Photographer Uses Remote-Controlled Devices and Camera Traps on Assignment to Document the Serengeti Lions

With robots and drones taking on more roles where manned crafts cannot go or where situations compromise human safety, it comes as no surprise that machines would find their way in current projects of study and exploration. Photographer Michael “Nick” Nichols and videographer Nathan Williamson of National Geographic used a remote-controlled helicopter and a small robot tank to capture unique perspectives of Serengeti lions.

lions getting rained on
C-Boy (front) and Hildur lie side by side during an afternoon rain shower in Serengeti National Park. Adult male lions form coalitions with other males, often their brothers. C-Boy and Hildur—who are unrelated—have been a duo for years.

Without the aid of these contraptions, these images would otherwise be extremely difficult, if not perilous to take for any photographer.

Nick Nichols shares his excitement on Facebook,

“This is too cool not to see. The Serengeti Lion: Life on the Plains with the Vumbi Pride. A marriage of my still photographs, Nathan Williamson’s video, voiceover from scientist Craig Packer, images and voiceover from Brent Stirton, and text by David Quammen. An immersive look into the life of lions.”

cubs on zebra carcass
Cubs of the Simba East pride: too young to kill but old enough to crave meat. Adult females, and sometimes males, do the hunting. Zebras and wildebeests rank high as chosen prey in the rainy season.

Outfitted with a remote control car, remote control helicopter, camera traps and night vision goggles, Nichols would spend years taking pictures for what is slated to be an article in the National Geographic magazine. Mobile through a custom-outfitted Land Rover Defender, they prowled the African Serengeti.

lions fighting
Dry season is hard on everyone. Vumbi females, stressed and fiercely protective of their young, get cross with C-Boy, though he’s one of the resident fathers.

Nichols spoke of the project with National Geographic Daily News recently,

“We started thinking about this story five years ago. The story I wanted to tell is tied to a 35-year study of lions in the Serengeti Plain. Lions have already been photographed a lot. But there are a lot of barriers to making interesting photography. Lions sleep all the time. In the day they are in energy-saving mode, and they work at night. Almost all images are made from the protection of a car, because they are dangerous predators. So you see a lot of portraits through telephoto lenses, mostly of things like lions sleeping under trees.”

lions resting on grass
The Vumbis rest on a kopje, or rocky outcrop, near a favorite water hole. Lions use kopjes as havens and outlooks on the plains. When the rains bring green grass, wildebeests arrive in vast herds.

The mold of this stereotype shots was certainly broken with the groundbreaking methods employed by this photo and video gathering expedition.

See the exploits and different perspectives caught by Michael “Nick” Nichols and Nathan Williamson, made possible by the special gear provided by the R&D department at National Geographic. It is cutting edge wildlife documentary stuff that sets a new standard for the genre.

lioness resting
Large cubs of the Vumbi pride and a grown female (fifth from left) feast on a wildebeest. The darkest, moonless hours are prime hunting time because the cats can see better than their prey. These black-and-white photographs were made with infrared light to minimize disruption to the lions.

Visit the stunning photo gallery here as well as the interactive online experience here.

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Patricia Ramos

Patricia Ramos

I am a freelance photographer who is no stranger to smudged lenses, long hours in front of the computer, heavy camera bags (and the back aches that ensued) and missing lens caps. If you know what I'm talking about, you probably have as much love and passion for photography as I do.