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Orphaned Ocelot

Text Copyright and Photography Copyright Jim Zuckerman
All rights reserved.

Camera:    Mamiya RZ67
Lens:        350mm Telephoto
Flash:       Metz 45
Support:    Hand held
Film:         Fuji Provia 100
Exposure: 1/125 at f/8
Filter(s):     None used

One of the most difficult environments in which to photograph wildlife is a tropical rainforest. The jungle foliage is so thick that in many places it's impossible to see beyond ten feet. There is a myriad of places to hide, and the fauna that thrives in this habitat are very secretive and stealthy.

In addition, the forest floor is unbelievably dark. It's almost like shooting in dim twilight, even in the middle of the day. Those creatures who live in the canopy of the trees are virtually out of sight from the ground, but even if you could see them the strong back lighting from the sky would frustrate even the most accurate light meters.

To most of the native people who live in the jungle, the concepts of ecology and conservation are just not in their vocabulary. They take what they must to survive the harsh realities of existence. With the introduction of civilization, material goods so common to us are coveted by these people. Unfortunately, one way for them to generate hard currency needed to buy goods is by selling animals and/or their skins. And this is how I got the picture of the ocelot kitten you see reproduced here.

The kind people who ran the jungle lodge had found a very young ocelot, about four months old, alone in the jungle. It's mother had fallen victim to poachers, and they decided to raise it to be released back into the wild when it was old enough to fend for itself. They named the kitten Lady T. It was difficult not to fall in love with the Lady immediately upon introduction. She was absolutely beautiful, with huge cobalt blue eyes, and she was incredibly affectionate (especially when I was having dinner). At the table, Lady T would climb up my pant's leg, onto my lap, up on the table, and, crouched low, she would contentedly share my meal with me.

I wanted a series of photographs of this special cat in the natural habitat of the jungle. The kitten was still too little to run away, so several of the workers at the lodge helped me find a suitable location where they could surround the perimeter and keep the ocelot within camera range.

One of the remarkable things about the Amazon is that on the river itself, the temperature is lovely. The balmy air is usually accompanied by a gentle breeze and the climate seems idyllic . But once you step three feet into the dense jungle from the river bank, the heat is so oppressive it seems to hang heavily on your head and shoulders; it feels like it is exerting a pressure against your face. Breathing even seems difficult and laborious. And the insects are outrageous. Someone must have stuck a sign to my back as a joke that read, "Calling all mosquitoes, this guy is for lunch today."

The only way I could shoot the cat was with a flash. Even 1600 ISO film would not be sufficient to accurately expose the shot with a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the action. I set my flash to the automatic exposure mode, since the distance between the ocelot kitten and the camera would vary constantly.

It's impossible to follow a kitten around the jungle with a tripod, so I knew this shot had to be hand held. I used my 350mm telephoto (comparable to about a 200mm in the 35mm format) so my working distance didn't crowd the ocelot. If I was too close, I feared the camera and flash would spook the cat, and if I were too far away there would be too many bits and pieces of jungle foliage that would block my view.

As Lady T romped and played on the jungle floor, hemmed in on several sides by assistants, I was eaten alive by mosquitoes but managed to keep my concentration focused on my subject. I shot several rolls of Fujichrome Provia 100 film until the kitten tired of this game and just pooped out. She laid down at the base of a small plant and gave me that tired and bored expression unique to cats. But in the many frames I shot, I captured a very special animal.

Jim Zuckerman left his medical studies in 1970 to turn his love of photography into a career. He has lectured and taught creative photography at many universities and private schools, including UCLA, Kent State University, the Hallmark Institute of Photography, and the Palm Beach Photographic Center. He also has led international photo tours to destinations such as Burma, Thailand, China, Brazil, Eastern Europe, Alaska, Greece, Papua New Guinea, and the American Southwest.

Zuckerman specializes in wildlife and nature photography, travel photography, photo- and electron microscopy, and digital special effects.

Zuckerman is a contributing editor to Petersen's Photographic Magazine. His images, articles and photo features have been published in scores of books and magazines including several Time-Life Books, publications of the National Geographic Society, Outdoor Photographer, Outdoor and Travel Photography, Omni Magazine, Conde Nast Traveler, Science Fiction Age, Australia's Photo World, and Greece's Opticon. He is the author of seven photography books: Visual Impact; The Professional Photographer's Guide to Shooting and Selling Nature and Wildlife Photos; Outstanding Special Effects Photography on a Limited Budget, Techniques of Natural Light Photography, Jim Zuckerman's Secrets of Color in Photography, Fantasy Nudes, and Capturing Drama in Nature Photography.

His work has been used for packaging, advertising, and editorial layouts in thirty countries around the world. Jim's images have also appeared in calendars, posters, greeting cards, and corporate publications. His stock photography is represented by Corbis Images.

To learn more about Jim and to view his work, visit his web site at

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