Getting the shot: Cheetah Hunt With Nikon D500

This one was a real challenge...!

One of my hopes for my recent trip to Etosha National Park in Namibia was to have a good sighting of a wild cheetah.  Not only did I get my wish but we were lucky to witness a full hunt and kill from start to finish as the cheetah managed to take down an impala.  These types of events don’t happen very often to people like me, spending a few days on a self-drive safari without local knowledge, guides and restricted to main roads.  
How did I get on trying to capture this moment from a photographic perspective?  Well it was certainly a challenge and all over in a matter of seconds!

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Background and location
As it was a fairly cool day we were exploring the park at approx. 2pm in the plains area to the west of Namutoni camp.  I had stopped to take a few portraits of a breeding herd of Black-faced Impala as they had plenty of youngsters in the herd that are always very photogenic. We turned to vehicle engine off and the impala were very relaxed around us and I took my time picking out some nice subjects.  Suddenly the impala were spooked and bounded away from our vehicle and I presumed I had moved suddenly which had scared them.  The herd settled a little further away so this seemed like a good time to carry on our drive.

Spotting the spots
As we started the vehicle and moved off we saw the clear shape of a cat crossing the road approx. 100 yards further along the road.  From the outline I could see it was a cheetah but it disappeared quickly into thick bush.  We moved along and tried to locate it where we saw it enter cover but without success.  Realising that this might have been the reason for the impala getting spooked (the wind would have taken the cat’s scent from its original position) I figured that the cheetah might be after the impala so turned the car around and headed back in the direction of the antelope.
Scanning the area again with binoculars I could see that the cheetah was indeed making its way through the bush in the direction of the impala and was very much in stalk mode- alert, low to the ground and moving carefully using the cover of the bushes and downwind of it’s prey.

On your marks.  Get set...
Now that we knew the cat’s intention I moved the car further away to the other side of the impala to anticipate the direction the hunt would take.  I wanted the animals coming towards me to get as much opportunity to capture the moment as possible.  Then it was time to wait.
After 20mins and not seeing any further glimpse of the cheetah I was beginning to wonder if the cat had given up and gone off to sleep somewhere but then I picked up the spots again among the bushes.  And it was now much closer to the herd at this point.  The skies were darkening and the wind was getting up which was all in favour of the cat- less ideal for photography though.  A few impala were staring intently in the cat’s direction- I think they sensed something was out there but couldn’t tell for sure.  

  Go! As the herd returned to their grazing the cheetah exploded from cover.

Go! As the herd returned to their grazing the cheetah exploded from cover.

  The cat was up to speed so quickly and it was difficult to track it’s movement as it jinked and turned as it focused on different targets.

The cat was up to speed so quickly and it was difficult to track it’s movement as it jinked and turned as it focused on different targets.

  It isolated one of the smaller animals and gained quickly as by now the cheetah was running at top speed.

It isolated one of the smaller animals and gained quickly as by now the cheetah was running at top speed.

  The cat tripped it’s back legs and was upon it as it fell, muffling it’s cries with a biting hold to the throat.

The cat tripped it’s back legs and was upon it as it fell, muffling it’s cries with a biting hold to the throat.

  The rest of the herd had fled and we were left with a very still and quiet moment as the cat regained it’s breath after the exertion of the hunt.

The rest of the herd had fled and we were left with a very still and quiet moment as the cat regained it’s breath after the exertion of the hunt.

  After a few minutes the cheetah carried it's prize into deep cover where no doubt it would eat and rest, hopefully without the attention of other predators. 

After a few minutes the cheetah carried it's prize into deep cover where no doubt it would eat and rest, hopefully without the attention of other predators. 

What an exhilarating spectacle to witness- my heart was racing and my hands were shaking!  I wasn't sure if I managed to capture any usable images, it was all over so quickly and I can't really remember taking any pictures.  The above are some of the shots from the sequence and I don't think they are too bad, even if they are fairly heavy crops.  The weather during the actual chase was on the brink of a rain shower so it was pretty dark and grey as a result.

The chase images were taken at 320mm on a crop sensor with 1/1600 sec shutter speed and at f/8 aperture.  I figured that would give me enough room to  capture the wider scene and to allow cropping later.  The shutter speed was sufficient to freeze the action in most of the images but if the light had been brighter I would have upped it further to 1/2000.  As it was I was already at ISO 1600 and was trying to prevent that reaching very high levels.  I could have opened up the aperture but wanted to get good depth of field to help get the subject in focus.

I'm fairly pleased with my efforts- unfortunately it may be many years before I get the chance to try again but until then I have some nice reminders of a very special wildlife sighting.