I consider myself incredibly lucky to have spent as much time with cheetahs, as I have. For twelve years I guided and lived in some of Botswana’s wildest and most pristine wildlife areas like Savuti, Linyanti, the Okavango Delta and the Central Kalahari. Cheetah occur in all these locations, though typically at quite low densities, so finding one was always a reason to be happy. Then in 2012, I began visiting the Masai Mara in Kenya and the Serengeti in Tanzania. I quickly realized that in these two East African locations, cheetah sightings happened more often and for longer periods than I was used to. I find cheetah to be very rewarding cats to photograph for several reasons, and I have been able to build up a solid bank of cheetah sightings, over the years. In this post, I have shared some of what I have learned when it comes to cheetah behaviour, photographic strategies and challenges, camera settings and ethics. I have used some of the images that have come my way to illustrate these considerations. Throughout this post, each image has a descriptive bold heading and relevant text directly below the picture.
Generally, if cheetah encounter water, they see it as an unwelcome obstacle and they will try to minimise how much time they are in the water. The cheetah in the image above was crossing the Savuti Channel, in northern Botswana. The water was not deep enough for the cat to swim but he tried to run through it, as the channel quite wide. The image is one of the older ones in this collection and was taken with an older Canon 50D crop-sensor camera. If I took it again today I would use a faster shutter speed. Whilst I was happy enough with the image, I missed two more opportunities shortly after this. The cat crossed the channel two more times on this day, trying to get to his regular scent-marking locations that he visited every few weeks. Both crossing spots that he chose next where shorter and deeper, and he crossed by making a spectacular leap into the middle of the water followed by one more leap taking him clear out the other side. Whilst I watch both those absolutely amazing leaps happen, I was not able to get the vehicle close enough for pictures in time and they remain in my memory alone. It was one of those times when a cheetah can navigate the difficult terrain faster than a four-wheeled drive vehicle.
Ethics Around Photographing Cheetah Hunts
This image above cannot be used for anything, other than as a reference, taken as it is, from such a long distance. It shows how far away from the gazelle and the cheetah we where parked, from the perspective of a picture taken with a 500mm lens. This is roughly equivalent to the view from a pair of 8 or 10 X magnification binoculars. If I am trying to photograph a hunt, my main ethical consideration is to position the vehicle far enough away so that the prey animal is not distracted or disturbed by it and there is no impact on the hunt. In this image, it is clear to see that this was achieved. For long moments before this image was taken, the cheetah had been stalking closer to the gazelle, which had been lying down, ruminating, but alert, and facing in our direction. At this precise moment I snapped this picture the gazelle became aware of the cheetah, perhaps by sound and the picture shows it rising to its feet, and aimed towards us. Had we positioned much closer we would probably have scared the gazelle away or caused it to stand long before this, and it would have noticed the cheetah sooner.
A Little Luck Helps
The image above comes from the series of frames that began with the earlier image that is located above the Ethics heading in this blog, but taken a few second later. Luckily for the purpose of photography, the gazelle ran towards the vehicle. Healthy adult gazelles like this male Thompson’s gazelle can match or even exceed some cheetah when it comes to outright pace, provided they get a vital few seconds head-start, and that is what happened in this instance. The male cheetah got quite close to the rear of the gazelle but never close enough for contact. The chase lasted about 8 seconds before the cheetah gave up. Many, many times, the prey animal does not run toward the vehicle, and then it is not possible to get any pictures. It is still incredible to watch a chase from any distance or direction. I have also trained myself to try and keep my focus point on the cheetah throughout a chase, and not to confuse myself by trying to focus on the prey. Should they both come close enough in the course of a chase, I would rather have an action image of the cheetah alone in the frame than the gazelle.
Choosing The Vehicle Location
I usually sit beside the local guides that I am working with in the front of the safari vehicle. That brings with it the opportunity to learn even more about the cheetah behaviour from these most expert of observers. Over time, I have built up good relationships with those guides who I work best with, and I regard the many days and hours that we have spent together watching or waiting for cheetah amongst the most rewarding of my wildlife experiences. These highly experienced guides have incredible skill sets that allow them to find the cheetah even when they are not easily visible, and to predict and anticipate much of their behaviour when we are following the animal. Working beside a top guide is far more important than having the most expensive camera! That said, most of the time, if we are trying to photograph a hunt, we go far beyond the prey that we think the cheetah is stalking, so that the prey is between us and the cheetah but at a long distance.
Cameras, and Settings
Camera settings are fairly straightforward for me. With Canon DSLR bodies, I make sure they are in Ai Servo focusing mode, as well as Hi-speed continuous shooting mode. For focus point preference I normally use a Single AF Point or AF Expansion (One focus point plus four helper points) and I see it as my role to keep that focus point positioned on the cheetah during the running that takes place. With the Canon DSLR cameras I have used so far, I get far better results using a Single AF Point or AF Expansion, than if I try using Zone AF or Automatic tracking. I set Tracking Sensitivity to 0 or Minus 1. With Nikon and Sony we choose AF-C (Continuous) and a high continuous shooting mode.
With cameras, what is most important for me is a very good autofocus, continuous shooting capability and buffer. What is perhaps more important for me than pure frames per second (shooting speed) is a large buffer for continuous shooting. I also set my camera to shoot raw images only to help with continuous shooting capacity rather than raw and Jpeg. A cheetah hunt may be anything from 2 seconds to 16 seconds long and if the cat is close enough at any part of that time for usable pictures, it can translate into a lot of frames. So I do try choose a camera with a large enough buffer for me to manage a whole hunt sequence. Of course you only need one good frame!
The cameras that I use most often are the Canon 1DX Mark 2 (CF buffer around 90 frames) and the original 1DX (CF buffer around 50 frames) and even the 7D Mark 2 (CF buffer around 30 frames ) can suffice. I have also got some of my best cheetah action shots using my 5D Mark 3 (CF buffer around 22 frames) but I am forced to keep a close eye on the buffer with that camera as well as the 5D Mark 4 which has a similar buffer capacity.
Nikon cameras with great autofocus and large buffers ideal for this kind of shooting include the Nikon D5 and D6, even the D4S, as well as the D500 and to a lesser degree the D850 (buffer can be slightly limiting). All five of the Nikon DSLR bodies I mentioned here have good enough autofocus to keep up with this kind of photography.
The best camera I have used up until today for photographing cheetah hunting is the Sony A9 and A9ii when paired with a Sony G lense. Making use of their animal subject tracking function allowed for a greater number of properly-focused images from a sequence than I am able to attain with the Canon 5D Mark IV or 1DX Mark 2.
Although I don’t own one, my experience with the 1DX Mark 3 indicates that it has slightly better autofocus than other Canon DSLR bodies and a huge buffer, making it a good option. I will shortly also be using the Canon R6 for cheetah photography and I expect that it too may be a good option with a deep buffer, fast frame rate and animal subject tracking. It my personal preference to choose cameras with lower resolution, like 18-24 megapixels on a full-frame sensor, as opposed to very high resolution bodies.
These days, all the cameras I use allow me to shoot in M (Manual) exposure mode, with Auto ISO enabled. So I am able to choose my shutter speed first, then the aperture setting, depending on how close the cat is to the camera. Auto ISO will set my camera to an ISO setting that is a result of my chosen shutter speed and selected aperture. If the light is bright, then the ISO will be low. If the ambient light is low, then the ISO might be high. Bearing that in mind, if I expect a cheetah to run, then my shutter speed will be 1/2500sec or 1/3200sec. If the cat is close to the camera, I may have to select a smaller aperture for more depth of field, like f5.6 or 6.3 or even f8.0. On the other hand, if the cat is very far away, I might choose to shoot with the aperture wide open, as at long distance I will always have enough depth of field. The slowest shutter speed I could expect to get a running cat sharp with might be around 1/1000sec, but I would always prefer 1/2500sec or 1/3200 sec if ambient light allows.
Most of the time, longer focal length lenses are suited to this kind of photography especially if you are trying for the cheetah hunts. My best results come with using a 500mm lens. I would even prefer a 600mm lens most times though I don’t have one. It helps if the lens can focus quite fast. I do also have images taken with a 100-400mm zoom, and a fixed 300mm and fixed 400mm that where framed well. Generally though, longer is better. If I am not photographing a hunt, then of course lenses with shorter focal lengths work very well. In all the locations that I spend cheetah time in, Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana and South Africa, the cats are habituated to safari jeeps and one can approach them quite closely. Some individuals will ignore the vehicles completely. Though nothing to do with lenses, another consideration regarding cheetah anatomy and a high sun angle is illustrated in this image. Cheetah have deep orbital ridges that protect their eyes from injury. On clear days and when the sun is higher in the sky, these ridges cast shadows which completely hide any colour or detail in their eyes as happened in the image above. Photographing on overcast days alleviates this problem
On most clear days, in East Africa and Southern Africa, heat haze can be a challenge for photographing cheetah from a distance. Heat haze happens when warmed air is rising strongly, and it creates distortion in an image. The only way to avoid it is to reduce the distance between the camera and the subject, but that is not always possible when photographing action. Heat haze means that overcast days are generally better for this kind of photography than clear days. Taking a closer look at the image above will reveal the heat haze in the form of reduced detail of the cheetah and gazelle. It also shows in the ‘prickly’ appearance of the blurred foreground. This image is downsized for the web though, which makes it harder to see the heat haze. Viewing the full-sized image on my editing screen clearly reveals it could never be used for print. Heat haze may be the single biggest challenge to getting good cheetah action pictures.
When a single cheetah is stalking a single prey animal, it can be easier to guess which way the prey might run, and which way the chasing cheetah might run. However, in situations where there is more than one prey animal, and more than one cheetah, predicting which animal will go where becomes much, much harder. The image above illustrates what happened when a mother cheetah with four large cubs started to chase a mother warthog with three piglets. The piglets immediately dashed down into a hole in the ground, and then the mother warthog turned on the cheetah, scattering them and trying hard to gore the mother cheetah. The cheetah was able to easily evade the dangerous warthog with her speed and agility, if not the most graceful of outcomes for the big cats. Thompsons gazelle, Grant’s gazelle, topi, impala, common duiker, warthog, zebra, bearded gnu, steenbok, springbok, bat-eared fox and scrub hare are all species I have seen cheetah hunt.
Of course, not all cheetah action photography is about hunting. Cheetah do like to play, and that is especially true of young cheetah. They often play after having a good rest and are very fast, as one would expect. I use the same shutter speed and aperture choices as for cheetah hunting.
Cheetah are not so good at climbing trees as leopard are, and they don’t rest up high in trees, but they can climb. They are also curious, and they sometimes scent-mark in trees. Having an idea of which trees a cheetah might approach and investigate can mean the opportunity might arise to get strong images of this behaviour. They typically don’t spend a long time up in the tree so it can pay to be ready ahead of time for this type of image. Cheetah will also mark on fallen trees, specially if they are big ones, and normally they have their favoured trees in any one area. They also make use of rock outcrops for marking.
It is not uncommon for cheetah to be driven off their kills by other carnivores. I have seen spotted hyaena do it very often. I have also seen lions and African wild dogs rob cheetah of freshly caught prey. On this occasion though, a different scenario played out when a female cheetah caught a solitary half-grown gazelle. She made the kill after a short chase, 6 seconds long, and was busy making sure the prey was dead. Her subadult daughter was beside her, waiting. Unfortunately for this mom and daughter cheetah, a young male cheetah (of unknown relation to them) had been resting more than a kilometre distant, and he had somehow noticed her high-speed chase across the short grass Serengeti plain. He immediately got up and started trotting toward the mother cheetah. Guessing that he might run in the last few steps toward her, we quickly drove our vehicle closer to the mother cheetah. We had barely stopped when the young male arrived. He chose an aggressive approach, charging in at high speed with exaggerated bounds. This resulted in the mother cheetah dropping her kill and the daughter running off some distance. The male took it over and refused to allow the mother cheetah to access it when she tried to approach. It made for a fascinating interaction, if an unfortunate one for the mother cheetah and her daughter, but some strong images for me. .
The most important things then, are to work with an experienced local guide, if a cheetah is hunting, to respect the necessary distance. It also helps to use a camera with good autofocus and a long enough lens. Choose a fast shutter speed. Areas with less vegetation make the photography easier.