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I’ve spent time with lions. Yes, I’ve been up close, only feet away from these majestic felines, looking at them directly in the eye, and yes, I’ve felt fear. Even though lions usually do not attack humans if they are inside a vehicle, the sole fact that they can, strikes fear in the bravest. In a fraction of a second a lion could potentially kill me while I look at their powerful eyes trough the viewfinder.

I have a fascination with wild big cats, but then again.. don’t we all? Lions are brutal killers and tender parents. They are lazy and yet fierce. They protect each other and yet kill each other. Lions live by a different set of rules and brutal force is their constitution.

I’ve spent time with lions in Kenya, Tanzania and Botswana. As a wildlife photographer the most desired action to capture in a photo is a kill, of course, but I must say that when I set out to photograph these powerful predators, I wanted to capture their essence.. whatever that means! I wanted images that could convey their presence. When you are in the presence of the top predator of Africa, you know it. You feel it. Your mind and your body are completely aware of it. And I wanted that! I did not have a clue how to achieve it and such was my luck that I didn’t witness I kill (I did witness several failed tries.. but never a successful kill), so I had to work hard to capture their soul some other way.

I’ve spent time with lions and their essence walks with them everywhere they go; when they call each other, when they play, when the feed their cubs, when they mate, when they fight.. even when they lay around motionless for 18 hours a day and you just sit in your vehicle for all those hours waiting for something interesting to happen. The essence of a lion can only be experienced in their presence so my goal to capture on camera was meant to fail from the start, but that did not deterred me. Failure is just another word for “I’m getting closer.. I will get there eventually”.

These images are the closest I’ve been to capturing the spirit of Africa: the big, royal carnivore we call lion.

For more images of my journey with lions click here. 

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A very common but beautiful bird, the Lilac-breasted Roller (Coracias caudatus) is very meticulous when it comes to preparing his lunch. Rollers will beat an insect violently against a branch and toss it in the air several times to rid it of some limbs or stingers before swallowing it whole.

As I drove in Central Kalahari searching for the lions I had been following for a few days, I notice this Roller had just caught a huge roach so I knew what would happen next. I set up my camera settings over exposing by 1 1/3 due to the bright sky behind and waited.... and so I got my shot.

It took this bird nearly a minute to swallow his snack, and from nearly 65 shots I took in that minute, this one is my favourite.

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Leopards are elusive, mysterious and the ultimate loners, now imagine such a hard-to-find animal in the rainy season of the Okavango Delta. That means very tall grass, flooded roads and extremely difficult overall conditions. But while on Moremi Game Reserve, that was exactly my mission; find the leopard.

After three days filled with “matala”, which means tracks in Setswana, there was no leopard to be found and I was nervous. Time was passing by and my complete schedule depended on me sticking to it and getting the images in the time frame assigned to each one. Now, trackers are incredibly amazing at following tracks and even going so far as telling what gender and age the Nkwe (Setswana for leopard) in question was, but for three days… no leopard! I was getting frustrated. I had no shots and nobody to blame for it except the leopard himself… or bad planning on my part. But I had an assignment and there was no way I was coming home without all the images I was sent to get. This particular leopard, the one we had been following was called Mr. Nose by the locals. The curious name had been given due to half his nose missing from a fight with another large male.

My previous encounters with leopards, both in Maasai Mara and Serengeti, had been spontaneous and relatively easy, so I was not fully aware of how hard it was to get one of these amazing felines in front of the lens. But I was determined and by the the morning of the fourth and last day, extremely stressed out. My time was almost over and all I got was images of tracks and some birds. I did have another full week ahead both in Okavango and Central Kalahari, but in my plans that week was assigned to achieve other shots I needed for the project. Now, here, all I needed was my leopard.

That morning Banda and I headed to Victoria Island, very near camp, where fresh tracks led. We drove slowly, listening very carefully for every alarm call from francolins and baboons with hopes they could point us in the right direction. We looked in every branch in every tree and followed every track… the result was the same: nothing. Four hours had passed since we left camp at 5:30am and again my hands were empty. We kept driving and I started to imagine Mr. Nose on every tree. I started to see him in every monkey that moved in a branch or in any creature that moved at all for that matter. My mind was playing tricks on me and I saw him everywhere. I saw him just lying around in a big, perfect tree. Calmly taking his nap, looking magnificent and almost royal, but this time it was not a vision, it was the real thing. A beautiful and amazing big cat, my favourite animal in Africa, just posing there and looking directly at me. I could not contain my self and just hoped with all my strength he would keep still for a few minutes, and he did.

I started to get my safety shots first, the moving in closer and trying more experimental shots with different lenses. But then Mr. Nose stood up and came down the tree, slowly and with the same elegance that he had shown so far. The grass was extremely tall in the ground, so once he entered the maze it was very hard to keep up. We followed, slowly and carefully, trying to get some more shots in the process while he gracefully moved along. But the grass seemed to have swallowed the cat and I could only tell where he was by the movement of some reeds and the alarm call of the birds nearby. It was very hard to keep up, but I did managed to get some shots that pleased me and that communicate exactly how hard it was to keep up.

It is amazing how such a big animal can just disappear in the grass, and that realization bombarded me with questions: How many times had we passed by him in these 4 days? Had he been watching us all along from his hiding place? How close had we been? Was he stalking us while we stopped for a bathroom break? Was I ever in imminent danger? I guess we’ll never know.. but I’m sure Mr. Nose does.

For more images of the complete adventure in the Botswana Green Season visit my website. 

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As the day comes closer, I grow anxious. I start to worry about what to pack. I make checklists and go over them repeatedly. I start to have dreams about missing the plane or arriving without any batteries for my camera. But I am happy and thrilled to be so close to the Okavango. I read books, I watch photographs by Franz Lanting, I watch BBC shows about the largest wetlands on the planet and I imagine myself right in the heart of it. I try to imagine the feeling of smallness and amazement when faced with such immense nature.

Packing for Africa is not easy. On the one hand, I want to keep it as light as possible. After all, there are weight restrictions on every flight between the air strips I’ll be using, but on the other I must make sure I have everything I need and replacements for it. There are no Wallmarts in the Okavango. On the one hand I’ve been dreaming about this assignment for over a year, but on the other I’ll miss my wife and kids badly. Conflict seems to accompany me everywhere I go. But I keep packing and it makes it more real, it makes it imminent. These bags that I now stuff with all my equipment, will be my only companions through 14 days of travel and adventures.  I stop for a while and go over my schedule, my checklist and my documents; everything seems right. Got my visas, got my yellow fever shots, got my malaria pills and permits in order. I make sure I have enough batteries for everything and I weight my equipment once again. I still dream of Africa.

This trip will complete my project “AFRICA: field notes of a traveler” to be published at the end of this year for three great sponsors: Travelwise, Autohaus and District & Co.. The book will include photographs and notes from Cape Town, Serengeti, Maasai Mara, Ngorongoro, Lake Manyara, Victoria Falls, Okavango, Central Kalahari and Sossusvlei.

I’m very excited about this project. Africa gets under your skin and you surprise yourself always wanting more. Always dreaming about going back. But I also feel afraid. Afraid my kids won’t be able to experience all this beauty. Afraid we will destroy a place we have been lucky to enjoy and admire. If we keep behaving like we are, there will be no more rhinos or lions left, there will be no more water left, there will be no more paradise. I am afraid we are going to lose it all for the sake of profit. I want my kids to see Africa and understand our place in the world. I want them to understand we are not the owners but only visitors, and as such we have the responsibility to protect the place that has given us so much and be able to pass it forward in better shape than it was passed down to us.

As I get ready for Africa, I pack not only my gear but also every dream and fear I have. One thing is for sure; no matter what happens, this will be a trip to remember.

To see more images of my journeys in Africa and other trips please visit www.mariodavalos.org

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Recently my good friend Matthew Studebaker “almost” won Audobon’s Magazine grand prize. Matt’s image was disqualified by the judges for being a composite of two images, a horizontal and a vertical one. In the image below, you can see the redline where the two images were blended together. For those of us who know Matthew, it is clear his intentions are clean. He is not only one of the most talented nature photographers out there, but also a stand up guy who truly loves and respects nature as he does his craft. I don’t think his actions can be considered cheating, because in my opinion there was no intent to deceit. His original image, before the merge, is as good as the one submitted and both images were taken at the same location and in the same session. No significant alteration was made. matt compos

It is not the same to do a panoramic image of a single scene (which for me this is what Matthew did) than to combine images that don’t necessarily belong with one another. A panoramic photo is a way to extend the sensor’s format capabilities. A composite is a new reality blended from two images.  But even when I think Matthew’s case is perfectly understandable and I am Ok with it, I am against allowing composites or merges in nature photography competitions.

Matthew’s image was a very straight forward case, but if allowed this opens the door to a whole universe of possibilities that could end up transforming the spirit of any competition and ultimately, of our craft. We would not be judging the best photographer, but also the best post-processing technician. I mean, where do we draw the line? How many images can be blended together? Two? Three? Four? Eight? What if the blend happens right down the middle of a lion’s face? Is it ok to add a wing to an eagle shot from another image? What about if a copy an eye from a shot I took last year and paste it into this portrait of a Puffin? It would definitely make it a lot better… What if I blend two images not taken in the same place nor the same day? The possibilities are endless, and there lies the danger.

Photography, at least as I see it, is a medium to capture reality. What, how and when you decide to do that, is what gives it a voice, your voice. When we decide to change reality in a way the structure of what we see is altered, we enter a realm beyond photography.Of course it’s still art and it can still be beautiful and valuable, but is not photography in the traditional definition of it. I am aware “traditional” is the word that will bring conflict, after all, is there a place for “tradition” in the 21st Century? I don’t know, but I like to thing the nature of photography should remain intact even if the mediums evolve. I often think of intervening my images with paint, I haven’t done it yet, but someday I will and I am sure the outcome will be at least interesting. But it should not be submitted to a photography contest, even though it could be submitted into an art contest. Or maybe we should have a new category in contest. A “composite & merges” category? Something to think about.

There is a lot of opinions  and conversations on this subject from a lot of talented and diverse people. I am not sure who’s right and who’s wrong. I don’t know what the correct answer is, but I am sure this issue will be coming up very often in the next few years and a balance between the evolution of our craft and the nature of photography itself will somehow merge with each other. Now, that is one merge I am looking forward to.

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1. People love to make rules. It’s ok to listen, but it’s also ok to totally disregard them.

When I first started making nature photos, I ran into many rules and rule keepers. Everything was already laid out: – this is not allowed, this is allowed.. if you want to be one of us that is – . I did not understand what was all of about nor why. Trained as a contemporary painter I was taught to break all the rules, as long as you knew why you were breaking them. In other words, know the theory but in practice try to achieve your own voice, your own artistic statement. When I looked around at all the photos I was exposed to back then, they all looked similar to one another. Luckily I was eventually exposed to great wildlife photographer (Vincent Munier, Markus Varesvuo… ) that were doing whatever they felt like and doing it in an amazing way. I don’t think I have achieve a unique voice… yet. But I’m on my way!

2. Loving and respecting nature is more important than getting the award-winning shot.

I have met wonderful people traveling the world, but I’ve also met people willing to do anything to get a shot, including destroying nature or disturbing it. I love nature first, I love photography second. Is that simple. The end does not justify the means, not in life and certainly not in nature photography.

3. There is natural beauty all around us, you just have to learn to observe.

I now walk any street, anywhere, at any time and I see beauty. Just as a lawyer sees liabilities anywhere he goes or an architect sees design in every corner, once you learn how to see, things pop-up everywhere: bird songs, tree roots, rainbows in oil stains, fungi in the sidewalk… you name it! Learning to really “see” the world is the most valuable thing I learned in art school.

4. The decisions you make editing your images are as important as the decisions you make taking them.

Lately I find my self spending almost as much time in front of the computer as getting the shot. Editing your images is a second stage in the creative process. As photographers, our format is predetermined by our camera’s sensors, so within certain boundaries, you can be very creative when it comes to editing. I never add anything o remove anything from my photos, I think ethics are a big part of my love and respect for nature and my craft… but I think cropping can be a great way to tell a story within the story. I mean, photography in itself is the art of cropping.  I also think playing with your white balance can create atmospheres to enhance the narrative in your image. So go ahead, play around.

5. There is too much information out there. Learn to filter.

Wow!! Every where you look there is a guy telling you 10 things he learned by being a wildlife photographer!! WTF!! Anyways, read, but filter… no one has an absolute truth. If you pay attention to everything you read you’ll never have time to make photos. Get inspired, not psycho!

6. Dare to try different things.

Sometimes is an image that was incorrectly exposed or an egret that was blurry in your shot.. All I’m saying is, do not become an expert in your own style, do not set your self too many personal rules or boundaries. Experiment! Try to feel uncomfortable by trying things you thought you would never try (and I only mean that in photography, do not come blaming me if you apply this rule to your personal life and wake up in a traveling circus wearing flippers and spooning a clown).

7. The story behind an image is usually greater than the image itself, so savor the moment and become a good story teller. 

Being out in the big outdoors is the most rewarding feeling I can think of. The only reason I take nature photos is so I can be out there as long as I can and try to capture a little bit of that feeling in an image. Do not obsess over the perfect image, but rather over enjoying the place and the moment.

8. There are two kinds of wildlife photographers: those who focus on collecting species and those who focus on the beauty of an image. Both are correct!

I know examples of both. Personally I am more on the second group, but I think either one is fine. I have a lot of very good friends and fine photographers that enjoy what I call photo-birding; keeping lists of species and obsessing over growing that list… just as birders do, but by taking the image, not just the note. I rather make a beautiful image in a beautiful moment of a very common bird than to capture a rare species in an ordinary moment and an ordinary image. Photos are a tool to tell stories, and I like to tell stories, not to keep lists.

9. Traveling is one of the best ways to learn how to love nature.

What can I say? Traveling is the most enriching experience a human being can have. It will make you smarter, it will make you more humble and grateful. Traveling feeds the souls. Traveling expands your capacity to be amazed and enjoy the natural world. There is no other activity in life that contributes more to making you a better human being that to travel. And by travel I mean to take a journey into the place but also into the culture.

10. No, the eye does not have to be sharp and the background does not have to be totally clean to make a great photo.

Ah! This rule… I couldn’t leave it alone could I? I was so close!!!!

I hate this rule. I really really do. Every one obsesses about getting eye contact and a sharp eye. You will read this over and over again on forums and photography groups:

- Great eye contact -, – Very sharp eye.. congrats, great capture -

I don’t know who made that rule, but it is stupid and arbitrary. An image is an image, it may be well crafted or not, it may be beautiful or not, it may be inspiring or not, it may be provoking or not… but trust me, there is no body part that HAS to be sharp to make it any of those things. Do not let rules kill your voice!

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