Add Power To Your Big Cat Portraits

In wildlife photography, portraits “may” be some of the easier images to capture, especially of big cats.  All you really need is a subject that is near enough, and posing well for you.  Portraits are usually easier to capture if the subject is not moving.  Although I have captured my fair share of portraits of some of the wild animals that I photograph often, this doesn’t mean that I am bored with taking portraits.  I do not belong to that school of thinking that says “It has all been done before so I won’t take that picture”   I am passionate about big cats, and I enjoy trying to take portraits of them that show how I see them.

Grant Atkinson Lioness Jacana

A lioness, focused on potential prey in the distance. Canon 7D, Canon 300f2.8 IS. Shutter speed 1/125sec at f/4.0, Iso 500.


In fact, the more portraits I take, the more I realize that there are many small elements that can add much to a portrait, and every one is different.  I took the image of the focused lioness only after she noticed some wildebeest in the distance.  Until that time, she had been awake and upright.  At the instant that she became aware of the wildebeest in the distance, her ears came up, her eyes widened until I could clearly see her pupils, she extended her neck slightly, and she focused with an intensity that only cats like her can show.  After a while she lost some interest in the wildebeest, and relaxed her pose.   I shot with an open aperture to blur the background, and to help the cat stand out better.  When it comes to colours, backgrounds can work well to enhance the overall image.  In this instance, the green out-of-focus vegetation works as a pleasing background, and it sets off the brown tones of the lioness well.

Grant Atkinson Savuti Leopard Jackalberry

A female leopard stares from her vantage point in a jackal-berry tree. Canon 30D, Canon EF 300L f4 IS. Shutter speed 1/60 sec at f/4.0, Iso 400.

Backgrounds can be very important for portraits.  For this older leopard image, I chose to frame the leopard against the dark bark of a jackalberry (Diospyros sp) tree.  The dark bark serves to provide a good contrast in colour to the cat.  Equally, the textures in the bark contrast  well with the textures in the leopard’s coat, and it tells something of the cat’s habitat.  Again, the alert, wide-eyed pose that the cat is holding, adds to the  image for me.  This female leopard had been higher up in the tree, and hidden by foliage.  We waited until she made her way down, and on the way she paused to take a good look around, which is when I was able to take this frame.

GrantAtkinson-Mombo-Lion Cub-Mound

A cautious but curious lion cub peers from a termite mound. Canon 50D, Canon EF 300 f2.8 IS. Shutter speed 1/200sec at f/5.0, Iso 500.

Usually the thing that makes a big cat (or in this case a little big cat) portrait stand out above all else for me is the expression on the animals face and that is driven by the eyes.  Light, shadows, perspective, colour and background all play a role in how the image comes across, but none of those is as important as expression.  The female lion cub in the image above was moving with her mother and siblings, but was a few metres ahead of them.  When she chose to climb through an opening in a termite mound, we were waiting for her to come out.  She came through the opening very carefully, one paw at a time, and when she peered toward us with a strongly curious, but cautious expression,  I took this frame.  Her big eyes seem to show exactly what she is thinking.

I continue to take portraits of big cats, and in fact of all the wild creatures that I get to photograph.  Most of the time, my favourite portraits have come about after waiting for the subject to do something that placed them in an interesting pose.  This can often take place when there are other members of their species nearby or interacting with them.

Using a good zoom lens with enough reach like the Canon EF 70-300L f5.6 IS can mean that I am able to rapidly change focal lengths when a portrait-taking opportunity presents itself, and that can make it easier.  For good big cat portraits, I find I need a minimum of 300mm of focal length.  I try to train myself when I am photographing such sightings to keep thinking about different focal lengths.   It is all too easy to get so absorbed by the activity that I am watching that I forget to think about other types of images, like tight portraits.  I also really like taking portraits with the Canon EF 300 L f2.8 IS lens, as it gives great control over background blur and fantastic image quality.  Longer focal lengths like 400-600mm can be even more effective.


About the Author:

I am a guide and a photographer, with a deep interest in all things to do with nature. I am based in Cape Town, South Africa, but travel often to wild places whilst leading photographic safaris, and enjoying the outdoors.

8 Responses to “Add Power To Your Big Cat Portraits”

  1. Denise Kohler Tromp Says: March 21, 2013 at 9:48 am

    Well Grant, as you well know I am an avid fan of all your wonderful work …and believe that you are exceptionally tallented ..Thank You for sharing !!!!!XX You brighten up my day and as you know I am particularly fond of CATS !!! As I live in George, I plan to make another trip to the Cheetah Breeding program in Oudtshoorn …. Just love going into their cages and sitting with them and stroking them …Their purr is sooo loud it is actually awesome to experience it and their coats are so hard and brush-like !!!

    • Grant Atkinson Says: March 21, 2013 at 10:12 am

      Thanks for your support Denise
      Getting up-close to big cats like that in a safe environment is something very special… I hope that you share some pictures of your cheetah visit with the rest of us… 🙂

  2. Nancy Lewis Says: March 22, 2013 at 12:15 am

    As I’ve said before your explanation of all thing photographic always make sense to me. Even the more technical aspects. Your ability to capture expressions is exceptional, especially the eyes. It clearly demonstrates your patience. 🙂

    • Grant Atkinson Says: March 22, 2013 at 6:03 am

      Good to hear that feedback from you,Nancy, as I do try to write in a straightforward manner, and I am glad that you are finding the blogs easy to follow.

  3. Steve Kaluski Says: April 7, 2013 at 6:44 pm

    Hi Grant, you might also like to add that it important to keep shutter speed high, or at least to the equivalent to the lens used, ie 300mm requires 1/300. Although this is only a rule of thumb, dropping below this can result, in less ‘professional’ hands, can lead to camera shake and therefore IQ and clarity/sharpness may suffer.

    Just my 2 cents. 🙂


  4. Carl Says: June 9, 2013 at 10:32 am

    Hi Grant
    I agree with all you have mentioned in your article. The leopard remains my number one of all the cats. I thought that I should just take this opportunity to let you know that it was your review on the Canon 300mm f2.8L IS USM Mk II lens that got me excited to get back into photography and digital again. Since purchasing this lens I have not looked back. It is an absolutely amazing lens and with the 2 x extender Mk III it is SUPERB. Unfortunately I need to use it more without the extender. At this time it is paired with a 7D and after a slow start I seem to have mastered the body and learnt its limitations. I am in the process of looking for a 1 D MK iv but was wondering what your thoughts are on what the newer 7 D Mk II might turn out to be? I am fortunate live in a wildlife reserve and my kit is with me daily but I need a second body for my 70-200 as I don’t like changing lenses too often for obvious reasons.

    • Grant Atkinson Says: June 9, 2013 at 2:57 pm

      Hi Carl
      Glad to hear that you are getting good results from the 300 f2.8, that is one of the best lenses ever for wildlife. All I know about the rumoured 7Dmk2 is that it may be coming our way only next year. Although many of the rumours hinted that it would be a camera aimed at the wildlife enthusiast, It is really tough to speculate on rumours alone. I would expect the AF to be better than on the current 7D, given that quite a number of the latest Canons have AF that is much more sensitive than before (6D is -3EV, 5Dmk3 and 1DX are -2EV). My concern would be low light image quality, or high iso especially if they increase the resolution on the APS-sensor size. So far I have not yet seen any APS-C sensors with more than 18mp perform that well in low light, from any manufacturer. As it stands now, in my own opinion of course, the 1Dmk4 is a serious upgrade from the 7D when it comes to AF accuracy, and AF speed, as well as image quality. This is even more true in low light. For the wildlife photog those can be important characteristics. Buying a used 1Dmk4 would be a good option that would take you forward right now, as opposed to waiting for something that may or may not be what you are looking for. Of course, the high price of the 1Dmk4 even used is a factor, but you will also enjoy the rugged nature of that camera, especially in daily use. I almost always try to work with two bodies, one on a zoom, like the 70-200 and the other body on my 300..that way the amount of shots missed is minimized, and wear and tear on gear is reduced. The 5Dmk3 might also be an option, and it shares batteries, charger and smaller size with the 7D if that is a concern to you. If the 70D is similar again to the 40D and 50D in size, bigger than the current 60D, and with a full control set, it may be an option too…
      Looks as if you have some great choices to make 🙂

  5. Carl Walker Says: June 9, 2013 at 7:19 pm

    Thanks Grant… Low light image quality is important . I recently hired a Mk iv to test it and am sold on it. My brother in-laws 5DMkiii seemed to have the upper hand here at times but I really favor the faster fps and the 1D Mk iv is more suited to my needs. Keep up the good work.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *