Using Technology

These are glorious times for wildlife photographers: never before did we have cameras so high in quality, with such great possibilities, outstanding lenses with ED, L or APO glass. Fantastic films of the new generation from Fuji and Kodak, that achieve a never before imagined sharpness, fine-grain and color reflection in their class of 100 emulsion, not to mention all the other available tools of our trade that seem to leave nothing for wanting. We should use this technology whenever we can improve our aimed for results with them. In turn, the picture of the Leopard at rest in his hiding place (Leopards, page 38) was a bit more tricky, then it seems at first glance.

It was the beginning of December in 1994, about noon, that I happened to be standing close to Mang´aa, the year old young male Leopard and was watching him while he was lying in a ditch, fast asleep.

In the morning, he had been lying underneath a tree, chewing on a baby Impala and later had moved into the ditch with his prey. He had been lounging there lazily for some hours. Now, I can stand and watch sleeping Leopards for hours at a time, especially now, in a situation that is an absolutely perfect moment in time with nature: peaceful, still and comfortably warm and, in front of me, an obviously contented animal.

There is nothing better for a Leopard in his life, than this moment: He is lying there, satiated, in a wonderfully shady place where no-one can see him in the ditch and if he gets hungry again, then the next meal is already right there beside him. Baboons won´t disturb him since they are afraid of areas they can´t oversee and his greatest enemy, the Lion, won´t be around during the heat of the day. All the other animals who would make a lot of noise if they discovered him, can´t see him down there. He can practically be seen only by me, from my position and that is because I can look out of the sunroof of my vehicle.

As much as I was enjoying the situation, I told myself after a while: Pölking, you´re not only here to have fun, but to do some work, so think of something. During moments like these, I try to find a way and turn a situation that apparently is not very earth-shaking at first glance (a sleeping Leopard, half hidden in a dark ditch) into something photographically worth while.

Basically, as a photographer, you are quite often much too concentrated on your subject and have difficulties to tear yourself away. So while I was trying to loosen up my brain to find some sort of idea in the darkest corners of my mind, I suddenly saw my picture: There it was in front of me all the time and all along I did´nt even see it: the epitome of a Leopard picture. Good night Pölking – sleep tight........

What is so fascinating about a Leopard and why is he so aptly called "the elusive cat" in the English language? Because he is so mysterious, invisible and unable to be caught – and I had the picture in front of me all the time........

The Leopard was lying way down inside, hidden in the ditch, to be seen only at close range or from a steep angle of about 3 or 4 meters up out of the sunroof of a vehicle. All around him the entire African Nature and right in the middle of it, the for everyone invisible Leopard is – while not very mysterious, yet invisible and as such, hallowed – sleeping. A perfect picture of the elusive Leopard, and a picture that virtually says more than a thousand words: this is the Leopard during the day, the mysterious cat.

What was really enjoyable was, that I had all the time in world to take this picture: the Leopard slept, all other vehicles were in the lodges and camps for lunch, therefore they would´nt be able to disturb me, neither Lyons nor Baboons could be expected to come by, either.

The difficulty was in the technology: checked with the light-meter of the camera, there was about a 2 – 3 aperture difference between the sunny landscape of Emarti ya Faru and the spot in the ditch where Mang´aa slept. That meant that either the landscape would be too bright or the Leopard too dark. Of course there was no cloud to be seen in the sky, which would have reduced the contrast drastically. It is common knowledge that clouds are only there when you don´t need them.

The only solution I came up with, was to use an illumination flash. If we have such wonderful new technologies available to us nowadays, then we should use them.

The 2.8/24 mm wide angle lens was ideal for this picture. With this, I was able to get the entire landscape, without having the Leopard turn out too small if printed on a whole page, so that he and his prey would still be seen clearly. So the only problem was, how to illuminate? Since the electronic flash can only be used with a shutter speed of shorter than 1/250 sec. , I had to dim, because of the sunlight, to an 8.0. To just flash an 8 – 10 meter distanced Leopard lying there, was useless. So the flash-reflector angle needed to be minimized to 85 mm, which is possible with the SB-24, SB-25 and SB-26 electron flashes from Nikon and certainly available from other manufacturers as well.

So, the focal length of the lens at 24mm and the angle of the flash tuned to an 85 mm lens would mean that first of all, the effect of the flash would be punctual and a lot more intensive, because the light turns out more bundled rather than spreading across a large area, and secondly, the flash would not senselessly light up tree limbs in the picture but would only brighten up what you wanted it to brighten up.

There was another small problem: the Leopard was not in the center of the picture, but pretty far to the left and without corrective intervention, a wrong spot would be lit up. Again there were two possibilities: either to "turn the flash loose" and put him on the cable or to turn the flash itself to the left. This is also a very important alternative: to be able to turn or swivel the better electron flashes up, down and to either side, in order to enable an indirect lightening if needed and especially for situations like this one.

I decided to leave the flash attached to the camera and to turn the flash so far to the left until it was pointed directly at the Leopard in the ditch. This seemed to me the safest way, since a hand held flash would not be able to be pointed toward a subject as exactly as a flash that is practically forcefully adjusted with the lens alignment.

After this mind bungling work, I shot the picture of the Leopard at his day time resting place, with his prey and any photographic layman would consider this a simple picture, whereas a wildlife photographer would certainly notice the subtle brightening which made this shot possible in the first place. You can see the brightening effect nicely if you take a look in the Leopard book on page 38 and compare the spot on the bottom right side, a shady spot underneath a portion of brush, with the spot where the Leopard is located with his prey. It is still a little darker there. If you compare these two spots, it is perfectly clear that the Leopard down there in the ditch would have been completely darkened out without the illuminating flash.

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