Beauty of the Beast

Video of Sprinting Cheetahs a First in Wildlife Photography


Reporting by Roff Smith with Glenn Oeland

The slow-motion video is entrancing, revealing the fluid grace of the world’s fastest land animal. Every part of the sprinting cat’s anatomy—supple limbs, rippling muscles, hyperflexible spine—works together in a symphony of speed.

The extraordinary footage—captured last summer during an intensive three-day shoot at the Cincinnati Zoo—is unprecedented in its clarity and detail. “I’ve watched cheetahs run for 30 years,” said Cathryn Hilker, founder of the zoo’s Cat Ambassador Program. “But I saw things in that super slow-motion video that I’ve never seen before.”

The project was an outgrowth of a feature story about cheetahs published in the November issue of National Geographic. Kim Hubbard, the story’s photo editor, and cinematographer Greg Wilson brought together an A-team that included some of Hollywood’s hottest action and stunt cameramen to attempt a first in wildlife photography.

“Running cheetahs have been photographed using high-speed cameras,” Hubbard said. “But never has one been filmed with a high-speed camera moving alongside it at 50 or 60 miles an hour.”

To pull it off, the crew built a 400-foot-long track with a remote-control sled to keep pace with each cheetah. On the sled were a high-definition digital cinema camera firing off 1,200 frames a second and three cameras shooting 42 frames a second in sequence. A 150,000-watt light illuminated the course.

Keeping the train of high-tech gear in split-second synch with the sprinting cheetahs was daunting. One of the zoo’s cheetahs, a female named Sarah, broke the world record for the standing 100-meter dash, clocking a time of 5.95 seconds. She proved particularly difficult to photograph, often outrunning the camera sled. “We started calling her the ‘ghost cat,’” Hubbard said.

It wasn’t until the last night of the shoot that everything finally clicked and the team got the shot they were hoping for. “I think my heart rate was running higher than the cheetahs,” quipped camera operator Frank Buono, whose credits include action sequences in James Bond movies.  “This was one of the most challenging shoots I’ve ever done, and one of the most rewarding as well.”

Roff Smith wrote “Cheetahs on the Edge” for National Geographic Magazine.


December 9th-15th, Nat Geo WILD presents a week dedicated to nature’s fiercest felines—big cats—creatures of magnificent strength, ferocity and beauty that are rapidly facing extinction. With visually stunning and powerful stories from around the world, get closer than ever before to lions, tigers, cheetahs, panthers and more as you share in their triumphs, defeats, and epic struggles to survive.

Follow NG’s Big Cats Initiative on Twitter

More about Nat Geo WILD’s Big Cat Week

Other posts from Big Cat Week:

Closer Look: Warriors for Conservation

Closer Look: Sleeping with Lions

Closer Look: Making Friends with Technology

Closer Look: Closer Look: Tanzanian Community Rallies to End Illegal Lion Killings



Meet the Author
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn