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Wild Location: Makalali Game Reserve, South Africa
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I am an amateur photographer living in the Cairngorms National Park in Scotland. My subject interest is primarily wildlife and landscapes, which I am fortunate to find in abundance around my home. I have a lifelong interest in wildlife and photography but have become more serious about photographing wildlife since retiring six years ago.
STEPHEN SMITH

My interest in wildlife has been with me since childhood, but my passion for wildlife photography, and particularly African wildlife, grew from a two-day safari experience whilst holidaying on the Kenyan coast just a few years ago. The thrill of encountering apex predators living amongst other wildlife, and seeing how various species interacted with others, fascinated me. It was, however, the beauty and athleticism of the cheetah that captivated me most...

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...Since that first experience, my wife and I have made a number of photographic safari trips to South Africa and Tanzania and our list of ‘must-go-to-places’ grows quicker than we can travel. Our understanding and thirst for knowledge of wildlife increases the more we travel - and hopefully our photography skills have increased a little too.

My first images started as simple records to catalogue the animals we saw and has progressed to passable portraits of animals in the setting of their surroundings. I’ve learned more about the technical aspects and composition of photography by reading and viewing the work of more experienced amateur and professional photographers. Wild Planet Photo Magazine has been an excellent source of knowledge and inspiration for me and, as I learn more about technique and animal behaviour, the more I realise there is so much still to learn.

In January 2018, we made a trip to the Makalali Game Reserve in South Africa, situated to the west of the Kruger National Park. My objective for this trip was to capture the movement and spirit of the animals, be it full-on action, or the facial and body expressions which depict the animals’ life and behaviour. One of my favourite predators since my first safari experience in the Kenyan Masai Mara has been the cheetah, so when we encountered a young male on a morning game drive, we agreed to stay with it and watch how his day unfurled.

To start with, the cheetah obliged us with some delightful portrait opportunities, but then we noticed a sudden change in his expression. His ears pricked up, then set in an alerted stance, as he stared intently in one direction. We looked in that same direction and saw, in the near-distance, a small group of Impala making their way slowly towards the cheetah. The group were partially hidden by bushes and small trees; perfect cover for the cheetah to stalk his prey. Would we be able to witness and photograph a kill?

His instinctive patience, as he mentally planned his move, was impressive and we moved away and repositioned ourselves to allow him to hunt without distraction, or disturbance to his prey. I managed a few shots as he arose and started to stalk nearer to his prey, using the bushes as cover whilst still maintaining visual contact with the Impala through the occasional gaps in the scrub. The wind direction favoured the cheetah and the Impala remained unaware of his presence. The distance between the group of Impala and the cheetah gradually closed, but not sufficiently for the cheetah to make his move just yet. I made preparations to shoot the attack by using the Impala group to assess exposure details (ISO, shutter and aperture) and setting the auto focus to tracking and drive mode to high-speed continuous. I normally use a wide-open aperture for portrait style shots (focusing on the animal’s eyes), with just sufficient shutter speed to counter minimal movement. This allows me to use a low ISO speed to maximise detail and image quality. On this occasion I chose a higher shutter speed and closed the aperture a couple of stops to increase the depth of field, to allow for rapid and unpredictable movement. In turn, this necessitated an increase in the ISO speed but, with today’s modern camera sensors, image quality can be maintained at an ISO speed never dreamt possible back in the days of film photography. I was all ready
to go!

As I kept my attention on the cheetah and the main Impala group, the cheetah suddenly spotted a young Impala that had separated from the main group, much closer and unaware of the danger that lurked. In an instant, the cheetah was through
a gap in the bushes and had the young creature fixed by the throat, as its life ebbed away. I did not anticipate the speed of the attack, nor how the cheetah had suddenly re-assessed the opportunity for a kill and executed it with such perfection. I was totally unprepared to react to the slight change in strategy. My inexperience in watching and anticipating the cheetah’s behaviour had cost me the opportunity of photographing the drama and climax of the hunt.

With hindsight, we could have been positioned better to observe the hunt and to see, and anticipate, changes in the cheetah’s tactics as the hunt progressed. We were looking on from behind, whereas a few more metres forward could have allowed us to see more of the action as it unfurled.

I’ve been told many times that understanding the behaviour of animals and planning your shot is paramount to capturing those remarkable images taken by professionals. We can learn about the technical aspects of exposure, etc., from books and practise their effectiveness on everyday subjects around our homes. Our own dogs make perfect subjects on which to practise the technical aspects of photography. But, it is understanding the behaviour of our subjects that allows us to capture more easily, and with less dependence on luck, their intimate moments. I use every opportunity to learn this subject; talking to our guides and trackers on safari, asking questions and observing behaviour, relating what I see and using that knowledge to improve my photography. These discussions are also a good opportunity for guides to learn what is important to us as photographers when deciding on a viewing point relative to lighting direction, distance to subject and background, etc. A guide skilled in these areas, so they can understand and follow our requests, is a true asset.

The experience of the cheetah hunt will remain in my memory, but sadly not on my camera’s memory card. It has, however, taught me a great deal on how to read a situation and be prepared. All was not lost though, as I was able to capture a few images of the cheetah with his kill - before his expression told me to leave him alone – which we duly did. A truly memorable experience and, hopefully, another step-up the steep learning curve.

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