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How to Photograph Lions

No matter where our plane lands on the globe, we run into family.

Indeed, the real perk of National Geographic’s 125th Anniversary Expedition is the chance to meet up (almost everyday) with our crack team of National Geographic Explorers–in the field. In Palau, we had Sylvia Earle, and when when we arrived in Botswana, we met Dereck and Beverly Joubert. On the big screen and in the magazine, the Jouberts are National Geographic royalty, but at their home base of Selinda Camp, the filmmaking couple are about as down to earth as Africa itself.

Among the lotuses and lilypads at the edge of the Okavango, I listened to 30 years’ worth of fantastic stories from the Jouberts’ life in the bush. They are a formidable force for conservation and inspired me hugely in the few days we had together. What’s more, just thirty minutes after arriving at Selinda, we had already spotted three lions and a leopard.

Hanging out with Beverly in the land of big cats, I couldn’t resist asking her for some tips on capturing lions on camera. In the past, I’ve shared tips from other National Geographic photographers, and there is no other person on the planet who has photographed more predators than Beverly Joubert. Here’s what she had to say on the subject:

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A young male lion catches the fading light of day in the Kalahari at Tao Pan, Botswana (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic)
  • PATIENCE “It’s very important that we try not to make the animal give us that aggressive look that we would like,” says Beverly. “It needs to be natural.” The Jouberts have dedicated their life to getting the right shots, which means hours, days, months and years spent following and watching big cats. For those of us going on safari game drives, it means the more time we spend out looking, the more chance we have of finding lions and getting our best shot. You can’t rush wildlife and you cannot provoke it into acting a certain way for the camera. In the end, time and patience will pay off with a more beautiful and natural capture.
  • ZOOM Beverly acknowledges that, “With predators, it’s often better to use a long lens . . . this way you are capturing the animal naturally.“ On their refitted safari jeep, Beverly mounts a 600 mm lens, along with a 1:4 converter for maximum zoom and stability. Lions are wild animals that will not always be comfortable close to humans and vehicles, and so some of the most natural moments will happen from a distance.
  • ACTION “It’s all about discovering, capturing and freezing that perfect moment,” explains Beverly, “Action is key.” Though lions and other big cats spend much of their daytime sleeping in the shade, any kind of waking action that shows the animal in motion makes a much more exciting photograph. Capturing action means being out in the bush when the lions are most active. For some of the Jouberts films, they became nocturnal, roaming the landscape every night for 12 hours at a time.
  • EYES Photographers often stress the importance of key light, and the same applies to capturing lions’ faces. Beverly agrees that, if you “really get the gaze, [then]  it’s phenomenal,” but that, “It’s not just about the portrait, it’s about the animal in its surrounding.” This is not always easy, but if, “If you can capture the sun and the glint in the eye, that is perfect.” Light in an animals eyes brings the animal to life.
  • POSE Nobody has observed lions more than the Jouberts, and nobody knows more about how lions move. “Try to capture the front leg as it’s going forward. Not the other movements of the second leg, because it looks awkward,” counsels Beverly. She likes to show lions as the regal creatures they are, with, “Eyes open and the right motion in the leg.”
  • MOMENT “Constantly be ready. For Dereck and I, the camera is always out and I’m observing all the time,” finishes Beverly. “It’ll be a split second and it’s over, so you have to be alert and ready at all times.” I imagine that for every terrific shot they have captured, there are many more memories of moments they have missed on film. But this is how all of us learn, and traveling with camera on hand is the most basic lesson for all of us.
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Baby lions brave a puddle of water at Selinda Game Reserve in northern Botswana (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic)

This trip is one of the many ways to travel with National Geographic Expeditions. To learn more about all of our travel programs, click here.

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