The famous hockey Hall of Famer, Wayne Gretzky, once said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” That saying was all I could think of the evening that this male jaguar appeared and posed so beautifully in the fading jungle light. I came to the Brazil side of South America’s Pantanal ecosystem specifically to photograph these elusive cats in the wild. The Pantanal is the world’s largest tropical wetland, covering over 70,000 square miles—an area the size of Washington State.
A Great Guide is Worth Their Weight in Gold
My guide, Marco, and I had photographed all day. Now it was so dark the fish-eating bats were flying thick on the Rio Cuiabá River. I could barely see the bow of our canoe as we were making our way back to the lodge. Storms were rolling in but a dim shaft of sunlight broke through the clouds. The jaguar, perfectly centered in that beam of light, was watching us. Marco saw him before I did and angled the boat in that direction.
Did I Mention it Was Dark?
I wanted to switch to a camera body better suited to the dim light, but I knew the current situation wouldn’t hold. I decided to go with what I had. As we approached, I looked through the camera’s view finder, feverishly spinning dials to make the light meter needle move off of rock bottom. Finally, the meter registered enough light. Without looking at the values, I pressed the button and ripped off several frames. Nothing sounded good. Instead of the machine-gun chatter of a shutter rapidly opening and closing, freezing motion, I heard the disappointing “ker-chunk,” “ker-chunk,” “ker-chunk” of slow exposures. A brief glance at my camera’s LCD screen confirmed my worst feelings. Every shot was a blurry mess of smeared colors. The shutter speed was much too slow for the long lens and rocking boat. It seemed hopeless, but the cat just sat there, seemingly laughing at me, and watched us as it got even darker.
Glancing back at Marco, I realized that even though we had spent all day in a boat together, it never occurred to me he didn’t speak English. For ten-plus hours, we communicated with grunts and nods, and the occasional thumbs-up when I got an especially good image. Now Marco looked at me expectantly, the jaguar looked at me in disbelief, and I had no idea how to salvage this shot. In desperation, I gave Marco a hard-clinched fist indicating to hold the boat still. He responded immediately by jamming his paddle deep into the mud and leaning against it, effectively steadying the boat. It dawned on me that if his paddle could reach the bottom, so could my tripod.
I Threw my Camera and Tripod Over the Side
Quickly, extending the legs of my tripod, I shoved everything over the side of the boat and into the water. The whole rig sank deeply into the mud. I only hoped it would bottom out before my camera and lens submerged. I stayed in the boat. After all, there are piranhas in the river. Leaning over, I hit the shutter button again and got the same “ker-chunk” sound fifty-plus times. In other words, I ripped off fifty images leaning out of the boat and onto my sinking tripod. I prayed Marco could hold the boat stationary in the river’s current.
“You miss a 100% of shots you don’t take.”
This image should not have been possible. The whole event – from Marco spotting the jaguar to my last 50 frames — took place in less than five minutes. I made this tack-sharp image in light so low I could barely make out the outline of the cat on the shoreline. Luckily, the faint light held. Luckily, my experienced guide knew how to steady the boat. Luckily, the water was shallow enough I didn’t lose all my camera equipment. Luckily, the jaguar didn’t run off with all the commotion. Of fifty-plus images, forty-nine of them were the same blurry mess. One of them, however…
Final Exposure Numbers (for photo geeks only)
This tack-sharp image was made with a Canon 5D, Mk IV, at ISO 5000 at 1/60 of a second at f/4.5. I was shooting a 600-millimeter (mm) lens. One of the inviolate “rules” of photography relates to shutter speed. To obtain a sharp image and eliminate blurring from camera movement, the rule states your shutter speed (the fraction of a second the camera’s shutter stays open) must be at least 1/the lens’s focal. The darker the environment, the longer the shutter must remain open in order for the camera’s sensor (used to be “film” before digital) to “see” the image. In my case, because of my long lens, the rule said the “minimum” shutter speed for a sharp image was 1/500 of a second. (There is no 1/600 of a second on the camera, so you go with the closest fraction. Alternatively, I could have used the next higher speed, 1/1000 of a second which would have compounded my low-light problem.) Second, the higher you push your camera’s low-light exposure capability (ISO if you’re in the know), the more graininess or noise is generated and the less sharp your final image. Third, I was using a Canon 5D Mk IV, not a camera known for its low-light capability. Again, it was so dark I could barely see the jaguar with my naked eye. Obviously, these rules were not going to get me the “shot”.
Other Jaguar Images