ARTICLE

Big Cat Tales: Capturing Africa's wildlife with DSLRs and the Canon EOS C300 Mark II

A young male lion lies in green grass with his head up and facing us. Another lion is just visible behind him, lying flat, and four giraffes roam behind them both.
In the Maasai Mara National Reserve, a young male lion relaxes as a group of giraffes look on. Photographers Jonathan and Angela Scott believe that the Maasai Mara is the best place in the world for photographing big cats and other wildlife with their plethora of Canon DSLRs and EF lenses. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 1/250 sec, f/9 and ISO500. © Jonathan and Angela Scott

When the much anticipated follow-up to the 1999 series Big Cat Diary aired on the Discovery Channel, fans were treated to a whole new perspective on lions, leopards and cheetahs. The original crew, Jonathan Scott and Angela Scott, used their Cinema EOS cameras and Canon DSLRs to film and photograph faster, get closer and show the world of big cats like we’ve never seen it before in the Big Cat Tales.

"I have always loved adventure – and been adventurous," says Jonathan Scott, "so Africa was exactly what I was looking for and offered me the chance to live a wild life." Together with his wife, fellow photographer Angela Scott, he has carved out a unique career as a zoologist, conservationist, television wildlife documentary presenter and award-winning wildlife photographer.

Jonathan was born and educated in the UK, but Africa has been his adopted home for the past 44 years. He began presenting wildlife documentaries in the early 1980s, and has gone on to front programmes including Flamingo Watch (1995) and Big Cat Diary (1996-2008). Together with Angela, he has also produced 35 books on wildlife. Yet both Jonathan and Angela started out primarily as photographers and remain so today. Both have been Canon Ambassadors since 2009 and both, uniquely, have separately won the coveted Wildlife Photographer of the Year award.

In this interview, Jonathan talks about his fascination for African wildlife and the Cinema EOS cameras, DSLRs, CN-E lenses and L-series lenses that allow him to work long days, shoot in low light and capture moving cheetahs at 70mph.

A female lion and her two cubs walk beside a 4x4 car where two men lean out of its windows to film them.
The crew filmed Big Cat Tales using the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM lens, Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens, Canon CN-E 30-300mm T2.95-3.7 L SP PL mount Cinema Zoom and the Canon CN20x50 IAS H E1/P1 cine-servo lens for outdoor shots. © Jonathan and Angela Scott
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What first attracted you to Africa?

"I was born on a farm in Berkshire and always loved being outdoors and studying natural history. I studied Zoology at Queen's University in Belfast, Northern Ireland. That love of the wild and animals meant I followed all the wildlife programmes on TV. I was also enthralled when I watched the epic film Born Free in 1966 – the story of the Adamsons and their quest to return the lioness Elsa to the wilds of Kenya. I sat there thinking that's what I would love to do – live with wild animals in Africa. I was hooked. Angie was born in Africa (Alexandria in Egypt) and she grew up from the age of four in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. So Africa and safari were always in her blood – and so was photography.

"In 1974 I went overland across Africa from London to Johannesburg and never looked back. [We chose to shoot Big Cat Tales in Kenya because] I love Kenya; the people are so warm and friendly, and the Maasai Mara is simply the best place in the world to photograph a huge range of wild creatures and birds, plus those amazing big cats."

A female lion swipes at a male lion with her paw, both of them scowling.
Jonathan says he loves photographing big cats because they are a "combination of 'beauty and the beast.'" Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with a Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x at 1/1250 sec, f/5.6 and ISO1250. © Jonathan and Angela Scott

When did you start working professionally as a photographer?

"When I came to live in the Maasai Mara in 1977 I really started to take photography more seriously. I started spending every penny I could save on new cameras and lenses. Angie and I were fortunate to establish ourselves through best-selling books such as The Marsh Lions (1982) and The Leopard's Tale (1985), which led to picture libraries approaching us to market our images. Winning the Overall Award in the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition (me in 1987 and Angie in 2002) had a huge effect on our lives, and we are tremendously proud to be the only couple in the history of the competition to both have won this award."

What makes big cats so special to photograph?

"I think it's the combination of 'beauty and the beast' when it comes to the big cats. And they are so different – lions, leopards and cheetahs look and act so differently. The combination of their exquisite beauty with that electrifying explosion of speed and power when they hunt makes me feel so alive. It stirs something deep within me. Angie loves lions for their social nature – the sisterhood. She feels a special empathy with them, while I love the solitary leopard for its adaptability and ability to live on its own. But when it comes to action there is nothing to compare with a cheetah flat out after prey at 60-70mph – or perhaps the titanic battle between a pride of lions and a bull buffalo."

Three adult elephants and two young elephants walk together in grasslands, with trees and other elephants in the background.
As well as the lions, leopards and cheetahs in Kenya's Maasai Mara National Reserve, Jonathan, Angela and the Big Cat Tales crew documented the activities of the other animals living there. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 1/400 sec, f/6.3 and ISO1000. © Jonathan and Angela Scott
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What are the main contents of your photography kitbag?

"We both love the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II. It delivers 12-14 frames per second in high-speed drive shooting mode when shooting RAW, and when you are shooting action you need every frame you can get. The autofocus is also really good – great for tracking moving subjects such as eagles and cheetahs. The noise reduction is top-notch, though we try not to shoot over ISO2000. We also love the EOS 5D Mark IV. The touchscreen and video is superb. Angie loves the EOS 5DS R for the image quality. It is brilliant for portraits and landscapes, and you can record every detail.

"My go-to lens is the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM with built-in 1.4x extender. It's so versatile. It gives you just about everything in one lens, with real reach and flexibility when it comes to composition – it is pin-sharp and has great IS. I also like the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM. We have canvas panels in the side of Angie's vehicle that unzip and allow her low-level shooting access – and we use the Waist-Level Finder too with our cameras at times.

"Angie uses the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM and the EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM – she loves to get in close and intimate without disturbing the big cats. She also loves the versatility of the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM – it can focus down to a metre and is pin-sharp with great Image Stabilisation. Angie uses the Extender EF 1.4x III with the 600mm at times – it is pin-sharp, and losing a stop of light does not matter because you can just increase the ISO if needs be. For the big lenses, Angie uses two video mounts that run on a track on a ledge on the 4x4 car."

A cheetah sits in grass looking up at two giraffes walking by.
The tallest animal eyes up the fastest: the composition highlights just how huge giraffes are in comparison to the world’s fastest big cat. Jonathan says of the Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x lens used to take this shot: "It's so versatile. It gives you just about everything in one lens, with real reach and flexibility when it comes to composition." Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with a Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x lens at 1/500 sec, f/5.6 and ISO125. © Jonathan and Angela Scott

You worked on the Big Cat Diary series from 1996 to 2008. How did your new series, Big Cat Tales, come about?

"We worked with director Abraham Joffe on his hugely popular series Tales by Light in 2016. He asked if we would be interested in working on a new TV series shot in the Maasai Mara. At first we said no – or at least we said we would think about it. We are both over 65 years old now. We will never stop working or being photographers, but we felt it was the natural moment for a break. However, we soon changed our minds. We knew from the popularity of Big Cat Diary that there was still a massive appetite for strong animal narratives focused on Africa's big cats. By partnering with Abe we could create a new series with great production values, combined with the strong storytelling which is our forte."

How did you divide up the jobs of presenting and shooting images?

"Both Angela and I were presenting, along with our Maasai friend Jackson ole Looseyia. It is so important that Kenyans feel connected to their wonderful wildlife heritage – not just for its economic benefits, but for the sheer glory of it and its aesthetic value, quite apart from its importance ecologically. So bringing Jackson on board was a real step up for the production in empowering Kenyans and letting them see they could aspire to do this kind of work. Angie doubled as production stills photographer and game spotter – she is so experienced that she was the perfect person to multi-task."

A female lion and three cubs play on the trunk of a tree that’s growing at a 45-degree angle. A camouflaged 4x4 car is beneath the tree.
For filming in-car footage of the presenters in remarkable situations like this, the crew used Canon EOS C300 Mark II cameras with the Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM, Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM, Canon CN-E 14mm T3.1 L F Cinema prime lens or Canon CN-E 24mm T1.5 L F lenses. © Jonathan and Angela Scott
A low-angle shot shows a leopard’s head and front paws as it perches high up in a tree, blending in slightly with the dappled light from the treetop.
Jonathan says leopards are his favourite big cat because of their adaptability and solitary nature, which is reflected in this shot. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM lens at 1/320 sec, f/8 and ISO1000. © Jonathan and Angela Scott

How has new technology changed the way your series was filmed?

"Camera technology has improved hugely during the 10 years since we last filmed a series such as this. The new series has a much more cinematic feel to it – more epic in style – and the use of drones to capture the landscape and the presenters' 'driving shots' makes the production look contemporary."

What Canon kit did you use for filming?

"Abe's team used EOS C300 Mark II cameras in each vehicle for the in-car presenter angle. The dynamic range, low light performance, 4K resolution and onboard XLR all made this camera a great choice. Interior glass mostly consisted of the EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM and also the EF 11-24mm f/4L USM for when we were in really tight places. We also used cinema lenses – the Canon CN-E 14mm T3.1 L F Cinema prime lens and CN-E 24mm T1.5 L F.

"For exterior shots, we used the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM and EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM, as well as two superb cinema lenses: the CN-E 30-300mm T2.95-3.7 L SP PL mount Cinema Zoom and the CN20x50 IAS H E1/P1 Cine-servo lens."

Three lion cubs walk along a fallen tree branch, the last cub chewing playfully on the tail of the cub in front.
Angela loves the social nature of lions, highlighted perfectly by the playful cubs in this simple and striking composition. Lion cubs are born with spots to camouflage them; these spots gradually fade with age but will remain on their stomachs for their entire lifetime. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM lens at 1/500 sec, f/4.0 and ISO6400. © Jonathan and Angela Scott

Which was the best lens for filming wildlife action?

"The CN20x50 IAS H E1/P1, which has a focal length of 50-1000mm, was the most valuable asset in our lens lineup. Its unmatched focal range and pin-sharpness meant nothing was out of range for capture. This lens's amazing attributes enabled us to capture some incredible sequences with our big cats – most notably the cheetah chase scenes."

What, for you, were the highlights of making the series?

"For me personally, it was wonderful to be working on a new TV series. I love the process of filmmaking – of storytelling – and the sheer pleasure of being in the field for weeks at a time. That really allows one to embed oneself in the wilds and the individual nature of our big cats. For Angie, spending time with our old friends the Marsh Pride of lions was a highlight. We wanted the programmes to be outstanding visually and in terms of narration and were prepared to work from 5am to 8pm and beyond every day to ensure we succeeded. We also got tremendous help and encouragement from the Kenyan authorities – everyone got behind us and it just snowballed."

Autor David Clark


Jonathan and Angela Scott's kitbag

The key safari photography kit

Photographers Jonathan and Angela Scott lean on the side of a camouflaged window, their Canon cameras with telephoto lenses set up in front of them, ready to photograph wildlife.

Cameras

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II

With its high-sensitivity 20.2MP full-frame CMOS sensor, expanded 61-point Dual Pixel AF system and 14 fps capture, the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II delivers class-leading performance. Jonathan says: "When you are shooting action, you need every frame you can get."

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

This full-frame 30.4MP DSLR captures incredible detail, even in extreme contrast, while continuous 7fps shooting helps when chasing the perfect moment. “The touchscreen and video is superb,” says Jonathan.

Canon EOS 5DS R

The 50.6MP full frame CMOS sensor in this DSLR is capable of recording extraordinary levels of detail. Jonathan says: “It is brilliant for portraits and landscapes, and you can record every detail.”

Lenses

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM

This versatile yet compact and portable super-telephoto zoom lens has a 4-stop Image Stabiliser and high-quality optics that deliver superb sharpness. Angie loves its versatility and the fact that “It can focus down to a metre and is pin-sharp with great Image Stabilisation," says Jonathan.

Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM

A high-magnification, super-telephoto lens featuring integrated Image Stabilizer technology and a fast f/4 maximum aperture. Angie uses this because she "loves to get in close and intimate without disturbing the big cats," says Jonathan.

Lens extender

Canon Extender EF 1.4x III

This compact extender increases the focal length of a Canon L-series telephoto or telephoto zoom lens by a factor of 1.4x, with high AF accuracy. Jonathan says Angie uses it because: “It is pin-sharp, and losing a stop of light does not matter because you can just increase the ISO if need be.”

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