We’ve added a new, one-off photographic workshop to our list of events for 2017. Often there just isn’t the time on our routine photo days to provide all the detailed help and guidance people would like (everyone’s busy photographing) so we’ve decided to run a special ‘Shoot Like a Pro’ masterclass at the start of the spring – just as the days lengthen and the wildlife action starts to hot up – to share our top tips and the lessons we’ve learned about everything that goes into capturing and creating top wildlife and nature photographs.
Whether you’re a skilled photographer looking to develop your creative eye or refresh techniques or a beginner looking to pick up new tips, we’ve got it covered. We’ll include professional tips, advice on selling images and lots of practical, simple suggestions to help you capture winning wildlife images and take your work to the next level. Or perhaps you’d simply like to pick our brains about equipment or post processing? Our varied, accessible and lively programme should have something for everyone and is designed to get you tuned-up up and ready for the 2017 ‘shooting season”.
Our masterclass takes places on April 1 ( yes that’s right and it’s not a joke!). The venue is the famous Rheged convention centre in the Lake District – one of Cumbria’s top tourist attractions – which is conveniently located close to the M6 motorway for ease of access and has interesting photo exhibitions you can browse in the breaks between our sessions.
There’ll be lots of opportunity to learn more about wildlife photography in an informal and friendly setting plus the chance on the day to win a place on our popular raptor photography workshops in 2018.
Topics to be covered include:
Where’s the picture? – discovering great compositions in nature
The art (and design) of wildlife photography
Top techniques for wildlife
Cleaner, sharper shot-making
Working the light – from bad to brilliant
Capturing action and behaviour
An original take – new subjects and approaches
Successful editing, post processing and curating
Shooting to sell
Our one-day ‘Shoot Like A Pro’ workshop costs just £75 per person, including lunch and all refreshments through the day. Spaces are limited to 24. To find out more visit the workshops page of our website. To secure your place contact us on email@example.com or book direct via Eventbrite.
It’s been the year for spotted dogs… Back in June we were trying to keep tabs on 13 tearaway pups running rings around their adult wild dog babysitters and ceaselessly pestering returning pack members for food. It was hard to believe, but there we were, with our guests on safari, right by the den of these incredibly scarce predators as the pack conducted its daily meet, greet and eat sessions with the next generation of dogs.
Arriving at the den site late afternoon to share time with the African continent’s second rarest apex predator is one of the highlights of 2016 for us. It’s not every day you get the chance to get off a game-viewing vehicle and lie down to shoot such special subjects up close and at their level. The chance to get into the skin of your subjects and join their world for a while is what makes wildlife photography so rewarding.
The patient, if uncomfortable and mildy-grubby wait, as a tangle of snoozy pups, safe within the confines of their shady den site, slowly re-awoke and ventured out on short exploratory missions to chew branches or play endless games of tug o’ war with shards of old animal bone was a privilege and a joy. And the sudden explosion of noise and energy all around us when the adults returned to regurgitate food for the pups, when everything instantly became a blur of marbled fur, fangs, and frantically wagging tails is an experience we’ll never forget.
One of our favourite species, African wild dogs are among the world’s most endangered mammals with a population currently estimated at around 6,600. Most are to be found in southern Africa. The chance to spend time observing them on Zimanga game reserve as we did this year, in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, where there’s the chance of wonderful photographic access to the breeding pack is truly something special…
Returning to Zimanga last month with our second group of photo safari guests we were obviously keen to catch up with the dogs and check how they’d fared. The news was mixed. The alpha female, and mother of the pups, had been killed by a crocodile, but the puppies were thriving and were as hyperactive as ever. Observing the group dynamics, it probably wasn’t going to be long before another dog from the pack stepped up to take on the role of alpha female, but my how those pups had grown!
They were now regularly accompanying the adult pack members and yearlings on daily hunts; running through the bush, first this way, then that, only momentarily stopping to pose on a small mound of earth or prominent dam wall before haring off again.
One evening we found them making light work of a fresh warthog supper. It was interesting to see how the adult dogs let the pups eat first.
And on one of the morning sessions we caught up with the pack in a dry riverbed in a stand-off with a spotted hyena they’d cornered. The hyena was a bit stuck. Hemmed in by the prowling pack he’d wedged his back against a big rock for protection – fully aware that’s where he would be vulnerable to the chasing pack if he fled. Eventually the dogs lost interest and the hyena took his chance. A step late, the pups raced madly up the steep sides of the bank in pursuit, but the hyena had got enough distance on them and was last seen disappearing over the horizon.
It was with such thrilling sightings in mind that we purchased a bottle of Painted Wolf Pinotage (Painted Wolf being another name for wild dogs, albeit not very accurate) for our first evening in Kruger National Park soon after. The winemaker donates a portion of the price towards wild dog conservation – www.paintedwolfwines.com – if you want to find out more.
We were celebrating the end of a successful safari. A good red was the order of the day because temperatures had taken a sudden and unseasonal nosedive and with such an apt name it was soon safely off the shelves and in our basket. It went down well as we toasted our toes around the braai and looked forward to a few game drives in the Kruger to ‘wind down’.
Our choice of tipple turned out to be a lucky one too because in just a few short days in the reserve we ran into a pack of wild dogs on all but one of our morning and afternoon game drives.
Anyone who has visited Kruger will know wild dogs are not your everyday, common or garden sighting. Running into them at all is a special treat, running into them repeatedly is something else. We certainly hadn’t expected to be photographing wild dogs again this year.
Like the ones on Zimanga the Kruger pack also had this year’s still-cute pups in tow (born around the same time as those in KZN as wild dogs den seasonally in the African winter). And exactly like the pups on Zimanga they huddled together, sitting apart from the adults, fidgeting restlessly and squabbling endlessly – when not running amok of course. We couldn’t get enough of them.
We’re crossing fingers (that’s holding thumbs if you’re in South Africa) that we might run into them again in Kruger in 2017 – as yearlings. We may even buy another bottle of that red to boost our chances. We’re certainly looking forward to going back to Zimanga next year and seeing how the pack there is getting on. There might even be some new puppies around then to terrorise and annoy the older dogs…and to photograph of course.
Wildlife photography really is a Marmite profession. We’re either tearing each other’s hair out through frustration or hugging each other for sheer joy. There’s no middle ground.
We were reminded of this fact again recently on our last visit to the Kalahari, a few short weeks ago, when we managed to shoehorn ourselves into a packed Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park for a couple of weeks last minute before the first of our new African photo safaris. The idea was that some time spent in one of Africa’s last wilderness areas would refresh us after a particularly hectic time back home in the office trying to twist editors’ arms into running our material etc etc. We reckoned a good photographic ‘tune-up’ in the field before meeting up with and leading our first safari guests would be just the ticket.
A good idea in theory, but we’d forgotten to factor in the Marmite effect. For the first week we struggled to find a rubbish subject to train our lenses on, let alone a decent one. Ordinarily in these situations we’d change camps to see if other parts of the park proved more fruitful, but the place was chock full. Daily marches to reception to see if there was a cancellation somewhere drew a blank and the dust started to build up on our barely-used gear.
Anyone who has been to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park will know that seldom are things served up on a plate in this vast thirstland landscape. It’s never easy getting great images even though it is one of our top spots to photograph in.
Goodness knows how many hours we’ve spent parked up waiting for something to happen, or driving up and down the same old sandy, corrugated tracks that trace the dry riverbeds of the Nossob and Auob. Patience and persistence are essential tools in the armoury in this semi-desert eco-system. Nine times out of ten the cheetah we’ve been following for hours doesn’t hunt, or the chase explodes in the wrong direction leaving us with nothing but a big anti-climax for our efforts. Leopards stay tantalisingly out of camera reach on the far calcrete ridges or glare down disdainfully from the intensely-dappled shade of a camethorn tree – a perfect jewel marred by its bad setting. Great to witness but lousy to photograph subjects can sustain a photographing couple only so long.
This photographic drought was something else. The days were fast slipping by and we had zilch to show for it. Our grumpiness was getting worse…
Then suddenly the pendulum swung in the opposite direction. Would you credit it? Out of nothing we suddenly found ourselves with seven leopard sightings in as many days (something of a personal record for the KTP). Not one but two confiding female leopards chose to share their early morning patrols with us, posing close to the cameras, which is not your typical wild leopard response to interlopers. Three tiny cheetah cubs (still with their white fur hoodies intact and our first at this young age for several years) turned up out of the blue. They hung around for ages with mum so we had both evening and morning drives with them playing and getting up to mischief while we clicked away. Then, en route for our second helping of said cheetah cubs, we tripped over a couple of really little lion cubs beautifully lit at dawn. They were totally under our radar until that morning. You couldn’t have scripted a more opposite week to our first one.
What a trawl of anniversary presents! We’ve been celebrating 20 years of visits to the Kalahari in 2016, but we never expected we’d be doing it with such brilliant photographic encounters as we had that second week. More Marmite please…
Here’s a humorous – but semi-serious – view of wildlife photography and gender from me (Ann) that was first published in Outdoor Photography magazine back in 2009. It seemed worth digging out and dusting off here following a revealing thread on Facebook today on the subject. Posts from leading wildlife photographers such as Suzi Eszterhas and Sandra Bartocha, discussing how they’re sometimes treated as photographers by the opposite sex, certainly chimed with my thoughts then and now. It’s also a bit about what it’s like being a in a photographing couple…
‘Do you take photos too?’ If there’s one question that’s guaranteed to make my blood boil it’s this one. By the time we arrive at the hide I’m seething. Hardly the best frame of mind going into a day of endless waiting, interspersed very occasionally by the odd few seconds of manic photography. My husband Steve doesn’t help either. He’s got his head in the lunch bag, assessing which bits he can eat now, and, frustratingly, seems to have got his camera gear set up before I’ve even summoned the energy to heave the 3.75kg 500mm lens from the bag. Do I still have any Deep Heat in my toilet bag I ponder? I’ll probably need it by tonight.
I think Steve should be more understanding and supportive when people ask me this question, but he reckons I’m over-reacting. He’s probably right, but I’d never let him think that. A whispered domestic ensues. We are in a hide. ‘You’re going to bang on about that sleeping bag thing any minute,’ Steve hisses, spitting bits of corned beef roll in my direction. This is because I once read an interview with a very well-known wildlife photographer who admitted he liked having his wife accompany him on trips because she was an expert at rolling up sleeping bags. It was most likely an affectionate in-joke, but his remarks underlined the way it felt to me being a girl photographer in a bloke’s world. Just like the saying has it: ‘Women are from Venus…men are from Jessops’ (a UK chain of camera shops if you’re wondering)…
The ‘atmosphere’ in the hide gets worse. ‘And another thing…,’ I splutter in the direction of my equipment. I can’t look directly at Steve because he’ll put me off my stride and I can feel myself getting into a flow. ‘I was reading this other magazine recently with a portfolio of wildlife images by a female photographer with an introduction from the editor who suggested her work showed women could compete on equal terms with ‘the men’. ‘Is that patronising or what?’ I’m still directing my anger at the camera, but it’s meant for Steve. In my mind by now he is representing the whole masculine gender. The upshot of this is, of course, that my viewfinder is completely fogged up by my hot breath when the perfect V-shaped skein of geese flies past the hide and I can’t see well enough to compose what would have been my first decent photo opportunity of the day. I barely hear Steve’s grunted reply above the rapid clicking of his shutter.
At least he got some shots from the fly-past. When all’s said and done, this is perhaps one of the best reasons to suffer working in tandem with your spouse; getting on each others’ nerves 24/7 in extremes of heat, cold, damp, discomfort, midges, mosquitoes, guano, mud, dung, mutual self-doubt, endless games of ‘Travel Scrabble’ (Steve wins, I throw a tantrum), dreaded ‘domestics’, boredom, more arguments to dispel the boredom and not forgetting the escalating ‘BO’. Whether it’s a musty hide, a cramped, hot car or a camping-equipped 4×4 with no room to swing a cable release we’re a double act – even if it is a smelly one at times. Never mind the battle of the sexes, there’s no disputing the fact that two sets of eyes are better than one. If one misses the action, chances are the other will come up trumps. If everything’s happening at once then there’s two cameras working to cover it. Better still there’s the option to get two different ‘takes’ on a single event because we’ll use different lenses and follow where individual inspiration and interests lead. Hence the joint names on all our picture credits. That and the fact that in many cases we can’t actually remember which one of us pressed the trigger.
If that sounds way too harmonious for words bear in mind that to avoid divorce proceedings we now take turns using the ‘best’ camera body and lens for the job. How sad is that! I console myself with a sandwich because comfort eating is the only cure when I get like this. The bread is fluorescent yellow because I’ve picked out one of Steve’s piccalilli ones by mistake and not one of mine which have baby leaf spinach. The people who don’t ask me whether I take pictures too, often ask instead, if, as a female photographer, I bring something different to the table and whether I see things differently or interact differently with subjects etc. Certainly Steve and I approach our photography in different ways and we definitely see things differently or he wouldn’t be forever asking me ‘What are you taking that for?’ But I think it’s more to do with having different (clashing) personalities than it is a question of sex.
Okay so Steve is useless at multi-tasking and can’t compile a shopping list at the same time as composing a picture, but then I wouldn’t choose a camera manual or a technical tome on the intricacies of Adobe Photoshop to read in bed after a hard day in the field like him. Thinking like this makes me smile to myself. I should be looking through my viewfinder or I’m going to miss the picture again and he’ll nail it (did I mention how competitive I am as well as insecure?).
I suddenly start to feel a bit stupid and sheepish for letting the fact that once upon a time wildlife photography probably was much more of a man’s game than it is today get to me. Okay, so some folk still reflect this a bit too much in their thinking and approach, but that’s dying out now surely? I hope so. I certainly hope it isn’t stopping women from pursuing a passion for taking wildlife and nature photos. I shimmy sideways across the wooden bench towards my husband waving a ‘Kit-Kat’ as an olive branch. Fancy a game of ‘Scrabble’? Our heated differences of opinion will no doubt start up all over when we’re back home editing and processing our pictures. Oh well, as that other saying has it: ‘Vive la difference!’
It’s just a few short weeks to the launch of the much-heralded ‘Remembering Elephants’ coffee table book, so what better excuse is there for taking a ‘scroll’ down memory lane and sharing a few of our favourite elephant images from the files to whet your appetite until the publication date…
This unique project, in association with the Born Free Foundation, has proved a fantastic way to raise funds for elephant conservation at a time when, sadly, ivory poaching is still on the increase. Some 65 leading professional wildlife photographers around the world have donated stunning elephant images for the project under the umbrella of ‘Photographers United’.
We were really chuffed to be approached for one of our own elephant images which will be included in the book – particularly as the initiative chimes well with the awareness-raising work we’ve been trying to do ourselves around the illegal wildlife trade, albeit in a small way, via our Project African Rhino campaign. It’s good to know that wielding a camera can sometimes make a tangible difference for the subjects we’re pasionate about photographing.
The current build-up and promotional support surrounding the launch has certainly got us doing our own bit of ‘elephant remembering’. Hope you enjoy our pachyderm hit parade here.
We’ve had some superb encounters over the last couple of decades and even though we’ve been lucky enough to see several 1,000s in the wild in that time we never grow tired of them. There’s no disputing the fact elephants are one of the most engaging, fascinating, funny, awesome, rewarding, humbling and moving species to watch and photograph.
Let’s hope that the coming together of individual photographers for this important cause, the hard work behind the scenes in bringing a coffee table book like this into being, and the sheer heart for elephants behind the project will help to keep it that way for future generations.
Pre-launch sales and donations have to date raised more than £100,000 for targeted conservation projects to protect and save elephants; with the cost of printing and producing the book successfully covered by a Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign.
You can find out more about the ‘Remembering Elephants’ project, pre-order your copy of the book or purchase tickets for the special launch event on September 22 at the Royal Geographic Society’s HQ in London, at the project website remembering elephants.com.
The launch event will be introduced by Virginia McKenna of Born Free, followed by a talk from renowned wildlife photographer Art Wolfe and there’s even an auction of some of the images.
If you can’t make the launch, but live near London, there’s also a ‘Remembering Elephants’ exhibition taking place at La Galleria in Pall Mall from September 19 to October 1 .
It’s not everyday you cross paths with one of these tough little guys in the wild – and when you do see a canny and cunning honey badger it’s more often than not a fleeting glimpse and hardly ever a photograph. Nine times out of 10 they’re gone before you’ve got your camera ready.
So imagine our surprise when we met this chap one rainy morning just before sunrise in the Kalahari’s Nossob riverbed. We hadn’t been up long and were still feeling groggily half-asleep. As a result we were pretty slow to react when we spotted it. We almost drove past making it necessary to turn right around – a manouevre we knew from experience was guaranteed to buy this wily predator just enough time to effect his escape.
We couldn’t believe our luck when we saw the animal was still there after all our clumsy faffing about. What was keeping it so busy and so preoccupied it didn’t want to flee the scene even with our vehicle noisily bearing down on it?
‘He’s got a tortoise. He’s got a big tortoise and he’s eating it!’
Perhaps you have to be an African wildlife afficionado to fully appreciate just what a rare and exciting sighting this was. Magic. Unless you happen to be a tortoise that is – and certainly that particular tortoise. Feisty, fierce but full of character it’s not your everyday animal that can get through such defences. A bit like opening a can of corned beef without the key or a tin-opener.
Call us weird, but putting aside the harsh reality of the ‘red in tooth and claw’ aspects of this sighting, we couldn’t help noticing similarities to that famous E H Shepherd illustration of a portly Winnie the Pooh with his paws in the ‘hunny’ pot as our badger delved deep into the tortoise shell to extract more of his tasty meal.
Given the honey badger was happy for us to gawp at him eating his breakfast in the rain we took lots of stills, shot some video and just watched. The captures are not what we like to call ‘photographers’ photographs’; the light was poor, we had to use flash, and you can hardly call our results aesthetically pleasing, but the chance to document a moment like this doesn’t come often. We probably won’t see this behaviour ever again.
It’s why we go to Africa. In the hope that we might do!
We seemed to have the lion’s share of big cat sightings on our trip to the Kalahari last month. Always cool for cats, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park surpassed itself on this occasion and provided us with not one, but two sets of cute lion cubs to contend with, a camera-friendly female leopard posing on the red sand as if it were the red carpet, some cheetah cubs washing up after their dinner of springbok tartare and a bunch of muscular, black-maned male lions strutting their stuff up and down the Auob and Nossob riverbeds.
That all added up to some spectacular wildlife encounters and adrenaline-fuelled, feline photographic opportunities despite the 40 plus degree temperatures in the shade. You can imagine the two of us, hot and bothered, getting camera gear and gearstick in a tangle in our excitement to soak up (capture and expose correctly!) all those awesome big cat sightings.
It’s never easy trying to manoeuvre a vehicle speedily and efficiently into the best position for the light, relative to an often moving subject, at the same time as changing camera settings in a nano-second, in a small space, all the while ensuring you’re well-braced for each shot. The results can’t ever reach up the the magic of the real-time moment, of course, but here, as they say, are just a few of the ‘mane’ highlights…
It’s a big anniversary for us Toons in 2016. This year, this month in fact, we’ll be celebrating 20 years of safaris in Africa with a trip to the Kalahari – the very place where our photographic adventures first started.
Where did those two decades go? If you want living proof that Africa gets under your skin look no further. We’ve been visiting the continent two or three times a year since then for several weeks, often months, at a time, because, quite simply – we can’t get enough.
That six month trip to South Africa and Namibia in ’96, what Steve refers to now as our ‘road to Damaraland’ conversion, convinced us to ditch our day jobs in journalism and hitch our wagon to wildlife photography instead. Spending almost all our time in the bush on that visit changed our lives completely. Crazily we gave up stable, well-paid jobs in the media for the hand to mouth, roller-coaster existence of the freelance wildlife photographer. It wasn’t easy – starting a new career from scratch – building a portfolio and a profile, getting established with the right photo libraries, mastering the arcane arts of marketing and the 24/7 demands of running our own business.
If we’re talking steep learning curves ours has been a Kilimanjaro. We’d just cut our teeth on film when the digital revolution happened. Just in terms of ISO we jumped from a gold standard of 50 (we’re talking the good old days of Fuji Velvia here) to routinely being able to shoot at 1,000 plus without much loss of quality – a huge step forward when so many of the critters in our crosshairs are crepuscular, high-speed or hyperactive.
Back in the day we spent an age, plus a fortune on postage, sending out manually labelled and catalogued slides to prospective clients around the world which once out for consideration could not be touted elsewhere. Our hard-won images were sat on for weeks, returned covered in gum from the photo printing process, often sent back scratched and in one or two cases lost forever.
In the field back then we missed so many great moments of action, and nuances of mood, now within our grasp. Exposure was a make or break issue and techniques needed to be nailed in camera – no second chances in the digital darkroom. Looking back it was probably a great way to hone our skills and pay our dues – but what would we have given for a couple of Canon 1DX’s back then?
So now we embrace the digital age for the additional freedom and creative scope it brings us, even if it has led to a surfeit of wildlife imagery and a consequent squeeze on earnings. It means we can run our photographic business from home in the wilds of Northumberland National Park, and increasingly from the remote African bush if we have to when we’re away on photo-journalistic assignments or running photographic safaris. And while it’s become tougher than ever to make a good living from photography – we’re doing something far more important – we’re making a life. No-one can take away the rich bank of wildlife experiences we’ve amassed over the last 20 years and the expertise and knowledge we’ve garnered by focusing hard on a well-defined subject area we’re totally passionate about.
Would we make the same move today we did all those years ago – I’m not sure. But then again I think we would. The huge skies, the smell of the dust, that soundtrack of doves, those sunsets, that sense of excitement you feel before every game drive, crossing paths with an elephant or coming face to face, in the flesh, with a big cat, witnessing a unique bit of animal behaviour, or best of all having a completely wild, unscripted scenario unexpectedly developing to your photographic benefit. Nothing beats that. For us it’s just about one thing. Being there…
There’s no getting over the real sense of surprise you experience when you see penguins in Africa – of all places – and get great views of their antics – without going on a major, massively expensive expedition to colder climes. Even after repeat visits to the famous and unique breeding colony of endangered African penguins on Foxy Beach in Simon’s Town on the Cape – part of the Table Mountain National Park – it’s still a real joy to spend time photographing these compelling, anthropomorphic subjects.
Just last month on our latest photo trip to South Africa we got the chance to return to the handful of beaches where the colony has made its home since the early eighties. We caught up with the characterful penguins returning to the beach, and to their waiting hungry chicks, after a busy day’s fishing out at sea. The tide was high and photographing the penguins riding the surf and exploding out of the water onto the shore in waves of small groups tossed about by the foaming waters kept our fingers clicking furiously.
At first penguin-watchers more eagle-eyed than us were spotting the returning hunters well before they reached the shore – when they were just tiny dots near the horizon. The groups were back at the beach before we’d had chance to fix them in our viewfinders. We soon learned to distinguish the shapes and colours of a distant penguin group from the vast ocean backdrop and began to see the wonderful potential for pictures. Peering out to sea, we were now poised to track them, cameras primed as they surfed the waves at considerable speed back home to the land-based colony.
The penguins were fantastic to watch as they porpoised through the foam like polished torpedoes. One moment you would see them crest a wave, the next they would disappear beneath it, so hunting a tight-packed group and keeping the birds in focus was a bit of a challenge. Before you could say ‘nailed it’ they were bobbing up back on the beach in a penguin pile, picking themselves up and striding up the shore, chests and tums puffed out, fanning out like chorus line extras from an old Fred Astaire movie in full evening dress. Time for us to try again with the next incoming group…
A visit to see the birds is a ‘must-do’ on any travel itinerary in and around Cape Town. The colony is just a hop, skip and jump from the ‘Mother City’, one of the world’s most popular travel destinations, so the downside is you do have to share the penguins with others. But there are one or two quieter spots along the shore if you’re prepared to look a bit harder, and on the tiny, family-friendly Boulders Beach, right next door to Foxy Beach, there’s the chance of having a penguin toddle right onto your picnic blanket or join you in the shallows as you paddle. How cool is that?
African penguins are the only penguin species found on the African continent. There has been a breeding colony of the penguins on this beach since 1983. We first visited the penguins on Foxy beach in 1996 before the current tourist boardwalk was built. In those days it was possible to walk on the shore in and among the main colony. Since then tourism has increased so the extra protection for the birds is welcome. Penguin numbers in the colony were rising until about 2005 when there were 3,900 penguins. since when there has been a decline to around 2,100. This is thought to be due to a number of factors including global warming affecting fish stocks, over-fishing and the impact of oil spills and marine pollution.
We’re stuck in the office on a typical British summer’s day (cloudy with a chance of rain showers) wrestling with photo processing, marketing, boring admin and magazine deadlines. Each of us is waiting for the other to go downstairs and brew a mug of coffee or make that much-needed call to the boiler-repair guy. Who was it said wildlife photography’s a glamorous, well-paid job? At moments like these (and there are many) the mind easily drifts off to past photo opportunities and adventures. Like the time we finally got the chance to photograph that African savannah classic; a cheetah mum with cubs on the top of a termite mound…
Okay so perhaps it’s not cool to want ‘me-too’ pictures of a subject photographed tons of times before. But we’re not too proud to admit that sometimes we do. We can’t help it. Especially when there’s the chance to spend a morning photographing a fantastic feline, and her playful offspring, in good light in a great location – just as we dreamed about doing when we first started out in this game and saw great shots of cheetah by wildlife photographers we aspired to emulate.
The thing is that until that day we’d never had much luck with cheetah cubs. From the Kalahari to Kruger, the Karoo to the Kunene, we’d been fortunate to watch and photograph wild cheetah in some of southern Africa’s most spectacular locations, yet somehow cute little cubs just eluded us. So when our guide told us he was confident of finding us a mother with three quite small youngsters, we snapped to attention.
We were staying at Phinda, the upmarket operator &Beyond’s private game reserve in KwaZulu-Natal. It was three years ago now, at the start of our Project African Rhino photo-journalism campaign. We were there to find out about the important rhino conservation work being carried out on the reserve (today &Beyond is part of a bold initiative to relocate around 100 white rhinos from South Africa, where they’re being hit really hard by poaching, to Botswana, a country with low density rhino populations and a good anti-poaching record).
The opportunity is too good to miss. We’d worked with specialist guide Daryl Dell and tracker Bernard Mnguni before, tracking leopards that were part of a long term research project on the reserve, and we knew teaming up with them again would be both fun and rewarding. Our trigger fingers were itching.
Phinda’s always been a great place to see cheetah. On our last visit we’d had a cheetah explode from the trees by our vehicle and hunt down a young impala. Lots of research is carried out on the reserve’s cheetah, making them some of the most intensively monitored cheetah in South Africa. While we were there conservationists were collecting skin samples for DNA testing to gain a clearer picture of the familial relationships between the individual cheetah.
We headed out for the open terrain of marshland in the north of the reserve, where the cubs had been spotted the previous evening. Our search began by patrolling the track along the edge of the floodplain, Bernard on the tracker’s chair up front, scoured the sand for fresh spoor (pawprints).
It was Daryl who spotted her first – the tell-tale, compact, square head of a female cheetah poking out from a clump of grass. You needed a trained eye to pick her out, but there she was keeping on the look out for trouble, and seeming more than a little nervous. We turned off road and nosed the vehicle cautiously to within 20 metres or so. We could see right away why she was so wary: sprawled in the long grass by her side were three cubs, and by her feet, the remains of a fresh kill.
It was tempting to start photographing at that point, but the three were partially obscured by long grass and there was little chance of framing clean compositions. The background was cluttered and we were looking down too much. Daryl, who knows the place like the back of his hand, motioned to a low termite mound nearby and whispered to us that she just might go up there to check everything was safe before settling down for the day. Cheetah often use vantage points like this to scan the terrain, but could we be that lucky? Many of the classic shots of cheetah on termite mounds you see are taken in East Africa and even there you need to be in just the right place at the right time. Picture perfect encounters are not as common as you might think. Could Daryl be right? Did we have a chance at photographing this classic cheetah behaviour we so wanted? And with cubs to ice the cake too?
The youngsters seemed more interested in snoozing than moving position, but we could see their mother was restless. After a few minutes we watched her get to her feet. She stood and looked around for what seemed like an age. Then she walked. She walked straight. Straight to the termite mound. Daryl grinned. I don’t think he could quite believe it either. In no time at all she was atop the mound, posing perfectly, lean and long-legged, fur glowing golden in the warm light of the newly risen sun.
Over the next hour we were treated to the early morning rituals of a young cheetah family. All four were draped over the mound, like a scatter of fur rugs. The adult and two of the youngsters seemed content to rest in the warm sunshine, but one cub had other ideas.
He played with his tail, then mum’s tail; then started pouncing on her head. She was tolerant at first but soon had enough. She quickly pinned him down and gave him a cat’s lick of a wash with her rasping tongue to calm him down. Freed from her grip, he turned his attention to the other two cubs, but they weren’t interested in playing, and eventually he too was comatose. Our fantastic photo session was at an end. To spend so much time in their world had been truly special – but now we had to rejoin our own.
Back at the lodge reserve manager Simon Naylor told us that at that time Phinda’s cheetah had produced more than 100 litters and more than 250 cubs since the first 15 animals were reintroduced from Namibia in 1992-94. ‘It’s been one of the most successful cheetah reintroduction programmes in South Africa. Phinda was the first private reserve in KZN to reintroduce cheetah successfully,’ he told us. ‘It’s one of the best, if not the best place in South Africa to view wild cheetah,’ he added.
Right now we’d give anything to be back there… Now where’s that boiler repair man’s number?
Wildlife, conservation, photography and ecotourism: the adventures of award-winning photojournalists Ann and Steve Toon