For a nature or a wildlife photographer, luck has always played an important role. Back in the days before digital when we shot film or slides, you may have hiked to a location with your camera hooked with a wide angle lens and a roll of ISO 50 film hoping to shoot some nice landscapes, only to find the scene to be too bland. As luck would have it there would be a beautiful great blue heron landing on a tree branch with a fish in its beak.

You would struggle to quickly switch to a telephoto lens, unload the film to switch to an ISO 400 roll for lower light shooting conditions, and as you frantically worked you would watch as the heron swallowed the fish and flew away – that’s what we called a bad luck day. Don’t laugh – it did happen to me! You would often find yourself with the wrong lens or the light would already be too dark or perhaps even too bright – and then sometimes the shooting conditions would be perfect, but all you can see is the rear end of the animal…

Like a gambler struggling with his addiction, always hoping to get lucky next time, hoping to hit his winning streak and sure it is just around the corner, photographers often find themselves frustrated and always hoping that next time will be the time they get that perfect “money shot.” Like gambling, if you do it long enough, you will eventually have your day  (however brief) and that perfect shot will finally come.

On this particular day we were at Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. With me were two other photographers – Ann Alimi and Elaine Ho from the Toronto Camera Club. We went out to shoot from morning until 12:30pm; it was very hot, a typical African high noon, when most animals were seeking shelter in the cool shade under the trees. Elaine did not know her newly acquired camera guzzled battery and she had just run out of power, so we decided to head back to camp and wait until late afternoon when the animals would be more active again before returning. We were just about to turn back when I noticed a few buffalos resting under an acacia tree – I thought it would make for a great shot of an iconic African scene so I asked the driver to stop for a while. I was using my Canon 60D with a wide angle lens to shoot the scene, when suddenly Elaine pointed to the top of the tree where a blue colored bird had just landed.

“Jeff, shoot it – it’s so pretty,” exclaimed Elaine, who had a long lens but a useless camera thanks to a dead battery. Ann was shooting with a full-frame Nikon with a 400mm lens without a tele-converter and wasn’t able to get a good shot. 

Adventure Travel Photography - - The Luck of a Nature Photographer by Jeffrey Wu

I grabbed my another camera, a Canon7D, which had a 300mm F2.8 lens and a 1.4x tele-converter on it, which combined with the 7D’s 1.6x APS-C crop, gave me a total 672mm F4 equivalent focal length to a full frame camera. I pointed my lens toward the bird…

Adventure Travel Photography - - The Luck of a Nature Photographer by Jeffrey Wu

Through the lens I recognized it as a lilac breasted roller, a vibrant and very colorful bird with blue wings and a pink breast. I shot a few stationary shots and suddenly it started to flex its wings…

Adventure Travel Photography - - The Luck of a Nature Photographer: photographing the lilac breasted roller in Africa - by Jeffrey Wu

I thought it was about to take off so I pressed and held the shutter button and the Canon 7D started shooting at 8 frames per second like a machine gun, and – right at that split second, the unbelievable happened…

Adventure Travel Photography - - The Luck of a Nature Photographer: photographing the lilac breasted roller in Africa - by Jeffrey Wu

Another roller dropped into the frame! It entered from the top left with a huge insect in its beak – the second roller was the reason the first was moving. Stunned, surprised, excited, and thrilled, I just kept shooting them until the camera buffer was full, and then I can picked up my jaw from the floor! This had to be my luckiest wildlife shot ever. The next thing I did was check the sharpness of the image, because I knew my hands were shaking from the adrenaline rush. It was sharp! Luckily I had set shutter speed at 1/6400 second and I got my money shot! I couldn’t help keep saying “I got it, I got it!”

Elaine said, “yeah, we know,” and Ann chimed in with, “yeah, yeah, can you just be quiet?” I kept laughing like a giddy eight year old.

All stars aligned for me – the wing positions and the interaction between two birds – I really couldn’t ask for more.

Adventure Travel Photography - - The Luck of a Nature Photographer: photographing the lilac breasted roller in Africa - by Jeffrey Wu

Surprises did not stop there, for if you thought the second bird was going to feed the first one, well, you were wrong! It landed on a lower branch and enjoyed feasting on the bug all by itself.

Adventure Travel Photography - - The Luck of a Nature Photographer: photographing the lilac breasted roller in Africa - by Jeffrey Wu

Jeffrey Wu

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Jeffrey is a Toronto, Canada based nature photographer. As the son of a professional photographer he took his first photo at the age of 7 and developed his first print the following year in his mother’s darkroom. Jeffrey Wu believes that everyone sees the world differently – for him, photography is his language to explain his unique vision to others, that they might see the world through his eyes and lens.

7 Responses

  1. Les Check

    Hi, Ann (and Jeffrey),

    Yes, the stars aligned for Jeffrey. It makes me think of Ansal Adams and his photograph Moonrise over Hernandez. He just happened to be at the right place at the right time to get that image. Great shot, Jeffrey!

    Les Check

  2. James

    Great shots Jeffrey, I’ve had a few lucky encounters myself! With birds, it’s really all about luck, you never know what to expect

  3. Andrew

    Amazing photos – these are some of the most colorful birds I’ve ever seen!!!!

  4. Felicia

    I love this, Jeffery, the photo and the story! The second to last photo is priceless. The composition and colors work so beautifully here. Great job! I love when God gives us moments like these. Thank you for sharing.

  5. milkayphoto

    LOVE this story! And I can soooo relate! From the, ‘hike your butt out there carrying your gear to find NOTHING”, to the “battery dies at the crappiest moment”, to the “don’t have the right lens on the camera and the bird/animal/etc that you’ve bee DYING to shoot has just entered the scene doing THE most perfect photographic thing!” I have to admit though, like you, SOME days, the stars align and the photographic gods are being kind and you end up with something unbelievable. Your heart races, your hands shake and you simply cannot WAIT to get back and view your images.

    The shots here are amazing but what I love the most is your passion in telling the tale. Well done! 🙂

  6. Dave

    Yep, I got tricked as well, was sure the bird with the bug was going to feed it to the other bird. Nope.


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