Photographing Leopards!

June 28, 2012
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One of my favorite locations in the world is northern Botswana along the Chobe waterfront.  However, as much as I love that region, a typical week there usually only yields a single leopard sighting.  I’ve heard a few reasons for this, but still can’t quite understand why there aren’t more leopards.  There is plenty of prey as impala are around every corner.  There isn’t an over-abundance of competing big cats as lion are there, but not in excessive numbers.  Maybe it’s the lack of tall grass for stalking.  Maybe there aren’t as many healthy leadwood or acacia trees to store killed game.  Not sure why, but when I want to photograph leopards, a better destination are the private reserves of the Greater Kruger Park area.

The Safari Location

The “Greater Kruger Park” is made up of the Kruger National Park plus adjoining private game reserves. Most of these private conservation areas,  such as Sabi Sabi, Sabi Sand, Mala Mala, Londolozi, Singita, Manyeleti, Thornybush, Timbavati, Klaserie or Balule can be found on the western side of the Kruger National Park between Hazyview and Phalaborwa. Game viewing can be easier in these private parks, especially if you are after the Big 5. Here the animals are tracked off road for close sightings. In particular, Timbavati, Sabi Sands and Singita are well known for plentyiful big cats.

In May of 2012, Paul Salvado (my South African safari partner) and I took a group of 4 Americans and 6 South Africans to Timbavati.  The broader goal was general game viewing but the specific goal was to get some ‘keeper’ leopard photos and a hope of seeing the white lions of Timbavati.  We didn’t see the white lions, but we saw leopards every single day.   We saw leopards stalking, leopards with a kill, leopards with cubs, leopards with a kill with cubs, even night time viewing of a big male leopard marking his territory.

You are advised to only photograph the leopard cubs when the mom is around so as not to alert other predators

Lodging

For accommodations on this trip we stayed at Leadwood Private Camp.  Leadwood is a ‘self cater’ camp that can sleep up to a dozen folks.  It is a fabulous camp reminiscent of the kind of lodge you’d expect to find Ernest ‘Papa’ Hemmingway staying or maybe Teddy Roosevelt.  I’ll get to photographing leopards, but first I’d like to clarify what Leadwood is.  The term ‘self cater’ might brings to mind for Americans a bare bones, empty facility where one might totally fend for one’s self.  This is not the case!  On the contrary, a ‘self-cater’ safari can actually mean an upgraded experience for you. Leadwood is a full holiday camp with staff to help with meals, clean rooms etc.  They also provide excellent guides and trackers and quality vehicles.  In this case ‘self-catered’ means someone in the group has to organize the meal plan and bring the supplies for the trip.  In this case, Paul’s wife Patsy handled these duties.

We had high quality classic South African dishes each evening and a fantastic brunch each morning after our early game drive.  Of course we also had quality wine, beer and soft drinks for snacks.  Perhaps the most important things brought along were the munchies for the mid-morning break and for the ‘sundowner’ drinks at the end of each afternoon drive.  Morning snacks usually included fresh and dried fruit, rusks (similar to biscotti), coffee and a little Amarula to spike the coffee.  Each afternoon, prior to heading back to camp, we stopped at a photogenic location of choice and had wine, beer, soft drinks, nuts, biltong and dried fruits until sunset and then had a short ‘night game drive’ on the trip back into camp.

Leadwood - Rooms overlooking the river

Photo Safari Tip #1: As long as your planner has a quality South African connection to set up the “self-catered” experience, do not shy away from this option.  This path can save you thousands of dollars and actually enhance the intimate feeling of your travel group.  A quick self-promotion – I’m associated with Magnum Excursionsand we have additional trips to the self-catered “Leadwood Private Camp” scheduled for 2012, 2012, and 2014.  Space is limited, so sign up soon!  Leadwood is owned by Jan Wilkens and his family.

Outdoor lounge at Leadwood

Jan is an incredible photographer.  His experience living his entire life in the region combined with his eye as a photographer can lead to valuable tips for your game drives and some excellent slideshow presentations of his images over your dinner meals or late night drinks.

Game Drives

For this trip, we had 6 photographers and 6 spouses/friends/observers.  We used two game drive vehicles, each with 4 rows of seating.  We stationed 3 photographers on the right side seats of each vehicle and the non-photographers sat on the opposite side.

Photo Safari Tip #2: Always make sure your safari will only book a maximum of 2 people per sear tow.  Also, the preferred is always only one photographer per row.

Sunrise in May is around 6:45 a.m.  For the morning game drive, we typically left the camp by 6 to get into position with game to catch the early morning light.  We were typically back to camp by 10.  Afternoon game drives began around 2:30 with sunset occurring around 5:30.  After sundowners, we were normally back at the lodge by 7 p.m.  This style is typical of most safari trips, with times varying based on sunrise and sunset.  Mid-day photography is seldom done as lighting can be more harsh and the animals are generally settled passive during midday.

The nightly campfire (or 'boma') location at Leadwood, overlooking the river

Photographing Leopards

For me, leopards are the coolest cats of the bush.  They have a regal self-confidence that makes them an excellent photo subject.  In addition, as long as they are not pressured by the game drive vehicles, they are normally willing subjects.  The challenge in photographing leopards is related to their favorite habitats.

  • They love tall grass for stealth is stalking.  This makes it challenging to include paws and tail in your images.  It also means wisps of grass may intrude on details around the face.
  • They love thick bushes for hiding their young or consuming their prey.  This brush often leads to a busy background and a busy foreground, not to mention a generally obstructed view full of harsh shadows.
  • They love climbing trees to hide their kills.  This presents challenges of obstructing limbs.  They love climbing trees to sleep during the day.  This has the prior challenge of limbs, but also the rather boring subject of a sleeping cat.

Perhaps it’s for the above mentioned reasons that it feels soooo good when you get that great cat shot.  It’s also for these reasons that it’s a must to be in a Private Reserve like Timbavati so you can go off the road, tracking the cats, until you get into the right positions to shoot.

Getting a great shot requires a guide that understands the photographer’s eye.  Guides to please, but they need your communication to make sure you get that keeper shot.  Both of our guides were of the highest quality related to tracking and knowledge of game and the land; however, each appreciated the coaching and direction we provided.  In particular, make sure you note the direction of the light and work with your guide to position the vehicle with light to your back if possible.  Know the size of the lenses on the cameras in your group and advise the guide on the standoff distance the vehicle needs to be to properly frame your composition.  While I recommend being vocal on your needs, respect that the guide knows the etiquette of the bush.  If he says that you are pressuring the animal too much or that you’ve spent enough time with the animal, obey and accept.  You don’t want nervous or stressed animals nor is it good for future generations of visitors.

Luckily the dried grasses didn't obscure this leopard's body

If the brush is distracting, zoom in tight on the subject

If the subject is obscured, focus on the eyes to salvage an image of interest

Photo Safari Tip #3: Communicate with your guide.  Make sure you explain how you want to use the lighting in each photo situation.  Make sure you communicate how close/far from the subject you want the vehicle to make sure you have the right composition.

Good communications and proper anticipation by the guide can lead to powerful images.

For most of this safari, I used aperture priority mode on my camera.  The default setting was f/8 however, if I had a stable subject and/or cluttered background, I often shot f/4 or 4.5.  In low light, ISO setting is as important as aperture. Make sure you know how high you can take your camera without getting into unacceptable noise. With today’s newer sensors, ISO settings can be relatively high.  On my Canon 7D, ISO 800 is the limit and I really don’t like to push beyond ISO 640.  With my newer Canon 5D MkIII, I am comfortable pushing to ISO 1600 if needed and will even shoot ISO 3200 in a pinch.  For the night drives back to camp, I actually set my camera to ISO 25,600.  Yep, ISO 25,600.  I’ve included two images shot at this setting to point out that it can be done (I know one of the shots is a hyena rather than a leopard, but I’m trying to make a point).  Of course the third variable in camera set up is the shutter speed.  Traditional rule of thumb is that shutter speed should at least equal lens size (i.e. at least 1/400 sec for a 400mm lens).  While this is a good rule, remember, you’ll be sitting in a parked vehicle with the engine off.  Additionally, many lenses or camera bodies today have image stabilization technology. With proper arm bracing or the use of a bean bag, you can live with shutter speeds well below the rule of thumb.

Photo Safari Tip #4: Know your camera settings.  Push the ISO as much as the camera will allow.  Use a bean bag to stabilize your lens.

This leopard was photographed with a 400mm DO lens and ISO 25,600 on Canon 5D MkIII

A young hyena pup photographed at ISO 24,500 with the 400 DO on the Canon 5D MkIII

The Lowveld Mopane forests of the Kruger region private reserves mean that you will typically be rather close to your subjects to shoot.  Other than dry riverbeds, good photo visibility is usually will less than 50 yards.  This equated to using smaller lens selections for your shots.  On my full frame camera, I primarily used a Canon 400mm DO lens.  This compact lens was light and allowed me to move and shoot quite quickly.  On my 1.6x crop factor camera body, the default lens was my Canon 100-400L lens.  This lens is a little slow (minimum f/5.6) but is incredibly versatile.  These two lens choices resulted in 75 percent of the photos of this trip.  The other 25% of the shots were with my Canon 24-105L lens.  Depending on the situation, sometimes this was on the full frame body, sometimes it was on the crop body.

If you see that the animal will have to cross a log or rock, anticipate the composition

Photo Safari Tip #5:  For a photo safari in the Kruger Region private reserves, you typically don’t need huge 500mm, 600mm or 800mm lenses.  Opt to take along lens that allows you to reposition quickly in the vehicle when you come upon a leopard.  300mm to 400mm are often the optimal focal  length.

I'm almost too close in this shot to have a good angle on the cat

I hope this article has been helpful as you plan your leopard photographing safari.  Please feel free to ask questions and leave feedback.

The 100-400mm lens was often enough to capture compositions like this

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8 Responses to Photographing Leopards!

  1. Paul Salvado on June 29, 2012 at 5:48 am

    Hey Buddy, well done, very happy you had a great time with leopards, very very special to be so close to these beautiful cats.
    Hopefully your next trip will bring you close to the famous white lions of Timbavati.

    I will send you the dates confirmed for 2013 2014 and 2015.

    Paul

  2. Archie Henderson on June 29, 2012 at 6:40 am

    World class, man!

  3. bessie on June 29, 2012 at 11:41 am

    Looking forward to our trip in August!!!

  4. Helen on July 4, 2012 at 5:33 am

    thank you for sharing this wonderful article and photos. They are magnificent and particularly the one with the baby leopards! Special Magic! I am also sure that Patsy’s meals are FANTABULOUS!

  5. P. B. Eleazer on July 4, 2012 at 10:46 am

    Nice ‘companion’ article in Africa Geographic on timbavati leopards at: http://blog.africageographic.com/africa-geographic-blog/wildlife/a-love-of-leopards/

  6. P. B. Eleazer on July 4, 2012 at 10:47 am

    Grant Atkins, a really talented photographer and guide writes a blog. In this article he also gives some info for photographing leopards: http://grantatkinsonphotography.blogspot.com/2012/07/photographing-leopard-behaviour.html

  7. World Traveller on August 25, 2012 at 6:32 am

    Hey there P.B. Chobe is wonderful. To answer your question, why are there not more leopards around, leopards are shy, solitary, territorial animals and you’ll only find one leopard male per large territory. There may be several females per male territory, but each female will have and defend her own territory to the death from enroachment by other leopards – yes, even their own offspring. Leopards also like trees, rather than savannah, which is a lion’s preference. Whatever the reason, you are lucky to spot and photograph them! Great pics!!!

  8. Davina of tropicalvalleysafaris.com on October 9, 2012 at 3:10 pm

    Leopards are my favorite African animals too. Nice photos you got of them here. Those in the Mara (where I have been to several times) in Kenya are extremely shy, and spotting one is not easy. I hope to visit Southern Africa (Kruger perhaps, or even Chobe) one day soon and hopefully see more of them in the wild, and perhaps the white lions of Timbavati too.

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