Love of pictures led to ‘Big Cat’

Saturday June 29 2019

Jonathan Scott

Jonathan Scott, the co-author of 'The Marsh Lions' published in 1982 and 'The Leopard's Tale' in 1985, both based on the Mara. PHOTO | COURTESY 

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We travel the world in search of great images,” says Jonathan Scott to an audience attending the Canon Discovery Week he was hosting at the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi.

Jonathan and his wife Angie, who are Canon ambassadors, have won the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition as individuals.

They are the only couple in the world to do so. Despite travelling all over the world to shoot wildlife pictures, they consider the Masai Mara, the ‘‘big cat country,’’ in Kenya, their home.

Scott first came to Kenya as a young man in 1974, covering the 6,000 kilometres from England on an overland bus. He was on a self-discovery mission.

“I had just finished my degree in zoology in London. My professor at the university asked me what l was going to do next,” Scott narrates to the audience. “I told him l did not want to do research.''

“I wanted to take pictures. My professor asked me if I had a rich father to support me because nobody made money from photography. He suggested l get a job so that I could pursue my hobby.
“When I met him years later, my professor said, ‘I am glad you did not follow my advice.’”


By now, Scott had co-authored The Marsh Lions published in 1982 followed by The Leopard's Tale in 1985, both based on the Mara

He had found work as a resident naturalist at camps in the world-famous reserve and to supplement his income, he sold limited editions of his pen and ink wildlife drawings.

Then he married the love of his life, Angela Bellamy, in 1992 at the Siria Escarpment overlooking Marsh Lion territory in the Mara.

The couple became a household name when the BBC TV featured Big Cat Diary series following the lives of the African big cats in the Mara. Big Cat Diary drew a few million tourists to Kenya.

For the past 42 years, the Scotts have been documenting the lives of the Marsh Lions of the Mara and know them better than anyone else.

“Photography is storytelling,” says Scott. “It is about capturing emotion.” And to make a living as a wildlife photographer is not easy.

You have to be extraordinary. Your photography has to be powerful, to surprise, shock, intrigue, draw in or outrage people.

  • A master class in wildlife photography

The secret to great photography according to Jonathan and Angie Scott of the Big Cat Diary fame is the story, the light and the speed of your camera.
The story is your subject

Do your research, it will help with framing of the picture. It’s also about not intruding on personal space and that’s where professionals watch the animals using powerful zoom lenses without disturbing them.

  • Work with the light

The best time is sunrise and sunset dubbed the ''golden hour.'' Know your aperture and the lenses.

Choose the speed to capture movement — the cattle egret at dawn caught catching insects, the cheetah in full sprint with its body taut before it stretches to full length — these are fractions of a second that require high-speed setting. Or a languid shot of wildebeest raising a dust storm skyward using slow-speed.

  • Be where the subject is

It took six years for Scott to ''shoot'' his first leopard in the Masai Mara. The leopard was in her home in the cliffs. “It was not easy to find leopards in the 1970s in the Mara because they were being hunted for the fur trade,” says Scott.

Following Kenya’s ban on hunting in 1974, the leopard population recovered but sightings were still infrequent.

“It takes patience,” says Scott. He followed all leads and camped from dawn to dusk until he got shots of the cats they named Half Tail, Zawadi and their descendants.

  • Capture the Drama

Angie shot pictures of a crocodile immersed in muddy water with only its jaws showing, biting down on a zebra. You don’t have to see the whole animal to capture the drama. The jaws are a stark reminder of the dangers that lie beneath the water’s surface.

  • Finally, practice, practise, practice

“I knew nothing about photography when l bought my first camera. It was about point and shoot,” says the Big Cat man. It was all about trial and error, patience and learning from Angie, who is the true artist of the team.