By Heather Davidson
Who knew a tour to the Conservators’ Center could change your life? In November 2012, that’s exactly what happened to me. My husband and I visited the Center for the first time and became hooked; by my count, we have visited the Center ten times since then, and my favorite visits, by far, have been my six Photo Safaris.
On my first visit I was extremely impressed by the staff’s dedication to the well-being of these amazing animals—and blown away by how close I was to the big cats! I had my camera with me that day and got some shots that I thought I liked, even though there was fencing between my camera and the animals.
Two weeks later, I returned on a Photo Safari and have not been impressed with an image with fence in it since!
Photo Safaris are amazing experiences. Your small group is assigned a dedicated staff member who knows the animals and closely supervises your tour. Not only are you off the regular tour path, you also get to spend time against the fence when it is safe; there are strategic holes in the fence that your lens can fit through for this purpose. You decide which animals you want to spend your time with, and your wallet decides how long your tour lasts!
The more photographers who are in your group, the less time you may spend at the fence. On my first Photo Safari, to offset the cost, I invited three people who are not photographers but who paid to tag along with me for an up-close experience with the animals. I have also been in groups of two, four, and five people, as well as on solo Safaris. They have all been AMAZING!
Every time I visit the Conservators’ Center, there is a different highlight, like being close enough to hear the lion brothers, Thomas and Ra, devouring some deer, getting a high five from Calvin Lion, and having the Mixed Pride of lions and tigers pose for a family portrait in front of their den box.
I especially enjoyed watching Arthur Tiger dunk his pumpkin during the annual Pumpkin Prowl event. I was with Mandy Matson, who was spotting me on my solo Photo Safari that day. Visitors were lined up on the other side of Arthur and Kira’s enclosure, when Arthur bounded to the back. I was poised there with my camera and captured him chasing Kira, dunking the pumpkin, and climbing into his water tub to cool off. He was having a blast, and I was the only one capturing this moment. You just can’t beat that experience!
Tips for capturing great shots on a Photo Safari
I encourage everyone to visit the Center on a general tour first to get the lay of the land, hear the stories, and see who catches your heart before you come with all your gear. Once you’ve figured out the animals’ personalities, it is easier to chose your camera settings so as not to miss anything. For example, when Arthur was putting on a show, I was on rapid-burst mode. I captured a great many shots, including a series where he and Kira Lion played peek-a-boo around a tree and chased each other. There are always some blurry images, but I have never left without a few that make me proud! When a big cat is yawning, I also use rapid burst. You just don’t want to miss any part of that!
Many of the animals are senior citizens and pose more serenely for their visitors. For these individuals, I chose aperture mode and get softer backgrounds. Jacob captured my attention from day one. He’s an older gentleman who doesn’t run around much anymore, but he is such a handsome tiger. Manual mode is just too much for me to handle with so much going on at the Conservators’ Center.
Tripods are not necessary, in my opinion. When your lens is through the fence, you have that to steady yourself on. It’s chain link, and not always steady, but I have never wished I had a tripod. I feel less dynamic when using a tripod, and the Photo Safari is an experience where you want to be on your toes!
Big lenses are also not a must-have; you will be breathtakingly close to these wonderful animals. A long lens and a tight shot may be good once in a while, but you may find yourself wishing for a 28-200mm, or even a good point-and-shoot on Photo Safari.
These majestic animals are all in a better place than they used to be, and most of them are very comfortable with having humans near by. Photographers are always trying to get “that shot,” and a Photo Safari at the Conservators’ Center gives you that opportunity, without a doubt. How many people can get National-Geographic-quality photo-ops right here in NC? And even if you bring your friends and they have their cameras too, you’ll all leave with awesome images and great stories to tell as you share them!
by Heather Davidson
Heather has recently joined our wonderful team of volunteers at the Conservators’ Center. She visits us twice a month and is training to be a tour guide. She enjoys telling everyone she meets about the Center and sharing her images from the Photo Safaris. You can find some of them on our Facebook page and more of them on her website. Heather makes note cards with her images of our wonderful animals, sells them on the website, and donates all proceeds to great causes, like the Conservator’ Center! Check out her website and help support our cause—education, conservation, and rescue.