Behind every once-in-a-lifetime photograph is a story. Sometimes these are stories of luck–of being in the right place, at the right time, with the right lens attached to your camera–but more often than not triumph is preceded by years of trial and error. An outlandish “bucket shot” achieved by the sheer force of the photographer’s will and persistence. The Black Leopard by wildlife 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 difficult book to categorize. What Lucas has created here is part memoir, part photo story, and part inspirational how-to book for any aspiring wildlife photographer who wants to know what it really takes to carve out a name for yourself in a crowded and noisy industry.
It’s described as one photographer’s “quest to photograph one of Africa’s most elusive cats,” but it could just as easily be described as “the making of a world-renowned wildlife photographer.” It just happens to end with a series of photos that were essentially unprecedented.
Lucas can trace his love of leopards to a year that he spent in Tanzania as a child. In fact, his entire career as a wildlife photographer could probably be traced back to that first experience of Africa, but it was a sole leopard sighting that most captivated 5-year-old Will, sparking a fascination that remains with him to this day.
The origins of his dream to photograph a black leopard in particular are harder to pin down. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of mystery and myth: in Africa, these cats are so rare as to be the stuff of legend. You could spend your entire life as a professional safari guide and never so much as glimpse one, and prior to 2019, the last scientifically documented sighting of a wild black leopard in Africa was recorded in 1909. Any wildlife photographer would dream of photographing this particular animal.
But you could just as easily assert–as The Black Leopard seems to do–that Lucas’ entire life shaped him into the right photographer, perhaps the only photographer, for this particular assignment. From that first sighting of a spotty leopard in Tanzania to his fascination with ever-more-complex remote cameras, to the creation of his company Camtraptions, every pivotal moment and entrepreneurial turn in Lucas’ career helped him to perfect the skills, knowledge, and techniques required to capture studio-quality photos of this impossibly rare animal in the wild.
A little more than half of the book is dedicated to narrating this coming-of-age story, and at first, this narrative conceit feels almost like a bait-and-switch. You think you’ve picked up a book about photographing the black leopard and here is this photographer telling you his life story starting at age 5. But by the end of the book, the value of this context is undeniable.
Speaking with me over email, Lucas explained how this realization occurred to him in much the same way it eventually occurs to the reader.
I always intended to publish the photographs in a book–but a book focusing solely on the leopards of Laikipia. However, as the project progressed, it became clear that there was so much more to the story. It seemed that the many strands of my life had come together perfectly to culminate in this project and I was inspired to tell my full story for the first time.
In the book, the various threads of Lucas’ life story all coalesce into one fateful phone call in August of 2018. While trying to work around a frustrating issue with a photo safari in Madagascar, a fellow guide mentioned that a black leopard had been spotted multiple times at Laikipia Wilderness Camp in Kenya.
“My jaw drops. A chance of seeing a black leopard in Africa? I am speechless. The rest of the call passes in a blur,” writes Lucas, recalling that day. “As I drive back to camp in the gathering dusk, dik-dik antelope and scrub hares skip away from the glare of my headlights and my mind is filled with visions of black panthers.”
The stars had finally aligned, and in January of 2019 Lucas chased these visions all the way to Laikipia, toting six high-quality DSLR camera traps and ten low-quality trail cameras for reconnaissance.
He would spend about a year traveling back and forth to Laikipia for this project, but even with all this gear and a lifetime of preparation, he couldn’t have imagined just how fruitful that year would turn out to be. By working closely with conservationists, researchers, guides, landowners, and members of the local community, Lucas was able to capture not one, not two, but (by his count) over 25 high-quality photos of this black leopard by the time the book went to print.
“During that year I saw [the black leopard] 5 times with my own eyes and only one of those times was during the day,” says Lucas. “If I had been relying on traditional techniques (i.e. photographing him by hand) I might of captured one or two OK images with the long lens. It was only by deploying multiple camera traps for such a long time–and by really coming to understand the areas he liked to frequent–that I was able to build up the body of work.”
A body of work that will take your breath away with every turn of the page.
When you consider the fact that an incredibly lucky photographer might have one or two photos of a black panther in their portfolio, what Lucas achieved here begins to come into focus. But even if you aren’t impressed by the rarity of his subject or the quality of his compositions, there’s a passion and enthusiasm to Lucas telling of the story that pulls you into the process and leaves you with a greater appreciation for the craft of photography.
The Black Leopard was far more book than I expected when I picked it up. I thought I was getting an extended photo story–a longer version of the blog posts you sometimes see right here on PetaPixel. Instead, I was treated to a life story. I got an honest look at the reality of struggling to find your voice as a wildlife photographer. I earned a little more respect for the natural world. And I gained a renewed appreciation for photographers who dedicate their lives to capturing our world in unique and unprecedented ways.
As a photo story, it’s fantastic by default: one man’s quest to photograph one of the most elusive animals on Earth… what more do you want? But as a true blue book–a photo book cum memoir–The Black Leopard is able to touch on far more than a few photographic highlights or nifty behind-the-scenes details. I have never and probably will never go out and photograph African wildlife, to say nothing of an animal as iconic and elusive as the black leopard. And yet, thanks to Lucas’ vivid storytelling and the stunning body of work that makes up this photo book, I feel that I’ve experienced an inkling of this journey for myself.
Suffice it to say that the reviewer’s copy has taken up a permanent spot at the center of my coffee table. My apologies to the publisher… I don’t intend to send it back.
Image credits: All photos by Will Burrard-Lucas and shared with permission.