To Catch a Cat

In Tanzania, National Geographic photographer Michael “Nick” Nichols pioneered the use of drones to get never-before-seen angles of big cats.

THE BARAFU GORGE LIES on the eastern border of Serengeti National Park, in northern Tanzania. Michael “Nick” Nichols worked there from 2011 to 2013, making some of the most intimate photographs of lions ever seen. He had to get close—but being physically close was too dangerous, and telephoto lenses didn’t capture the nuance of the cats. So he relied on his go-to solution: technology. “I used the crap out of it—infrared, camera traps, robots,” says National Geographic’s former editor-at-large for photography. “Drones were just being put together,” Nichols, 65, says. “It was cutting edge.” But he never found the right situation to use it. Until one day he came upon the Vumbi pride, resting on a kopje at sunset. The wind was blowing 40 mph, double what was considered safe for the drone. “I said it’s now or never. We lifted it off and fought the wind.” The lions lie among the rocks in the resulting photograph; some of them seem to be looking up at the drone, mildly curious. This is the only drone image from the project to be published, and it’s seen here for the first time. “We carried the drone for two years. Spent thousands of dollars on it,” Nichols says. “Was it a waste of time? No. It didn’t advance my story, but it laid the groundwork for other photographers.”

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