Capturing the Kill

Morkel Erasmus All Authors, Morkel 21 Comments

“What are the top 5 wildlife sightings you wish to photograph??”

There are very few wildlife photographers who, upon being asked this question, will not include the words “kill” or “hunt” in one of those Top 5 sightings.

The thrill of the circle of life is alluring to many…and while I know there are also many who find images of predation appalling, the thrill of this kind of action gets most wildlife photographers all giddy and fumbling with their settings like toddlers with big lego bricks.

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The challenge that I’ve found is to capture photos that tell the story, and perhaps even tell you more than just the story, rather than just getting the main action images and the gory details of the feeding frenzy. In general, I prefer photos of kills with as little gore as possible, though I am not disturbed to see it as much as other people might be. Over the last 18 months or so I have been privy to no less than 4 big cat kills that I was able to observe and photograph start-to-finish, and this has taught me some lessons (especially in hindsight, regretting some mistakes and settings used etc).

Two of these sightings occurred during the Wild Eye Great Migration Photo Safari that I led with Marlon last September (more details in trip reports HERE and HERE). Not to mention the various crocodile attacks we saw during the migration river crossings. In this post, I will post some images that “spoke” to me afterwards, and also share some tips on making the most of these sightings which are, for most people, a once-in-a-lifetime event.

1. Pick your player, and pick the right player!

If you are fortunate enough to arrive in the sighting early on, during the stalking phase (perhaps you’ve even sat at a waterhole for hours waiting for the action to begin), try and predict which predator will be the main attacker. With single predators this is obviously easy – one cheetah, with a pride of lions you’ll need to identify the lioness that looks to be the lead hunter, but also be mindful of your photographic angle as there might be another hunter who will provide better images based on angle of attack, fall of light, etc.

By picking the right player I also mean you need to make up your mind if you want to track and focus on the predator or the prey – as in both cases the story you tell will be slightly different.

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2. Choose your settings upfront…

Why? If you start to fiddle with dials and buttons midway through the chase, you will miss out on incredible action that often happens in a few seconds. Choose upfront if you want to slow things down using a slow shutter speed and depicting motion, or whether you want to nail the action crisply with a fast shutter.

If the light is good, go for deep enough DOF (to get more subjects in focus when they collide). If the light is bad, decide how much DOF and ISO you need to sacrifice for the SS you’ve chosen (or vice versa for aperture priority).

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 3. Track and focus, focus and track!

Simple as that – keep your eye on your subject and try to keep up with them as they move.

This is HARD!

If you lose tracking or framing, don’t throw your camera out of the window, pick up the action again and carry on. Use the focus points you’ve found to be most reliable on your camera (typically the centre focus points are more reliable!), and make sure you use continuous focusing mode as the plane of focus will shift frequently during the chase. Oh, and one tip that I can give you as well: don’t review images!! I’ve missed amazing photos by simply being too eager to see what I’ve just captured…you can review them when there’s a definite break in action, and only for correct exposure and sharpness. You can do a proper image review back at the camp.

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4. Fill your buffer selectively!

What do I mean? Surely you will be “spraying-and-praying” in the midst of the action, but you know your camera’s limitations. You don’t want the buffer to fill up and then you miss even better shots because you are waiting for it to write to the card…you should use your camera’s highest speed burst mode, but use short bursts if you see it will be a lengthy chase and take-down. Save some buffer for that crucial moment. And be quick on the draw!

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5.  Get the good stuff before the gore kicks in

The action/altercation/struggle is the sequence that matters most for me – as the gory bits when the feeding starts is often off-putting for others viewing the images. The majority of good story shots will be formed by the predator/prey interaction you are able to capture BEFORE the feasting starts (that’s if the kill is even successful to begin with, many hunts end up failed). Focus on strong composition and clever use of DOF.

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6. Use the conditions to your advantage

These chases and takedowns invariably end up with a lot of dust surrounding the scene of the crime, this can lend a special mood to your story. Use it before the dust settles, and use the good light before it is gone.

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 7. Think Story!! Tell a Story!!

What’s the bigger picture? What’s going on around the kill when the prey eventually succumbs?

With lion prides there will pretty much always be interaction around the kill as the members exert their dominance, even before feeding starts. Cheetahs will immediately scan the area for possible approaching scavenger and other predators before tucking in. Leopards will attempt to hoist the kill up the nearest tree.

The story is not just the interaction and cool moments you can capture – it’s also the story of the circle of life, the interdependence of the species upon each other, and the way of the bush.

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8. Look for something DIFFERENT

There’s a big push these days for photographers to capture familiar scenes in a fresh, different way. This is a good goal to have, but it shouldn’t drive you into a stupor when you don’t capture that one enigmatic “different” shot.

That being said, be sharp and be on the lookout for those special moments, the untold stories and the images that are more about what is not seen than what is seen.

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9. Enjoy the moment!

You need to take a moment to sit back and take in what you’ve seen, process it. Not everyone gets lucky enough to witness these events, and not everyone is affected by them in the same way. I know people often lambast photographers for “taking joy in the suffering of the prey”, but that is usually not the case. I feel pangs of remorse and empathy with every animal that succumbs to this vicious cycle, and I rejoice when an innocent little fawn is able to escape the claws of a cheetah most times.

On the whole, I get an immense respect for the law of the land, the ways of the wild and the way the circle of life plays itself out in the African bush. At the giraffe kill I witnessed in Etosha, I took much less photos than I normally do in these situations – I was so fascinated by the events unfolding that I did more “taking it in” than “taking it down”.

I hope you found this post insightful. I hope you’ve seen that you can create tasteful photos that avoid the gore and bloody details of the feeding frenzy, photos that tell the bigger story and capture the viewer’s attention. Let me know what you think by dropping a comment at the bottom.

Until I write again – keep dreaming of those dream sightings…they may just happen!

Morkel Erasmus

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Comments 21

  1. Ken Haley

    Thanks once again for helpful and incisive advice. Despite many hours spent in the bush I’ve only witnessed 1 kill (if you don’t count the jackal and squirrel episode) which was wild dog and wart hog. All over in seconds, but it has left a lifelong memory – especially as in the chase the dogs flushed a leopard into a tree. Agree wholeheartedly that it’s not about the gore, it’s the interaction before and after.

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      Morkel Erasmus

      Hi Ken – thanks for your comment. I spent at least 25 years going on regular trips to the bush before seeing my first kill, so I can fully appreciate the rarity of these events and count myself lucky to have seen some more after that first one. A Wild Dog kill is still on the bucket list, must be amazing to witness. Hopefully my Wild Eye Mana Pools safari this year will deliver the goods on that front. Have a great day!

  2. Carol Bell

    Thanks for that advise. Yes I have seen kills…. but before I had a camera. I have written out in “point form” as to what you have said so as one day I may be able to take some photos of the action. I really do like what you have said….. and I like your photos.

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  3. Jayne hemmerich

    I didn’t think I wanted to see the pictures as I don’t like the subject matter but the way you handled it was breath taking and I was enthrallec with them. Amazing job saying so much and more without being bloody obvious.

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      Morkel Erasmus

      Hi Jayne – I’m so glad you decided to sneak a peek. The whole purpose of the specific images I included here was to show that it can be captured rather tastefully. I hope you enjoy your weekend!

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  4. Jaco

    Thank you Morkel. I really enjoyed your balanced point of view on the subject. As you said it’s not always about taking down the moment, but also experience nature in it’s full force. I witnessed a lion kill in Kruger, taking down an bushbuck ewe. The females used my vehicle for stalking purposes. I think I got one or two useable shots, the rest was out of focus and blurry because of the excitement. The pictures I could use was after it was over, and them dragging the prey across the road. But I did take time to watch the hunt unfold, and THAT stayed with me now for many years.

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  5. Jens

    Hi Morkel, Great article but I think you forgot one point. You need some luck as well. I think I made all the right decisions while on a snow leopard trip recently but the cat took a turn the “wrong way” and ended up behind a rock to that I missed the best shots. (I know that it is all my fault but it feels better to blame someone else) I am still a bit upset for missing such a opportunity.

    Regards
    Jens

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      Morkel Erasmus

      Hi Jens. Sorry I missed your comment. True, luck is a big component – but as Gary Player said: “The more I practice, the luckier I get!” The more we put ourselves out there in the field, the better our chances of getting that rare sighting.

  6. Bobby-Jo Clow

    Fantastic article Morkel. It is nice to hear that you can put your camera down and also take in the scene. Just a quick question. Do you use back focusing when your tracking? I have only just started to use it and was wondering how often you use the back button?

  7. Pingback: Trip Report: Great Migration Photo Safari, 7-13 August 2016 - Wild Eye

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