On Sunday, I attended a photo shoot like no other. Literally. The location was a well-hidden gem in the Hertfordshire countryside, near Welwyn Garden City. As you drive past The Centre, which hosts The Cat Survival Trust, you would never guess it is home to an impressive range of wild cat species such as Amur Leopard, European Lynx, Jaguar, Puma, Snow Leopard and many more. The big cats are there for education and conservation purposes and it was such a privilege to get this close to these stunning predators. At the end of the day, each of the participants also received a year’s family membership at The Cat Survival Trust. Now I know four little people who are rather happy about that!
Upon arrival, Matt from Photographic Synergy gave us a briefing full of handy tips for a successful photo shoot. These pointers are valid for taking photos of children as well in my experience. What do they say again? Never work with children and animals?
- Get in close
- Shoot low so the eyes are the focus of your photos
- Look out for action (yawning, eating, cats interacting with each other)
- Be patient – it is unlikely the perfect shot will happen within seconds
- Be prepared to react quickly
- Make sure your battery is fully charged, with an extra fully-charged battery in your camera bag
- Use a formatted memory card (always format cards rather than just deleting pictures once they have been transferred!) – the SanDisk Extreme range is what I always go for
- Set the quality of your photos to Large Fine JPEG
- Go for continuous shooting so you don’t miss any action shots
- Keep safe! Although you gain confidence throughout the day, never forget that these cats are predators
Lens Bits & Bobs
- If at all possible, go for a lens with a focal length over 85mm
- For shots that are free from bars, go for a focal length of 200mm or above. I didn’t, but I’m a bit of a rebel (unruly student, moi?)
- Use a filter to protect your lens (you wouldn’t want a nice lens being scratched against the metal bars).
- Give your lens a quick clean before you start (lens cleaning spray & microfibre cloth)
What Mode? ISO? Shutter speed?
- To make your life easier, go for Aperture Priority (Av on Canon), setting aperture (f) at 5.6 or above. The fence and background should be blurred enough.
- If you are stubborn like me and only take photos on manual mode, go for a shutter speed that is at least 1/200th of a second (or even 1/500th) to allow for sudden movement from the cats.
- When it comes to ISO, just go as low as the light on the day will allow.
Trying a Range of Lenses
Before we went on our first photo shooting session of the day, Matt did something quite unusual (and invaluable): he let us borrow whatever we needed, may it be a camera or a lens. During the course of the day, I was lucky enough to try four lenses, two of which I have been coveting for a while. This is not cheap equipment (we are talking £1K to £2K lenses) and I would normally spend over £100 to rent one of those from Calumet Photographic in Euston (London).
First Shoot at the Cat Survival Trust
After our briefing sessions and our borrowed equipment, we were all raring to go. We didn’t have to go far: the first cats we would photographs were a couple of metres away from the entrance of the conference room. Matt had brought an impressive amount of meat to feed our subjects and these big cats were happy bunnies (no pun intended)!
I could hardly believe quite how close we were getting to these majestic and powerful cats. It is safe to say I had never been this close to a lynx or a leopard. I got so close when taking some photos I could smell the cat’s breath, feel its warmth and hear the crunch of chicken bones.
Our first subject was a Eurasian Lynx. The long-legged cat, with its perked ears, soft-looking fur and piercing eyes was such a joy to photograph. He would pose for us and I would have loved to give him a cuddle. Probably not wise, but he looked pretty tame.
The Cat Survival Trust is home to quite a few snow leopards. These graceful cats have thick soft fur and a long bushy tail they use as a counterbalance when jumping. They also wrap their tail around their body when they are resting. Their ears are small and very furry and their coat becomes lighter in winter.
Those ‘babies’ were so graceful, with their long necks and small heads.
The male and the female Amur Leopard at the Cat Survival Trust were definitely the two cats that looked the most aggressive. Only 30 to 35 Amur Leopard specimens remain in the wild.
The last wild cat we got to photograph was also the most impressive one. Athena is a female Jaguar. She was stocky, with a powerful body and a large head.
We also got to see and feed other animals at the Cat Survival Trust. I particularly liked the lemurs, with their soft hands. They loved getting fed fruit and their mannerisms were hilarious.
There were a few owls there too, and they were the biggest owls I had ever seen.
The photography sessions were incredible. There were only 8 of us on the day, and Matt would give us lots of personalised tips to improve our photos, as he was feeding our ferocious subjects.
Learning about the Cat Survival Trust
During our lunch break, we had the privilege to hear to Dr. Terry Moore talk about the work of The Cat Survival Trust. Listening to such a passionate man was fascinating and you could have heard a pin drop! The Cat Survival Trust has been going for 40 years. It is based on a twelve acre site in Hertfordshire, where unpaid volunteers manage it. They also look after the cats, maintain the site and buildings and do most of the construction work.
It all started as a rescue organisation because Terry discovered that lots of cats were being put down in cases of surplus. Until 1992, there was not much money to run it, but at no point did Terry consider giving up.
Preserving the Cats’ Natural Habitat
Habitat protection and the conservation of wild cats in the wild are key issues the Cat Survival Trust are determined to address, as “The long-term protection of habitat such as forests is not only crucial for the wild cats themselves but also for our very own survival and so such work also forms one of the charity’s main objectives.” You can find out more here.
The Cat Survival Trust acquired a 10,000 acre rain forest in the Province of Misiones in Argentina which and the dense forest that is home to 5 million trees, 54 types of medicinal plants, fruit, vegetables and about 70 wild cats is now a protected Provincial Park. Camera traps help monitor the big cats and research takes place on site too.
“The Cat Survival Trust is now planning to purchase and acquire more natural habitat to create further protected areas.” These “new reserves will be located in seven different countries and will contribute substantially to the number of wild cat species protected in habitat reserves bought by the Trust.”
On top of all this, The Cat Survival Trust produces scientific papers on a regular basis and talks are held at The Centre on a regular basis. I am in awe of this well-hidden gem of a place and I cannot wait to take my children to see the big cats soon.
Discount for Bloggers
The event, including lunch, a family membership to The Cat Survival Trust and lots of photography tips, costs £195. If you write a blog post after attending, you could get a £50 refund by emailing your blog post URL to firstname.lastname@example.org. Book here!
Fancy more tips about photography?
Check these tips to get you started shooting on manual mode.
Disclosure: I was invited to the big Cat Shoot by the lovely people at Photographic Synergy but all thoughts and photos are my own.