In March, I was fortunate to return to a place very close to my heart, Londolozi. Our guest, Igor, and I had been talking many months before the safari had begun and we had quickly established what camera gear was required and what we were going to focus on while we were on safari. I was extremely excited when Igor said, "my main focus is leopards and anything else would be a bonus!". Fortunately for us, Londolozi over the years has poised itself as one of the best destinations to view and photograph wild leopards in their natural habitat. Having the in depth knowledge and understanding of the road network, prominent game paths, general and individual leopard behaviour and their movements makes a significant difference when searching for an animal that is naturally elusive and shy by nature.
Focusing on trying to achieve a certain photo of a specific species doesn’t make things any easier either. The combination of luck, having local knowledge and having an incredible tracker can be the recipe for a successful safari. Luckily, we had more than just luck on our side, we had Lucky Shabungu, he is a brilliant tracker that I was fortunate enough to have worked with for over 3 and half years during my 6 years spent at Londolozi. It was and always is a special time working with Lucky, I cherish every second we get to spend together.
Our pursuit for the elusive leopard fortunately meant we needed to put the time in and spend a lot more time out in the bush, we averaged 10 hours a day. This gave us the best chance of tracking, finding and spending time with individual leopards. It was also Igor's son, Dmitry's, first safari and it was the perfect way to immerse himself into the wilderness and learn how to get the photographs he was after. We planned to take everyday as it came and focused on the different styles of photography, not just a taking photograph of a leopard. Over the 5 days we managed to work on; leopards in their environment, monochrome, portraits and backlighting.
To be able to achieve these styles and techniques, I tried to get Igor and Dmitry into a position so they could achieve the following:
Select a subject with the best positioning with the angle and predict the leopards movement.
Take a photograph that is clean but also has a strong composition that is striking, bold, yet contains a dynamic perspective of the individual photographer.
Tell a story and try to make each photograph thoughtful while thinking about each creative choice to tell the story.
Most importantly, embrace the wilderness, be patient, have fun, be creative and learn from the environment that we're in.
Nature and wildlife photography, like most things in life, are constantly changing as trends come and go. Ideas about what makes a 'good’ picture both from our own perspective as well as in the wider photographic community also changes. In this blog, I decided to feature some of the styles and techniques we covered with just a few leopard photos from this photographic safari.
Leopards in their Environment
As wildlife photographers we often put a lot of effort into getting close to a subject. The "typical" wildlife lens (300mm, 400mm, 500mm, 600mm) has a long reach and it is easy to get "stuck" in trying to take close ups. What matters most, regardless of the type of photograph, is the photographers relationship, and the way the viewer relates to the story told in the photograph. When you consider the subject, the environment it lives in and the story that can be told it is important to try capture the subject in its natural environment. Using a telephoto and wide angle lens allows one to achieve this and through experimentation the desired result can be achieved. Here are some examples below...
It is always natural to think of wildlife photography in colour, our natural eye relates to the vibrancy and brilliant colour scale that makes a photograph attractive. However, when an image is taken to the other extreme, the saturation scale is reduced, the impact can be dramatic such as a new sense of power placed back into the story. I have personally had a fascination with black and white wildlife images since I started photography and in the right situation the image can be extremely striking. There was a particular occasion where myself and Igor discussed a sighting and that we both felt the leopard and dramatic skies could be photographed in colour but it would be more impactful if we photographed and edited for a monochrome look. Here are some examples below...
When I think about wildlife photography styles and techniques, getting close to a subject (without disturbing them) can offer a deeper connection to the story. Wildlife portraits expose the details, textures, colours in the fur and eyes, photographer and viewer will begin to relate to the animal in the image. One specific image that both Igor and Dimity really want to get was a close up of a leopard drinking. We knew it wouldn't be easy but somehow it happened with a bit of timing, predicting behaviour and a lot of luck.
Backlighting is also known as rim-lighting, it can be an extremely effective technique with the correct situation and form of light. The stronger the light source being used to backlight the subject, the greater the effect, the stronger the contrast and therefore the more powerful the image becomes. It can be tricky to recognise the kind of lighting needed to be used and to identify which subjects are able to be backlit effectively, in order to make the best of the situation or to enhance the mood and story in the photograph. I am a fan of backlighting, you need to experiment enough to know what works and what techniques can be used.
There was one particular occasion where we were able to position ourselves in such a way that the leopard was being backlit by a combination of the setting sun and the spotlight of another vehicle, automatically the contrast was visible. When looking through the viewfinder of our cameras and once we got the setting right, the results were exactly what we wanted.
Even though we were focused on photographing leopard, over the 5 days at Londolozi we were spoilt with some of the most incredible sightings that I have had on a photographic safari. Taking the time to slow down to appreciate all of the different moments made the difference. We photographed 15 different individual leopards and a few individuals multiple times, thanks to the brilliant tracking ability of Lucky. We often found ourselves in situations where the visual of a leopard was very limited but we constantly weighed up our options and invested time where we needed to in order to capture that anticipated moment. Investing time and patience with the right potential opportunity is the most important attribute on a photographic safari. Knowing when to stay and when to move on to begin the search for something new is vital and having an in depth understanding of animal behaviour and the area helped.
I am always fascinated by the ability that common interests and the wilderness have in overcoming any 'cultural barrier and the effect they have on bringing people together. After 5 days of photography and the wilderness, it definitely brought the four of us closer together and formed friendships that will last a lifetime.