National Geographic: Leopards at the Door

It’s 4am and I am sitting in a tiny canvas hide in one of the largest cities on the planet. Despite the fact that I am in the heart of Mumbai in western India, I am waiting for a very wild animal. For the last two weeks I have been sitting here from 8pm to 6am in the pitch-black…waiting.

…and Hoping

My task? – to be constantly ready for when a little green light turns on in my hide. This signifies that something has broken the invisible infrared beam on the trail in front of me and the motion sensor lights are about to turn on.

I then have just 2.5 seconds to frame up and nail the focus before perfectly tracking the biggest male leopard I have ever seen. Easy, right? I forgot to mention I am sitting on the ground and the trail he walks is 30 feet away. That might sound like an exaggeration, but it’s not. I have nervously paced out the distance in the daylight.

bertie gregory national geographic zacuto canon c300 leopards

Bertie Gregory setting up a remote camera in preparation for darkness, when the people of the city go inside and the leopards come out.

Kitty City

On this particular night, nothing comes by. 10 hours in my sweaty box with no reward. As I pack up my gear with the help of leopard biologist, Alex Braczkowski, and our two local fixers, Kunal Chaudhari and Raj Prabhakar, the sun is showing its first signs of peaking up above the horizon. We get back to the hotel in time for breakfast. It’s curry, again. The spice keeps me from falling asleep and face planting into my food. I stumble upstairs to my room, place my camera batteries on charge and fall on to my bed. Five hours later, my alarm buzzes. Already? With our time running out in Mumbai, the leopard bridge and a long list of daylight shots knocks sleep way down the priority list.

Despite investing well over 100 hours into getting the nighttime shot of the leopard, it will probably end up filling less than 10 seconds in the TV show. The daylight shooting is what will really tell the story, so despite the sleep deprivation; I’ve got to be on my game. Furthermore, this is my first television shoot for National Geographic. They say you’re only as good as your last assignment; this is my first, so there is no room for error.

Setting Up

As I haul myself out of bed I look over at my shoulder rig – the trusty Canon C300 on the even more trusty Zacuto Next Generation Recoil. This project is much more than the incredible urban leopards of Mumbai. My task is to follow National Geographic Magazine photographer, Steve Winter, as he attempts to document the incredible story of these leopards and their positive and negative interactions with humans. The style of the show is extremely raw, it has to be real. We have to show what it’s really like for Steve to be on assignment. What it takes to get THE shot. These aren’t just happy snaps. Each and every frame used in the Magazine has to instantly engage millions of people worldwide.

bertie gregory national geographic zacuto canon c300 leopards

Steve Winter and Bertie Gregory atop a 30-foot bamboo platform constructed to house one of Steve’s legendary camera traps. This platform allows the camera to be at eye level with a bridge frequented by leopards.

With run and gun style programs, there’s always a danger that the production value will plummet. However, to match the beautifully smooth, bluechip leopard footage, we need to keep the production value of the people footage high. To do this we’re shooting from the air, underwater, and when possible on land with a stabilized DJI Ronin system. I can run down a street or shoot from a vehicle without wobble.

bertie gregory national geographic zacuto canon c300 leopards

Simon Boyce (the TV show’s producer) and Bertie Gregory filming Steve Winter in a rickshaw driving along a busy street in Mumbai.

However, shooting the program in real time, we often do not have the luxury of setting up our most high tech equipment…we cannot not repeat things. There is no way to recreate the magic of a 14-year-old boy describing the first time he saw a leopard in the city. As a result, a shoulder rig is often our fall back.

Zacuto and National Geographic

Whilst I describe it as a fall back, the Zacuto rig is certainly no compromise. I regularly use it from dawn until dusk and well into the night, loaded with the Canon C300, mics, and a big chunky Anton Bauer battery. The shoulder pad is spookily comfortable! One of the other game changers on the rig is the Z-Drive follow focus with Tornado grip. I have only ever previously used a Canon C300 on shoulder rigs either focusing straight on to the lens or with a short follow focus attachment. The Tornado allows me to hold the camera naturally, meaning I can seamlessly throw or pull focus with zero wobble whilst remaining comfortable for long periods. This is vital when shooting Steve as he explored the slums at night. As he moves through the tiny streets meeting people and hearing stories of leopards outside their front doors, the lighting conditions are tough; ISO20,000 and wide open apertures mean the depth of field was minimal. With both Steve and I constantly on the move, nailing these scenes is impossible without the Tornado.

bertie gregory national geographic zacuto canon c300 leopards

Simon Boyce (the TV show’s producer) and Bertie Gregory look out over a slum in Mumbai.

Big Cats and Big Rigs

This 3-month shoot is potentially one of the most comprehensive field tests of any shoulder rig. From high-speed car chases on some of the busiest streets in the world to mountain climbing in remote jungle, the rig holds up and always allows us to keep shooting. This enables me to show the ridiculous lengths Steve Winter goes to, to get his shots. Oh, and did I mention the NGR’s rustic wooden handle looks badass?!

bertie gregory national geographic zacuto canon c300 leopards

Steve Winter and Bertie Gregory prepare to film atop a mountain in Yala National Park, Sri Lanka. But, that’s another story…

Watch Mission Critical: Leopards at the Door on the National Geographic channel

FROM NAT GEO: When National Geographic photographers go on assignment, it’s not just a job — it’s a mission. Covering stories that are as urgent as they are timeless, the photographers travel to every corner of the globe to show us what we need to know now — to save iconic species from extinction, protect ourselves and make way for a better, more sustainable planet.


Join the conversation

About the Author

I am a 22-year-old wildlife filmmaker, photographer and presenter. In July 2014, I graduated in Zoology with First Class Honors from the University of Bristol. The next day, I boarded a plane to begin assisting Steve Winter in South Africa on assignment for National Geographic Magazine. I was named the Scientific Exploration Society Zenith Explorer 2015. My aim was to track down and film the illusive coastal wolf on the west coast of Vancouver Island, Canada. After some very sweaty pitches, this project then became my first solo assignment for National Geographic- a 12 part series coming out in early 2016. Find me on Facebook or Instagram - bertiegregory.


Sign up now!