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How I Made It: The Story Behind Sascha Fonseca’s Stunning Snow Leopard Shot

Photographing "the ghost of the mountains" in harsh conditions
Photo of a snow leopard

Often referred to as “the ghost of the mountains,” snow leopards are an extremely elusive species of big cat that use their white and gray coats as a natural camouflage to blend into their snowy surroundings. Photographing these stealthy creatures in the wild is a challenge but one that photographer Sascha Fonseca was able to overcome with the help of a motion-triggered DSLR camera trap.

As you can see from Fonseca’s stunning image of a young snow leopard above, his patience and ingenuity paid off. We wanted to learn more about how he was able to capture this photo despite the harsh conditions it was shot under, so he agreed to answer a few of our questions for this latest installment of “How I Made It.” You can see previous “How I Made It” behind-the-image stories here, hereherehere, and here.

Q: Can you give us a little background on you as a photographer?

Sascha Fonseca: Since childhood I‘ve always been fascinated by animals. But it was not until 2013 that I first picked up a professional camera to photograph wildlife. Over time I have moved away from conventional photography and specialized in DSLR camera traps. Camera traps allow me to capture these unique close-ups of elusive wildlife which I would otherwise not be able to get. I particularly enjoy uncovering the personalities of the individuals I photograph, their unique faces and expressive eyes.  And perhaps that’s the reason why I’m especially drawn to big cats.

Q: What’s the story behind this photo?

Sascha Fonseca: Project “Shan” (snow leopard in Ladakhi) was born when my first long term camera trap project in Rajasthan, India, came to an end. After I had finally achieved my dream picture of a wild Bengal tiger at night, I asked myself what’s next? And I immediately set the bar higher: Snow leopard. Local people said it‘s impossible. The equipment wouldn’t work in the harsh mountain ranges of Ladakh, a region in northern India bordering Pakistan and China, where snow leopards can be found. So, I built my own weatherproof housings. And three years of hard work later I’m fortunate to publish some stunning snow leopard images including this youngster who most probably reacted to the shutter sound of the DSLR. 

Q: What is it about snow leopards that fascinates you so much?

Sascha Fonseca: The mystery surrounding the snow leopard always fascinated me. These rare, wise-looking cats are the stuff of legends and fairytales and not many people are fortunate to see one in the wild. Their incredible stealth and the remote habitat they live in make them some of the most difficult large cats to photograph. To me, the “ghost of the mountain” is in its own special category.

Q: Can you share some technical details about how this image was shot including gear used, settings, etc.?

Sascha Fonseca: Equipment in this project: Canon EOS 5DS and 6D with 24mm 2.8 lenses, Camtraptions camera triggers and Nikon SB-28 Speedlights. The weatherproof housings were built by myself.   

Q: What are some of the challenges of working with camera traps?

Sascha Fonseca: Challenges are manifold: First, the remote high-altitude terrain and the harsh climate, especially in winter. Finding potentially productive locations, getting the equipment there and maintaining it over a long period of time is another. Parts of the equipment had to be custom built. Last but not least, finding the right camera and flash settings without knowing from where and when the subject may appear. 

Q: What’s next for you?

Sascha Fonseca: My current project took me to the forests of Far East Russia in search of the world’s largest cat: The Siberian tiger, also known as the Amur Tiger. Setting up DSLR camera traps in this vast wilderness is probably my most challenging project so far. Stay tuned.

You can see more of Fonseca’s work on his Instagram page and his website.

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