Photographing Hunting Lions

Lions often act quickly and without warning, so you need to be highly alert when photographing their hunting patterns. Lions need the advantage of surprise because their prey is often just as fast as (if not faster than) the lions themselves. Lions, like all big cats, are opportunists. If they have the chance to surprise potential prey, they will hunt during the day too. A lion dozing in the shade can be at full speed on the tail of a potential meal within seconds. Lions, especially the more agile lionesses, often hunt alone, although I have witnessed two group hunts in the Ngorongoro Crater.

When you find your target pride, use your binoculars or telephoto lens to determine whether their manes, necks, and mouths show signs of blood, and whether their bellies appear full. If this is the case, the lions have most likely hunted successfully during the night and won’t be on the move again too soon -unless, of course, they didn’t kill enough to feed the whole group. If you fi nd a group without signs of a hunt, or which is on the lookout, or which is already targeting its prey (like the group in the photo), you should initially keep suffi cient distance to retain an overview of the situation. The next step is to search the area for the lions’ potential prey.

Pride of lions targeting its prey

Pride of lions targeting its prey

Your driver should only set off once a lion begins to creep up on its prey, allowing you to get an idea of where the chase is headed. Try to get into the best possible position on the available tracks. If you can’t tell where your subject is headed, use a shorter focal length lens so that you don’t end up cropping the frame unintentionally. In spite of the less than perfect perspective, you should always photograph chase scenes from the sunroof of your vehicle so that you can maximize your pan range. Set your motor drive to its highest speed and make sure you have enough free capacity on your memory card. Then select the shortest possible shutter speed that won’t produce excess image noise and keep your subject in permanent view in the viewfinder. The attack itself will happen quickly and only lasts a few seconds. A lion can accelerate extremely rapidly to speeds of nearly 40 mph, but can only run at maximum speed for about 250 yards. Always pan the camera in the direction the lion is running, as even the shortest shutter speeds cannot freeze this type of action head-on. You should also continually check focus.

Young lioness chasing a gnu

Successful wildlife photography also depends on sticking with the subject, even when the action gets brutal or bloody. Once you have the chase scene in the bag, photograph the rest of the action to complete the story. The story shown here illustrates a lioness teaching her one-year-old cub to hunt. The cub’s paws are already strong enough, but its mouth is still too small to kill the gnu eff ectively with a single bite. Lions usually kill using a suff ocating bite to the neck and confi rm the kill with a second bite to the mouth. Big cats generally only eat if they are sure their prey is dead. The kill usually takes a few minutes, but this gnu was only playing dead and kept restarting the fight every time the lions wanted to eat. The young lion’s attempts at the kill went on for over an hour until the gnu was finally killed by an older lioness.

Young lion attempting a kill

Single-area AF autofocus with manual focus area selection is always the safest solution for photos like these. This is especially true when you are shooting under cloudy skies, as you will need to use wide apertures and shallow depth of field to produce the short shutter speeds and low ISO values necessary for noise-free images.

Young lion

Young lion grappling with a gnu

The bloodied young lions look like something out of a horror movie by the time they have finished their meal. Scenes like these can cause more sensitive people to feel nauseous or to have nightmares, but they are nevertheless part of everyday reality in the wild.

Young lions with their prey

Young lions with their prey

Photography is a lifelong "learning by doing" process, read my book "Wildlife Photography"  and learn! 

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