Tuesday 6 September 2011

When it all comes together

Hello everyone.

I promised you a more lengthy blog post after my return from the Kruger National Park. Well, here it is!

I had a wonderful experience one afternoon that sure taught me a lot, and could also prove beneficial to those reading. A lot is said about patience being one of the greatest virtues of nature/wildlife photography...patience, preparation and knowledge of your subject matter. On this occasion, I had a little more patience than I normally have, and my knowledge of the subject matter enabled me to prepare for an amazing photographic experience.

We had come down from the far north of the Kruger Park, having already spent 6 nights in the Park and narrowly missing out on good leopard sightings quite a few times. Those who know these cats will know that they are very secretive and often a good leopard sighting can last only 5 minutes or so. The bush in the Kruger Park can also be quite dense in a lot of places, meaning that if the cat is not in the road or right next to it, the most you are going to see is a few spots anyway.

To give you an idea...at that stage this was our only "legit" leopard sighting to date - a youngster left alone by its mother in a dense mopani thicket while she went hunting:

Nikon D3s  |  Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II  |  f4.0  |  1/1000 SS  |  ISO-560
Now to get back to the story...we booked into the Olifants rest camp for the night (our 7th night of a scheduled 8). This camp is located in the central region of Kruger, and our next night would be spent in Satara which is even more central and a great region for wildlife viewing with open plains, riverine forests and plenty of life around. Our neighbours on this particular evening told us of an impala kill that was tucked into a tree by the side of the main road between the camps (and that the kill was still untouched by the time they went past there that particular afternoon). We had come from the north and were thus oblivious of this development. Knowing that there was a very good chance that the leopard would return during the night to feast on its meal, and also then a very good chance that it would be there early morning, I planned to head down there at first light and hope for the best.

The next morning I did just that...it was a good 30km from Olifants camp so I only got there at about 07h00 after the gates opened at 06h00. The kill was in the tree allright...but no leopard in sight!! I had always dreamed of getting a good photo of a leopard climbing up a tree.

The tree was nicely positioned for a shot of the leopard climbing up the tree. I spent about 30minutes waiting for the leopard to show itself, when someone who was also parked at the kill told me about some male lions further south that were lying next to the road. I decided to go and find them before checking back at the tree on my way back to Olifants camp. It occurred to me that this tree was to the East, meaning that by late afternoon the golden light would hit it dead-on as I was viewing it. I salivated at the thought of the leopard coming back later in the day and scaling the tree

When I returned from the lions I found the kill exactly in the position I had left it in. I went back to the camp to fetch my wife and daughter and our stuff for the move to Satara rest camp which would be our last night in the park. Again, on the way down past the kill it was still as I left it. We headed south, booked into Satara and had a bite to eat. By this time the weather had turned from lovely to pretty murky. It was overcast and starting to drizzle. Still, this was our last 'full day' in the Park and we had to decide where we would head off to for our afternoon drive.

I was haunted by the mental image of that leopard scaling the tree and me not being there to photograph the action...so we decided to stock up on refreshments, load enough toys into the car for our little girl to not get bored quickly, and set off on the 25 odd kilometer drive towards the tree. It was 13h30, and there were no other cars parked there at that stage (also, no leopard yet!). I knew which spot I needed to park in - the only one with a perfect view of the tree at an angle that made it possible to photograph the "climb" and be able to do it regardless of whether the cat decided to ascend from the left, right or front of the tree. Obviously if it decided to scale the trunk from the back I would be screwed - but hey, you have to keep some hope stored up if you want to "bring home the bacon" in nature photography! The kill was in exactly the same position as it had been all day...a good sign? Or not? Was this shy cat even coming back today?

And so the waiting game began...

14h00 came...no leopard...
15h00 came...no leopard...
16h00 came...no leopard...

By now we had accumulated a following. There were quite a few vehicles parked out with us, and many more were coming and staying for a few minutes and then going again...but no leopard...

One of the characteristics of Kruger is the visitors/tourists sharing information with each other on sightings and the whereabouts of animals. Many who stopped at our car inquired as to what we were looking at...most thought it was something on the ground - which was humorous as the kill was quite obvious in the tree about 60m from the road.

One particular man asked me about it, I pointed it out to him, and he proceeded to tell his wife: "There's a buck in that tree, but it's already dead"

doh...to which I had to restrain myself from replying:

"If you drive a further 2 clicks south you will find one who climbed in all by himself and is sitting in the tree drinking a beer!"


Anyway...16h30...no leopard...16h45...still no leopard...I knew from the start that this was a "six or nix" venture. It was either going to show, or it wasn't. I was either going to have my dream image...or I was going back to camp with an empty memory card. I knew we had to get out of there by 17h30 at the latest, as it would be a solid 30-minute drive back to camp at the speed limit of 50km/h.

Gear-wise I had to make a decision. Up to this point I was ready to shoot the action with the Nikon D3s and the Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II with the Nikon TC-14E 1.4x teleconverter attached. This gave me some much-needed reach towards the position of the tree on my full frame camera body. The problem I was facing was that with sunset approaching and the weather still heavily overcast, I would need to get as much light as possible to reach my camera's sensor when I tripped the shutter. I decided to remove the teleconverter and shoot the 500mm 'wide open' at an aperture of 4 (I had a maximum aperture of 5.6 with the converter attached).

At around 17h00 one of the vehicles a little behind us flashed its headlights and the driver indicated to his right...the leopard must have arrived back there! We had to look hard since there were a few small shrubby trees next to us which obscured the view to the Southwest. Finally we noticed its white belly through the branches. It was lying down under a shrub some distance into the veld. It was SOOO tempting to try and maneuver in reverse to get a glimpse of it, especially considering it might not even approach the tree at all! In the end we decided to hedge our bets on the hope we had cherished all day, and stayed put (besides, if we did move we would lose our vital positioning for the ascent!).

The view of the leopard initially from where we had been parked all afternoon...would you have moved?
The leopard seemed in NO hurry to get up and come towards the tree. One moment it was lying flat on its side. The next moment lifting its head. The next moment yawning. Then lying down flat again...needless to say it was torture...

After what felt like hours, eventually I could see the signs that it was getting up to move. It stood up and walked slowly towards the tree.

The leopard starts its approach. These images are heavily cropped.

It was a young male, probably kicked out by its mother a few months ago and learning to fend for itself and establishing a territory. He did some scent-marking, then proceeded to walk around behind the tree - and guess what?? He lied down again...

17h15. I went ahead and captured some images. I still had to prepare myself mentally for the possibility that he would not climb the tree before we had to turn around and head back for the night. These images came out much better than I expected and this sighting as a whole turned out to be a great test for my Nikon D3s and its famed low-light performance. I had it set on "auto-ISO" and Manual Exposure mode, meaning that I chose the Shutter Speed and Aperture settings I wanted to use, and the camera would select the ISO sensitivity automatically based on the light meter reading and whether I was opting to adjust the exposure compensation bias up or down.

These images are still very heavily cropped - and I was amazed by the detail retained given the crops and the high ISO settings used.

Nikon D3s |  Nikkor 500mm f4 VR-II  |  f4.0  |  1/200 SS  |  ISO-2800

f4.0  |  1/320 SS  |  ISO-4500
f4.0  |  1/200 SS  |  ISO-8000

17h20...I was getting agitated now...why doesn't the leopard want to eat? It hadn't been back at the kill since pre-dawn, and had to be slightly hungry? He even looked longingly up at the impala in the tree at one stage.

17h21...the leopard gets up...adrenaline starts pumping through my veins...this is the moment I had been playing over and over in my mind all day, and all my preparation made and chances taken were now going to culminate in these next few seconds...now to focus on not screwing it up!! 
I quickly metered the light with the camera and took another split-second decision. My chosen shutter speed for the action was 1/400 which was quite slow considering I was using a 500mm focal length (the general rule is you need to have a SS of at least 1/focal-length to get a decently sharp image, though having Nikon's Vibration Reduction technology built into my lens meant I could sacrifice some more). These settings were giving me an ISO of 8000. I wanted to be certain of at least ISO-4000, and therefore decided to half my shutter speed to 1/200. It was a risk! Leopards can climb trees very quickly. If the action was going to happen too fast I would get it all blurry. Then again, having some elements (ideally the paws) slightly blurred would add greatly to the mood/story of the photo. The decision was made for me by the poor quality of light available, and I stuck to my guns and hoped my technique in following the leopard up the tree with the focus point would pull me through. I rotated my camera into the vertical shooting position to get the best framing of the action, and pre-focused on the bark of the tree trunk. I knew that at this focusing distance I should get sufficient depth-of-field this way and it would be easier to keep focus locked during the climb. The D3s would fire at 11 frames per second...how many of those frames would even be usable, if any??
He walks towards the tree!! /things seem to happen in slow-motion and fast-forward at once...it approaches the tree from the right...walks around the front of the tree, all the while looking up at the impala. I had anticipated that he would ascend from the right of the tree since that part of the trunk was sloping towards the left, making it an easier climb. I knew I had seconds before he would jump...and I was as ready as I would ever be...

...breath in... 
...breath out...
...leopard looks up...
...squats down...
...shuffles hind quarters...
...breath in...
and there he goes!!!

f4.0  |  1/200 SS  |  ISO-5000
f4.0  |  1/200 SS  |  ISO-5600
f4.0  |  1/200 SS  |  ISO-5600
f4.0  |  1/200 SS  |  ISO-4000
f4.0  |  1/200 SS  |  ISO-2800

...breath out...!!!

What a rush! A whole day's waiting, hoping, planning came down to 6 or 7 frames of action...
The leopard settled in on top of its quarry and proceeded to start feeding...

f4.0  |  1/200 SS  |  ISO-2800

f4.0  |  1/200 SS  |  ISO-3200
After firing off a few frames of the leopard feeding, I needed to just take a moment to enjoy what we were watching. So often we get caught up in the moment of taking the photographs that we forget to "be there" to witness the natural history taking place, to create memories with our loved ones with us out on safari, and to soak up the feeling of being in the bush. This whole afternoon had come to this...and I loved it! 
17h30...We turned around and headed back to Satara as the rain started pouring down ever so lightly...what a day!

This sighting will probably end up being one of my most memorable ones. Not just because of what we witnessed and the excitement of having a beautiful leopard like this scale a tree out in the open savannah of Africa, but also because of the nature of the sighting. The planning the night beforehand. The visualisation of the shot from the moment I laid eyes on the tree. The waiting, waiting, and more waiting. The thrill of trying to anticipate the leopard's behaviour. The challenge of working in absolutely horrendous light and pushing my technical skills, knowledge and my gear to the limits. And lastly because this was in Kruger....a place I had been coming to since I can remember. A place with so many special memories, and so many surprises around the corner...anything can happen! There are many luxury safari lodges relatively close to where I took this photo, and they will show you leopard sightings you can only dream about...sometimes multiple individual cats on the same day...and though I love being on safaris like that, there's something about getting images like these in a place like Kruger where you have to "make your own luck" that just proves to be ever-so-much-more satisfying...

In the end, it's experiences like THIS that make me want to get back out there in the bush...and see what's around the next bend in the road...

I hope you were inspired by this account...and I certainly hope it wasn't too long-winded. I probably made up for all those quick blog posts of the past few months here.

Anyway - would love your feedback...and if you have similar stories to share, please do so by dropping a comment on this post.

Happy shooting...

Morkel Erasmus


  1. This is such a great inspirational post with some great photos as a reward to boot Morkel. Well done! Thanks so much for sharing with us and reminding us what it takes to get those really great photos, made all the more special by your back-story. Keep shooting!

  2. Awesome blog post Morkel, and some stunning images. You did the sighting justice, and its always great for non photographers to read what can go into making a shot! usually things don't just happen :) Well done and TFS!

  3. Hey Morkel..

    Well done sir, you put the work in and got the rewqard. A true wildlife photography success. My favorite is actually the one when it is the tree already and looking up whilst licking his lips...although all are great photos.

    Kruger Rules...

    Keep them coming

  4. Top class planning, patience and execution Morkel, Superb effort under difficult circumstances, well done and thanks for sharing with us.


  5. What a brilliantly written article, well done.
    Russ in the UK

  6. ISO 2800 .... WTF ... serriously ... !!!!

    Amazing story ... from my experience I would have written that kill off, Leopards dont return to their kills during the day ... but hey it was 20 past 5 ... so we learn ...

  7. Michael McSweeney6 September 2011 at 17:18

    Stunning Morkel...Nikon does it for you..thanks for sharing this experience with us, only wish I could have seen it myself.

  8. Thanks for such an inspirational post full of technical detail and logistics. I also can attest to the frustration of having to leave a fabulous sighting to be out of the park gate by a certain time. Nice!

  9. Thank you so much for viewing, reading through it all, and the kind comments everyone!

  10. Great sighting and patience well rewarded I think you need to blow one large on canvas and reward families patience as well .Keep the passion.

  11. Super story and excellent images. Your patience, planning, experience and skill paid off handsomely.
    Thank you for sharing the info and images.
    Your wife and baby daughter also deserve accolades for keeping quiet and patient for so long.
    Great stuff Morkel.

  12. Stunning images Morkel and an excellent read!

    Andrew from ODP

  13. Thanks so much for your comments Ralph, Piet and Andrew...

    Piet yes my wife and daughter deserve a lot of praise for THEIR patience!!

  14. Morkel, I've followed your photography for some time now and this posting and your story telling abilities make it a standout contribution. Congrats! You're raising the bar in this country and it is great to see you getting recognition on prestigious international sites such as 1xphoto.com. Look forward to seeing many more, world class images and stories from you. Regards, Rob

  15. I appreciate your flattering comment Rob...thanks for taking the time to read and respond!

  16. Great pix Morkel. Patience works.... ;-)

  17. First came across this ascending shot on 500 and just seen it again now on the NPN, which led me to your wonderful blog on this sequence. Hearty congratulations Morkel! Your visualisation and patience paid off in trumps :^)

    Always love looking at your work and ever looking forward to seeing more, thank you for sharing :^)

  18. Thanks, Morkel, for sharing. It is difficult for me to decide which I enjoyed the most - the photos or the stories behind the photos. Both were a 10.

    I've only visited Kruger once, but stories like make my fond memories even more vivid.
    Regards, doug bolt

  19. Thank you so much for this great story, my heart was pumping as I read the story. Having just been back from Maasai Mara, I know these opportunities doesn't come very often. That's what I love about wildlife photography, it's luck, patience and of course the skills and eye of the photographer. I appreciate the final shot so much that I keep coming back to view it. This is my only way to dream about my next safari as I work at a desk job. Thank you so much for sharing and I totally understand the adrenaline you are talking about!

  20. Thank you very much for your truly kind comments Doug, Roger, Louise and Ashley!

    You are so right Louise - sometimes one image makes an entire trip worth it.

  21. Fabulous story Morkel.. great advert for patience and persistance too. a shot and experience we would all love to have, so many thanks for sharing the story and wonderful images... Dave F UK

  22. patience, the greatest skill a wildlife tog could ever master. WD on a super series of shots, you deserve every last one of them:) Print them big and hang where everyone will see them! I would:)

  23. These moments come once in a lift time. Wow... It is so satisfying if on a day you get to see something like this.

  24. Marvelous post! Thank you for sharing the strategic, technical, and emotional details. Congratulations on realizing your objective; the images are incredible!

  25. Thank you so much for the very kind comments Lee, Hussain, Mike and Dave...

  26. Lovely story, exciting to read, beautiful pictures. Thank you, Morkel.

  27. Morkel, this is just fantastic! Love your suspenseful account, and the images are excellent! Thank you for sharing this, and look forward to more.

  28. Truly amazing shots, Morkel! Well worth the wait!
    I had a similar experience about 14km from Shingwedzi. Went down a little loop road next to the river and found an impala kill in the fork of a tree - at eye-level and about 6 meters away! No leopard. Keeping silent all the while, we sat and sat and sat and it was HOT! No aircon. Four hours later, the leopard arrived and we were treated to the sighting of a lifetime! No cameras unfortunately, but reading your story and seeing your pics is an absolute treat! I love your work!

  29. Gorgeous !
    thanks for the story and the pics !!!
    be there soon with D3s & 200/400

  30. Thanks a bunch Pascal, Sue, Brendan and Gregor for taking the time to read this and comment!

  31. Gorgeous! I gotta admit, my photography is limited to (pretty much) point and shoot, so the technical info goes right over my head, but that does not detract from your patience (and that of your wife and daughter) in getting these shots. Makes me hope that one day I may get to do an African Safari.

    1. thanks Lesley - if you ever do make that plan to come on safari, get in touch so I can assist...

  32. Great shots. Your patience and skill well rewarded. Well done on the Google pic of the day. As Gary Player said "the more I practice the luckier I get!"

  33. Great story and remarkable photos. Congratulations!

  34. I visited SA and Kruger in particular for the first time in March. (I'am from Canada). Being an amateur photog.and nature lover my best memory of a 5200 km roadtrip thru SA was spending 3 days in Kruger. Although we did not see any cats, it was a dream come true and I cannot wait to come back someday. I am reliving every moment thru your stories and images. Thanks for making this possible.

  35. Fantastic post and photos!! What an incredible experience that must have been. Your patience definitely paid off, fabulous work.

  36. Thanks so much, might send some more to my facebook

  37. Awesome, thanks for info in blog :)