Photographing leopards in trees is without a doubt near the top of any wildlife photographers wish list.
Whether you are a photographer or general safari enthusiast, there is something about these spectacularly beautiful creatures that captures our fascination.
Leopards have the incredible ability to climb trees, often using them as a location to store their prized kills out of reach of any prying scavengers, but also to seek some shade during the heat of the day away from flies and other insects that might be on the ground. Photographing leopards in trees can be extremely rewarding, but can also cause an immense amount of panic, especially when they decide to descent from the tree at a moments notice.
I wanted to share a few moments to look out for to make sure you capture your desired images when faced with this incredible photographic opportunity.
Bank the shot
It is true that Leopards in trees have been photographed so many times over and over again, but it is a great image to add to your personal portfolio, irrespective of how many times it had been done by other photographers. When faced with this particular scenario, like most other wildlife sightings, it is important that you bank your images first. Look for small moments that could add some value and interest to your image, such as the Leopard opening it's eyes, preferably looking at you. Use the branches in the tree as leading lines in your frame to make it more interesting. Subtle moments such as the open eyes and ears pointing forward creates a much more powerful image than when the eyes are closed and ears pointed backward.
Plan for the descent
It is vital that you are in the right position before the Leopard decides to go up and come down the tree. A leopard can go from a deep sleep to disappearing into the vegetation below the tree in a matter of seconds so you need to be in position before it happens.
How do you know where the Leopard is going to come down?
One can never be totally sure where the leopard will come down, but looking at the shape and key features of a tree can give you very good idea. If the tree is slanted in a particular direction, it makes sense that the leopard will climb down using that slant so that the last part of the descent isn't too steep, makes sense right? This way you can position yourself (make sure you are not too close to the tree as this might force it into a different direction) to make sure you have the desired background and that you make the best of the opportunity that awaits.
If the tree does not have any slants or curves around the base, try and position yourself in such a way that you have the opportunity to capture a side on profile of the Leopard from both sides of the tree to increase your odds.
The Stand Up and start of the descent
After resting for a period of time, leopards will usually stand up and stretch, which is a great moment to capture. Depending on the background, this might be a great opportunity to shoot a bit wider, including more of the tree, and with the side on profile of the leopard, there will be enough identifiable features to know what species it is.
After stretching there are a few opportunities to capture the initial movement as it makes its way down the tree. Once again, a small moment can add huge value to your image. Look for the paw curling to showcase the movement, eyes open and try and keep the tail in the frame without chopping it off (easier said than done).
Leopards will usually stop and pause at the fork of a tree to scan the surrounding and possibly plot the best route for the final descent. This is often where your most powerful images are created. You have a few options to consider when presented with this scene, will you be shooting portrait or landscape? Personally I would once again recommend that you bank the shot first. Start off with a portrait image, including the base of the tree, with your leopard in the top thirds of your frame and then move closer from there. Hopefully the leopard will pause for long enough to give you multiple opportunities (each time is different and impossible to predict).
Small moments will once again add tremendous value to your image. Look for the ears pointing forward and the eyes open, preferably looking straight in your direction!
The Final Descent
Arguably the toughest moment of them all to capture as it usually happens in the blink of an eye. In this particular scene I would almost always recommend to shoot in portrait orientation to accommodate the vertical energy in the frame (the leopard moving down the tree). I would also recommend to photograph a little wider to give yourself some room for error and to avoid chopping off the tail or the head of the Leopard. As I mentioned this usually happens in a blink of an eye so it is extremely important to have a fast shutter speed of around 1/1600 and upwards.
For those feeling extra brave (or if you have banked your Leopards shots already) you can attempt using slow shutter speeds to pan the Leopard as it comes down. From past experiences a shutter speed between 1/8 to 1/15 works well to showcase the movement.
I hope this will help you so that next time when you are faced with that incredible moment of having to photograph a leopard in a tree, you can maximise your photographic opportunities.
Till next time.