What does it mean to capture the true essence of a leopard? Or to capture the essence of any animal for that matter?
In my opinion, the only way to do so effectively, is to understand the nature of the animal that you are photographing. Is it a predominantly solitary animal? or does it move around in herds or groups? Is it predatory or herbivorous? Is it most active early mornings and early evenings (crepuscular), active only during the day (diurnal), or exclusively active at night (nocturnal)?
If its predatory, does it hunt using stealth, sneaking up on its prey to get as close as possible before launching an attack on unsuspecting prey? Or does it hunt in organized groups, strategizing on the hunt, ensuring that each member of the hunt is well positioned for the attack?
Following a successful hunt, does the animal feed on its kill as quickly and as ferociously as possible to avoid the unwanted attention of any scavenging species? Or does it drag the kill to the relative safety of a nearby thicket or even up a tree and feed on it over a period of a few days, safe from any scavengers?
All of this may seem like a lot of unnecessary information to arm yourself with on a photographic safari, but what I can promise you, is that it will make a difference to your photography, and certainly make a difference when trying to capture the essence of a particular animal, and a leopard in particular.
Thankfully, our Wild Eye team of photographic guides come from extensive guiding backgrounds, all of which at five star safari lodge establishments, and in different areas of South Africa, and elsewhere in Africa. The combined skills and knowledge, and understanding of animal behavior, allow us as guides, to ensure that our guests are ready, and well positioned to capture unique moments out in the field.
But, do you need years of guiding experience to capture the essence of a leopard?
Quite simply, no! And here are a few tips to consider when you’re next on safari photographing these beautiful rosetted cats:
Be Aware of the Bigger Picture
All too often, the excitement of seeing a leopard takes over and we forget to assess the scene. Take pictures, but remember to pause for a moment and make sure that you have maximized on all photographic opportunities available to you in the scene. If you shoot 100 images all of which at full 400mm extension, then you will have 100 very similar looking images.
Stop, look around, shoot wide, zoom in and shoot a few more, and then zoom to full extension and bag a few close up portrait shots. The main thing here is to ensure that you are changing it up and capturing a variety of different images from the same scene.
When you train yourself to look elsewhere, you’ll be amazed at how your creative eye will start to take over, and soon you’ll be photographing elements of a scene that will amaze both yourself and everyone else.
If you’ve spent enough time with leopards, you will know that there are some key indicators ahead of certain actions. For instance, if a leopard is standing at the base of a tree, consistently looking up into the tree, get your camera ready and make sure you’ve chosen a fast enough shutter speed, because chances are, the leopard will jump into the tree, either to return to a stashed kill, or to seek some shade.
Or, if you manage to find a leopard on a territorial patrol, scent-marking along the way, be on the lookout for low-hanging shrubs and bushes on either sides of roads or pathways, they’re often preferred places for leopards to scent-mark. Have your camera up and ready to capture the very moment that it rubs its face against the bush depositing its scent. Its an out of the ordinary shot that you’ve been able to capture purely by anticipating its next movements
Understand a Leopards Behaviour
Similar to anticipating its actions, there are a few behavioral traits that might assist in capturing unique moments. The most pertinent example, it to take note of when a leopard starts to yawn, stretch and groom itself. All of these are signs of immanent movement. Want a yawn shot? This is your best chance. The closer the animal is to getting up and moving on, the more frequent the yawning, be ready!
You’ve noticed a female leopard wondering around in circles, seemingly aimlessly around a set of rocks, or in and around a dense thicket making a deep grunting noise whilst doing so? What is it doing? Perhaps she has stashed a litter of cubs away, she’s left them, gone off to hunt, and she’s just returned to check on them… Be ready for the moment she picks one up and carries it across the dry river bed in front of you! Being familiar with this type of behavior will ensure you don’t miss, or mess up, a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Leopards are water dependent animals, requiring to drink every day, particularly after feeding on a kill. If its a warm day, theres a watering hole nearby and the leopard you’ve been following has recently fed, theres a strong chance that animal may head to water and drink… visualize the shot before it happens!
Be Familiar with its Habitat
Leopards are shy, secretive and elusive animals by nature despite their densities in areas such as the Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve. They move silently through thickets, avoiding detection by other animals who would give away their position and ruin any potential hunting opportunities. Although following a leopard through dense bush can be both treacherous and frustrating, you can use it to your advantage. Make use of manual focus and shoot through foliage and overhanging vegetation and showcase the leopard in its true environment, its natural habitat. Try different techniques, and use the dense bush to enhance your image rather than being frustrated that its in the way.
Unfortunately, this is the one element where only multiple years of guiding experience would prove effective, luckily for you, there is always a Wild Eye guide sitting on the vehicle with you.
Arguably the most important aspect of wildlife photography, is possessing the ability to predict animal movements, and being ready with your camera and associated settings, prior to an event taking place.Whilst it is wild animals we are dealing with, who possess the ability to do whatever they want, when they want to do so, there is certainly a degree of predicability to their behavior. Being ready for the right moment is often the difference between being a decent photographer, and one who takes phenomenal images. The difference? A little bit of understanding and preparation along the way.
Ive added a few of extra images below where I felt as if I had captured the true essence of a leopard effectively. I’d love to hear from you and your own leopard experiences, please get in touch!
Until next time, enjoy!
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