How I got the shot: Cheetah Fight

The cheetah family was resting in the shade, deep in Ndutu’s acacia forest. It was only 7:00am and the heat was already building. As we pulled up, there didn’t seem to be much going on with the cheetahs. The three slender cats were sitting and lying sphinx-like, all panting under the hot sun. It seemed odd that they were just sitting here rather than reclining in the cool shade of the acacia, standing just a few metres away.

I asked our driver to wait for a few minutes. It’s my usual approach to employ a decent amount of waiting time to every encounter. Plus… I had a hunch. I could see the adult female sitting behind two full-grown cubs, looking back and forth. The cheetahs appeared tense and agitated, repeatedly glancing to the acacia tree. A snake perhaps?

I sensed movement in my periphery, in the shade of the acacia tree. Another cheetah had just sat up, now visible in the dense vegetation. It was lingering in the shadows. An outsider. One of the young cheetahs cautiously rose from the ground, where it had been lying prone.

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)
Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Ndutu, Tanzania with NIKON D3S and Nikon 200-400 mm ƒ/4.0 VR lens at ¹⁄₁₂₅₀ sec at ƒ / 4.0 on ISO 200

The outsider bolted forward, coming to an abrupt halt just inches from the young cheetah nearest to us. This outsider, a large male, was aggressive, posturing and arching its back, hackles raised. The young cheetah was intimidated, whining with a stressed mewing… The youngster’s mother and sibling both rose. The tension was palpable.

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)
Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Ndutu, Tanzania with NIKON D3S and Nikon 200-400 mm ƒ/4.0 VR lens at ¹⁄₆₄₀ sec at ƒ / 6.3 on ISO 200
Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)
Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Ndutu, Tanzania with NIKON D3S and Nikon 200-400 mm ƒ/4.0 VR lens at ¹⁄₅₀₀ sec at ƒ / 6.3 on ISO 200
Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)
Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Ndutu, Tanzania with NIKON D3S and Nikon 200-400 mm ƒ/4.0 VR lens at ¹⁄₅₀₀ sec at ƒ / 6.3 on ISO 200
Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)
Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Ndutu, Tanzania with NIKON D3S and 200.0-400.0 mm f/4.0 lens at ¹⁄₅₀₀ sec at ƒ / 6.3 on ISO 200

In an instant, the outsider lunged forward, swiping at the youngster. As the male came lunging forward, the young cheetah flipped onto its back in a state of submission, lashing out with one claw… just as the big male leapt high overhead. He landed and turned immediately to face the cheetah family. All the cheetahs were mewing – an eerie sound.

Eventually, the loner backed down and sat under another tree, keeping a close watch on the cheetah family. We reviewed the images and were able sex the cheetahs. The mystery behind the confrontation unravelled and the scene became clear. The outsider was an adult male attempting to push out the adult female’s full-grown cubs in order to mate. She had both a male and female cub, neither of which were ready to leave and needed persuasion.

The adult male focussed all is aggression on the male cub alone, completely ignoring the females. Male cubs have been killed in these fractious situations before, but this adult seemed somewhat hesitant and restrained, relying on intimidation rather than outright ferocity. Lucky cub!

Anticipation & Preparation

To photograph a sequence like this, you need to imagine the potential scenarios that could develop from the scene in front of you and prepare. Knowledge of your subject and the behaviour in which it’s ‘most likely’ to adopt, give you that crucial advantage. Anticipation.

If you never progress further than a reactionary photographer – just hoping for something to happen and then react – you will miss out. Having that inkling, the hunch that a situation was developing was key. I could ensure my camera was setup and ready to capture the explosive scene. More importantly, my eye never left the viewfinder.

  1. The focus was on Continuous/AI Servo to track the action;
  2. The focus point selection was appropriate, in the case all 51-focus point were selected as the action could go anywhere – the background was far enough away, so I didn’t have to worry about a focus hunt.
  3. The shutter-speed was fast enough to freeze-frame the action;
  4. I’d taken test shots of the scene and checked the histogram;
  5. I clamped my eye to the viewfinder and was ready.

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