Photographing Leopard in the Sabi Sands

Gerry van der Walt All Authors, Gerry Leave a Comment

The Sabi Sands and surrounding areas is one of the best places in Africa to view and photograph leopard in the wild.

Before I get stuck into some thoughts on photographing these wonderfully elusive animals it’s worth mentioning that you should not use the images from field guides working in the reserve as an indication of the kind of images you are going to get.

Sure, you might get lucky but these guys spend between 4 and 10 hours out in the field every single day so it goes without saying that the photographic opportunities they will bump into will not necessarily be the same ones you get to experience during a 3 night visit.

Wild Eye - Gerry van der Walrt

That being said, if you are open to exploring a wide range of approaches to photographing the leopards you do find then you stand a very good chance of creating wonderful images.

Don’t get stuck on trying to create images like guys like Marlon du Toit, Chad Cocking or Keith Connelly who all work in or around the Sabi Sands area and are lucky enough to get great opportunities virtually every single day.

The best piece of advise a I can give you is to go in with an open mind and to know your camera and photographic techniques well enough so that when an opportunity presents itself you can draw on the specific skill and style to compliment that particular sighting.

In this post Andrew had a look at what kind of gear you could use effectively in the Sabi Sands so in this post I will focus more on telling stories and capturing the moments that we were faced with during a recent 3 night stay in the Sands.

If you are a first time visitor you will be amazed at how relaxed the leopards are and how close you can get to them.  This image was taken with a 14mm lens which, based on the images, should immediately tell you that this big guy was very close to our vehicle!

Wild Eye - Gerry van der Walrt

If you take the time to follow an animal around, and your guide knows how to predict it’s movement, you will almost certainly get photo opportunities like this.

All too often I see people trying to get a close up of the animal’s face when it walks past but this it the time to pull out that wide angle and get images that tells the story.  By including the other vehicle in the frame I give my viewer a glimpse of what they could possible experience when visiting the same area.

We stayed with with this large male for more than an hour – one of the benefits of going to a private game reserve – as he patrolled a dry river bed scent-marking his territory.

My approach is always that I can only shoot what I see so the images from this sighting included some behaviour shots as well as images that put the sighting in context by showing the proximity of the subject to our photographic vehicle.

Wild Eye - Gerry van der Walrt

Wild Eye - Gerry van der Walrt

When you are on a three night visit to the Sabi Sands, or any game reserve for that matter, you need to shoot each sighting like it’s the last one you are going to have of that particular species.  Yes, the Sands is known for it’s great leopard sightings but nature is still unpredictable and you don’t want to sit at breakfast on the last morning lamenting about you could have approached that one sighting.

Keep shooting.

We were very lucky though and in our 3 night stay we had 7 different leopard sightings which made for some great wildlife photography.

Now one of the things that I cannot overemphasise enough is the value of a photographic friendly field guide.  They will understand things like angles and light and will be invaluable in helping you to get the shot.  On a side note, this is something that makes a photographic safari such a great way to see and photographic wildlife.

For the image below our guide, seeing that the old female was going to walk along the road, positioned us ahead of her and in a slight depression in the road.  This gave us the opportunity to photograph the leopard with a lovely low angle as she walked directly towards us.

Wild Eye - Gerry van der Walrt

Photographically speaking I pushed my ISO up, as it was quite dark from an overcast sky and I needed a fast-ish shutter speed, and opted for a shallow depth of field to make isolate my subject from the background.

Another thing to look for when photographing leopard is that tail.

It defines the spotted cat and can be used very effectively in your images.  Watch for it and shoot small bursts if necessary to try and get the shot in which the tail adds to the scene.

Wild Eye - Gerry van der Walrt

The image above is another result of understanding animal behaviour and light.

We watched this young female get chased off an impala kill by a grumpy old male leopard which obviously made her get out of the area as soon as possible.  Knowing that she will hang around for a while – at a distance – to check out for danger we positioned ourselves with the early morning light falling at a 45 degree angle over our left shoulder.

All we had to do now was wait for her to lift her head and then snap away.  Now I know some of you might bitch and moan about the grass in front of the animal’s face but this is what we saw and, as far as I am concerned, that is what I shoot.  And seriously, do you really want to spent time to try and clone out the grass just to present a clean image?  Really?

Now I don’t fire off long bursts of frames all that often but there is a reason that modern cameras can do this.

You see, leopards climb trees which means they have to get up and down which, for our purposes, means great photographic opportunities.

It is during times like this that you have to know what focusing mode your camera is on and how to compose and frame a moving subject.

Wild Eye - Gerry van der Walrt

The light wasn’t ideal but as this old female jumped higher into the tree we let rip.

For images like this you normally want to keep a bit of space around the frame – i.e. don’t zoom in to tight – as you don’t want to chop a part of your subject off as the move.  Rather pull back a but and then crop in again to make sure that you keep all the important information in the frame.

Images like the one above might not make your master portfolio but hey will form a great part of a collection of images from the trip (something you should do for every trip you do!)

The reality is that you will not get every single shot that you try and get  so another type of image that you could included your trip collection is one that shows a great sighting rather than a great image.

Wild Eye - Gerry van der Walrt

This was the first time any of the Londolozi got to see this brand new youngster.

The light was bad, is was far away and we only had a moment to get the shot so for me this is a great proof shot of the amazing sighting that we had.

One our last morning in the Sands we had one of the most amazing leopard sightings that I have ever experienced.

The female and her 11 month old cub put on a helluva show.

I cannot emphasise enough the role of luck in wildlife photography.  Yes you need to know your gear and yes you need patience and all of that but luck is absolutely vital.  Marlon kept us in the right position and all we had to do was – yeah you guessed it – shoot what we saw!

Animals in environment, action shots, intimate portraits and so much more.

Wild Eye - Gerry van der Walrt

Wild Eye - Gerry van der Walrt

Wild Eye - Gerry van der Walrt

Wild Eye - Gerry van der Walrt

Wild Eye - Gerry van der Walrt

The Sabi Sands and surrounding areas is one of the best places in Africa to view and photograph leopard in the wild so if you are keen to point your camera at some leopards later this year check out our Timbavati photo safari.  There are only two spots left on a trip that promises some amazing photographic opportunities.

When you next head out to photograph leopard remember:

  • Don’t try to mimic other photographers.  Do your own thing.
  • Know your equipment and how different settings influence your images.
  • Try different lenses.  Try different techniques.
  • Keep an open mind and shoot what you see.
  • Shoot.  Then shoot some more.
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If you have great leopard images why not share them with us on the Wild Eye Facebook page?

Until next time.

Gerry van der Walt

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