A wild photographic adventure with the big cats

This week I took part in a four-person photography workshop at the Wildlife Heritage Foundation’s big cat sanctuary in Smarden. Situated in the heart of Kent, the sanctuary is currently home to around fifty wildcats of various types and sizes.

Leopard
Leopard

I arrived on site early Sunday morning to be greeted by resident photographer, Andy, and the offer of a strong cup of coffee. After introductions, we were led into the conservatory and taken through a short, but comprehensive, orientation and safety briefing.

Cameras loaded with fresh batteries, pockets stuffed with lenses and memory cards, we headed out to the lions’ enclosure to begin our experience. On the way out, our attention was drawn to a sheet of corrugated metal that had been completely destroyed by a tiger, annoyed by it rattling in the wind. The multiple puncture marks were a pretty clear demonstration of the sheer strength of these animals, and a good reminder not to put fingers inside the meshing of the enclosures- not that I had been planning this!

Cheetah
Cheetah

The two African lions were fantastic subjects. They struck majestic figures against a moody sky, and were delightfully uncooperative when it came to acknowledging us, the photographers. We were able to spend around fifteen minutes getting to grips with shooting through the meshing, while taking direction on composition from Andy.

After everyone was comfortable with their camera settings we moved over to the white lions’ area where we were able to observe a larger pride being let out for feeding time. I actually struggled quite a bit with photographing the white lions as the sun managed to break though the clouds. Even those with a limited experience of photography will be able to imagine that photographing white animals in bright sunlight poses some problems with regards to exposure.

In spite of these issues, and with some helpful direction from Andy, I was able to get some shots that I am quite happy with. Shooting entirely in RAW format allowed me to bring back a lot of the lost areas and I ended up playing around with black and white in the post processing.

Lion pride
Lion pride

In the course of the day we were able to photograph cats of all shapes and sizes. I did have some particular favourites though; we were able to go into the enclosures of both the cheetah and the lynx to photograph them from much closer than the meshing would have allowed. This was respectfully done, with absolute consideration for the animals’ welfare. I also got a huge lift out of photographing leaping cougars, powerful leopards and the very photogenic Jungle Cat; Jack.

Every kind of weather you can name passed over within a few short hours. Sunshine gave way to threatening clouds, which provided an amazing backdrop for capturing roaring tigers against a multi-toned sky. By day’s end our legs were cramping from spending hours in a photographer’s crouch, our memory cards were full and even our spare batteries were empty.

In all, I took over 750 photos, using up 19GB of space on my cards. It has required a long week of processing, but I have managed to edit and whittle these down to a gallery of 30 favourites, which can be found on Joe’s photography website.   The WHF run a variety of workshops at different price points, but I was honestly very happy with the group size of four. Andy was able to devote a good amount of time to each of us and was fantastic in instructing us on what to look for in our big cats photography.

The charity does some fantastic work for endangered big cats and seems to do things differently than some of the major zoos and wildlife experiences. Their website is located at http://www.whf.org.uk, and any donations or fundraising efforts are hugely appreciated.

Words and photography by Joe Hitchmough.

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