A Fresh View:

Stalking the Big Cats with Ann F. Purcell

            The most graceful and powerful of all the wild animals to photograph are surely the big cats of Africa. The lions, leopards and cheetahs are predators of the Serengeti, stalking their prey with patience and cunning. We tourists in turn stalk them with our cameras. Our kills are recorded on film instead of becoming trophies over a fireplace in the library.

Cheetah in Kenya
            During nearly a dozen trips to East Africa, I have learned a great deal about photographing the feline carnivores of the savanna. My favorite site is Governor's Camp on the Masai Mara, Kenya's northern extension of the Serengeti Plain. Governor's Camp is the dream many Americans nourish about East Africa. This permanent campsite is rustic, but luxurious. Each tent is flanked by a bathroom tent that has a hot water shower and a toilet that flushes.

A blazing fire is built each evening near the bar tent and one will often hear the roar of a lion or the trumpeting of an elephant just across the crocodile infested river. There are no fences around the camp and often a grazing hippo or a curious elephant will wander into the tent area. Masai tribesmen with spears accompany you on the walks between your tent and the dining tent, frequently pointing out nearby wildlife with their flashlights.

Cheetah Drinking
    To catch action and get sequence pictures, I recommend the use of a motor drive which is built-in on most 35mm SLR cameras. Probably the most useful lens for shooting game in Africa is the 70 to 300mm zoom, but there will be times when a 400mm or even 500mm will be helpful. If one wants an even longer lens, matched tele-extenders or doublers can increase the focal length of telephoto lenses, but they will decrease the effective aperture by about one stop.
            Leopards often climb trees and this can create an exposure problem if you're shooting into the light or against a very bright sky. The built-in spot meter on your cameras will then be very important in getting an accurate light reading on the leopard's coat.
            It is awesome to see one of these giant carnivorous cats make a kill or even attempt to bring down its prey. In one instance, I observed a lioness stalk and leap on a cape buffalo, raking its side and leaving crimson streaks of blood. When the frightened beast managed to escape, the male lion, who had been watching the effort, cuffed his mate for failing in the hunt. (In a lionís world, the females do the hunting while the male lions nursemaid the cubs.) The motor drives on my cameras recorded this dramatic sequence, but the light was not ideal. Fortunately, I had switched from Fujichrome Velvia (50 ASA) to the faster Provia (400 ASA) film for this sunrise shoot.
            At another site, I saw a mother cheetah stalking a tiny dik-dik antelope, just over two feet high. I had an impulse to cry out and warn the defenseless dik-dik, but the ranger who was the guide that day put his finger to his lips.
            "You must not interfere," he explained. "The mother cheetah has cubs that are waiting for food."
            In a flash the cheetah, the fastest animal on earth, dashed after the tiny animal, but nature in her wisdom spared the dik-dik. The antelope was able to zigzag back and forth across the savanna, and because the cheetah could not change direction so easily, she finally gave up in frustration. She was more successful a few minutes later with a Thompsonís Gazelle and was able to provide this larger, more substantial, feast for her cubs.
    There are three game runs each day at Governor's Camp and the vehicles are Toyota Land Cruisers with open roofs. The skillful drivers understand the needs of photographers and where to find the big cats, keeping careful track of locations and movement.

Mother lion with cubs, Masai Mara
I recommend the use of bean bags to place on the edge of the roof to steady your telephoto lens. Have some empty ziplock bags (the gallon size is good) in your camera bag. After your arrival in Africa, buy a pound or two of coffee beans or navy beans and double bag them. These can be discarded before your departure from Africa but will serve as a portable tripod during your visit.

In spite of the bean bags, when cats are located, the drivers should kill the engine to stop all vibration and allow for slow shutter speeds. The big cats, especially lions, almost seem to be oblivious of the presence of a vehicle with photographers and go about their business with indifference. This allows for spectacular pictures, but one must be constantly ready for the moment of peak action.


Copyright: Ann F. Purcell

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