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Interview with Wildlife Photographer Nathalie Mountain

Marianne Stenger
26th February 2018

Wildlife photography is something that most people would love to do, but few understand what goes into the making of a wildlife photo shoot or just how much planning, preparation and patience it takes to get even just one good photograph.

So in order to give you a glimpse at what it’s like to travel to remote locations and track down wildlife to photograph, we talked to nature and wildlife photographer Nathalie Mountain.

Here are her thoughts on travelling to some of the best national parks in the world, photographing fascinating animals like lions and elephants, as well as some of her favourite moments so far.

How did you get started with photography and what are your main areas of interest?

I’ve always been a keen traveller and for many years had a good point and shoot camera, but it never enabled me to capture the images I wanted and aspired to get, so six years ago I bought my first DSLR and enrolled on a two day photography course in London.

From there my interest in photography grew and the following year I went on a two week photography trip to South Africa’s Kruger National Park. This trip was truly life changing. To see elephants, giraffes, lions, cheetah and leopards in their natural environment going about their daily lives led me to my real passion for wildlife photography and now every year I go on a specialist photographic trip to a different destination.

You’ve travelled to national parks in South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe where you’ve photographed big cats like lions and leopards. Can you tell us about that experience?

Nothing quite prepares you for your first glimpse of the big cats. Until you see them in the wild you have no real idea of their beauty, power and size. Every country and game park in Africa offers a very different game viewing experience.

Not only does the geography of the landscapes vary massively but the vegetation and of course the light changes drastically depending on the season.

Last year I visited the Serengeti in Tanzania in February during the migration when the wildebeest and zebra follow the rains and head south to the calving grounds to give birth. This of course attracts many of the predators and provides an amazing opportunity to see lions, leopards and cheetah and the rainy cool days mean that many of the cats are active during the day giving fantastic photographic opportunities.

One of the reasons this area was on my bucket list was that you can often find lions in the trees as they try to escape the nasty biting tsetse flies. I was rewarded on two occasions as we found a lioness descending a tree and then a group of three sleeping in the branches.

Later in the year in October I visited Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe where the contrast could not have been more different. The days were very hot at around 40 degrees, the landscape was dry and the grass parched and the heat and dust created incredible sunsets and sunrises.

The lions here were only active at dawn and dusk when the day had cooled and the light was so different to that in Tanzania. This is why as a photographer I want to visit as many places as possible as each is so unique.

What’s your favourite animal to photograph?

It’s very hard to choose as the big cats are so exciting to see and photograph, particularly leopards which are often hard to find. But I think elephants are probably my favourite animal to photograph.

Their sheer size and presence is incredible and the textures of their skin, their gentle soulful eyes and long eyelashes offer so many photographic opportunities. Another thing I love about elephants that you can often see the individual characters of these intelligent and gentle animals.

Elephants are always doing something and the interaction that goes on within a herd is always fascinating to see. I love to watch naughty young calves play around; the sub adults jostle and test their strength with each other, and see the sheer delight of a herd splashing around in the mud in a waterhole. They really do seem to have fun and to hear the greetings, rumblings, trumpeting and sounds of communication is really a privilege spend time with them.

What advice do you have for photographing wild animals and big cats in particular? Anything you learned from your time in the field?

When photographing any animal you have to be patient and willing to get up early. Wild animals do what they want and when they want. Big cats in particular can be challenging as they spend most of their time sleeping. Male lions sleep an average of 20 hours a day, but the rewards when they’re in action are great.

When setting up a photo always think about the background of your image and try and keep it clean and uncluttered. Also consider the light, where the sun is and the angle of the shot. If you’re in a vehicle, it’s sometimes better to be a bit further away from the animal so you’re not shooting at a downward angle. Most importantly, always ensure your camera is set up and ready to take the shot, as things can change in a split second and you won’t have time to be fiddling with settings.

Anticipating an animal’s behaviour can also help ensure you can be in the right place at the right time and have the best chance of getting a great photograph.

An example of this was in the Serengeti last year when my group headed out at first light. We came across some lions, a male and two females. As the sun rose over the horizon the lions woke up, yawned and stretched and we got some amazing backlit shots of the male lion’s mane. After a short walk down the river bank the lions went back to sleep in the early morning sunshine.

Two other vehicles briefly stopped and after a few quick shots they looked at the sleeping lions and drove off, but this is where our patience and a bit of anticipation paid off. As the morning sun rose higher and the day got hotter the lions would definitely want to move off to the shade, but which way would they go?

With a nice cool river of water in front of them we figured they would stop for a quick drink and then head off to the forest so we positioned ourselves the other side of the river in anticipation, and finally our patience was rewarded. Each of the two females came down to the river in front of us and had a long drink and then leapt twice over the river channels and headed off behind us. We were perfectly positioned to get the shots as they jumped.

Finally the male woke up and headed down to the river for a long drink. We held our breath in anticipation, would he jump too? Can you imagine a better shot than a big male lion jumping the river - sadly he didn’t. I think he was just too big or lazy, but we still got some great shots of him as he walked directly towards us through the water.

What sort of equipment did you rely on heavily during your time photographing wildlife and big cats in the national reserves you visited?

I always like to have two camera setups and a lens that can cope in low light situations as this is often when the big cats are active.

I have a long telephoto lens so I can get some lovely portraits or use it if the animal is far away, and then also a second camera with a short wider lens to get environment shots or if the animal comes closer. I currently have a Nikon D750 and D850 and a number of lenses but I most frequently use my Sigma 150 – 500mm and my Nikon 24-70mm F2.8 and 70-200mm F2.8.

Having two cameras means that I’m not fiddling trying to change lenses and also if one camera does break I have a backup. A safari can often give challenging conditions with lots of dust or sometimes rain and moving vehicles on bumpy roads, and you don’t want to be away on safari with a broken camera and no way to take pictures.

What has been your favourite location to photograph big cats so far and is there anywhere you’re still interested in visiting?

My favourite location for big cats would be the Serengeti as it would be hard to beat it for the number of big cat sightings and variety. On my last visit I was lucky enough to see many prides of lions in stunning locations, including lions and cubs on the beautiful Moru Kopjes, which are the rocks that inspired the Lion King’s ‘Pride Rock.’

We also saw two servals, 13 different cheetahs, including a cheetah with four young cubs playing on the open plains, and three different leopards in trees in the space of only a kilometre.

As a photographer you’re not just photographing a lion or a cheetah. You’re trying to build an interesting and varied portfolio, which means you need to find different environments, lighting conditions and animal behaviour to really capture the essence of the animal and create an emotional connection with your audience.

There are still many places I want to visit, but later this year I am going to two very exciting destinations which I have had on my bucket list for a while.

The first is Mana Pools in Northern Zimbabwe, which is one of the most beautiful, wild and untouched national parks. The forests and the light that filters through the canopy is unique and gives a truly magical feel. You are also allowed to leave your vehicle and experience the wildlife on foot which will give such an exciting opportunity to encounter the animals in a truly authentic way and provide a completely different experience.

The second is South Luangwa National Park in Zambia which is renowned for its incredible wildlife, winding rivers and breathtaking scenery. It also offers some of the densest populations of leopards and hippos.

Copyright: All images in this article are the property of Nathalie Mountain. Want to learn more about Nathalie Mountain’s work as a wildlife photographer or buy a print? Be sure to visit her website or follow her on Instagram @nathaliemountain.