It’s great when a plan comes together—along with a healthy dose of luck.
Last November, I was with a small group of photographers searching for pumas in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park. We were traveling with Ged Caddick, whose tour company, Terra Incognita Ecotours, had put together a terrific group of guides and trackers. Each had strong experience tracking pumas in Torres, as well as experience with wildlife photography. They understood that we not only wanted to see the pumas, we wanted to see them from a position where we could capture a good image. Those of you who have tried to get wild puma shots know that was asking a lot.
After several days of hiking and waiting, they delivered. We first saw the pumas on a sheer cliff face pocked with small caves and ledges. There were two large but young females intermittently visible on ledges and their mother, barely visible in a small cave. Fortunately, the younger cats appeared curious enough about us to continue to move in the open. I took a number of initial shots looking up at the cliff face, then, with the guide leading the way, started to circle around the left side of the cliff in order to come up the back side where we hoped to get a clearer view. As we moved, the cats also moved along the tops of several rock outcroppings—probably to keep an eye on us. Part way along, the mountains of Torres became visible as a backdrop, and I got really excited because I could imagine an image with a puma in the foreground with the jagged mountains behind. The cats cooperated. I got a series of shots of one, and sometimes two, pumas on the outcrops with the iconic peaks in the background. This shot was my favorite since it has a clean profile of the cat, and she is staring right at me.
I was using my Canon 7D with the Canon 100-400mm, my favorite setup for wildlife. They were mounted on a Gitzo 3540 tripod topped with an Acratech ballhead. This situation was a great example of why I like the 100-400mm zoom. As we moved along, I was constantly changing framing from full zoom close-ups to wider angles to include the environment. This image was shot at 170mm to include the peaks in the frame. Because I emphasize getting the wild subject in sharp focus, I usually set the camera to assure a fast shutter speed. In this case, I was in AV (Aperture priority) set at f/9.0 to get reasonable depth of field, as well as ISO 800 and partial metering for exposure and the resulting 1/1600th-second shutter speed. The sky was overcast, but bright enough to give soft, even lighting. Since the cat was silhouetted against the sky, partial metering still gave me about a stop less than an ideal exposure on the cat, which I corrected when I did the RAW conversion.
We continued to move around and behind the cliff face, ultimately getting some close shots from above the pumas, too. It was indeed a great day—with some very special images. - Rich Zahren
Equipment and settings: Canon EOS 7D, Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM telephoto zoom lens, Gitzo GT-3540 Mountaineer 6X Carbon Fiber tripod legs, Acratech ballhead - 1/1600th @ f/9.0, ISO 800.