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ZEBRAS – HOW THE PICTURE WAS TAKEN

You may have seen the picture of zebras on the Macbook Pro and in the windows of the Apple stores recently. Here is the story behind the making of the picture.

The raw smell of the earth and a lingering sense of primeval energy draw me back to the Africa of my birth. There remain some wildernesses on our planet that are especially captivating. A jewel in the desert, Botswana’s Okavango Delta is perhaps the finest of them all.

I was in the small town of Maun in Botswana, gathering photographs for my books Untamed, Spirit of the Wild and Living Africa. Light is delicate and fickle when photographing from the air, so the helicopter was booked for an early morning shoot to maximise the chances of good visibility.

I arrived at the offices of pilot Peter Perlstein for a briefing and a cup of coffee, but I already knew when I walked in that we couldn’t fly that day. Local farmers had been burning grass to prepare the soil for the planting of new crops and smoke had spread into the wilder areas of the Okavango Delta, hampering visibility. There were dark and heavy clouds in the air.

Only three days remained before I was committed to fly back home to England, so I knew we would just have to wait it out. Peter is among the most experienced of helicopter pilots, a specialist in working with photographers and film makers such as the BBC Natural History Unit.

The next two mornings came and went while visibility continued to deteriorate. There was no point in attempting to fly then because, even if I’d had the most spectacular sightings, the photographs would have looked flat and indistinct.

I had almost given up when the day of my long-haul flight home came. I knew it was my last chance to get aerial wildlife images. Miraculously, the light improved slightly and we decided to take a chance and fly. But the air traffic control centre was not due to open for another couple for hours, by which time the light may have become too harsh. So we prepared everything, went to the helicopter and waited for permission to take off.

We removed the door from the helicopter, as it was essential to get sharp pictures. The thick glass on aircraft adds a layer which has the effect of softening the image. Peter was in the front of the helicopter and I took up the entire back seat, but leaned out from the opposite side of him to give the helicopter as much balance as possible.

We took off as soon as Air Traffic Control allowed us to and headed for the Delta. The clouds momentarily parted to let the morning light in and we found the zebras moving in the swamp. The encounter was brief. The diaphanous light faded quickly; the weather closed in behind us. The picture shows how the strong herd instinct protects each individual against predators.  After we landed, I managed to catch my flight home in the nick of time.

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10 Comments to “ZEBRAS – HOW THE PICTURE WAS TAKEN”

  1. Kate Day says:

    Thanks so much for this Steve, great story. I’ve never shot from the air but would love to try. Love your description of light as “delicate and fickle”, can just imagine.

  2. [...] tells the story of the making of this fabulous shot on his blog – why not click through and learn more? Like this:LikeBe the first to like [...]

  3. Ajc says:

    That is the best picture I have ever seen. Could we have a hi-res version of it with your logo on it? I promise to buy a print as soon as I have the money to do so. I want to see that picture every time I open my iBook. I’ll also buy a MacBook when my funds are more plentiful. I just fell in love with that picture the second I saw it. All the colors and the sheer epicness jive and shout to the world, zebras are beautiful! That’s art to me and I can’t wait for the day when the picture hangs on my wall. Bravo, I am now a huge fan of your art and also plan to buy the book untamed. For the time being can I ask that you grace your page with a beautiful logo’d, hi resolution version I can put on my desktop! It would bring a lot of joy to my meager, humble life. Migration is such an amazing thing unrealized by me, until now…

  4. Mohammad says:

    Please provide this picture as a wallpaper, many people would like to use it. Some suggest that you put a small watermark to drive traffic to your site :)

  5. Jake says:

    Where can i find a high resolution version of the image so that i can use it for my background? Would you mind sharing it?

  6. Anthony says:

    How about releasing it as a wallpaper ? It would be great publicity for you and a great wallpaper for us !

  7. [...] best known for wildlife photography and his books on the peoples of Africa. There is an interesting story behind the making of the picture that got an overwhelming response, such that the author of the photo [...]

  8. Uncle Bernie says:

    You are a wonderful photographer and I hope you are very successful . I love the zebra
    photo-just fantastic picture.

  9. JackM says:

    What film was used? Great image.

  10. steve says:

    Fuji Provia. At 100 ISO it allowed me to use a high shutter speed (in excess of 1000 second, essentiual for helicopter work). It was my film of choice – not too saturated while failry fine grained. Scanned on an Imacon scanner.

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