Photographing Baby Animals

If you spend time photographing wildlife in Africa’s protected places, there is a good chance that you will encounter animals with babies at one time or another.

In this post I have shared some thoughts on making more of such great photographic opportunities, with lions, leopards and spotted hyaena being features species this time.

Grant Atkinson, leopard, panthera leo, cub, tree, Botswana

Leopard cub on a tree branch. Canon 7D, Canon 70-200f2.8 IS L. Shutter speed 1/320sec at f/4.0, Iso 320

When it comes to the young of big cats it is best to remember that if they are very young, that they are very, very small.  Leopard cubs are good examples.  For this reason, if you photograph from the height of a car window or game-viewing vehicle seat, and they are on the ground, it is likely that the little cubs will appear even tinier, and just get lost in the background.  For this reason, I always try to get at least some images of small cubs when they are off the ground.  This makes them look much bigger, and the images usually have more impact.  Leopard cubs are just as much at home in trees as they are on the ground, and when the cub in the image above began to walk out on this branch, I made sure to grab some frames.  Lion cubs will also climb small trees, and even young cheetahs will do the same thing, especially fallen trees that might lie at an angle.  Termite mounds and large rocks are also places that young cats of all species like to climb upon.

Grant Atkinson-Spotted hyaena, Crocutta crocutta

A young spotted hyaena alongside its mother. Canon 40D, Canon 300 f2.8 IS lens. Shutter speed 1/200sec at f2.8, Iso 640.

It can also be rewarding to try and show the scale of the baby animal that you are photographing.  One way to do this is to include at least a part of the parent or another adult of the species, in the frame.  In this image of a spotted hyaena cub, I chose to shoot with a longer focal length in order to keep the cub big enough to capture expression and detail, and then just included half of the mother hyaena, who was lying on her side.  It is also effective to include all of the adult, and the cub ,but in this instance I went a bit tighter with my frame.  Although spotted hyaena cubs do not climb trees, I was able to avoid shooting the cub on the ground as both animals were on top of a flattened termite mound in this image.

GrantAtkinson-Savuti-20090930-8224, lion, panthera leo, Savuti, Botswana

Lion cub, Savuti. Canon 40D, Canon 300 f2.8 IS. Shutter speed 1/200sec at f.3.5, Iso 800.

A common characteristic of the young of many animals is that they have proportionately larger eyes and ears than the adults.  This can make for very endearing expressions in the case of subjects like lion cubs.  When you are photographing cubs, make sure to try and get some close-up portraits that actually show these big ears, and big eyes.

It can help to have a lens with enough focal length for the job, bearing in mind the small size of some of these young animals.  In that regard the Canon EF 300L f2.8 IS lens has worked very well for me.   Even longer telephoto lenses can be even more effective, and they do a good job of flattening out perspective as well.

A good zoom lens with a decent range, can also come in handy in such situations, especially when there are a number of youngsters, or you are trying to include adults and cubs within the same frame.  On some of my recent photographic trips I have found the Canon EF 70-300L to be a good lens to use in such situations.

It is a rare privilege when you get to see the young of wild animals, and what better way to remember such occasions by bringing back engaging photographs of the encounter!

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.

4 Responses to “Photographing Baby Animals”

  1. Anja Denker Says: January 18, 2013 at 9:13 am

    What a great blog Grant, I like your comment about the youngsters having larger ears and eyes that the adults – you have captured this perfectly with the lion cub!! I also love the leopard cub on the tree, the way the tail nearly frames the bottom half of the face..
    Thanks for sharing your expertise and tips so freely – not many photographers do that!!

    Best wishes

  2. Grant Atkinson Says: January 18, 2013 at 9:35 am

    Glad you found it useful Anja. I thought it might make for an interesting post, as I often find that when confronted with youngsters like this that I get so excited I forget to think through my actual photography. And of course they are lions, hyaena and leopards, but they are also very little and it is easy to forget that. These are just some ways I have learned seem to help with showing them off well. Of course, you also need lots of luck to find them in the first place! Thanks for taking time to write with feedback Anja.

  3. Loi Nguyen Says: January 18, 2013 at 1:30 pm

    Grant, this is a great blog. For those of us who have not visited Africa, it gives us a feel for what we should anticipate. I have learned that perspective is very important for shooting birds and not too many good shots can be had when shooting a bird flying overhead. Shooting at eye level brings out the beauty of the cubs as you showed here with the lion and hyena cubs. Having a 300 or 500mm telephoto lens should help since you can shoot at a further distance and still keep a small angle in case the cubs are lower than the shooters. I like the hyena cub photo very much as it not only showed the cub expression, but also it’s relative size next to its lying mother. Thank you for sharing your knowledge!

  4. Grant Atkinson Says: January 19, 2013 at 7:46 am

    Hi Loi, good that you enjoyed the blog. Actually, much of what one learns is important in bird photography is equally important when photographing other wild creatures, especially so if they are smaller animals. Birds are also fast moving, and the experience you get from photographing them will prepare you well for an African safari. Thanks for your comments, I appreciate them

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