Fancy getting up close with big cats, improving your photography and raising funds for charity? Rachel Grafton heads to The Cat Survival Trust to find out more.Having only been able to use the 'auto' setting on a camera for years, this one-day photography course, run by Jessops Academy, was a dream come true for me.Open to all photography levels and cameras, Jessops' Big Cats Experience offers participants the chance to photograph beautiful big cats up close in their home at The Cat Survival Trust in Welwyn, Herts, learning more about the different species and their cameras, while also raising funds for the trust, too!
The trust was founded by Dr Terry Moore in 1976 for the conservation of endangered wild cats, but nowadays its main objective is to preserve the natural habitat of big cats in the wild. It was this objective which led the charity to purchase 10,000 acres of forest in Argentina back in 1992 to protect the five species of big cat living there.
The trust's work at the 12-acre site in Welwyn sees them caring for big cats rescued from private collectors or surplus animals from zoos, who may have otherwise been euthanised. Not open to members of the general public, the trust is a quiet haven for the 31 big cats currently in its care.
Theory into practice
At the start of the day, we are greeted by the head of Jessops Academy Ian Savage and tutor James Andrew, along with Jessops' wildlife expert Phil Gould, assistant Lizzie James, trust founder Dr Terry Moore, and volunteer and trustee Colin Hayden.
James and Ian start by giving us a tongue-in-cheek health and safety warning, saying as tempting as it is, not to put our fingers through the mesh of the big cats' enclosures or we will lose them!
Our photography tutors have over 70 years of experience between them - Phil is an internationally renowned photographer, while Ian has been in the trade for over 20 years, working as a wedding and wildlife photographer.
We start by learning the theory behind photography: how cameras work and how different lenses will get different results, the difference between auto and manual focus lenses, as well as how an image stabiliser works to reduce shake in the camera. Ian shows us how to control the aperture in our cameras to help blur out the wire mesh (read how to do this in our jargon buster), which comes in handy as we will be photographing the big cats through their enclosure fences.
There are several breeds of big cat at The Cat Survival Trust - including the critically endangered Amur leopard, stunning snow leopards, a jaguar, pumas, servals, Eurasian lynx, snow lynx, a Scottish wildcat and African wildcats.
We are split into two groups and head out to put the theory into practice, and our group first meets two beautiful sister snow leopards having a snooze inside their enclosures.
"Every day is a joy to come and do something like this," says full-time volunteer and trustee Colin.
It's not hard to see why as crowd favourite, seven-year-old female jaguar Jags, entertains us by posing among the shrubberies while we all snap away, with James and Lizzie always on hand to give us pointers to improve our photos.
Next we are introduced to the trust's pair of breeding pumas, and while the male relaxes up on a plinth and watches us lazily, his mate sits behind a bush, just out of range for our cameras. One poor woman holds her camera up close only to be startled by a swipe of the feisty puma's paw!
We then meet the smaller species, and first encounter two cheeky servals. One in particular seems to enjoy having his photo taken and lies attractively in a patch of grass!
Know your camera
Around the corner we meet two adorable puma cubs perched up in a tree, perfectly posed for us to snap a series of fantastic photos from a number of angles.
Somewhat less helpful was the feisty Eurasian lynx in the next pen who sits just out of reach of our cameras and gives a warning growl to anyone who comes too close! Once she'd settled down though, she poses prettily for us in her enclosure before getting bored and turning her back on us! Around the corner we find more servals who hide in the long grass in their enclosures at fi rst, before one of the cubs decides to lie down in the reeds, just long enough for us to grab a photo or two.
One of Your Cat's favourites, a Scottish wildcat, is one of the last felines we meet. He's sitting in the tree in his pen and even turns his head so we can get his 'best side' while we snap away!
Phil then creates a brilliant photo opportunity with an Amur leopard for us by standing on one side of the enclosure with a bag of chicken legs. As Phil walks towards us, the leopard follows and we're able to take some incredible photos of him prowling towards us.
As the day wears on and it starts to get dark, James then encourages us to experiment with the fl ash to create some atmospheric photos and I'm able to capture a great shot of the Scottish wildcat in his tree, which enhances his lovely green eyes and long whiskers.
Ian says: "We run the academy to inspire our customers to get better results from their cameras - a new camera can be daunting and we want people to get the most out of their camera.
"We're very passionate about wildlife and photography, and we're so inspired by The Cat Survival Trust. By offering customers the opportunity to come and visit the trust's big cats, this creates greater awareness of the charity. As photographers, we want to put back into the charity."
Confused about what different photography phrases mean? Jessops' national trainer Vicki Chaplain explains:
Aperture: a hole situated within the lens of the camera that can be widened or narrowed depending on the available light. It controls the light and depth of field.
Depth of field: how much of your image is in focus. So if you'd like to draw the eye to just one area of a photograph (like the eyes on a pet) you'd need a shallow depth of field. This can be done by adjusting the lens aperture to a small number.
Focal range: this is determined by how much the lens can zoom or widen. It is measured in millimetres and a high number will allow you to zoom in on just a small area of your subject, whereas a low number will give you a wide view.
Optical quality: how good the glass is. It will ensure you get the correct colours but also determines how sharp and clear your images will be.
Exposure: in simple terms, how much light has reached the sensor at the end to produce your photograph. It is very important that this is measured and captured correctly though, otherwise you could end up with pictures that are too dark or too light.
Vicki's top photo tips:
- Reduce your depth of field for a lovely blurry background - you'll need to combine this with getting close up to your favourite feline. However, if he is a little camera shy, use the zoom instead.
- Be patient - they say one should never work with animals or children, but give them a little time to get used to the lens in their face and the magic will happen!
- Get low to the ground - photographs can look much more interesting by just changing your position. It will also add a lot more depth to your image, plus the animal in question will trust you more for being at their level.
- Think about your composition - you can be super creative just by choosing the angle at which you're photographing from. For instance, the subject closest to your camera will appear larger, so make sure you always have the area you want to emphasise at the front.
- Take lots of photos - if you've got a fidgety cat, or a cat that is always blinking, take lots of images, so you can look through and delete the blurry/blinky ones. With manual cameras, increase your shutter speed to capture the motion faster and use the multi-burst/continuous option.