the lions too much. Unfortunately a small proportion of folk appear
to leave their manners and common sense at the entrance gate when
they visit a National Park. In a lion traffic jam often a few
individuals insist on revving their cars to jostle for position,
or pop up out of a sunroof. This tends to spoil it for everybody
as the lions get fed up with all the commotion and push off. On
many occasions Wendy and I have been able to calm lions with the
blinking technique and encourage them to stay in range for photography.
Can you blink other animals to sleep? Leopard - definitely yes.
We use the technique when an animal appears uneasy or skittish
and has enabled us to obtain some of our best leopard images.
Blinking does not work on the dog-like creatures though. Hyena,
jackal and wild dog all take absolutely no notice. If you try
blinking to your dog at home it will probably give a puzzled look
as if to say "what, have you gone completely nuts!".
Interestingly the cheetah, being the most dog-like of the cats
with its non-retractable claws, also seems not to respond. We
have found though that by speaking softly to wild cheetah they
will sometimes begin to purr loudly. Walking and talking to the
animals is however a story that will have to wait until another
Nigel's Photo Tip - Pin Sharp Pictures
I am quite often asked "how do you get your photographs
to look so sharp?" OK it helps to have decent lenses
and use a slow fine-grained film, but the real secret
is that I try never to touch the camera when I take a
picture. The results even from the most expensive state
of the art lenses and film will be utterly spoilt if there
is any vibration or unsteadiness at the moment the shutter
fires. We have all heard that using a tripod results in
better pictures. But particularly when shooting with big
telephotos, or any lens in a low light/slow shutter speed
situation, this is not enough. The mere act of touching
the shutter button introduces vibration that will certainly
soften and blur the image. Using a cheap accessory - a
cable release - is the sure way to achieve 'hands off'
photography and pin sharp pictures. I am such a cable
release fanatic that all three of the lenses I regularly
use for wildlife - 600mm, 300mm and a 70-200mm zoom -
are each fitted out with a separate camera body with a
cable release permanently attached. Give it a try and
I promise you will see an instant improvement in sharpness.
About the Author: Born in England
in 1953, Nigel Dennis developed a deep interest in the natural
world from an early age. First finding expression in the form
of painting nature subjects, he also became interested in photography
just over twenty years ago. Living in England at the time, his
first projects included photographing red deer and the shy nocturnal
European badger. For the badger photography he spent over forty
nights photographing whilst still managing to hold down a busy
day job. Nature photography soon overtook painting as a means
of expressing his passion for the natural world and from the early
eighties his work began to be published in books and magazines.
He moved to Africa in 1985 with a view to
making wildlife photography a full time profession. During his
first few years in Africa he continued with his previous career
in sales and marketing, but still spent about one hundred days
a year photographing by utilising all his annual holidays and
weekends. Eventually having built up a sufficient stock of wildlife
images he launched into the rather precarious occupation of freelance
wildlife photographer in 1991. Since then he and his wife Wendy
camp in the African bush for up to nine months each year. Although
they work mainly in South Africa they also photograph regularly
in Namibia and have visited Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Madagascar.
Nigel Dennis photographs all natural subjects
including reptiles, insects, flora and landscapes but tends to
concentrate primarily on African animals and birds. His work is
marketed by fifteen stock photo agencies and has been published
world-wide in over twenty five countries. He also runs his own
photo library supplying images to the publishing and advertising
industries, and currently has over 40,000 transparencies on file.
He does not take on commercial or advertising assignments and
works primarily on book and magazine projects. Nigel Dennis has
had twelve wildlife coffee table books published to date.
You can see more of Nigel's work at the following websites:
- Nigel Dennis