Pho­to: petapixel.com

Today, becom­ing famous in the world of wildlife pho­tog­ra­phy is not so easy. The Briton Will Bur­rard-Lucas def­i­nite­ly suc­ceed­ed, not with­out the help of the mys­te­ri­ous black leop­ard. We have trans­lat­ed for you a review from the Petapix­el resource of Lucas’s book, ded­i­cat­ed to his adven­tures in Africa (and beyond).

Behind each unique pho­to lies its own unique sto­ry. Some­times it’s a sto­ry of luck to be in the right place at the right time with the right lens on your cam­era, but more often than not years of tri­al and error pre­cede the tri­umph. Black Leop­ard by pho­tog­ra­ph­er Will Bur­rard-Lucas falls into the sec­ond cat­e­go­ry.

The Black Leop­ard: My Quest to Pho­to­graph One of Africa’s Most Elu­sive Cats is a book that does­n’t fit neat­ly into any genre. This is both a mem­oir, a pho­to essay and an inspir­ing how-to book for wildlife pho­tog­ra­phers who want to make a name for them­selves in this high­ly com­pet­i­tive indus­try.

While the title refers to “a quest to cap­ture one of Africa’s most elu­sive cats,” the book could just as eas­i­ly have been titled “how to become a world-famous wildlife pho­tog­ra­ph­er.” After all, in the end, Lucas man­aged to make a tru­ly unprece­dent­ed series of pho­tographs.

Pho­to: Will Burrard-Lucas/petapixel.com

Lucas’s love for leop­ards began as a child, when he lived in Tan­za­nia for a year. In gen­er­al, his entire career as a wildlife pho­tog­ra­ph­er could be explained by that first expe­ri­ence in Africa, and it was the encounter of 5‑year-old Will with a leop­ard that most cap­ti­vat­ed his imag­i­na­tion.

It is more dif­fi­cult to deter­mine the ori­gins of his dream to pho­to­graph a black leop­ard. Per­haps this is sim­ply due to the mys­ter­ies and myths that sur­round these ani­mals: in Africa, black leop­ards are so rare that they are leg­endary. You can spend a life­time as a pro­fes­sion­al safari guide and nev­er see one, and until 2019, the last sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly doc­u­ment­ed sight­ing of a wild black leop­ard in Africa was in 1909. Any wildlife pho­tog­ra­ph­er dreams of pho­tograph­ing this par­tic­u­lar ani­mal.

Per­haps Lucas’ entire life has made him the pho­tog­ra­ph­er who could do it, from first meet­ing a leop­ard as a child to his pas­sion for sophis­ti­cat­ed remote cam­eras and found­ing his own com­pa­ny, Cam­trap­tions. Every moment in Lucas’ pho­tog­ra­phy and entre­pre­neur­ial career has helped him devel­op and hone the skills, knowl­edge and tech­niques it takes to cre­ate a stu­dio-qual­i­ty image of this incred­i­bly rare ani­mal in its nat­ur­al habi­tat.

Slight­ly more than half of the book is devot­ed to this. At first it even seems that you have been deceived — you think you bought a book about shoot­ing a black leop­ard, and this pho­tog­ra­ph­er tells you the sto­ry of his life, start­ing at the age of five. But by the end of the book, the val­ue of this con­text becomes appar­ent.

The threads of Lucas’ life are woven togeth­er when a fate­ful phone call occurs in August 2018. While talk­ing about an unfor­tu­nate inci­dent dur­ing a pho­to safari in Mada­gas­car, his fel­low guide men­tioned that a black leop­ard had already been seen sev­er­al times in a row in the Laikip­ia Nation­al Park (Kenya).

“My jaw dropped. Chance to see a black leop­ard in Africa? I just did­n’t have the words. The rest of the con­ver­sa­tion was like a blur… As I drove back to the camp in the gath­er­ing dusk, the antelopes and hares run­ning from the bright light of my head­lights seemed like black pan­thers to me,” Lucas writes, recall­ing that day.

The stars final­ly aligned, and in Jan­u­ary 2019, Lucas reached Laikip­ia with six high-qual­i­ty cam­era traps and ten low-res­o­lu­tion sur­veil­lance cam­eras.

He spent about a year trav­el­ing the length and breadth of Laikip­ia, but even with all this equip­ment and prepa­ra­tion, he could not imag­ine how fruit­ful that year would turn out to be. Work­ing close­ly with con­ser­va­tion­ists, sci­en­tists, guides, landown­ers and mem­bers of the local com­mu­ni­ty, Lucas was able to cap­ture not one, not two, but more than 25 high-qual­i­ty pho­tographs of the black leop­ard.

Pho­to: Will Burrard-Lucas/petapixel.com

“That year I saw with my own eyes [черного леопарда] five times, and only once a day… If I relied on tra­di­tion­al meth­ods (such as tak­ing pho­tos by hand), I could take one or two good (in the orig­i­nal “OK” — trans­la­tor’s note) pho­tographs with a tele­pho­to lens. It was only by set­ting up sev­er­al cam­era traps for a long time and that I stud­ied well and under­stood what places he liked to vis­it, I was able to make such a series, ”says Lukas.

First cam­era trap pho­to­graph of a black leop­ard. This pho­to was tak­en with a reflex cam­era con­vert­ed to infrared. Laikip­ia, Kenya, Jan­u­ary 2019 Pho­to: Will Burrard-Lucas/petapixel.com
Lucas’ sec­ond pho­to of a leop­ard was tak­en with a con­ven­tion­al SLR cam­era trap on the same trail as the first. Laikip­ia, Kenya, Jan­u­ary 2019 Pho­to: Will Burrard-Lucas/petapixel.com
Black leop­ard on a full moon. Laikip­ia, Kenya, Jan­u­ary 2019 Pho­to: Will Burrard-Lucas/petapixel.com
This large male leop­ard, nick­named Great Spot­ted, will even­tu­al­ly dri­ve off the young black leop­ard. At that time they lived in the same ter­ri­to­ry. Laikip­ia, Kenya, March 2019 Pho­to: Will Burrard-Lucas/petapixel.com
This cam­era was set to cap­ture the stars, but the leop­ard ran past after the moon had risen. Luck­i­ly, the clouds obscured most of the moon­light. Laikip­ia, Kenya, April 2019
One of the most beau­ti­ful pho­tographs in the entire book. A black leop­ard run­ning past on a beau­ti­ful star­ry night. Laikip­ia, Kenya, July 2019 Pho­to: Will Burrard-Lucas/petapixel.com
Anoth­er pho­to of a leop­ard called Black­ie, tak­en under a star­ry sky. These images are incred­i­bly com­plex and are the result of months of hard work and lots of tri­al and error. Laikip­ia Dis­trict, Kenya, July 2019 Pho­to: Will Burrard-Lucas/petapixel.com

When you con­sid­er the fact that an incred­i­bly lucky pho­tog­ra­ph­er might have one or two pho­tos of a black pan­ther in his port­fo­lio, it becomes clear what Lucas was able to achieve. But even if you’re not impressed by the rar­i­ty of the sub­ject mat­ter or the qual­i­ty of the com­po­si­tions, Lucas tells a sto­ry with pas­sion and pas­sion that draws you in and makes you appre­ci­ate the art of pho­tog­ra­phy itself.

“Black Leop­ard” turned out to be a much stronger book than me (reviewed by DL Cade) expect­ed. I thought it would be an extend­ed pho­to essay, sort of like a longer ver­sion of the PetaPix­el blog posts. Instead, I got a whole life sto­ry. I got an hon­est look at how hard it is to find your­self as a wildlife pho­tog­ra­ph­er. I have a greater respect for wildlife itself. And I appre­ci­at­ed even more the work of pho­tog­ra­phers who ded­i­cate their lives to cap­tur­ing our world in a unique way.

As a pho­to essay, the work is excel­lent by default: the quest of a man who decid­ed to pho­to­graph one of the most elu­sive ani­mals on Earth. But also as a mem­oir pho­to­book, Black Leop­ard touch­es on much more than a few moments of shoot­ing or inter­est­ing behind-the-scenes details. I will nev­er trav­el to Africa and pho­to­graph African wildlife, let alone pho­to­graph the elu­sive black leop­ard. And yet, thanks to Lucas’ vivid sto­ry­telling and the amaz­ing amount of mate­r­i­al that this pho­to­book con­sists of, it was as if I had par­tic­i­pat­ed in all the adven­tures myself.

Suf­fice it to say that the copy of the book that was sent to me for review took a per­ma­nent place in the cen­ter of my cof­fee table. I apol­o­gize to the pub­lish­er… I’m not going to send it back.