In the field with Steve Winter

A few of Steve Winter’s famous images. Clockwise from top left: snow leopard; tiger; mountain lion; jaguar
A few of Steve Winter’s famous images. Clockwise from top left: snow leopard; tiger; mountain lion; jaguar
Published: 01 September 2014

Wildlife camera trap photography has been with us for a good few years now. Countless research organisations, conservation institutions and private landowners all over the world use camera traps to catch glimpses into the secret lives of shy and nocturnal creatures. Anyone who has ever set a camera trap knows that you need to get the basics right in order to get a decent, clear image of your subject. But if there is one person who has absolutely perfected the intricate art of camera trapping, it is National Geographic photographer, Steve Winter.

Steve is a world-renowned wildlife photojournalist who has been named BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year and BBC Wildlife Photojournalist of the Year, among many other prizes and awards. On assignment for Nat Geo, Steve has covered many stories, from Cuba to Myanmar's Irrawaddy River, from giant bears in Siberia to rhinos in India. Of particular interest to people with a passion for big cats, are his award-winning images of snow leopards, jaguars, tigers and mountain lions. In Steve’s words, he considers himself “a conservation photographer; in this role, I combine images of animals and their habitat with the scientists that study and try to protect them, the local people that must coexist with them—and the threats that they face.”

Steve is currently on assignment for National Geographic Magazine for a story on leopards. He first came into contact with Quinton Martins in Los Angeles while working on the Nat Geo mountain lion story. Quinton was visiting projects in the US when he got to spend some time in the field with Steve. It was then that he planted the seed for Steve to get a great mountain leopard shot. Well, two years later, the time finally came. So when the opportunity arose for me to join Steve in the field on his visit to the Cederberg, it took all of a second’s deliberation, and I was on my way…

01 Arriving in the Cederberg via Op Die Berg with Mount Ceder in the distance

Arriving in the Cederberg via Op Die Berg, with Mount Ceder in the distance

After 10 years of camera trapping in the Cederberg, Quinton clearly knew where leopards moved. However, Steve would need the final say for the best photograph. Our first site was a decent hike up the side of a mountain! Steve liked the location and immediately he, his two assistants, Quinton and I set to work preparing the first camera site. From the onset I could see that this was going to be a very long process. Steve meticulously plans everything in the shot – the frame has to be perfect. Soon it was clear why he is so good at what he does. Everything must be just right – the position of the subject in the frame when it triggers the infrared beam, the height and angle of the camera, and especially the lighting. Steve uses external flashes, all set at different angles and heights, in order to get light and shadows in just the right places. And after everything is set it all needs to be made baboon-proof – which means stacking sturdy rock cairns around all the equipment and securing everything with duct tape and cable ties. In the end it took no less than 7 hours to set one camera – excluding the hike up and down the mountain!

As it turns out, SteveWinter-style camera trapping and actual leopard trapping is very similar! Setting a leopard trap involves a bit more hard labour, but both require a huge amount of skill and painstaking attention to detail. And then after the trap is set, all you can do is to wait patiently and hope feverishly that your trap set-up would be to the liking of Mr or Mrs Leopard, and that the cat would walk in exactly the right line, or step in exactly the right spot…

So now we are playing the waiting game. Steve is currently travelling elsewhere in SA for his leopard story while his cameras are snapping away in the Cederberg, hopefully getting some iconic, award-winning photos of Cape leopards in their rugged mountain landscape. His leopard assignment has already taken him to India, and after SA he heads to China to photograph leopards there. So it is with great anticipation that we await the leopard issue of National Geographic Magazine!

Spending those few days in the Cederberg was quite an adventure in itself. I am used to rugged, off-road driving, but the jeep tracks of the Cederberg is just something else, and where Quinton went in his Cruiser, I had to follow! I am also used to towering, imposing mountains (the Boland has quite a few of those!), but the raw beauty of the Cederberg wilderness is truly humbling. One of the things I enjoyed most about Steve was his dry sense of humour. It was a huge honour to meet and spend a few days with such a well-travelled, highly regarded photographer who has such a passion for his trade. And I can’t wait to see that much-awaited, awesome Cape leopard photograph, and be able to say: “I put that little stone there!”

By Jeannie Hayward
CLT Boland Project