Volume One of our series, Cheating Death for a Photograph, emphasized the critical importance of listening to your inner voice. In this episode, photographers Isak Pretorius, Arthur Morris, and Jeff Cable recount photographic encounters where a single misstep could—or nearly did—have catastrophic consequences. From traversing sticky lava rock over a volcanic chasm to clamoring up slippery slopes above a picturesque waterfall in pursuit of the perfect image, maintaining balance is paramount.
Above photograph © Izak Pretorius
Isak Pretorius: Escape from a Kalahari Lion
Several years ago, I went on a two-week mission to photograph lions in Southern Africa’s Kalahari Desert. In the remote part of the Kalahari I visited, the Botswana National Parks caters to guests with a stunning campsite: a patch of sand under a tree that is completely exposed to nature and the elements. Perfect!
The tough desert conditions have made Kalahari lions evolve into stronger, tougher, and bigger animals than other lion species. Most important, the males exhibit beautiful black manes, perhaps their most famous trait. The first week of photography went well, although I had not yet seen many lions, and no males whatsoever. Since this was a photographic commission requiring lion images, I needed to find them. So I decided to base myself in another part of the Kalahari for my second week. The next morning, I took down my camp following a normal routine, packing up the tent, mattress, gas stove, and chairs, and lined them up neatly, ready to load everything into my vehicle.
While rolling up the tent, I noticed two lionesses lying in the road about 250' (80m) away, intensely watching my every move. They were motionless, in a pouncing posture, as if I was their intended prey. As I stood there, literally frozen, with my eyes glued to theirs, I knew they could sprint the distance between us in a few seconds. This was the fright of my life, and I suddenly felt extremely vulnerable although, luckily, I was not too far from my vehicle. After a few very tense moments, I realized that I could only opt for the safety this would provide. I only hoped that I could get there in time to avoid being attacked. As I sprinted towards my vehicle and jumped in, I looked back toward the lions, watching as they casually stood up and sauntered towards my camping gear. One lioness seemed to find an interest in my mattress. After sniffing around, she picked it up in her mouth and started dragging it away.
While I was incredibly thankful to reach safety without being attacked, I knew how hard the Kalahari sand would be to sleep on. Figuring that I would need that mattress for the next week, I decided to try and make the lioness drop it. My only option was to drive carefully toward her, hoping that she would drop the mattress and move along. I started my car and moved forward, even waving my arms out the window, but I got no reaction. Then, as I drove toward her again, stopping just a few meters away, she dropped the mattress and stared at me for a second. Picking it up again, she got into a playful mood, thinking that we're playing the “who-can-get-the-mattress” game. I tried approaching again, waving my arms, but she had the same reaction and was clearly winning at our game. She continued walking away from the campsite, into the bushes with the mattress in her mouth, but I kept following with my vehicle. Eventually the bush became so thick that all I could do was stop and watch her disappear into the distance.
I never saw her, or my mattress, again. For the next few nights I lay on the Kalahari sand, which gets especially hard at 3:00 a.m. when you've run out of comfortable sleeping positions, all while thinking about the lioness and my mattress. If only she used the mattress to lay on herself, I kept thinking, at least my loss would be another’s gain.
Arhur Morris: At Death’s Door?
For the most part, Galapagos photo cruises are not dangerous undertakings. The seas are never Drake Passage threatening, and the panga (Zodiac) landings are pretty much a snap. When far from top-notch medical facilities, it always pays to be careful on the hikes, especially when traversing lava rock. One fall might not only ruin your trip of a lifetime, but might put a damper on the trip for everyone else should you need to be evacuated.
Speaking of lava rock, Punta Moreno, Isabela, is—geologically speaking—the archipelago’s youngest volcanic island. At only 1,000 years old, the lava is sharp-edged with lots of loose, rubbly plates. There are also many fairly deep rifts. My Instructional Photo-Tour (IPT) group crosses several such chasms on our way to the flamingo ponds. Hiking boots are recommended, and one must take great care with every step.
When exiting the panga at Punta Morena, my world-class guide, Juan, does a special safety briefing. “Watch your step. There is a lot of loose, corrugated lava that is very grabby, so be careful when you raise your foot to stride; the lava can grab the toe of your boot or sneaker and send you tumbling.”
When we arrived at the largest pond, there were several flamingos resting on the far shore and some frigate birds dipping down to grab a drink. Although I usually detest side lighting, I thought it might be advantageous in this situation, as the already dark background was completely shaded. To keep my load light, I was only carrying my Canon 7D Mark II, the 100-400mm L IS II lens, and, as always, an EF 1.4 X III extender in my fanny pack.
But I needed to get closer. I cautiously crossed a very deep crevice, making it to a large rock that was close enough for a vertical shot to incorporate the birds’ gorgeous pink reflections. I created a series of about 70 images, making sure there was at least one really good capture in the lot. Most of my IPT group was above me, safely on the other side of the fissure.
As I started to cross back, the toe of my right boot caught on the sticky lava. I pitched forward toward the chasm with my life flashing before me. It’s amazing how many thoughts can cross your mind in an instant. I knew I was going to do a face plant into the tube with its razor sharp sides. I realized that even though the trip had just begun, I had likely taken my last image.
At best I would wreck my beloved 100-400 II. My face and forearms would be sliced to ribbons. One or more fractures were likely, perhaps a wrist bone or two, or a clean break of the radius and ulna. A fractured skull and a concussion were not out of the question. At worst, I might die and ruin the trip for everyone, as it would take a day or two to cart my body back to Puerto Ayora for shipment back to Florida.
And then, amazingly, I regained my balance and somehow jumped across the abyss, landing safely below the group without even falling. My lens and camera were safe and so was I.
Jeff Cable: Hanging Upside Down Over a Waterfall
Last July, I was in the Poconos to shoot the NASCAR race and teach photography. I went early to scout teaching locations. I had heard about some nice waterfalls in the area, so I went hiking alone and was in the process of getting some waterfall shots. It had rained the night before and everything was pretty wet. After making a few images, I climbed to the top of a much taller waterfall and scrambled down to a medium-sized rock to investigate the view looking down over the falls. At that moment, my feet slipped on the wet rock and I went down backward. Luckily, I grabbed a nearby tree branch. There I was, upside down and alone. My Gitzo tripod was in my other hand, so I threw it back up on the plateau, and then I managed to pull myself around and up. My Canon 1DX and 24-105mm lens banged hard on the rock, but came out unscathed. I also credit my Thinktank backpack for possibly saving me. The backpack cushioned my fall and probably kept me from cracking my head on the rock below. If I had gotten knocked out, I could have been a dead man—with nobody knowing where to look for me. Phew!!!
Do you have a story (or image) to share about cheating death for a photograph? If so, please add your voice to the Comments section, below.
To learn more about the photographers who contributed to this article, click on their names.
In case you missed them, click to read the companion articles in this series, Cheating Death for a Photograph: Volume One, and Cheating Death for a Photograph: Volume Three.
Pretorius and Morris need to buck up. If you are going to photograph wildlife, and genuinely photograph wild life, you are going to run into a few rough moments.
Morris is talking like a wimpy drama queen. Pretorius is a damn fool for ever running away from a major predator. While I have never photographed African lions, I have photographed more than a few North American grizzlies, alone and on the ground.
Hi Steve, thanks so much for reading Explora and for commenting on this story. I'm sure our readers would be very interested to hear about one of your "rough moments" while photographing grizzlies, or any other predatory animal you've encountered. Please feel free to add one of your own "cheating death" experiences to the thread!
Could NOT resist commenting on this article and the reviewer's comments as well. I SORT of agree a bit with both , but I myself being a acomplished nature photographer would have to lean toward Steve's point of view.
You are either a photographer or you aren't and if you are you will really NOT be paying attention to the danger, well at least NOT completely. Because if you are, then you are NOT focused at the image and are NOT in the moment.
Case in point with me recently was my encounter with a mature Black Bear only 5 to 6 ft away. Most that I have shared both the photos and story with of course, were NOT photographers so their comments were as one would guess, WERE YOU CRAZY??? What were you thinking!!!
Well as I mentioned above, If you have to stop and think to much before you commit yourslef, well you probably would NOT make such a decision and you probalbly would not make a good nature photographer. But, for me, well as you might expect I did NOT think about the gifted moment I embrased it, and while it lasted TRYED to capture everything I could.
Was I scared, YES without a doubt, in fact every time I squezzed that shutter and he lifted his head and looked at me I felt my heart pound and said, will he do it now, come at me. All the information I aquired over the years of Bears in general came rushing into my mind and pushing the photographer out--LOL!! YES I would have to agree with most, it was crazy, but I am SURE there are those of us that live for that moment and embrace it, call us what you want but you either do it or you don't.
I live in the Appalachian mountains of Western North Carolina and one has to expect an encounter from time to time living this close to nature, and NOT to take full advantage of it being presented to you when it happens to me IS CRAZY!!!!!
We are none of us here forever so we need to make the most of the time we have and the oportunities that come our way i n what ever endevor. We can either photograph what ever it is ourselves, or we can look at other photographers work.
Yea I know sort of got carried away here Sorry, but have been here and done that and felt the connection with this article and the comments as well and wanted to put in my 2 cents.
Hopefully I have NOT over done myself here in commenting back. If so Please except my apology.
Thanks so much for your comment Bill, and especially for relating your close encounter/photo session with a black bear. No apologies needed, this is exactly the kind of active dialog we’re seeking to achieve with this article series.
You bring up a very interesting point about photography and danger. What you say about the importance of a photographer being focused in the moment, and on the image, is very apt; however making a decision to step away from what one perceives to be a potentially dangerous situation should not diminish one’s standing as a photographer. Every individual has a different degree of tolerance for risk; this is an attribute that is totally independent of photographic passion, skill and artistry.
Also, your comment below really piqued my desire to add some additional context: “If you have to stop and think too much before you commit yourself, well you probably would NOT make such a decision and you probably would not make a good nature photographer.
I thought it might be beneficial to this discussion to consider this excerpt from the Principles of Ethical Field Practices published by the North American Nature Photography Association:
ENVIRONMENTAL: KNOWLEDGE OF SUBJECT AND PLACE
Learn patterns of animal behavior so as not to interfere with animal life cycles.
Do not distress wildlife or their habitat. Respect the routine needs of animals.
Use appropriate lenses to photograph wild animals. If an animal shows stress, move back and use a longer lens.
Acquaint yourself with the fragility of the ecosystem. Stay on trails that are intended to lessen impact.
While the chance of a close encounter with wildlife such as the black bear you mention isn’t surprising given your surroundings, how one responds in such a situation is a totally subjective decision, with an outcome that is impossible to predict. Respect for another sentient being and familiarity with behavior patterns can help, however it seems like you were fortunate to come away from the encounter with simply the positive experience of new images and an exciting story to tell. Here’s wishing you nothing but luck with any future encounters, and thanks again for sharing your story on the blog.
THE PHOTOGRAPHS OF FLAMONGO IS NOT OF GREATER FLAMINGO .PLS CORRECT .
Hi Kishore, First off, the spelling is flamingo in English :)
Though many folks call it Galapagos Greater Flamingo you are correct. It is Galapagos Flamingo, (Phoenicopterus Ruber). Greater Flamingo is a close relative, Phoenicopterus roseus. Thanks for the correction. a
We have edited the offending misnomer. Thanks for pointing this out. — Copy Editor
One election here in New Zealand I got to ride on one of the main party buses as they went from place to place and got to take photos, mostly for my on interest, but they went on a stock site and the party bought some. Now i have done some stupid things since picking up my first camera and manages to not hurt myself (other than sore muscles). Well 2 thirds of the day into the trip i went to step over a 2 inch high concrete lip/wall. 2 inchs, that is all. Managed to catch the toe of my shoe on it (I am sure it jumped up at me). I went down hard. Crazy the hell out of my shine, blood everywhere. My camera hand went to the ground first but i managed to bend my wrist so the back of my hand hit first and bring my arm in so that my hand only just hit before my forearm. If my arm had been more extended i would have broken my wrist. While i was lying there checking the camera and thinking "what the hell just happened" the candidate (who I was just getting ready to photograph getting off the bus) rushes ove and helps me up while telling someone to get the firstaid kit. All i could say was "we'll have to do the shot of you getting off the bus again". They offered to get me home (when we realised i had not broken anything, and it was just a lot of blood and grazes). All i could say was "no, i'll be alright, haven't go all the photos i want yet". So one of their people bandaged my leg (and then hand) while i tried shooting around him to get shoots of the others waving signs. Man did i hurt the next day.
Thanks for sharing your story Lance. What luck that your camera didn't get damaged and what fortitude you have to continue photographing through this incident. I hope that you were at least able to get some unique vantage points! Keep on shooting and many thanks for reading Explora!