When is close too close?

By Jim Foster
If you are one of many photographers who enjoy taking photographs of wildlife, then getting as close as you can to your subject is very important. The process of getting close could mean putting yourself in harm’s way, which brings up an interesting question: When is close too close?

A photo vest worn over a long-sleeved t-shirt was all I needed to ward off the slight morning chill. A few light clouds appeared just after sunrise and a slight breeze blew intermittently along the dry riverbed. It was my last day photographing wildlife in Kenya. The next day I would fly to Nairobi before heading back to the United States.
Rounding a sharp bend in the river, I could tell we were nearing a small pride of lions. At least two of the pride’s females were in heat and a large male with a dark mane had caught the attention of the females.
Photographing these big cats in the wild was a thrill and I am sure my motor drive ran more film through the camera than I normally would have shot. But this was real and the beauty and wildness of the moment became intoxicating. Little did I know what was waiting for me a quarter mile ahead.
The lion pride stopped to rest in shade near the riverbank. We made a short detour away from the river, hoping to intercept them in an area where the light was better.
My guide mentioned how rare leopard sightings were and how, despite growing up in Kenya, he had been close to only three leopards. Just as he finished talking, I glanced up and froze in my tracks, touching his arm as I halted.
“You mean like that one?” I whispered.
His silence was my answer.
Less than 30 yards ahead, a mature male leopard was resting on the limb of a large sausage tree. He was alone and did not have a kill in the tree with him. His large yellow eyes were clear through the 300mm lens. I held my breath when he looked directly at me. While the leopard knew we were there, he didn’t seem concerned. I was shooting as fast and as much as I could. My digital camera is relatively quiet and the leopard closed his eyes, seemingly going back to sleep.
I switched back to my film camera and snapped several frames. Suddenly, his eyes snapped open at the sound of the loud shutter. I felt like food.
The big cat stood and stretched, looking us over. As I have been known to do in sticky situations, I kept shooting until I was out of film. Then I switched back to my digital camera. I didn’t stop until the leopard had climbed down the limb, jumped to the ground and slowly walked away. He stopped only once to mark a small bush and tree with his scent.
The answer to the question, “when is close too close?” can be a bit vague, but at the same time easy. Look over the situation, know the animal you are photographing, use common sense and use the best equipment you can afford. Let the equipment get you close.
Photographing animals in the wild requires at least a minimal amount of special equipment. Buying the best that you can afford will take you a long way in the direction of producing some very rewarding images that capture the essence of wildlife and the outdoors.
The equipment I used on this trip was exclusively Canon. I was shooting the EOS-3 film camera and the EOS D-10 digital camera with several EOS lenses that would quickly change between the two bodies. Even though they were never needed, backups of both camera bodies were stored in my camera bag. Lenses I used were an EOS 100-400 zoom telephoto lens, a 70-300-zoom telephoto lens with a 1.4 doubler, a 17-35mm wide-angle lens and a 70-200 zoom lens. In addition to these basics, I carried a Canon flash and two slave flash units.
Traveling with photography gear in Africa can be interesting because of a few obstacles that are rarely encountered in the United States but must be overcome in other countries.
Any electronic equipment you bring will need to be battery-operated or you will need the correct plug-in adaptors for a European outlet. Making a mistake here can burn up your equipment. I will sometimes bring a solar charger to recharge laptop and camera batteries while running a laptop at the same time.
I have had a number of close encounters with wildlife over the years. Several of these were with North America’s largest carnivores, the brown bear or grizzly. I have photographed these huge mammals across the country and twice have had encounters that could have proven dangerous.
Wildlife photographers have a way of wanting a certain shot so badly they forget safety and their good sense. If you will be traveling where dangerous animals live, use your head. In Yellowstone Park, bear, elk and bison injure many tourists. Add the grizzly and black bear to the mix, and strict caution should be observed.
Getting a good photograph is wonderful but ending up in a hospital bed, or worse, is not worth it. ◊

Jim Foster is a full-time writer, photographer and lecturer specializing in writing about and photographing nature, the outdoors, travel and adventure travel. Foster makes his home in Salmon, Idaho. Contact him at jim@jimfosteroutdoors.com.

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