Big cat photography: 10 tips for getting amazing safari photos in your local wildlife park

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Learn how to shoot safari images – in a local wildlife park! We show you how to get big cat photography that look as if they were taken on the savannah…

Wildlife doesn’t get wilder than lions, tigers and jaguars. But jetting off to Africa, Asia or South America to go on safari isn’t available to everyone, and there’s no guarantee of you coming across these fierce felines even if you do. 

Wildlife parks, on the other hand, offer assured access to these amazing animals, but the drawback is that there’s a physical barrier between you and them. No bad thing, considering these are predators that could consider a photographer to be a snack, but by following our tips, you can take brilliant and natural-looking images that look like they could have been shot in the wild.

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Big cat photography tips

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You’ll need to try and get closer access than a regular zoo can provide. We headed to The Big Cat Sanctuary in Kent, south east England – a charitable organization dedicated to the conservation of these creatures. We shot them under the watchful eye of lead photographer Alma Leaper. She not only advised us on photographic techniques, but was also able to encourage the big cats into the perfect position with the help of meaty treats thrown into their enclosures.

Armed with our Canon 6D Mark II and a big telephoto zoom lens, we were able to press our lens up close to the fence and, using a wide aperture, shoot through the gaps in the fence. We could fire away while the cats kept their distance for us to compose some great wildlife shots. Read on for more…  

01 Lens choice!

Big cat photography tips

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We used a Canon EF 100-400mm telephoto-zoom – but as we got close to the animals, we could get away with a standard zoom too. Longer focal lengths and faster apertures enable you to achieve a shallower depth of field – all important for that ‘on safari’ look. 

2. Exposure and aperture

Big cat photography tips

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Shoot in Aperture Priority or Manual and start with an aperture of around f/5.6. This’ll ensure the animals’ facial features are sharp with their body slowly falling out of focus – distracting backgrounds, such as fences that give the game away, will be blurred.

3. Spot metering 

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It’s crucial that the animal is properly exposed – set Spot metering so the exposure is weighted towards the selected focus point, which’ll be on the cat. The centre-weighted metering mode would try to expose the entire scene, but the subject is more important.

4. ISO and shutter speed

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The big cats we were shooting weren’t running around so we didn’t need a super-fast shutter – just enough to avoid camera shake. Aim for at least ‘one over’ the longest focal length of the lens – so 1/400 sec for a 400mm. Increase the ISO, if needed, to achieve this.

5. Continuous focusing

Big cat photography tips

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Set Continuous autofocus (AI Servo AF) mode to track the animals combined with Low-Speed Continuous burst mode – rather than High-Speed Continuous, to avoid filling up the memory card. You don’t need to be shooting at 10fps for these cats!

6. Pin-point focus

Big cat photography tips

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Set Single Point AF mode and position this at one side of the frame so there’s negative space for the cat to move into. Keep focus on the animal’s nearest eye so it’s sharp as you follow it around. Zoom in and out to capture a variety of body shots and close-up portraits.

7. Set-up: zoom in close

Big cat photography tips

Composing too wide can reveal truth – these are caged animals!

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Big cat photography tips

Zoom in for better compositions and safari-esque shots!

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The combo of wide aperture, telephoto focal length and your focusing distance will mean your depth of field is so shallow that the bars on the cage will vanish. For the best results, shoot as close to the fence as you can. Then be bold with your frames and fill the frame with these strong animals. As we discovered up close, male lion’s heads are huge, so it’s easy to get a tightly-framed portrait even at 100mm.

Exposure: 1/320 sec, f/5, ISO200

Technique: Position the end of the lens to ‘feel’ that it’s positioned between the bars, but be prepared to move your fingers away quickly if your guide says back away!

8. Set-up: exposure compensation

Big cat photography tips

+1EV: Use negative exposure compensation for black cats

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Big cat photography tips

+1EV: Use positive exposure compensation for light-coloured cats

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Big cats come in all colours, from near-white lions to black jaguars, and Spot metering will ensure that your camera biases its exposure to the subject. However, your Canon’s metering system will still try to expose for a midtone, so you’ll have to dial in negative exposure compensation for cats with dark fur, and positive exposure compensation for animals with lighter fur (if shooting in Manual mode, increase or decrease the ISO and/or shutter speeds).

Black cat Exposure: 1/500 sec, f/5.6, ISO800, -1EV

White cat Exposure: 1/2000 sec, f/5.6, ISO400, +1EV

Technique: Regularly check the images on the back of your camera display and adjust your settings accordingly.

9. Set-up: better backgrounds

Watch for distracting backgrounds

Watch for distracting backgrounds

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Plan your position and compose for better backgrounds

Plan your position and compose for better backgrounds

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Try lots of compositions, and try placing your subject to one side of the image and leaving space for the subject to look or ‘move’ into. Look to avoid man-made objects in the frame to maintain the natural ‘safari’ feel to your shots. If you can’t blur out the fence at the end of the pen, try composing with some more natural elements behind the animal.

Exposure: 1/640 sec, f/5.6, ISO200

Technique: Try not to concentrate so much on the subject, that you don’t see the distractions in the viewfinder. Check your images regularly with a critical eye, ensuring that any unwanted elements aren’t creeping into the shot,
and get down to the cat’s eye level for better results.

10. Set-up: capture behaviour

Is it roaring or yawning? Both look great in photos!

Is it roaring or yawning? Both look great in photos!

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Big cats can show their teeth!

Big cats can show their teeth!

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Look to take dramatic photos that capture the big cats displaying emotion – and their impressive nashers! This can help show a powerful predator on the prowl rather than a captive cat. Cats love to climb up high, and this offers a great chance to zoom in with a super-telephoto to capture them against the sky.

Exposure (above): 1/2000 sec, f/5.6, ISO200

Exposure (left): 1/1000 sec, f/5.6, ISO200

Technique: Find out from your guide which cats are likely to show off, then be patient and sit ready with your lens raised and pre-focused on the cats; it may be a fleeting display so shoot with a fast shutter speed.

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The Big Cat Sanctuary is a charitable organization dedicated to the conservation of endangered feline species. While many of its inhabitants are rescue animals that wouldn’t survive in the wild, it participates in breeding programmes, with ultimate reintroduction to the wild as part of the global breed for release programmes. It runs regular photography days, among other fundraising events, where small groups get the chance to photograph these magnificent creatures at close quarters. For more info, see thebigcatsanctuary.org 

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