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Looking Deeper at Leopards, with Penny Robartes

I recently completed a private photo safari with a repeat client. While both small group and private phot tours each have their own merits, the beauty with my guest embarking on private photo tour with me was that we could work on her specific goals and interests for the duration of our time together.

 

We would be spending a week at MalaMala Game Reserve, a spectacular wildlife destination in South Africa that is known for it incredible density of Leopard and viewing thereof, other Big 5 members such as Elephant that gather in their breeding herds at the Sand River’s waters for bathing and drinking. They current have a pride of Lion numbering 18, which includes cubs of various ages. It is a visually beautiful area with Africa’s top predators and plains game calling it home.

 

A couple of days before I met my guest, we discussed the upcoming tour and the great question; do you have specific goals in mind for our time together? When the time came and we met up the evening before the safari at InterContinental at OR Tambo for dinner, my guest showed me some examples of images that inspire her and fit in with her photographic objective; to create fine-art, emotive images of Leopard that she can hang on her wall. I was heartened and humbled to see that her examples were images of mine; Leopard images that I had in fact, created during past private photo safaris to MalaMala. This was great for me as as the creator of the images, I knew exactly the emotion and atmosphere that my guest wanted to achieve, and this would come with a combination of both in camera creation and post-processing.

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And so our safari began.

 

As safari-travellers, and myself as a long time traveller and photographic leader, my guest and I were aware that not all great wildlife sightings equate into great photographs, and not all into fine-art, minimalist ones at that. We approached every sighing with open eyes and no expectations, which I always encourage. This not only ensures that unrealistic expectations aren’t created, but in order to allow your intuition and creativity flow uninhibited, we have to approach wildlife sightings with a sense of curiosity and awareness of being in that particular situation as it is, not as we imagine it to be. Then, you can look with creativity and this is where I assist my guests the most; by reading the scene, interpreting it and the animal’s behaviour, and how I can describe it to my guest in order to better assist them in achieving their photographic telling of the scene.

 

Late afternoon Winter light is something very special. Areas not touched by the orange light from the setting sun are doused in pale, pastel colours of various blues, magenta, yellows and greens. I see these colours vividly when photographing and I know I will bring them back into my image when post-processing my RAW file. Our first early evening game drive gave my guest and I such an opportunity with a Leopard called the Island Female. On ground and on the move, at one point she kept looking up at this one tree. I immediately pulled my guest’s attention to this look; a predator looking up. It is one of my favourite behaviours to capture of a predator. The wide eyes allow you to sink into their depths, and the energy of the animal and image changes.
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We came across a variety of Leopard sightings and photographic opportunities thereof. Sightings that didn’t lend itself to my guest’s goal was still captured as we spoke about and explore the scene taking place.
 
This particular sighting was heart-pumping. The Nkoveni Female and her two young cubs were spotted feeding on an impala carcass on MalaMala’s property, by the border of their neighbours; Londolozi. We arrived at the scene and there in a tree on one side of a small ravine, was an Impala being a 3-month old cub feeding. Generally if the mother is not around, one must leave the sighting as the cubs are still very young, but another guide who was at the sighing with us saw the Nkoveni Female and her other cub a few meters away down a slope. So, keeping silent using our silent shooting mode on our mirrorless cameras (I only shoot silent, what a joy!), we photographed this sweet scene before us. The Nkoveni Female and her other cub then came to a patch of grass close to the other vehicle and lay down. We watched the cub climb out the tree and join its sibling as they suckled. What a privilege!
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“There’s another Leopard!” Exclaimed our guide. Across the ravine, through the trees, we see another Leopard walking across from us. It must’ve come from Londolozi’s property. As we seemed to have seen the Leopard, so did the Nkoveni Female. She suddently shot up. Her one cub weren’t running in the opposite direction to where it’s mother was staring, while the other cub sat and stared before sinking low to the ground and headed to nearby bushes.
 
We couldn’t see anything, but then we heard an explosion of growling. Across the way, we two Leopards come into view as one lifts itself on its back legs and crashes into the other as they tumble down the small ravine and hurtle towards us. One sprints up the tree to the carcass and proceeds to growl ands hiss at the other that sits on the ground looking up at the other. Now, this all happened in split seconds and was not a photographic opportunity at all as the ravine and scene is littered with bushes and trees, but you can imagine how utterly epic this was to watch!
 
The Nkoveni Female sat starting up at the intruder, a male Leopard both MalaMala guides hadn’t seen before! After hissing and growling at the female, the male took the carcass to the tallest branches and settled in to eat.
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No one else from MalaMala saw the Nkoveni Female and her cubs after that, but Londolozi guides confirmed that she and both cubs had then been seen on their property. The next day? No male Leopard and no carcass was found, but apparently Hyenas were by around that night.
 
A treat for, not excluding everything else we saw, was to spend time with the Sibuye female and her cubs. I had seen the cubs for the first time in March on another private photo tour that I was leading, so it was extra special to see that the cubs were still alive and thriving!
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We come to wild spaces for its untamed beauty and spirit, to create visual stories that reflect our passion and connection with nature and the wildlife within in.In this South African wildness, my guest again, put her faith in me to read animal behaviour,  to interpret and assist my her in this reading and capturing of the spirit of the scene before us, and to tailor it to her specific photographic goal for our time together.One of the biggest lessons learnt, I do believe, was assisting my guest in believing in her intuition and tapping into it. When you leave lessons learnt behind you when you are with your photographic subject and let awareness take over, your intuition will open your eyes to reading deeper into the scene as you connect on a level that isn’t removed or separated from the subject, but aware of the spirit and movement of your surroundings. Movement doesn’t necessarily mean action, it can be read in the posture of a Leopard getting up from a position of lying down, how the shape of the body dictates the start of your frame and its placement within it, to how the body lets your eye flow through the frame. In the case below, like a wave.
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In 6-days, we had a total of 14 individual Leopard sightings. Sounds quite unheard of, I know! But our photographic target and goal was to explore the form of the Leopard, to look deeper at the species, and create artworks that reflected my guest’s vision, where possible.
 
We worked a lot with the importance of light. How soft or hard it is, when to keep creating and when to sit back and just enjoy the magnificent moment before us.
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“At a certain point you say to the woods,

To the sea, to the mountains, the world,

Now I am ready.”

  • Annie Dillard

Are you ready to take your next step in your photographic journey?

Send ORYX an email to [email protected] and lets connect!

 

PENNY ROBARTES IS A PROFESSIONAL FINE ART WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHER WHOSE IMAGES ARE EASILY RECOGNIZED BY HER ICONOCLASTIC WORK THAT FOCUSES ON PORTRAYING HER SUBJECTS ESSENCE. She is a Senior Photo Tour Leader for ORYX, and leads her guests to wildlife & tribal destinations worldwide.

Penny Robartes 

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