A Guide to Big Cat Photography Part Two


Welcome to Part Two of Hints and Tips on Big Cat Photography. Here we continue to look at equipment and common mistakes encountered when photographing Big Cats.


Here you have quite a few choices , these points are discuss below.

Specific Lenses

Macro – a close focusing lens ranging from 50 to around 110mm in focal length – the longer the focal length the further away from the subject you can be. The drawback – foreshortened depth of field – you have just a few millimetres to get the focus point right – so you’ll need a still subject matter. But you can get some amazing close ups of teeth and paws.

Standard Close Focusing – this would apply to a 30mm or 50mm prime lens but one that has the ability to focus down to around 8 to 12 inches. These lenses can give you close dramatic pictures when on a Big Cats Experience Day.

Standard Zoom – for me this would be a lens similar to an 18 – 70mm or the 17 – 55mm. Similarly there are some longer standard zooms such as the 24 – 70mm or even a 24 – 120mm. The choice is yours and it comes down to which part of the zoom range you want to operate within, remember on a DX body the lens will be multiplied by a factor of 1.4 to 1.6 depending on which make of camera body you have. So your 17 – 55mm multiplies up to around a 25 – 82mm when compared to a 35mm film camera or an FX digital body. On an FX body – being full frame the focal length is as stated. But remember if you use a DX lens on a FX body you’ll get edge fringing , called vignetting.

Fast Zoom Lens -by this we are looking at how much light the lens can let in at its maximum aperture. For example a lens with a minimum aperture of F6.3 will let in far less light than one of F2.8. Remember the smaller the number the bigger the hole in the lens and the more light it lets in. This then gives you faster shutter speeds, which you need with longer focal length lenses, for example those over 200mm. Tip – you should always keep your shutter speed over your focal length – so if you‘re at 200mm, you need 200th of a second, but hang on you’re using a DX body and lens so you need to add in the crop factor multiply by 1.4 to 1.6 so at 200mm you really need 320th or 400th of a second. Even some standard zooms with F2.8 aperture used by the professional photographer can still be expensive, for example the Nikon 17-55 F2.8 is around £900.

Standard Telephoto – this would be something like a 70 – 300mm lens or some of the more all day lenses – like an 18 – 200 or 55 – 200, all day lenses are discussed below. You can get a 70 – 200 F2.8 but these are expensive, most standard telephotos range from F4 to F5.6 in terms of speed and are good all round lenses, just watch the light levels. OK you can up the ISO but again remember the noise compromise.

Super Telephoto – this would apply to either a lens over 300mm or one that I feel is a prime lens, fixed focal length, that sits around F4 or F2.8. These are not cheap lenses and entry levels are around £2,000. Personally I like to use the 200 – 400mm VR lens from Nikon, now selling at a suggested selling price of £5800, but I didn’t pay that for mine, I got in before the 2009 price rise.

All Day Lenses

A Definition – by this we are talking about an all in one lens, a lens that will cover from wide angle to standard telephoto, for instance an 18- 200mm.

The Benefits – it gets you all the shots you need, no changing lenses no down time. Often light and compact they are not much to carry about.

The Compromise – optical quality! You’re asking this lens be a jack of all trades master of none. A prime will always out perform a zoom. And an all day lens has to do a job at all levels through the zoom range, the edges of the image will suffer and so too will the speed of the lens, remember the F number and the amount of light it needs. You don’t find professional lens made at F2.8 or faster that cover that wide a range – and there has to be a reason for that – optical quality – Pros carry 2 or more camera bodies with a shot and a long lens set up using matched equipment.

Depth of Field

Depth of Field (DOF) – if you are fortunate enough to own f2.8 maximum aperture lenses then be mindful as to how short the DOF can be, especially if the subject comes within the zone where the distance to subject is under the focal length – for example, the DOF on a 200mm lens will be further foreshortened if the subject is inside a 2m (2000mm) range in front of the lens. Some 200mm lenses will focus as close as 1.5 – 1.8m so the impact of this is that you may focus on the nose of say a tiger only to find the eyes are blurred, or out of focus.

Shutter Speed

As a commercial photographer – remember this rule as we mentioned earlier – keep your shutter speed above the focal length of your lens, e.g. 200mm shoot at 250th sec or more, allowing for the crop factor I’d suggest at least 320th sec on a 200mm lens.

RAW or Jpeg

This is probably as much discussed on the camera forums as brand names, each has its advantages and disadvantages. Personally I shoot RAW as it gives you an insurance policy if the shot is slightly out. Added to that I personally think it gives you more post production options. The choice as they is yours. I do shoot Jpeg for press work but only because you don’t have the time for post production.

Image Composition

Detail – this is great option, stripes, spots, eyes, ear noses and tails – there is so much choice.

Action – running, jumping, pawing for food on the ground or in the air, lost of options. And when it all kicks off with the three male lions make sure you’re ready.

Portraits – sitting, lying down with a full belly and a low sun in the sky and the lions look great. Contrast that with an angelic Tiger that just can’t be bothered. All of these give you great options for images.

Close Up – teeth, paws and claws, similar to the details shot but much closer, using macro photography.

Use of flash – this is an option , watch out for green or yellow eye, this is the same as red eye in humans and it’s a lot easier to get and harder to get rid of due to the size of the cats eyes. Also watch out for the cage , make sure the flash gun is a fill to the available light and close to the wire else you get wire stripes.

Common Errors

Wire – while the gauge of wire will have an impact on what can be done, I still see many shots with the wire right through the middle of the shot. It’s best to get the centre of the lens lined up with the square of the wire – i.e. the hole. Ensure you don’t have a vertical or horizontal wire passing in front of the lens or worst still a join, giving a big cross in the shot.

Background – try to get the background as natural as possible use head shots or a short depth of field to bur the background. Also use any landscaping in the enclosure to mask the cage behind or above. Remember to get down low, take the cats perspective.

Machine gunning! – is the photographer that presses the shutter button for long periods of time, shooting continuously without checking the shots back. This will fill up your memory cards very quickly and give so many similar images to edit, when all you really need are short bursts of 3 to 6 shots. Take your time.

Metering – Try and avoid matrix metering and use spot or centre weighted, remember to metre off the subject. Matrix metering is too general for Big Cats.


Tripods – these are not really usable around the Big Cats enclosures as they are awkward and you don’t have the flexibility to move.

Monopods – these are very useful on longer lenses and have the ability to be more manoeuvrable.

Laptops – if you have one it’s a good idea to dump your shots half way through the day. Alternatively use the laptop to check shots back, say at lunchtime, and see how you are getting on. Also remember to back up your cards – the last thing you want is a card failure and no images.

Extra cards – a very good idea, keep them smaller, now-a-days around 4GB. 16GB cards are all well and good but if it fails, that’s a lot of lost data. 1GB used to bethought of as large, a while back, now using this card in a modern DSLR and it more resembles the number of shots you’d get on a roll of film.

Clothing – Check the weather before you go. Take a few options to allow for a change in the weather or for getting down on the ground.

Author : Peter Davey MA DipM