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Elusive In The Shadows

Leopards are renowned for being difficult to spot when out in the bush, let alone to photograph and then let alone again to get an image worthy of any pride. However, the satisfaction and reward one gets when presented with such a sighting is beyond explanation. To be able to watch and document the natural behaviour of such a beautiful and powerful animal is nothing short of pure privilege, and such that no one should ever take for granted.

I’ve been lucky enough to have had some fantastic leopard sightings over the years, all of which stay with me in such vivid detail that it feels like they all could have happened yesterday. Stretching on termite mounds at sunset, eating kills in trees and battling hyenas for impala scraps are such examples that to this day, years later, still give me goose bumps. However, due to their fondness of hunting at night, most sightings are under the cover of darkness which makes photography a hundred times harder. When I think back to the number of great sightings I’ve had under the moon, very few resulted in any worthwhile pictures. It’s with this that I’ve had a personal mission; to be able to take some photographs of arguably the world’s most beautiful big cats in their element and to be proud of the results. I figured this would be a long-term challenge and I’d have to push not only my own photography knowledge and skill, but also my camera and Lightroom to the max… but this year saw one unique evening where I was teary-eyed-happy with the results.

You can have the best photographer in the world paired with the best guide in the world, but it’s important not to forget that nature will humble you at every given moment. If she isn’t on your side, or if luck isn’t in your favour, then you’re getting nothing. An 800mm f1.8 lens will do nothing if a leopard doesn’t graciously present itself, so we’re constantly at the mercy and patience of our subjects and environment. This is important to remember every time you step onto a game-viewer and head out into the wilderness; high expectations are more often than not crushed, but finding joy and beauty in the small and more common sightings (such as your nyalas and kingfishers) easily deter you from becoming disheartened. However, when you hear the crackling call on the radio stating there’s a relaxed leopard that’s close to our position… it’s impossible not to get that spike of adrenaline.

We got the call after sunset, whilst heading back to camp after a long and hot day and immediately put any longings for food and coffee to rest as we hastily changed directions to the nearby feline. Spotlights were out, the moon was clouded over and we emerged through a thicket to see one of the local celebrities lovingly named Nyeleti. She was stalking a scrub hare, not giving a single care to the now two vehicles positioned carefully around her. Spotlights were kept off her, so as not to interfere with her hunt; frustrating for anyone with a camera but ethics should always come first. The hare got away (to a resounding sigh of disappointment from everyone) and she began a long stroll through the bush, darting in and out of thickets whilst we tried our best just go keep a visual.

I figured, as fantastic as it was, this was going to be another sighting which resulted in zero photographs. But then, nature threw us a bone and she proceeded to a dam to quench her thirst (the day peaked into the early forties, and she wasn’t the only one desperate for a cool drink).

She approached the dam’s edge, hunched down and started to lap up the water, curiously glancing around to make sure everything was in order. Once again, our vehicles were nothing to her as she calmly drank with a single spotlight illuminating her rosetted figure out of the shadows. We positioned a couple of times, but wanted to keep time in her company to a minimum so as not to aggravate her at any point. I quickly fell into pure photographer mode, juggling the creative with the technical; compositional framing with reduced shutter speeds. Luckily the spotlight was bright and she wasn’t too far. I shot away, reframing and adjusting focal distances to get a myriad of choices I could pick from later on. The sound of camera shutters firing off cascaded over the sighting before our time ran out and we departed. Before we knew it, we were back at camp with the water boiling and burgers sizzling on the grill; all ecstatic about this once in a lifetime sighting that we were lucky to hold witness to. A leopard drinking at night; one of the most sought after, elusive and challenging animals you can hope to photograph, and it all happened in what felt like a blink of an eye. It’s the type of sighting that everyone will take home, talk about and, through their photos, relive forever. That to me is the purest joy of Africa and photography.

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