Cheetah chase with the Nikon D810

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This article on shooting cheetahs with the Nikon D810 is by Roie Galitz (website | Facebook, see also his previous posts: Nikon D800 goes wild in Africa and Uganda with the Nikon D810):

I shoot wildlife with the Nikon D810. Even though I have access to the faster D4s, I still prefer the D810 better. Why? One reason, and one reason alone - better image quality, and that’s what it comes down to at the end of the day.

Last week I was in Tanzania, guiding a wildlife photography workshop for phototeva.com.

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Warning: some of the photos are graphic in nature.


I wish to share with you the technique I used to shoot Cheetahs on the hunt with the D810. As you probably know, the Cheetah is the fastest animal on land, reaching speed of up to 120 Km/h (75Mph). In order to catch this fast action, several preparations are needed.

Geographic location - about 20km west of Ndutu Lake in Tanzania.

Gear Used: Nikon D810 and Nikon 500mm F/4 VR on a bean bag from a Toyota Land Cruiser.

Weather at scene: Overcast cloudy sky, time of day 15:00.

Distance to subject: 250 meters approx. I located myself in the expected direction of running, so they would run in my direction and close the distance.

Settings and considerations

  1. Camera Mode - Manual mode - So I have fixed values with light metering for the Gazelles area. I took several test images to make sure my Histogram is correct and from now on I don’t have to worry about the settings as long as the light doesn’t change.
  2. Shutter Speed - 1/1250 Since I need a high speed to “freeze” the action and get tack sharp images of the entire action.
  3. Aperture - F/8 - Although I have an F/4 in this lens, I choose an F/8 to get sharper images (I knew I’d probably have to crop) and to get deeper DOF (Depth of Field) in case they outrun my focus system.
  4. ISO - 500 - I wanted to keep the ISO as low as possible to get clean images. This is the ISO I needed to maintain the selected shutter speed and aperture.
  5. Focus method - AF-C single point - Continuos focus setting to track the fast movement of the chase. I chose in this case to use single point and not group (which I really like) because the Cheetah was far away and because of the distance and angle, I was worried that the camera would focus on the grass in front of the Cheetah.
  6. Image Area - DX - You might be surprised why I chose to shoot at DX mode, since it is very easy to crop from FX afterwards and I could have cropped some of the action in case the chase would really arrive at my location. well, there are 3 main reasons I chose this setting:
    • The Cheetah was very far, so there is NO need for all the excess pixels in the surrounding of the image.
    • In DX mode, the D810 reaches 6 fps instead of 5 fps. well, every frame per second counts.
    • Thanks to smaller file size (20MB vs. 45MB) I can get many more images before the Buffer starts to frustrate me.

Shooting Technique

In order to get images like that you must go through these 3 stages:

  1. Locate the right subject - The action started early morning, even before sunrise. I located the mother and cubs, and when we saw the mother’s stomach was empty and she has babies, it was necessary for her to hunt this day. This is the Chetah to follow.
  2. Patience pays off - We spent the entire day with this Cheetah and cubs. It tried to hunt once and missed. After the failed chase it took the Cheetah 3 hours to recuperate and another 2.5 hours of ambush to get to the correct distance from the Gazelles. If you don’t have patience, wildlife photography is not for you 🙂
  3. Ready? Set! Action! The moment the Cheetah got up and started running, I’m ready with the shutter half pressed for focus with the Center Point on the Cheetah. When the Cheetah came closer to the Gazelle and approached me I started continuos shooting like crazy (wish I had more fps). The focus had to be total and accurate (myself and my camera). At the peak of the chase it almost seemed as if time slowed down, and only after I downloaded the images, I saw it was only 30 seconds!

Here are some of the best images for this action session:

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Roie Galitz is a professional Wildlife Photographer, you can follow him on Facebook and visit his website at www.roiegalitz.com

If you have an interesting idea for a guest post, you can contact me here.

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