A Guide to Big Cat Photography Part One


The purpose of this guide is to give you some top tips for getting great pictures. Big cats have a personality all of their own and each breed is quite different. This will affect how you photograph each species of cat. For instance some are quick and move rapidly, others will sit and take a more leisurely approach. This article is set out into sections so you can dip into the bits most relevant to you.

So what do we mean by Big Cats, lets start with the rarest cats in the world, The Russian Amur Leopard, around 150 in captivity and only 30 in the wild, then we have the Snow Leopard, now only found in the inaccessible mountains in Pakistan. On the Tiger front you have the Sumatran Tiger, then the Amur Tiger as it now know but better known as the Siberian Tiger. Then there are Lynx, Lion, Cheetah, Serval and Puma also known as the Mountain Lion or Cougar – they are all the same cat.

First of all don’t be confused into thinking that you need a top of the range film or digital SLR camera and lenses to get great pictures. You don’t. Both compact and the intermediate bridge cameras are more than capable of capturing great images. Many people that have come on Big Cat Photo Experience Day have started with a compact camera and found that they can get great images. They have come back and some have even found that they got so much more from photography than they ever thought they could. Others just come and enjoy the close contact with such magical animals.

This guide is based upon many years as a professional photographer capturing some of the rarest cats in the world , all kept within a private collection for breeding purposes with the aim that they are returned to the wild, so long as the human race hasn’t ruined the original habitat. For the Sumatran Tiger, that I fear is a rare hope, but with new cubs born late 2008 there is a glimmer of hope.

Compacts and Bridge Cameras

The real benefit of these cameras is their size. Being small and compact they fit through the wire of the enclosure so that’s one less thing to worry about. All you do need to do is watch what the cats are doing so they don’t take your camera off you! And trust me if they get hold of it they will win – no negotiation!

Captive animals are quite nosey so you will find they get too close. Key settings would be either close up / macro or a sports mode if you are using pre-set shooting modes. More advanced cameras have Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Full Manual. If you are more comfortable with these settings then please read the sections underFilm and Digital SLRs as the same rules apply.

One main problem of these cameras is what is called “shutter lag”. This is the time the camera takes to fire the shutter and capture the image after you press the shutter release . On static subjects this won’t be so much of a problem, but on fast moving or erratic moving subjects this is where this will be noticed. You aim at the head and the camera takes a picture of the tail!

ISO – Film Speed or Sensor Sensitivity

The speed of your film or sensor sensitivity as it’s really called on a DSLR will affect the camera settings in a given light. A typical sunny day will let you shoot on ISO 100 or 200, being the base setting of your camera depending upon the brand of camera or film you’re using. With a DSLR you have the ability to change your ISO or sensor sensitivity as the light changes, so you can go up and down from 100 to 200 or 400 (or more) as the light changes. With film you are fixed per roll. OK you can “bump it” up or down but only if your film processor knows what they are doing, automated developing just won’t hack it and will leave you with a messed up roll of film. As a commercial photographer I shoot digital and enjoy it – when all the technology works of course!

Using a second body is an option if you can afford it as it gives you another lens to shoot from or another roll of film different from the first body. Lenses or course are interchangeable.

With speed or sensitivity comes a compromise – noticeable pixels . The higher the ISO the more noise or grain there will be. But, and a big but, under exposure will create more noise than high ISO – so make sure the shot is exposed correctly. Being a commercial photographer amongst other things, I shoot using Nikon cameras and with these I have to shoot slightly over exposed to get the shot right – Nikon metering seems to be slightly on the safe side in my experience.

White Balance

This is not an easy function to explain but it comes down to the colour of light. What I hear you say, but all light looks the same to me, yes it will, the human eye and brain is very clever, it shows you a white subject as white in any light so you can’t actually see what your camera sees.

Until that is you take a picture indoors, ever had a picture on a digital or film camera come out yellow ? Light is measured as a temperature similar to that of heating a metal rod in a flame. The colour moves from orange to white and finally blue. Now this isn’t measured in degrees C or F but in the wider scientific range called Kelvin. Digital cameras use this Kelvin number to determine the colour of light.

For example Orange is at the warmer end or 3400K the same as a household bulb with a tungsten filament, also known as incandescent- day light and studio flash is around 5200K to 5600K and fluorescent light is a real nightmare depending upon the type of tube and colour temperatures vary from 2700K up to 7200K – so pretty much the whole spectrum.
Tip – on a flat grey day use the pre set white balance of Flash – it gives a slightly warmer shot.

Tip – don’t use Auto white balance for two reasons. While it might be fairly accurate light is not a fixed entity it changes all the time and so too will your cameras setting for White Balance when on Auto. Secondly if you then go on and edit your images you have the potential for having to manually correct each image if you’re not happy with the setting. And on a Big Cat Day guests regularly shoot 400 to 600 images – now that’s a lot of time chained to your computer.

Tip – pick a pre-set value, even if its not correct , some cameras allow fine tuning warmer or cooler. If then you want to edit the images at least you can batch process all the images in one go as the White Balance value will be the same – so too will be the adjustment. Just shoot RAW, then you can correct it, Jpeg gives you less control.

Tip – try taking a custom white balance measurement if your camera has this setting .

Tip – remember a Snow leopard is Grey and White – it should not be cream.

Film and Digital SLRs

Camera bodies vary in design and my view is that megapixels aren’t the be all and end all of good images. As an example a 6 mega pixel camera will get a more than an acceptable image, in fact many news photographers still use a high quality, robust 4 mega pixel digital camera body. Why, because other functions are more important .

Whereas the norm for many manufacturers is now, at the time of writing this Big Cats guide, is to offer 10 – 12 mega pixel camera bodies, other key features come into play.

Autofocus – General

AF-S , AF-C or Manual, Single point, Multipoint Dynamic or Closest Subject? AF-S will give you a setting that shoots only when the subject is in focus. AF-C gives you a continuous mode where by the AF systems tracks the subject adjusting focus all the time you have the shutter release pressed half way down and the focus point on the moving subject. This is good for fast / moving subjects, the shutter will however fire even if the shot is not in focus. 3D tracking found on Nikon cameras is good for some subjects as it tries to work out where the subject will be if it leaves the focus area or frame – try it and see how you get on, you may find you come back to a dynamic – movable – focus point chosen by the photographer – you!

Manual focus gives you more control but chasing a moving subject is difficult and takes time to practice.


Spot, centre weighted or matrix or average? The main difficulty with Matrix is that it takes an average setting across the whole frame so you can end up with a dark image especially if you catch some sky in the frame. This being brighter, normally, makes the camera close down the settings, leading to an under exposed subject.

For improved results with cats I find centre weighted works best as the camera metres from the centre of the frame and this is normally where the subject matter will be.

Spot metering would be best used for a close head shot where the cat is stationary being sat or lying down, as you’d find with the Lions in the afternoon after they are fed.

Part two continues with more settings and equipment discussions as well as common mistakes.