The indigenous peoples of the Indian Himalayas call them “the ghost of the mountain.” The moniker fits; with its thick, whitish-grey fur that blends perfectly with its icy local habitat, the snow leopard seems made for camouflage. This is not, however, enough to protect it from poaching or the ruinous effects of climate change. Not only are snow leopards difficult to find—there are now fewer of them to see.
This is why the snow leopard is the subject of the photograph that won Sascha Fonseca the Wildlife Photographer of the Year People’s Choice Award. The London Natural History Museum hosts this photography competition to highlight the connection between photography, science, and art.
It was Fonseca’s photograph of the rare snow leopard amid the stark winter landscape of Ladakh that was chosen for the People’s Choice category. Below are a few elements that had a major impact on the success of this once-in-a-lifetime shot.
Fonseca had to deal with more than just the snow leopard’s reticence—the cold desert landscape of the Himalayas, with its minimum temperature of -32˚C, its breathtaking elevation that ranges from 3000 to 5000m above sea level, and its penchant for blizzards and avalanches make it arduous grounds for the art of photography. The harsh weather conditions, combined with this project taking place during the pandemic, put Fonseca in the stressful position of having control only of the set-up of his gear and then troubleshooting remotely. To accomplish this feat, he relied heavily on local knowledge.
“That’s why I always work with local rangers or scientists, as they know the area best,” Fonseca explained.
He utilized their advice in picking the perfect spot for shooting. From here, Fonseca communicated consistently with his assistant on how to maintain the project over an extended period of time.
There are several factors that can contribute to a camera’s breakdown in cold climates. Batteries can deteriorate completely before they’re inserted into the camera. Temperature swings can cause internal condensation. Ice can collect over the lens. To face this challenge, Fonseca had to improvise.
First, he used a DSLR camera, which can withstand freezing temperatures better than their film-reliant counterparts and has the capacity to snap 50.6-megapixel shots at burst speeds of up to 10+ frames per second—ideal for taking photos of wildlife. Next, he installed motion sensors to detect infrared radiation. According to National Geographic’s 2022 piece “How Do You Photograph a Wild Elephant?“, these tools are a staple for documenting wildlife, as they can remotely trigger a camera to capture images of moving subjects. Finally, Fonseca built his own weather-proof casing to protect his camera and external flash from the cold.
“For me, as a wildlife photographer and camera trap lover, hitting the image review button of a camera that was left in the field for a long time is a guaranteed way to get an adrenaline rush. And it took my breath away when I first saw this sequence. Not only had I captured a snow leopard close-up in deep snow. I had captured him at sunset, in a magical winter wonderland.” – Sascha Fonseca
Even then, success was not assured and did not happen overnight.
“I left it there for three years, even throughout snowstorms,” Fonseca said of the setup he made specifically for the shot. But finally, the patience and the preparation paid off—Fonseca managed to take a marvelous image of the snow leopard. On his website, he states: “I’ve photographed other big cats, but ‘the ghost of the mountain’ is in its own category.”
Many fellow nature photography lovers seem to agree. Out of the 39,000 entries for the People’s Choice award, it was “World of the Snow Leopard” that was shortlisted and ultimately given the prestige. Fonseca was delighted—not only for the sake of his own renown but for what it could mean for the snow leopards he so carefully photographed.
“Photography,” he said, “can connect people to wildlife and encourage them to appreciate the beauty of the unseen natural world.”
He hopes that the selection of his image highlights the “ghost of the mountain”—both as the stuff of legend and as a majestic creature worthy of protection.
Story submitted by Nelson Fletcher. The World Art News (WAN) is not liable for the content of this publication. All statements and views expressed herein are only an opinion. Act at your own risk. No part of this publication may be reproduced without written permission. © The World Art News