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Bag Great Exposures in the Big Cat Expose
A photo safari in Southern Africa is not for everyone, but it is an amazing experience where you learn a lot and bring back incredible images of these magnificent—and endangered—animals.
I’ve led many tours to Southern Africa—countries that include South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia. They are all stunning and the photographic possibilities are endless. So naturally, the Big Cat Expose African photo safari captured my interest immediately. BCE was the brainchild of Chris Liebenberg, owner of Piper and Heath Travel.
Chris was born in Namibia and I met him eleven years ago when he was one of my expert guides. He now lives here in the States with his wife and young son and plans wonderful trips and tours to Africa. When he came to me with this Expose program, I was honored and thrilled to be involved as the photo professional.
The mission of this project was to not only photograph the majestic big cats, but to learn about their behavior—and the causes of their recent decline. As a photographer, I believe in not just coming home with beautiful photographs, but to learn as much as I can. What better way to tell a visual story! Of course, there were opportunities to see the other species that inhabit the deserts, plains and deltas, but we were a focused group. Eleven intrepid travelers and photo buffs joined me on this tour. In addition to our participants, we had an expert in each camp to provide us with solid and fascinating information about these fearless felines.
Mala Mala, just on the boundary of Kruger National Park in South Africa, was the first adventure. Nils Kure, our PhD expert in all things “leopard,” was there as our lecturer. Mala Mala is the perfect habitat for these stealthy cats and the knowledgeable rangers are the key to finding them. It was rough terrain but this bush country with stands of large trees provides essential cover for the leopards.
Leopards can be difficult to spot—and photograph. They are designed to be able to blend with their environment. It is important to capture images that depict their ability to hide and to try to get at least one eye in focus. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon 100-400mm f/4-5.6 lens at 200mm. ISO 640, 1/100th second at f/6.3.
A wide variety of wildlife can be found at Mala Mala. I come armed with as much camera equipment as possible for safari. Two camera bodies are important, although some of my guests did not have that luxury. Canon was generous to provide me with a Canon EOS 7D, Canon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 DO IS USM telephoto lens, and a teleconverter for the guests to try during the trip. I used the Canon EOS 1D Mark IV and a Canon EOS 5D Mark II. I also pack a wide angle zoom option such as the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II, a mid-range lens (Canon 24- 70mm f/2.8L), the Canon 100-400mm f/4-5.6 AND a Canon 500mm f/4L IS USM. This gives me plenty of options and backup in case something goes wrong.
Interestingly enough, we photographed all three of the big cats at just the first camp. This was mostly pure luck along with the expertise from great rangers. Since the terrain is bushveld and dense, some of the photography was a bit challenging. Getting the perfect portrait was not always easy, but this is not the zoo! In the end, the full story is what counts and should include the actual habitat the cats live in.
Difficult environments take patience. I had to try several different compositions and wait for the cat to move to a position where its eyes were clearly visible. Canon EOS 1D Mark IV, Canon 100-400mm f/4-5.6 lens, ISO 640, 1/160th second at f/5.6.
We moved on to our next camp, Kalahari Plains Camp, in Botswana. The Kalahari is a completely different type of environment than our first stop, with more desert and less biodiversity. Our next expert, Rebecca Klein of the Cheetah Foundation, Botswana, knew exactly why this unsuspecting location was best. Cheetahs need plenty of wide open space to hunt, which is exactly where we found them—including a mother and her two cubs. Our visit coincided with the rainy season in the Kalahari and the grasses were somewhat high. It is such a special time of year to see the desert with a lot of vegetation. I love the colors in the grass and it makes for some stunning photographs when the wildlife is grazing or hunting.
Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 DO IS USM lens, ISO 320, 1/250th second at f/14. Shooting the encounter is important. I used a small aperture to make sure the vehicle and cheetahs were all in focus.
The cheetahs were at quite a distance from our vehicles. Now it was time to put a 1.4 teleconverter on the Canon 500mm f/4L IS USM lens to get a reach of 700mm. Both were shot on the Canon EOS 1D Mark IV with ISO 100 because I had plenty of bright sunlight.
I enjoy capturing the feeling of motion. For this shot, I used the Canon 500mm f/4L IS USM lens and panned with the animal using a slow shutter speed. ISO 100, 1/25th second at f/32.
When I’m on safari, I also like to include shots of the camps we stay at. There are so many wonderful moments to capture the ambience and feel of being in Africa. The guests are almost always taken aback by the camp settings and the images can impart the hospitality that was provided by our guides and staff. The campfire meals are an especially great way to share the feeling of camaraderie with our homeland friends. By the way, the food was awesome.
Dusk shots can be quite evocative. I love the cobalt blue that is captured in the sky here. You need a tripod for this long exposure. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon 24- 70mm f/2.8L lens shot at ISO 200, 30 seconds at f/5.6.
On the last day, we had quite a pleasant surprise. We discovered a leopard mom and her cubs hiding in the dense bush. I really didn’t expect to find leopards in the Kalahari but it was a wonderful encounter! The young female, who was only about 8 months old and very curious, approached our vehicle while her more timid brother stayed out of sight. Mom did come over to check out the situation but was quite comfortable in letting her curious little girl pose for a portrait.
Fill flash helps in many situations. By setting the flash with a minus compensation, you can add just enough light to fill in shadows and separate the subject from the background. Note a catch light in the eyes.
Finally, we were off to the watery world of Duba Plains. This is the location in the Okavango Delta where Derek and Beverly Joubert filmed the documentary “The Last Lions.” I had the great fortune of photographing at this camp previously, so I knew what was in store for us. James 007, the expert guide and tracker for the Jouberts, was our lecturer for the three days. He explained the dynamics of the prides in the area, and I was fascinated to learn there is a new pecking order with the lionesses. I did see several of the same females I saw years before, but was sad to hear the two famous males, the Duba Brothers, have moved on.
These cats are different from other lions. The size and muscle structure, from hunting in the canals and waterways of the delta, something most cats hate, makes them some of the most impressive looking lions I have ever seen. Not only that, they provide an incredible opportunity to get photos of lions walking through the water!
Later that day we had an opportunity to photograph the same cats in dusk light. Knowing that this would be difficult, I added my Canon 580 EX flash to the Canon EOS 1D Mark IV, Canon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 DO IS USM lens on a monopod so that I could pan with the animal and keep the camera stable. With an ISO rating of 1250, I still had to slow the shutter speed to 1/6th second at f/5.6. The flash adds enough light to stop some of the motion.
You never know what you are going to see on safari. Much of it depends on the time of year. The Okavango Delta is no exception. When the heavy rains happen in Angola, the water travels for quite some time and floods the delta. We were there in April, before the high water arrives. The vehicles that work in the wet environment take a beating, and you can understand why. Don’t forget to include these types of images! They are as important to the entire visual story as the animals.
Shoot the activities!!! Although the image at top was photographed with the Canon 24- 70mm f/2.8L lens, I also keep the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II wide angle zoom handy for capturing the interior of our safari vehicle along with the scenic area. It creates a sense of place.
The Okavango Delta is also home to an amazing variety of birds. Several species of kingfishers find the delta perfect hunting grounds.
The Canon 500mm f/4L IS USM lens excels in getting shots of birdlife in Africa. However, don’t think you absolutely have to have one. Some of my clients had smaller lenses with a 1.4 teleconverter. They got equally nice shots of birds.
Another favorite bird of mine is the saddle-billed stork. Along with this long, leggy bird are many others, which we did photograph. However, it was still the cats that were always on our minds. I think one of the most engaging encounters we had was with two 18 month old cubs – a male and a female. We had the perfect setting and not one of our 3 vehicles had a bad view. What was so memorable about our little encounter was the fact that they had a kill – not a particularly large kill like a cape buffalo, but a warthog. Only the head remained and with the tusks, it was impossible not to know what they were attached to.
How can you not chuckle when looking at this young male lion with the warthog head in his mouth. His little sister was not far away and he gave us a guilty look for not sharing his prize. This was late in the day so I increased the ISO to 640 and added a Canon 580 EX II strobe to help light the animal. It was shot with the Canon 100-400mm f/4-5.6 lens at 100mm, 1/15th second at f/11 to make sure the eyes and warthog head were in focus. There is still a little bit of motion blur from using a slow shutter speed, but it does not take away from the image.
During our Big Cat Expose, we experienced bush country, desert, and delta. We saw elephants, hippo, rhino, birds galore and an astounding number of antelope species. Any visitor to Africa would be thrilled to see such diversity. Our trip wasn’t just about that, though. The goal we had in mind was to photograph and learn about the natural history and, sadly, the decline of the big cats. Hopefully, we were able to contribute to their conservation in a meaningful way. The world would be a sorry place without them.