Behind the lens: Leopards, spotted

“You are a beauty!…You can lie on the bare ground and look like a heap of pebbles…You can lie out on a leafy branch and look like sunshine sifting through the leaves… And you can lie right across the centre of a path and look like nothing in particular.” — Rudyard Kipling, How The Leopard Got Its Spots

The most elusive of the Big Five, leopard is usually the one species that remains unmarked on a traveller’s checklist of animals. Here, two photojournalists recall the moments they captured these shots:

MalaMala Game Reserve, South Africa

 [words and photograph © Narina Exelby]

We’d been so spoilt around the days this image was shot. I was on a five-day photographic workshop at MalaMala, near Kruger National Park, and our game sightings had been nothing short of spectacular. We’d seen leopard twice (I have six rolls of leopard shots); been surrounded – at less than arm’s length – by a herd of literally 300 buffalo; spent hours up close with a few elephant herds; and followed two lionesses on the hunt, documenting the grassy contents of the impala’s stomach steam as it was ripped into the torchlight.

We came across this leopard and her kill late one afternoon, and spent the better part of 45 minutes with her. Our presence didn’t seem to worry her in the slightest, even though we were a Land Cruiser of five adrenaline-fuelled photojournalists hell-bent on getting the ultimate shot – and with only one shared 400mm lens between us, tension in that evening air was rife.

This image was shot on Velvia 200 and with a 200mm lens (as the junior on the team, I was last in pecking order for that 400mm lens).

Selinda Concession, northern Botswana

[words and photograph © Mark Eveleigh]

It was what I’d been praying for during the last half-hour but it came as an unexpected shock when the leopard turned to stare into my eyes.

It was unusual that this young female leopard should be out in the open, crossing open savannah so close to the kopje where we knew the local pride was. I was aware that I might only have fleeting moments to get this unusually open shot. In the end I had 40 minutes to shoot from every possible angle and with every lens I had. By the time I’d burned through my first memory card and loaded another, I was battling fading light with my telephoto.

The leopard walked past the opposite side of the car and, as she stepped away from the front wing on my side, I was ready for her. Or I thought I was. I was leaning so far out of the open Land Cruiser that I was down on her eye-level and less than 10 feet away. She stopped in surprise and just stared, unblinking, at me. I froze too, concentrating on not letting the lens waver from those alert amber eyes. But I couldn’t risk the click of the shutter until she broke eye-contact.

The photograph tells some of the story, but there is another in my head that will remain crystal clear for many years to come.

Want to learn more about wildlife photography? Take a look at these tips by wildlife photographer pro Dale Morris. For more “Behind the lens” posts – the stories behind the photographs – please take a look here.


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