Masai Mara 2007- How We Got The Shot

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This page gives you the technical details of how we took photos of a hunting cheetah trying to bring down a young Topi. We used Canon professional cameras with professional lenses to get these shots. If you are contemplating a trip anywhere in the world where you want to get high quality photos its nice to get access to this type of equipment. Most people cannot rationalize spending $4500 for a camera and $5000 for a lens, so try to make friends with someone that is willing to share with you. Now all you have to worry about is lugging all this stuff around.

We have a page that gives you more information on our cameras and lenses.


Our day started uneventfully. We came across this cheetah in the early morning and just watched her for a while (our guide said it was a female because it was solitary).

In a short time she went on the alert

And started stalking something

Our guide noticed a Topi mother and calf in the distance, and positioned us in what he thought would be optimum for photography. Now all we had to do was wait with crossed fingers as the Topi neared. Unfortunately, through no fault of the guide, our position was not optimum, and it did affect our outcome.
In this photo Carly has the Canon Mark II N and Sean has the Canon 5D. Carly was assigned to stay with the cheetah, Sean with the Topi. Both of these animals are off the screen on the far right. It was as close as we could get without interfering with the cheetah.

I set each camera as follows:

Carly was using the Mark II N that shoots up to 8.5 pictures per second. She also had the Canon 70-200 mm f/2.8 IS lens. I set the camera for spot metering, and set the ISO at 400 to give a fast shutter speed on this sunny day. The camera was set on aperture priority with an f-stop of f/4, which gave us a shutter speed of 1/2000th of a second. I decided this was fast enough to get good photos of the cheetah when she sprinted. I set the aperture at f/4 because in prior work with this lens it gave me the best photos at this aperture. Also, for both cameras, an ISO of 400 gives us a relatively noise free photo in case we want to print it out in large size.I set the lens at its maximum focal length of 200 mm. Even though that is equivalent to 4X it was really not enough to get a real closeup as the cheetah sprinted. We had no other choice because we could not get any closer according to our guide and we needed the bigger lens to shoot the Topi since it was further away.

Sean had the 5D, which only shoots 3 pictures per second, although each picture is 12 megapixel in size. Since the Topi was further from us than the cheetah, the frame rate might not be so critical. I set his ISO at 400 also, with an f-stop of f/5.6. He was also spot metering in aperture priority. These settings gave us a shutter speed of 1/1600th of a second. I used this aperture because this lens seemed to shoot best at this aperture, and in doing so I got a fast enough shutter speed to keep up with a running Topi.
The lens was the Canon 500 mm f/4 IS, which gives us the equivalent of 10X. Since the the Topi was furthest away from us I thought it appropriate that Sean had the more powerful lens and the camera that was slower. Sean used the beanbag for additional stability, a crucial aspect of photography when using a lens of this power
Next I told them not to move, breathe, or even think about going to the bathroom, keep focused continually on their subject, and shoot only when I said to. The chances of seeing somethng like this again are slim, so we do not want to pass up this potential opportunity. Hopefully the cheetah will go on the offensive. Lets see how they did….

Carly did a good job of catching the cheetah on her initial sprint.

Her lens just did not have the power to keep up with the cheetah as she accelerated, so the cheetah rapidly move too far away for any details. This is not surprising when you consider how fast she can accelerate. 

Sean did great, kept his focus locked on the Topi, and pulled the trigger when I told him. I am glad he had the more powerful lens.

So, did she get it or not?

 

This is the cheetah moments later. She did not get the Topi calf. Our guide said it was because she was not that hungry and did not sprint at full speed. It was also because the Topi mother stayed between her calf and the cheetah. In essence, the cheetah was testing them to see if it could make an easy kill.

This photo was taken with the 5D and the 500 mm lens from around 40 yards away.