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The power of the portrait

As I walked through the gates of Yorkshire Wildlife Park, this blog popped into my mind, so for the next six and a half hours I was chasing a specific set of photos.

As you can guess from the title of this blog I was concentrating on portraits. There are numerous benefits of taking portraits in zoos and wildlife parks, a lot of which I will touch on in this blog. It came to mind when I thought about the fact that it’s very hard to get an ‘environment’ photo of an animal in captivity, sure it may be possible, but a lot of the time you’ll have fencing in the back, blurry human figures or other little give aways that the animal is in captivity.

This brings me to the first benefit of shooting portraits. Portraits mean you’re more than likely shooting tight, meaning you can eliminate most of the giveaways that your shot is of an animal in captivity. It’s more pleasing to the eye if you have a photo of an animal that doesn’t have a teacher in a hi vis in the background! I am definitely not saying that you should ever try and convince anyone that a shot of a captive animal is a wild animal, and if you post any photos on social media, you should make sure to point out the animal is in fact, in captivity.

One of several beautiful lionesses at YWP

Another of the lionesses, with little thought to composition therefore including the hi vis teachers!

Secondly, it is a lot easier to get close to animals in captivity than it is in the wild (safely anyway). The Yorkshire Wildlife Park (YWP for ease from now on) has walk-through enclosures for animals such as lemurs and wallabies, allowing you to get extremely close to the animals in some instances (which should only happen if the animal chooses to come that close to you, not the other way round). This is the ideal place to get up-close portraits! (See below).

A beautiful lemur

An extremely photogenic squirrel monkey in the South America walk-through

Another benefit of shooting in captivity is that ultimately, the animals aren’t going anywhere (unless they decide to go inside that is!) so you have the chance to shoot, review images, and reshoot to your heart's content. It took me a while to get a shot of the giant otters that I was pleased with. They had an awkward habit of hiding just below the top of the fence but with a little tenacity I was able to anticipate their movements and managed to capture this shot. The benefit of having time on your hands means that you can try different compositions, different angles and you’re able to shoot until you have a super sharp portrait, nothing beats a crisp portrait in my opinion!

One of the two giant otters

Despite having some of the biggest enclosures I have ever seen, where without a doubt a large telephoto lens (500/600mm) can be hugely beneficial, the beauty of YWP is that it has certain areas, like the wallaby walk-through where you don’t need a telephoto lens to achieve clean, tight portraits. 200/300mm can be a perfect focal length. Don’t forget if you’re using a crop sensor DSLR you get a 1.6 magnification on any lens you’re using, so a 300mm lens becomes a 480mm lens.

Taken at only 247mm!

Just a few quick mentions to equipment, edits and tips on shooting. Remember to always keep your shutter speed the same as your focal length to minimise camera shake as much as you can = 300mm = 1/300s, 500mm = 1/500s etc. I have attached a few photos below with all the details to give you an idea. Tripods can be amazing at helping to get crisp images in the sense that they allow you to use live view focusing, but may be a hindrance at a busy wildlife park or zoo. Viewing windows/platforms can often be very crowded, making the use of a tripod very awkward.

iso 640, 500mm, f / 6.3, 1/640.

iso 640, 439mm, f / 6.3, 1/800.

iso 640, 500mm, f / 6.3, 1/1600.

iso 1250, 500mm, f / 6.3, 1/1600.

Just a final word on editing. Ultimately it comes down to personal preference, but I usually like to play with the tone curves, HSL tab and adjustment brushes to bring out details in the face.

I used the adjustment brush to bring out a little more detail of this little mara's eye.

The Yorkshire Wildlife Park, the UK’s No.1 walk-through wildlife adventure, situated near Doncaster is one of the best wildlife parks I have ever visited, where it is clear that the wellbeing of the animals is without a doubt the number one priority at the park. An amazing day out, and somewhere I would recommend to anyone who has a love of animals!

Thank you for reading,


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