Which is your favourite big cat?
I always try to not have favorites as they are all unique and live in such varied beautiful landscapes. I Love them all.
Do you have a favourite destination or habitat for photographing big cats?
After spending so much time trying to find some of the most elusive cats, I do admit that photographing in Africa with lions, leopards and cheetahs is high on my list! Though you can see tigers in India easily and on our last jaguar trip we saw 10 individual jaguars in one day! Quality time viewing and photographing the cats is very important.
What has been your best big cat encounter?
I needed to get a mom and cub tiger image for the last NGM story. The anti-poaching patrol found a female with a den so I flew back over to India. Every morning at 5:45 am I would join the anti-poaching patrol but most days all I would see is the mother relaxing in the gorgeous, fern-filled narrow gorge with a stream running through it. One day turned into one week, two then three weeks with only an occasional view and quick photos of the cubs as they warily ventured out of the den. I must have read 15 books on my kindle during those mornings. On the 24th day around 7:30 am I looked up and saw the top of a cub's ear, it was nursing!! The cub started to move towards mom’s head – I grabbed the 600mm which was on the tripod tied to the seat – the cub came up even with mom’s face I took seven images – the cub saw us and retreated – I asked my friend if the cub had come up – he said yes – I pulled the card from the camera. I waited two and a half hours till we returned to camp. I downloaded the card and found the one perfect frame and I cried like a baby. It ran a double page in the story and is the cover of our Nat Geo “Tigers Forever” Book.
Tell us about a big cat image you took that you feel has had an impact?
I love images that make a difference – like the Hollywood Cougar where the image sparked a movement to build a wildlife overpass over the 101 Freeway just north of LA – so animals can migrate without crossing 12 lanes of speeding vehicles.
How did you start out photographing big cats?
On my first wildlife story for NGM on the Resplendent Quetzal – I would walk back to the one-room shack in which I was staying on top of a mountain in a cloud forest in Guatemala. Many times walking at dusk through the forest the hair on the back of my neck would stand up and I would get goosebumps I felt like something was following me. A week or so later I was lying in my bunk bed at night reading a book like I do every night when suddenly I hear the stairs creaking – then the floorboards creaking – then scratching under the door then loud sniffing – all the hair on my whole body stood up! I grabbed my walkie-talkie to call the naturalist who was staying on the family farm at the base of the mountain – in Spanish I told him what had happened – he responded – “no problem Steve, it’s just a black panther!”. After I finished and returned home – I found out NGM had never produced a story on jaguars – so I proposed it and that began my work with big cats!
What are your main tips for photographing big cats?
You need a very good local guide who knows the area and the cats that frequent there.
Be patient! If you find a good location with a cat and there is not any action instead of leaving ask your guide for their advice; many images I have gotten were because we stayed and stuck it out and great things happen. Focus on the eyes as they bring you into the world of cats. Shoot wide, medium and tight – so many want a tight shot – but we want to know where they live and to see the environment.
Do you have any go-to kit when specifically photographing big cats?
You need a wide to medium zoom – a medium zoom and a long zoom – and I bring a small light cube, strobe for dusk or night shots.
When photographing a big cat, is there a detail, action, or element you like to focus on the most?
Focus is so important – and with a cat it is to focus on the eye. The composition is vital! Be prepared for action!!
What is the most eye-opening big cat project you've been on?
I am more influenced by projects that cover the whole. Animals, people and ecosystems. As they are all inextricably linked. What African Parks is doing with parks that have suffered from major poaching – is nothing short of miraculous! Go to https://www.africanparks.org/ to learn more.
Is there anywhere in the world that you like to capture big cats on camera where you haven't before?
The lions of Gir India are the next on my list.
I have Amur tigers and leopards on my list for years – when I was scheduled to do this a large part of the population succumbed to canine distemper – so I had to cancel – hopefully someday. That said, I will never be done with the cats of Africa, tigers and of course jaguars.