Animal photo of the year: Lions at sunset

August 23, 2012 • 6:10 am

This picture, taken by Facebook friend Craig Packer on the Serengeti Plains, and reproduced with his permission, is one of the most stunning animal photos I’ve ever seen. Be sure to click on it twice to enlarge it. The lions are frozen like golden statues in the setting sun.

Packer, who works out of the University of Minnesota, has done classic studies of lions for years (many with his collaborator Anne Pusey), and wrote a wonderful book on his field work, Into Africa.

13 thoughts on “Animal photo of the year: Lions at sunset

      1. Actually, to me, it looks more like common failings of an inexpensive digital camera combining together in a way that actually looks good.

        It’s a very, very high contrast scene. Almost nothing in the scene is actually properly exposed; everything is either overexposed (there’s no detail left in those clouds in the center) or underexposed (most of everything else). Part of that is the actual dynamic range of the scene (after-sunset clouds lit by the Sun can still be very bright while everything else is rather dim), but part is also the strong contrast boost most inexpensive cameras automatically apply to images.

        It’s also a very saturated rendition, again typical of consumer digicams.

        There’s a lot of noise in the picture, which, in this case, got rendered not unlike pointillistic brush strokes. (The noise would come from the exposure boost of the camera attempting to render detail in the dark foreground.) And it’s not the sharpest camera in the world; the overall effect is rather soft.

        All that adds together to make it resemble an impressionistic painting more than a photograph.

        What makes the image work isn’t its technical merits, but rather the composition and the content.

        In most settings, you’d be cursing the poor quality of the camera. But here, through skill or luck, the photographer overcame those shortcomings to produce a good work of art.



          1. You can probably take a photo like that with a good camera too. Just push the ISO up high. The higher you set it the more noise you should get in the image.

            The softness in the image could come from shaky hands and a slow-ish shutter speed. Once your shutter speed gets longer than about 60 milliseconds you really need a tripod to get a sharp image.

              1. Actually, it’s a function of field of view…combined with enlargement size and various other factors (such as how much coffee you did or didn’t drink that morning).

                The general rule for 135 format (35mm “full frame) is 1/focal length. If you’re a typical photographer using a 50mm lens, you’re probably going to get decent results with a 1/50s exposure. But if you’re doing critical work intended for enlargement, you might need 1/100s or more.

                If you’re using a wide-angle 24mm lens, 1/25s will give you comparable results as 1/50s with a 50mm lens. But a 400mm supertelephoto lens will need a 1/500s exposure.

                If you’re using that 24mm lens on an APS-C format camera (most DSLRs), then you’ll need (roughly) 1/40s.

                All this applies just to camera shake. If your subject is moving, even if you’ve got a steady hand or a tripod, you still might get motion blur. When shooting action sports, for example, you generally don’t want to let your shutter get below 1/500s…which is why sports photographers need those big expensive lenses that gather so much light.

                Motion blur can be a good thing, of course…if you’re shooting cars in motion and your shutter is too fast, the results look unnatural; instead, you want a shutter just slow enough to give a bit of blur to the wheels. You’ll have to pan with the car, which means the car will wind up being sharp but the background will have motion blur. The same sort of thing applies to planes with propellers.

                Final quick note: just using a tripod doesn’t eliminate shake. Really stable tripods are expensive, and even those can get adversely affected by wind or passing traffic or whatever. And some cameras at certain shutter speeds can have vibrations induce by the mirror mechanism.

                Gotta run…apologies for mistrakes (if any).


  1. Definitely post-processed to overcome the poor optical focus and/or graininess. The painting-like effect could be deliberate or could be a processing artifact.

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