Adventures in Africa with the new Nikon D500 and 70-200mm f/2.8E FL

…and actually also my workhorse D4S and the 600mm f/4E FL lens, but that would make for a rather lengthy and potentially boring title!

This article, and the following ones on the same topic will hopefully not be boring at all; at least my recent trip to Tanzania and Rwanda were far from it. In fact, the trip to Rwanda was a life-changing one, as many people have described it as well who have experienced the same as I have: encountering mountain gorillas in the middle of dark Africa. It’s an experience that is hard to describe so I will mostly let my images speak for themselves.

My travel started in Tanzania where I wanted to shoot images of leopards; something I had not been able to on previous visits to Africa for years. Leopards are very tricky to shoot: they are often in trees, either sleeping or waiting for lunch to drop by. And against a blue sky they make for a pretty lousy artistic shot. So on the very first day I was incredibly lucky to find this young leopard walking around, searching for prey. And I wasn’t the only one: I’m assuming I’m talking to a rather large, mixed crowd of photographers via my blog and that would mean some of you use iPhones or something similar to take pictures while on a safari. Perhaps not many, but probably a few… Well, when you’re on safari in the Serengeti in Tanzania the ratio iPhone (or similar) vs. DSLR would be something like 90 to 10 – not joking. I was amazed how many tourists use their mobile phones on a safari. Something I fail to understand to this very day. Let’s just be very clear: please don’t. Looking at the images you are trying to get – and weren’t able to will (most likely) make you regret your decision when you’re back.

Anyway, back to the story… In this specific case I was surrounded by a dozen (4×4) cars or so (not a strange phenomenon in the Serengeti unfortunately), and there are about two lanes of them obstructing my view with my D4S and 600mm combo. Through some small miracle my driver managed to squeeze in and I actual got a shot of this beautiful creature without any movement to navigate, nor time available to consider any alternative positions or gear.


Nikon 600mm f/4E FL on Nikon D4S, f/4, 1/1250 s., ISO 280

This bad boy then decided to relax a little on a small mound, waiting for anything interesting to walk by. I could’t believe my luck when (s)he decided to give me a nice pose…


Nikon 600mm f/4E FL on Nikon D4S, f/4, 1/800 s., ISO 220

After this experience I felt this trip was a big success and anything else wouldn’t come close anymore. Little did I know about mountain gorillas in Rwanda. However, before we go there, other really amazing animals do cross your path with a bit of luck. And they’re not all of the biting kind:


‘Superb Starling’ (quite common in the Serengeti)
Nikon 600mm f/4E FL on Nikon D4S, f/4, 1/1250 s., ISO 220, hand held

And in terms of the creatures that do bite: these tend to take very long naps during the daytime and so you’re lucky when you meet some who are quite active and thinking about things only they know:


Nikon 600mm f/4E FL on Nikon D4S, f/5.6, 1/800 s., ISO 320

You may have noticed I did not present any image that was actually shot with the new Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8E FL lens, which I briefly tested in my previous article. Well, one of the key reasons I decided to get that pricy gadget was for my trip to Rwanda. I had done a bit of research and the stories were all the same: chances are you will get quite close to the gorillas so forget about a 600mm super telephoto lens. In fact, you may get so close (very close… too close) even a standard 70-200 zoom may be too much. However I decided to carry two camera/lens combos with me: the new 70-200mm attached to my D4S and the 200-500mm attached to my D500, just in case.

The first time you see a wild gorilla, is something you may never forget. The first time you see a fully grown silverback male in the wild, or even staring at you, is something you most certainly will never forget. The only way I can describe it would be as if I’d be looking at an alien who just landed: you just don’t know what to say or think (consciously); a moment when you’re frozen and you loose sense of time. Basic natural instincts seem to take over: you’re on high alert but are still admiring what you’re viewing and experiencing. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of it all: their behavior is so similar to that of humans; you’re looking at an animal that reminds you of a human (a big one!) yet isn’t… and so your thoughts and admiration continue…


Gorilla mum with baby
Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8
E FL on Nikon D4S, f/2.8, 1/400 s., ISO 1400

Visit time are restricted to one hour; strictly enforced by the park guides and park guards accompanying you on your trip. So I was rather disappointed, to say the least, when our first 30 minutes were lost as the biggest torrential rain I had ever experienced came washing down on us. I’m talking water volumes comparable to that of a bathroom shower. And then some. But after that half hour the skies seemed to clear up a little; enough for me to take out my D4S and 20-700mm combo. It was still raining and my gear was getting wet, but I felt quite comfortable it would easily handle the rain – and it did (it’s weather-sealed, and it better be for that price). My guide had already noticed I was something of a different ‘tourist’ as the others (yes, with mobile phones… nice people though! In fact, very nice group with great stories, more on that later) and he took me on a little ‘private tour’, going straight through the thick jungle, not having a clue where we were going. Before I knew it I got another shock: staring right into Mister Silverback; about 5 meters away…


‘Behold… KONG!!!’
Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8
E FL on Nikon D4S, f/4, 1/500 s., ISO 800

My guide told me story: there was a male tourist once who bragged about being able to arm-wrestle a gorilla, a silverback. Apparently the guy had some muscles and felt he was very strong. And not afraid. My guide told me the guy was the first one in the group who ran away the moment he laid eyes on a silverback, probably staring right back at him.

By the way: I must have been as scared as that guy; however I knew I just had to continue to shoot. This was what I had come here for, and I wasn’t going to give in (or up). When this big boy came slowly towards me my guide did come to me though and told me to very slowly step back… More on that in my next articles. On that note, I’m not sure yet how many articles I will write about this visit, but given the amount of shots I took I think there will be another 4 or 5 – at least. Hope you will stay tuned!

Please note that these images are protected by copyright and are not allowed to be used in any commercial way. If you’re interested in personal use only (like using as personal desktop/tablet/mobile background) then that’s fine; however any other use is prohibited by law.

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