Pictures of Lions - The King of Beasts

The lion cub

“Better stand back a little, you are in his strike zone,” the animal trainer told me.  I looked down at the lion cub…he probably weighed close to 200 lbs.  I stepped back a few more feet.  Someday Truman, (the lion cub’s name), would weigh over five hundred pounds and would truly be an impressive animal.  Right now I am at the animal trainer’s compound to shoot a baboon…so the lion will have to wait.

Taking pictures of Truman the lion

Fast-forward several years.  I am in my San Francisco studio and Truman has just been led out of his trailer producing a collective gasp from my staff and myself.  The lion had indeed become an impressive animal…tipping the scales at 500 lbs., with an impressive mane, and with an unexpected muscularity, Truman indeed, seemed like a “King of Beasts”. 

The lion was owned by Bow Wow productions. I had recently asked one of Bow Wow’s trainers about working with the Lion and the Tiger and if she felt one was more dangerous than the other.  She thought about it and answered that the Tiger might actually be more dangerous.  The lion, in order to keep his mane, could not be neutered.  When Truman walks into a room people sense his dominance, his wildness…his danger…and respect it.  With the tiger, having been neutered, they feel like he is a big kitten and drop their guard.  She was right.  When Truman walked into my studio we all felt not just a sense of awe but a sense of danger too.

Rules for photographing Lions

There were three animal trainers and each carried a pick handle and a can of mace.  I can’t imagine that a pick handle would have done any good if they had been needed…and I think the mace would just make the lion madder! The lion was kept on a chain at all times, though having once seen a tiger effortlessly run across a field with a helpless trainer bouncing behind; the chain didn’t bolster my confidence either.

The first thing the animal trainers (there were three of them) did before letting Truman out of his trailer was to explain the ground rules to us.  None of us should separate from the group they told us. That might trigger his hunting instinct.  They asked me to get rid of all of the sandbags (we use sandbags to hold down the light stands and such).  When I asked why, the trainer replied that Truman might be possessive of them.  When I told her that wouldn’t be a problem she said that I didn’t understand…that if the lion wanted the sandbags he would have to kill us to make sure we didn’t take them from him.  We got rid of the sandbags. 

Other rules include directions not to approach a piece of meat (rewards for the Lion) that might end up flying across the studio, and if we had anything we didn’t want him to “mark” we should put tarps over it.  No sudden movements or distracting noises were to be made either.

The photo shoot -Lion pictures ahead!

I arranged to shoot the Lion because, frankly, I wanted to get close to a Lion.  I also figured that I could make a couple of great stock photos.  I sure hoped so…the Lion costs $5,000.00 to rent (When I asked the trainer how long I would get she replied “As long as he wants…”).  I needed to get the poses necessary to create a lion trainer with his head in the lion’s mouth, and the poses to have the lion sitting on a throne being the “King of Beasts”. I discussed what I needed with Stephanie, the owner of Bow Wow.  She would be able to have him open his mouth really wide, stand up on his hind legs (resting his forelegs on a bar) and sit on a stand.  That would be enough.

The shoot went smoothly.  We managed to get him standing and resting his front legs on a large camera stand we had braced for that purpose. One of the trainers would put a piece of beef heart on a stick and entice the lion up, just like one would entice a cat with a small morsel of food. And just like a cat, Truman would try and catch the treat with a quick swat of his paw. Sometimes he would catch it, but when he missed and the trainer would rise up the treat ever higher, he would rise up and brace himself on the camera stand.  I remember how his muscles would ripple and he seemed immensely powerful and self-assured in a lazy kind of way.

He begrudgingly sat on a circus pedestal for us, rolled around on the floor, gave us a few big yawns and paced the studio in larger and larger circles.  Each circle brought him closer to me. The trainer said he was curious about me and was trying to slyly get close enough to investigate. Finally, the trainer said Truman was getting a little agitated and it was time to quit.  Elapsed time:  forty-five minutes.  But it was worth every penny!  Oh yeah, and before getting back in his trailer he did manage to “mark” the art director’s car.

Taking pictures of Lions keeps my excitement level up.

It is opportunities like shooting the lion that keep me excited about stock photography and that help me make images that don’t get lost in the crowd.  That, as I see it, is the biggest challenge in stock today…not getting lost in the shuffle.  To succeed you have to try and be the King of Beasts…you don’t have to be it…but you have to reach for it.  And you do that by taking risks, by getting out of your comfort zone and by stretching yourself to do a little bit more and do it a little bit better.