The Big 5 : Photographing the Leopard

male leopard walking at night
Reading Time: 7 minutes

The elusive leopard is on every wildlife photographers bucket list. Secretive, mysterious and beautiful, the leopard is without doubt one of the most challenging predators to photograph. Here are my 7 tips for photographing the leopard. 

7 Tips for photographing Leopard

  1. Know where to find them
  2. Know when to find them
  3. Positioning your vehicle
  4. Observe their behaviour
  5. Choose the correct lens
  6. Choose the correct camera settings
  7. Photographing predation
big five female leopard in tree

300mm, 1/8000 sec, f/2,8, Mode: Av, Metering: Multi-segment, Exp comp: -1, ISO: 800, White balance: Auto

Know where to find them

In order to photograph a leopard you first need to find it.  Leopards are primarily solitary and very territorial. For this reason leopards can appear in a part of a reserve they have never been seen in before and the population of leopards in any given area is constantly in flux. The removal of fences between many of the national parks and private reserves means that a leopard can move large distances in search of territory.

Finding and photographing a leopard involves research, local knowledge, patience and a large slice of luck. Even if it is known that a leopard is currently resident in a certain area you are not guaranteed to see it, much less photograph it. If you are on a self-drive Safari your chances of seeing a leopard are significantly less than if you are on a guided Safari. A leopard will be visible because it has allowed itself to be visible.

There are signs and clues that your guide uses to zero in on a leopard for you to photograph:

  • tracks
  • prey species behaviour
  • drag marks of prey
  • leopard calling 
  • urine marking (it smells like popcorn)

If you are doing a self drive Safari in a national reserve and you want to photograph a leopard you can visit online forums for that reserve for recent leopard sightings. Leopards and their movements are often documented on these forums as are changes in territory, news of new cubs and so on.

lcub in tree

420mm, 1/640 sec, f/4, Mode: Av, Metering: Center-weighted average, ISO: 200, White balance: Cloudy

Know when to find them

Leopards do most of their hunting at night. This does not mean that they can be defined as nocturnal. They are certainly most active between dawn and dusk but photographing a leopard does not necessitate you having to find them at night.

We have photographed leopard at all times of day and often find them in trees during daylight hours and have sometimes seen them walking along a road in the middle of the day. 

It is likely though that when you are in a position to photograph a leopard that it is either immediately after dawn or as night is falling. You will therefore need to have a camera support as you will invariably be shooting at slow shutter speeds.

leopard mother and son

500mm, 1/640 sec, f/4,5, Mode: Manual, Metering: Multi-segment, Exp comp: -1/3, ISO: 6400, White balance: Auto, Flash: Off

Position your vehicle correctly

If you are self driving, getting yourself into a position to photograph a leopard is incredibly difficult. A ‘static’ leopard sighting is usually a leopard in a tree at the side of the road. Unless you are incredibly lucky and are the first vehicle to come across it, you will find yourself at the back of a long queue of vehicles.

In such circumstances your orientation to the sun is purely a matter of luck. I have learnt from experience to document the sighting in any way possible as soon as I arrive on the scene and hope to get into a position for ‘the shot’ later. There is no guarantee that a leopard will stay up in the tree long enough for you to get into pole position so tick off the sighting with a photograph no matter how poor! 

If you are on a guided Safari in a game viewing vehicle, your driver will know how to get the best position for you. In many cases, getting great photographs of the leopard relies on knowing and anticipating their behaviour:

  1. When a leopard is not up a tree it is usually moving. A leopard that is mobile during the day is usually on the move because:
    1. A female leopard is in going to where she left her cubs to bring them back to a kill she has stashed.
    2. A male leopard is scent marking his territory
    3. The leopard is heading to or from a water source.
  2. Leopards in reserves are usually less inclined than lions to tolerate a vehicle in close proximity to them. Even in reserves where leopard are habituated to the presence of vehicles, they will often move off very shortly after they spot you to get some peace and quiet.
leopard stalking

500mm, (Subject dist: 15,0m), 1/1250 sec, f/4, Mode: Av, Metering: Multi-segment, Exp comp: -1/3, ISO: 640, White balance: Cloudy, Flash: Off 

Observe their behaviour

Photographing a leopard involves a much bigger slice of luck than finding and photographing other members of the Big Five. If they do not wish to be found then you will not find them. When you do find them, anticipating what they are going to do next is the key to getting ‘the shot’:

  1. A drag mark across a sandy road is a sign that a leopard has passed by dragging it’s kill. If you are lucky, it has stashed the kill (usually a small antelope or a warthog) in a tree within sight of the road. If you are not so lucky it will have stashed the kill deep into the bush under some scrub.
  2. Leopards dispose of their kills quite quickly so a reported sighting of a leopard in a tree on a kill does not mean that you will find it there all week.
  3. When you spot a leopard by the side of the road and it starts moving away from you, it may be heading for a tree. Get yourself set up in anticipation of this by deciding which tree is likely to be climbed and where you need to be to get the shot. You will be wrong 85% of the time but give it a go!
  4. Catching a leopard mid yawn is always a great shot because (as is the case with lions), the resulting image gives the impression that the leopard is snarling.
leopard climbing tree

Choose the correct lens

Looking back on my large catalog of leopard images I can state that 80% of them were taken at a focal length of 300mm and longer. This is due to the fact that photographing a leopard is usually done from distance, unlike other members of  the Big Five who will usually let you get quite close.

As a general rule, I would advise a zoom lens such as a 100 – 400mm or 200 – 600mm lens for the job. Another important consideration is the fact that you will often be photographing leopard in low light situations or at night therefore:

  1. The ‘faster’ the lens the better, preferably f2.8 at its widest aperture
  2. A lens with vibration reduction (VR for Nikon and IS for Canon) to help with camera shake at low shutter speeds.
female leopard in tree

70-200mm @ 180mm, 1/1250 sec, f/5,6, Mode: Manual, Metering: Multi-segment, Exp comp: -1/3, ISO: 1100, White balance: Auto

Choose the correct camera settings

female leopard asleep in tree

As mentioned, photographing leopards is often done in very low light situations. My recommendations are as follows:

  1. Photographing in low light demands a wide aperture which in turn impacts the depth of field. This is an unavoidable trade off and you will need to use your own judgement but I would not go above f5.6 in low light.
  2. Choose the correct shutter speed. If you are using aperture priority the camera will choose the shutter speed according to the aperture and ISO setting. I would advise not letting your shutter speed drop below 1/250 sec when photographing leopard.
  3. These days I shoot with Auto ISO on and fix any noise with software during post processing. Modern cameras, particularly the full frame mirrorless cameras, are able to handle very high ISO settings. Ensure that you have your shutter speed sufficiently fast to capture a sharp image even if this means shooting at a high ISO. Rather fix a noisy image in post than have a soft image.
leopard running

300mm, 1/640 sec, f/4, Mode: Manual, Metering: Multi-segment, ISO: 3200
White balance: Auto, Flash: Off

Photographing predation

Leopards are nocturnal hunters usually but they, like lions, are opportunistic hunters and will always be alert to opportunities to bring down prey. Primarily ambush hunters, leopards are also incredibly good stalkers of prey.

Tips for leopard kill photography:

  1. Watch for carcasses in trees as the leopard will invariable return – possibly even with cubs
  2. Leopards either hoist their prey up trees or drag them under bushes. The female leopard pictured below was busy dragging this Tsessebe under cover when we happened upon her – at 07.50 am
  3. Lions and hyenas will try to steal the leopards meal so keep an eye open for other predators in the area.
female leopard with kill

500mm, 1/500 sec, f/4, Mode: Av, Metering: Multi-segment, Exp comp: +1/3. ISO: 400, White balance: Cloudy, Flash: Off

For more of my Big Five series read:

LifePixel Digital Infrared Photography IR Conversion
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