How I Got That Shot: On Assignment with National Geographic

January 30, 2012

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Joel Sartore

From a distance of about 20 yards, Sartore used an inexpensive spotlight to illuminate a tree-climbing lion.

For its series on the effects of the growing human population on the earth’s resources, National Geographic assigned photographers Pascal Maitre and Joel Sartore to photograph Africa’s Albertine Rift, an area of spectacular beauty that has some of the highest human population density on the continent. While Maitre photographed escalating conflicts over resources in the area, National Geographic contributing photographer Sartore photographed wildlife in and around Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda, where animals are in a struggle for survival with local cattlemen. Pressed to find grazing land, the farmers illegally drive their cattle into the park where the animals are often eaten by predators. “When they find a dead cow, they’ll pour insecticides over the carcass. When the predators come back to feed, they’ll be killed,” Sartore explains. As a result, he says, “In the center of the park, they estimate there are five years left for hyenas, ten years for lions.”

Sartore spent five weeks in the region in the fall of 2010, and returned for three weeks at the beginning of 2011 (the trip was cut short when, upon leaving a bat cave, Sartore was hit in the eye with guano and had to wait to see if he’d been exposed to the deadly Marburg virus). While on assignment, he worked 18-hour days, starting before the sun was up. “We didn’t want any period of dawn or dusk to go by and not have something good to shoot, lest we’d miss the good light,” he explains. The sun had dipped below the horizon when he took a photo of a lion waking up in a tree and preparing to go on a nighttime hunt. Sartore, who was about 20 yards from the tree, used a handheld spotlight to briefly illuminate the lion as he stood. National Geographic editors named the photo, one of several lion photos that Sartore shot in the park, as one of its top 50 photographs of 2011.

To make the most of every moment of the trip, Sartore says, “We would use the middle of the day, when the light was harsh and the animals are all resting from the heat of the day, to check or set up our camera traps.” Sartore found a rare opportunity to shoot in midday when he drove past some butterflies hovering over a heap of elephant dung (a source of minerals and salt for butterflies). At first, he says, “I thought: Boy, does that look like nothing,” but soon came up with an idea for how to create a crisp close up of the fluttering insects. 

“We need to save the smallest species among us to save ourselves,” he says. “I want to show that these animals are conscious creatures. If it’s an animal that’s harder for us to identify with, in an anthropomorphic way, well then let’s at least make them look beautiful.” (Sartore has blogged about his work on the biodiversity project at

“It’s fairly routine for me to have a $1,000 to $2,000 excess baggage fee,” says Sartore. When he packs for an assignment, he says, “I’m planning that not only will I not be able to get lights, I won’t be able to get duct tape or batteries.”

He begins his homework and prepares a shot list before he gets on the plane. “I probably spend a day researching for every day in the field,” he says. He relies on the advice of biologists and conservation experts on location. In Queen Elizabeth National Park, he worked with veterinarian Ludwig Siefert, who has radio-collared many lions and monitors them regularly. Having learned that he was going to a rare location where lions sleep in trees, Sartore brought along a handheld, trigger-controlled spotlight, which plugs into a car’s cigarette lighter, in order to photograph the nocturnal animals.

Driving with Siefert and Siefert’s assistant, Sartore located two lions—one with a radio collar, one without—sleeping on either side of a tree. They waited for two hours in a car parked about 20 yards from the tree, as the sky grew darker, to see if either lion would get up to hunt. “[The lion] knew we were there but [was] just laying around,” Sartore recalls. When a female lion called from a distance, the lion stood.

Standing on tiptoe atop the Range Rover to be at eye level with the lion, Sartore shone the handheld spotlight and photographed the lion before he turned and walked down the tree trunk, which took about five seconds.

Sartore notes, “Would you spotlight a prey animal that has a predator stalking it [and] stun it? No way. Would you spotlight a lion that’s in a tree, [that] is habituated to research and tourist vehicles, when there’s no prey in the area? Sure.” Sartore adds, “Don’t forget, I’m working with biologists who know what they’re doing and can tell me if it’s too much.”

The butterflies also seemed oblivious to Sartore’s camera. He placed his Nikon D3 on his camera bag, and set his Speedlight and a small, collapsible softbox on top of his waist pack. He watched the scene through binoculars, and triggered the camera from a short distance using a radio slave. “I love making something out of nothing,” Sartore says.

He shot both images with a Nikon D3. For the lion photo, he used a 24-70mm lens set on 48mm; shot at 1/125; aperture f/2.8; and the exposure compensation was -1.3. He shot the butterfly image with a 24mm lens; at 1/200; IS0 100; aperture f/2.2; and the exposure compensation was 0.

Post Production:
None, other than “normal toning and dirt spotting,” Sartore says.

Watch the video below to see Sartore light and photograph butterflies on elephant dung. 

Butterfly from Charles Rash on Vimeo.