For most visitors to African national parks, the big cats are the most desired game viewing subjects and photographic trophies, with lions being at the top of the list.
The male lion has a mane that is very impressive and tends to make the lion the symbol of power and of the African wilderness.
The lion is the only social cat living in family groups called prides, made up mainly of females with their cubs and anything from one to maybe three or four males. One dominant male has the privilege of mating with the females.
It is highly unlikely that a visitor will not see lions in the Southern African parks of Kruger, Kgalagadi, Pilanesberg and Etosha as lions are most accustomed to vehicles.
In winter lions tend to lie in the roads for warmth and they don’t like wet dew on the grass, so in the early mornings you have a good chance of finding them
walking or lying in the roads.
You could see lions at any time of the day but your chances of finding them are best between late afternoon and early morning. They tend to sleep for most of the day (in the shade under a tree) and when the day starts to cool down they begin to arise and you can get stretching, greeting and yawning activities before they go hunting.
If you go on a night drive you may get to see them stalking, chasing, making a kill, snarling or fighting. In the early morning you may get to see them with
the remains of their kill or heading for their day’s cool resting spot.
When prey is abundant you tend to get the above scenario but when prey is scarce or the days are cool, lions could hunt anytime. In winter you could also find them at midday sleeping out in the open!
Some other behaviors to watch for are grooming, spraying (marking territory), being on an unusual object such as a tree or boulder and roaring.
Mating lions make good photographic subjects as the pair mates a few times per hour and for three or four days. After the action the female turns to swat the male and he tries to avoid the female’s claws, which makes for great action shots. If you come across a pride of lions you will have many subjects to focus on – if there are cubs try and keep them in your frame as they get up to all kinds of mischief and make photogenic subjects no matter what they are doing!
If the lions have had a run-in with a porcupine they may have porcupine quills sticking out of their faces or body, which also makes for unusual photos.
If you come across a lion kill you will get the obvious jostling between individuals but keep a lookout for others animals such as hyenas, jackals and vultures who won’t be far away. Often we have seen the hyenas chasing the lions from the kill or the lions chasing the hyenas away!
Once the lions have finished and moved off the carcass don’t leave – this is when the scavengers move in and you get jostling and fighting between them. Lions normally drink after a meal so we tend to stake out waterholes early in the mornings.
Technically, lions are not difficult to photograph as they are large subjects and they could be in prides providing you with many individuals, so a long lens isn’t a necessity unless they are far off. In terms of exposure lions are middle-tone, so matrix or evaluative metering should provide an accurate exposure but in the Kgalagadi the males tend to have black manes, so if you are shooting tight portraits you may have to dial in matrix/evaluative metering minus about 1/2 stop exposure compensation.