Masterclass with Paul hobson ? British Wildlife Centre, Surrey

Paul Hobson explains how to achieve fantastic animal portraits in a captive setting. Gemma Padley reports

British Wildlife Centre

  • Location

    Situated in the heart of Surrey, the British Wildlife Centre (BWC) was founded in 1997 by former Jersey dairy cow farmer David Mills. There are 40 species of British wildlife at the centre, including badgers, foxes, otters, stoats, weasels and red deer. The animals live in settings that reflect their natural environment and much of the site is outdoors, although there are undercover areas such as the Barn, the Hedgerow and an observation Badger Sett. Keeper talks take place every half an hour.

    The British Wildlife Centre, Eastbourne Road, Newchapel, Lingfield, Surrey RH7 6LF. Tel: 01342 834 658. Email:

  • Opening times

    Open every weekend and public holidays; from March until the end of October, and daily during school holidays from 10am-5pm (last admission 4pm).

  • Admission charges

    Adults £10, seniors £9, children (aged 3-15) £7.50, family ticket (two adults and two children aged 3-15) £32. Children under three years free.

  • Workshops

    The British Wildlife Centre runs photographic days where photographers have access to some enclosures. For more information visit

    We?ve all been on family days out to wildlife centres or zoos and taken snapshot pictures of the animals, but creating powerful animal portraits takes a little more skill and thought. In this month?s AP Masterclass, Paul Hobson and three readers travel to the British Wildlife Centre in Lingfield, Surrey, where Paul shows the readers how to take high-quality portraits of the different species kept there.

    ?The aim of today is to create strong animal portraits,? says Paul. ?There is a huge variety of animals so we have plenty of material to work with. Key things to think about include how to frame your shot to create a composition with impact, choice of background and how to make the animals look as though they are in a natural environment. Also, think about what ISO, white balance and camera mode you are using. On a bright day like today, I would suggest ISO 400; if it gets cloudy you can always increase it. I also advise shooting in aperture-priority mode as this allows control over depth of field.?

    Paul explains that the readers will need an aperture that allows a fast enough shutter speed to ensure the animal is sharp. ?As a guide you want the shutter speed to be roughly the same as the size of your lens; for example, 1/200sec if you are using a 200mm lens,? he says. ?However, shooting at ISO 400 will give very high shutter speeds anyway ? perhaps even 1/1000sec.?

    The readers brought their own cameras, lenses and tripods with them. Paul suggests a 100-400mm zoom lens is ideal, although the readers used other telephoto zoom optics. ?The advantage of an animal centre is that you can get close to animals that might be more difficult to capture in the wild,? says Paul. ?We?ll also spend time with a keeper in the fox and otter enclosures and photograph owls up close.

    ?Keep checking your exposure throughout the day and take into account the direction of the sun and how the shadows are falling on your subject,? he adds. ?Use exposure compensation if necessary.?

    The readers can use a tripod or handhold their cameras. ?Decide which approach is best for a particular subject,? says Paul. ?When you?re framing a shot, think about whether you are shooting in portrait or landscape format?.

    Your AP Master?

    Paul Hobson

    Paul, who is based in Sheffield, studied environmental science at Sheffield University and has worked as an environmental sciences lecturer for 25 years. With more than 20 years? photography experience behind him, Paul became a full-time wildlife photographer in 2009. He was specially commended in the 2008 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition and two of his images were exhibition finalists in the British Wildlife Photography Awards 2009. Paul regularly lectures on wildlife photography and also runs workshops visit

    The AP readers?

    Diana Gamble Diana, 61, is a PA and lives near Brackley, in Northamptonshire. She uses a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a 100-400mm lens. ?Paul was a great teacher and I learnt a great deal,? she says. ?I learnt to stand back and look at the situation before rushing in to take a picture, and noticed the difference that framing the subject makes to the power of the final image.?

    Graham Parry Graham, 60, is a retired professional engineer who lives in Rainham, Essex. He uses an Olympus E-3 with a 50-200mm lens. His photographic interests include people, architecture and abstract digital creations. ?I thoroughly enjoyed myself and learnt a lot about an area of photography I had very little experience in,? says Graham. ?I shall apply some of the techniques I learnt today in my future work?

    Katie Blackmore

    Katie, 31, lives in Witham, Essex. She uses a Canon EOS 1000D with a 70-300mm lens. ?I was hoping to learn a few new skills, which I did,? says Katie. ?It was interesting trying different shooting angles?. To see more of Katie?s images visit

    Choosing a background

    Choosing a background

    Once you have decided what you are going to photograph, it is important to think about what is behind your subject. ?Try shooting slightly wider to show more of the animal?s surroundings,? says Paul. ?Think about how you can use vegetation to frame the animal.? If you are incorporating the background into your shot, make sure it doesn?t lead the eye away from the subject ? foliage should complement, not overpower the composition. In Katie?s image of a fox, for example (see below), she uses the surrounding tree branches and grass to frame her subject. Combined with the shadows created by the warm late-afternoon light, this creates a very natural-looking composition.

    The Natural Look

    Photographing animals in captivity requires a different approach to capturing them in the wild. While some considerations are the same, such as the need to be patient and approach animals slowly, when it comes to composition even more thought is needed. ?We?re photographing animals in a captive environment, so try to find a way of making the animal look as though it is in its natural setting,? suggests Paul. ?A water vole coming out of a tube is not a true representation of how it would look in the wild, so try to frame your compositions to exclude man-made details. Is there a post, a fence or a person in the composition? Ask yourself, ?How can I compose this shot to make it look as natural as possible?? Look for areas of shrubbery that are wild and wait until the animal moves into a spot that looks more natural.?

    Positioning the subject

    Positioning the Subject

    Where the animal appears in the frame will affect how the viewer ?reads? the image. For example, a fox positioned in the centre will be especially impacting. If the animal is slightly to the side, the effect will be more subtle. ?With an animal portrait you?re looking for the animal to be quite large in the frame,? says Paul. ?Think about how the animal relates to its surroundings. Try to compose your shot so the animal is obvious in the frame, but it balances with other subjects. Leave space so the animal is ?looking into? the frame and think about how much of the animal to include in the shot.

    ?Don?t feel you have to fire off hundreds of frames the moment the animal appears,? he adds. ?Sometimes it is better not to take the photo immediately, but just sit and watch for ten minutes and get used to how the animal behaves. You can?t make animals do what you want them to do as they will go where they please, but if they do something interesting be ready to capture it.?

    Experimenting with viewpoint

    Experimenting with viewpoint

    There isn?t one viewpoint that works better than another. You may find that crouching down low or lying down leads to a strong composition for one subject, but shooting from a slightly raised viewpoint and at an angle works better for another. Bear in mind that getting down low so you are eye-to-eye with the animal will make it feel less threatened and lead to images that are more intimate. ?The shooting angle makes a huge difference to the look of your image,? says Paul. ?For example, if you crouch down and include foliage in the foreground, you can give the impression of being in the animal?s world. Most importantly, decide what it is you want from your composition before you take the picture.?

    Watch how the animal moves

    Watch how the animal moves

    Some animals move so fast you have to be on the ball to capture them. ?The smaller mammals won?t stop to pose while you compose your shot,? says Paul. ?Look at where they move in the enclosure and be prepared to react quickly.?

    During the day the readers photographed stoats, polecats and weasels that popped up from their burrows without warning and moved at lightning speed. In an attempt to capture these flighty creatures they trained their cameras on a spot where the creatures appeared and tried to anticipate where it would appear next. Paul advised the readers to take note of the animal?s route. ?The animals tend to have ?favourite runs? and if you look carefully you?ll notice certain behaviour patterns,? he explains. ?Keep your eye tuned in ? you only have a split second to take the shot.?

    Multiple Animals

    Multiple Animals

    If you are featuring two animals in the frame, think about how you can position each one to create balance and interest. Try to capture a sense of interaction between the animals. For example, in Katie?s image of two owls (see above) she angles her camera so that one owl is slightly behind the other and chooses a shallow depth of field so the owl in the background is slightly blurred. Katie creates a composition that grabs the viewer?s attention and retains it. Likewise, Graham captures the playful interaction of polecats in his image (see below).

    Depth of field

    Depth of Field

    Paul encouraged the readers to experiment with a shallow depth of field, to minimise distracting backgrounds. ?Try throwing your background out of focus to concentrate attention on your subject,? he explains. ?An aperture of f/4 or f/5.6 is a good option. In animal portraits you don?t want the viewer?s eye to be led away by other details ? the distracting edge of a fence, for example. If you have a depth of field preview button, use this to check your depth of field before taking the shot.?

    Coming in Close

    Coming in Close

    There are occasions when a tight crop is preferable and sometimes even necessary, such as when it is not possible to adjust your shooting angle to avoid distracting details in the frame. Another reason for tightly cropping an image is to make sure your composition has impact. ?If you home in on a fox?s face, you?ll capture its expression,? says Paul. ?A vertical shot of a fox?s head and shoulders makes a powerful composition.?

    Try something different

    Try something different

    Besides the traditional animal portraits, Paul encouraged the readers to experiment with more unusual shots. Inside, the readers photographed brown rats darting through plastic tubes. Shooting into the light, they used backlighting to create silhouettes. In Graham?s image (above) the rat becomes a shadowy blur. An unusual composition, it causes the viewer to question what the scene is showing and injects a narrative element. The readers also experimented with less traditional framing – including only part of the animal, for example. Composing a shot in this way can lead to interesting compositions that hint at a subject rather than present it in its entirety.

    Shooting through bars and wire mesh

    Shooting through Bars and Wire Mesh

    Sometimes when shooting animals in captivity you are restricted by the height and angle of the fences around the enclosure. Fortunately, the British Wildlife Centre actively encourages photography and the site has been designed with photographers in mind. Many of the enclosures have low fences and where there is wire mesh it is often wide enough to photograph through. ?If you push your lens right up against one of the gaps, you can usually get a clear view,? says Paul.

    Fill-in flash

    If you are photographing inside a building, you may need to use fill-in flash as well as increase your ISO setting and/or use a tripod. ?Check with a keeper that you are able to use flash, as some animals will be more sensitive to this than others,? says Paul. ?If you are shooting into a glass enclosure, beware of flash bouncing off the glass and causing flare. On a bright sunny day you could use fill-in flash outside to lighten some of the shadows. Don?t forget to check your exposure and be prepared to adjust the intensity of the flash if needed.?

    Choosing a focal point

    Choosing a Focal Point

    If the animal is not moving fast you have time to think about your point of focus. Later in the day, the readers had access to several of the animal enclosures where they spent time photographing foxes, otters and owls. Although the otters moved very fast and were difficult to photograph, the foxes stood still and the owls hardly moved at all. This made choosing a focal point easy. ?When handholding and tracking a fast-moving animal, you are better off using autofocus,? says Paul.

    ?But if you are using your camera on a tripod and the animal is relatively still, manual focus might be more suitable. If the animal is stationary I wouldn?t advise using ?servo? autofocus because the lens may ?hunt? as it searches for the subject. However, this mode is great for animals that are moving very fast.? An animal?s eyes are a natural focus point and if you are going for a close-up, make sure they are completely sharp. You don?t have to focus on the eyes, however ? you could try focusing on the animal?s claws if it is holding food, as Graham has done in his otter image.