March 6th - March 20th, 1994
That "my" Leopard had two babies practically at the same time that I started my work for the picture book on the Masai Mara was something of a "Godīs sent".
First of all, from an economic point of view, because I was actually able to do two books within the same amount of money and time spent, and secondly, because I was able to use the days in the Mara from the mornings at 6am until the evenings at 7pm more effectively.
I really had to watch out like hell, not to have my interest in the female Leopard become an obsession.
My most important "personal" goal at the moment was to get a really good picture of a Leopard slaying its prey.
It really is amazing: wildlife photography exists for more than 100 years, but on the entire world market not a single really good picture of a Leopard slaying his prey exists. At least I havenīt found one yet.
Whereas this is one of if not the most important moment in the life of a Leopard. No prey, not Leopard......
Last year I was able to photograph a Leopard, while he was slaying his prey, three times. Once it was an Impala kid and twice a grown Thomson Gazelle buck. But the pictures did not turn out the way I wanted them to. Maybe this year........
My current tactic is such, that we drive to the respective Leopard area before daybreak and hope to find the mother with her two kids there.
What happens next during the day depends on what the Leopard decides to do: if she stays with her kids during day, then so will we. Will she leave about 8 or 9 am to go and lay on a tree for the rest of the day, then we will leave the Leopard family and I will try to catch other motifs for the Masai Mara picture book to photograph; then about 4.30pm we will return to the two Leopard youngsters, because Mother Paradise can be expected to return by 5.30pm.
This system has two handicaps: first, it could be that the Leopard will surprisingly hunt during the day if she happens to come upon a good opportunity and second, that the remaining hours from 9am - 4pm to photograph other animals, are the hours with the worst light.
My "secret" speculation is that the female Leopard will disappear during the summer, just like last year, for 6 8 weeks, to some corner of her territory where she canīt be found or followed to.
Then I wold have time for a few weeks and with good light conditions, either real early or real late, to photograph the other animals.
There are pictures that you have in your mind for some time and youīre just anxiously waiting to turn them into reality.
So I have this picture in my mind of a female Leopard sitting on a rock, attentively on the look out and flanked by her two kids right and left who of course are looking just as attentively in the same direction to see what mom is looking at.
This morning I had this scene almost: Paradise was lying in the grass and her kids were directly next to her either playing or suckling when Paradise suddenly got up and sat on a rock perfectly photogenic, very attentively watching Topis passing by a few hundred meters away.
The Leopard looked fantastic through the seeker and the vertical format. It wasīnt especially light out, but with the K-200 and a 4.0 shade with the 600 mm it was enough for a 1/125 sec. after all.
background was nice and quiet and a little darker than the
Little Leopards seldom sit beside their mother. With little Cheetahs on the other hand, you see this daily. As soon as the Cheetah climbs on a hill as a look out, the youngsters come running and sit next to their mother and look into the same direction.
I wish the Leopard children would do the same not necessarily every day, but at least sometimes.......
March 10th, 1994
Missed Opportunity Number 4873
This morning we met up with Beauty, the half-year old daughter of Paradise, as she was sitting unhappily rather uncomfortable high up in a relatively thin tree. Jonathan Scott, who had been standing by her for a while watching her, told me that a strong male Cheetah had chased her up the tree.
Just as I got there, the Cheetah was slowly moving off. We parked the Toyota Landcruiser so that I could take some good shots when the Leopard came down the tree. Light, detail and background were perfectly chosen for this picture.
Then, ten minutes later it was time: Beauty gave off some noises in the tree that sounded a lot like anger, unhappiness or frustration, and came climbing down the tree trunk just as expected, and ran with the fastest possible speed for Leopards away from the clump of trees, over a completely clear 100 m wide grassy area to the closest hilly, rocky, with brush covered terrain, that was an ideal place for a Leopard who wanted to hide.
The answer to the puzzle: the strong Cheetah male hadīnt really left, but was lying about 100 m away in a depression, where we couldīnt see him, but the Leopard in the tree top was able to see him.
Since she probably didīnt feel like waiting any longer in the wobbly tree until the Cheetah was gone, she decided on this getaway in great, fast leaps to the protective underbrush.
If I would have known that 5 minutes earlier: a Leopard at full speed over a totally clear and wonderfully green terrain you could have taken very aesthetic and dynamic pictures of this wonderful feline ......if you had the right shutter speed..........
The elegant Beauty clearly photographed at full speed, with a totally wiped background, the tail strung out straight behind her, all four legs flying in the air..... Holy Toledo !!!!
That I hat two other situations on that same afternoon, that couldīnt be turned into slide material, the numbers 4874 and 4875 for the file of missed opportunities, is not worth mentioning.
First, at 5pm, Paradise jumped high, protracted over a 3 4 meter wide ditch and it looked like a horse taking a hurdle on course. Of course I was about 20 meters too far away when that happened.
Then she was lying for about 5 10 minutes on a high Termite hill when suddenly the cloud cover ripped open and there was this beautiful deep red sunset.
So, change the position of the vehicle immediately to the other side of the Termite hill in order to photograph the Leopard with a flash in front of the red sky.
Two seconds before camera and flash were ready, she jumped up and chased a Rabbit, that she missed of course.
Why didīnt the cloud cover open a minute earlier? Why couldīnt the Rabbit come 20 seconds later? Those few seconds were all that were needed to take 4 - 5 beautifully tempered slides.
Three missed chances at once - oh happy day ......!!!!
March 11th, 1994
Some people have a too romantic impression of the work as a wildlife photographer in Africa. When you answer the question "What is your next piece of work?" with "To photograph animals in Kenya", the inquirer rolls his eyes and says: " Your are to be envied: donīt you need someone to carry your bags?"
My envied day presently looks like this: I was driving around all day from morning to night looking for the Leopards, unable to take any pictures. When I found them, then it was useless to photograph because they had chosen a part of their terrain which was not at all photogenic.
Apart from that, the usual day to day frustrations in Africa: three days without electricity in the camp because the generator was defect, so I couldīnt work in the evenings.
A two hour delay in the morning because a wheel bearing was defect.
The next day we had an unscheduled 4 hour break and needed to go to the garage because the suspension for the hood of the car was broken.
On the same evening we got stuck for two hours because the fuel line went out.
Two days later, the wagon stopped dead in front of the Leopard family and the starter went out, and so on and so on and......
Even for wildlife photographers there is the normal daily routine with all those trivial things, distaste and frustrations. You donīt live and work apart from the rest, high above the gray everyday life in a wildlife photographersī paradise.
For a committed photo amateur, two weeks in Eastern Africa is certainly a wonderful vacation, but as a professional in Eastern Africa, try eating rice and beans every day for lunch and dinner for 8 months...
On my last tour in February I had made it a little easier on myself with the equipment and had used the Tokina 4.0/100 300 mm AF and the Sigma 4,5/500 mm AF lenses, that were not quite 5 kg in weight.
With these you can work a little more relaxed, but sometimes you find yourself a little limited in your photographic radius of action.
Besides that, both unfortunately do not achieve the same optical qualities of the Nikon or Canon lenses.
So this time I had my "professional equipment for real men" with me again: Sigma 2,8/70 210 mm AF, Nikkor 2,8/300 mm AF and Nikkor 4,0/600 mm AF with the 1,4 x AF converter which results in one AF lens with 5,6/840 mm.
Unfortunately all in all way over 10 kg in weight, with the three cameras almost 15 kg. A cursed drag and not as easy and quick to handle as with the February equipment but with a lot more possibilities for lighting and focal lengths.
The advantage to the smaller equipment is that it is pure fun to photograph with it. With the larger equipment it is plane work.
But you do have the higher light frequencies which are especially needed when photographing Leopards since these animals are extremely active in dim light.
And the 840 mm focal length is a real winner. A lot of people think that you donīt need such extreme focal lengths in Africa because "the animals are sooo big and the distance for fleeing is not so great" but the long focal lengths quite often help in getting very interesting impressions.
It is just too bad that, with three lenses and three cameras, you are too concentrated on the technique and loose so much time while changing lenses. Time you normally need very badly to concentrate on your subject.
A sensible Tele zoom 4,0/200 - 500 mm AF with the 1,4 x AF converter, and looking for your chances to photograph a subject would be so much better rather than jumping around with three lenses....
Taking good pictures of Leopards is about the most difficult that I can imagine in wildlife photography of Eastern Africa. First of all you only have a very small time frame during the day available where Leopards are active one hour in the morning and a half an hour in the evening.
Then he is also a very introverted animal and it is extremely difficult to take pictures of him that rouse emotions, because he will hardly let you see any.
Only with very young Leopards is it possible to see what kind of fire is present on the inside which unfortunately is almost invisible in later years, hidden under the apathy of real felines.
Then you canīt arrange camera or light stand points with Leopards like you can so wonderfully with Cheetahs. You mostly have only one possible stand point where you can see the Leopard who is lying half hidden and you have to take that one whether you like it or not.
The biggest problem with Leopard Photography is to work up the prerequisites for good pictures. If the Leopard is playing in open ground with a quiet background and good lighting with her kids, then of course it is relatively easy to take good pictures. Unfortunately that never happens or almost never.
With Leopards and Cheetahs you donīt have emotional forming moments every two hours to shoot, so you have to patiently wait for your chances.
Whereas if you are with a Cheetah family, you can usually always spend the time between 6.30am and 6.30pm with them because you canīt lose a Cheetah family. That is why 60 80 hours of Cheetah observation a week is absolutely possible.
With the Leopards on the other hand, you have the family together for an hour a day maximum at a photographic distance in front of the camera, and that only about 2 or 3 days a week.
So with the Leopard you get a maximum of 3 to 4 hours of observation in which emotional family portraits could possibly be taken. - provided of course you happen to find such a situation at all.
Of course this is just a train of thoughts but perhaps it explains why there are so few really good pictures from the life of Leopards. It really is quite frustrating and often incredibly boring to try and keep up the Leopards.
One should try and concentrate his wildlife photography plans on extroverted, day-active animals and not try to watch introverted, night-active felines with the camera.
March 15th, 1994
A really good picture of a Leopard mother with her two babies where everything is perfect really is extremely hard to get.
If the Leopard was resting on the ground and the two little ones were jumping on her head or something similar was happening; the light was good, the background was quiet everything perfect - then there certainly were bushes in the way between myself and the subject, or I couldīnt find a decent position because of rocks or ditches. Hope continues.......
A few days ago I changed my "equipment for real men" again. I just canīt handle the 2,8/300 mm, it is too heavy and just too unwieldy.
I exchanged it for the lighter and smaller 4.0/300 mm Nikkor. Now photography is again enjoyable and I am a lot quicker with this lens.
What focal lengths are the most important in Africa?
Presently I am working 50% of the time with the 600 mm, about 20% with the 840 mm, about 25% with 300 mm and about 5 % of the time with the 2,8/70-210 mm lenses.
Stages of Difficulty
Since the young Leopards have left their caves and play outside, I was able to observe them for about 7 weeks during the course of January, February and March. Now, after these 7 weeks, I had the first real opportunity to take a picture of the now about 4 months old Leopard kids while playing. (Leopards, page 115).
Toward evening the K-200 with the 600 mm lens with a focal length of 4,0 and about 1/90 sec. was just barely enough they were playing in front of me on a large, flat rock at eye level, in front of a very quiet background.
They scrambled over each other taking turns in being on top or on the bottom and bared their teeth playfully.
If I didīnt screw up with something or another, these would be my first really good emotional scenes of play from the young Leopards.
Slowly I started to understand why there are hardly any pictures of young Leopards at all. Theodore N. Bailey, who studied Leopards in the Krüger National Park for over two years did not even see any at all during that time. Thatīs how well the Leopard mothers hid their young from him. ( Later on I saw that my pictures of the playing babies really were pretty good. During my concentration on taking the pictures I had not noticed, but saw on the slides later, that the little Leopards with their 4 months of age had already playfully practiced copulation, even with the typical biting of the scalp. The BBC Wildlife Magazin published a picture from that series in 1994 as a double page in the English and German issue and it was also published in the book of the BBC Wildlife Contest 1994, "Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Portfolio four, page 43, Fountain Press, 1994).
At the end of the 5th tour, I unfortunately realized, that my equipment still wasīnt optimally composed.
The 24 70 AF Tamron-Zoom is okay and the sharpness is without fail, even if I had only used it 2 or 3 times.
The 4.0/600 mm AF-Nikkor with the 1,4 X converter is great for here in Africa. It is a monster and everywhere else I would replace it with the smaller and lighter 4,0/500 mm, but on this tour, the focal lengths 600 mm and 840 mm were often prerequisites for good pictures.
The large gap between 300 mm and 600 mm surprisingly enough didīnt matter. In all the months I did not once change a 300 mm to a 420 mm with the 1,4 X converter, but I frequently turned the 600 mm into an 840 mm.
What I did not expect was, that the missing 90 mm from 2,8/70 210 mm and the 4,0/300 mm turned out to be fatal and that I botched at least 3 or 4 pictures because of this gap.
I wonīt be able to leave the 2,8/70 210 mm, because it helped me with numerous important pictures in the dark or with only a minimum of light.
I also need the 4.0/300 mm with the AF desperately, for when the Leopards are on a fast move at a medium distance. I canīt do without an auto focus. Anyway, it is my "bread and butter lens" next to the 600 mm.
So I will have an additional lens on my next tour to drag along, meaning the MF-Nikkor 4,5/50-300 mm. Too bad that this optical and mechanically super lens is not available with the AF mode, because then I could leave the 300 mm focal length at home.
The Tokin 4.0/100 300 mm AF Tele Zoom, that I used on the previous tours was actually ideal, only the optical quality unfortunately was not up to par. Especially in the area of great focal lengths, as for instance with 250 300 mm left something to be desired. Too bad that Nikon and Canon canīt decide to manufacture a 4.0/100 300 mm AF Tele zoom with tripod clamp and ED or L glass.
Amazing in spite of the fact that in Africa you take pictures from out of a car and that the wildlife hardly shows any preference to distance themselves from this, I took 2/3rds of all my pictures on this tour with the 600 mm or 840 mm focal length.
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