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Alma Leaper Says Big Cats Love Her Back

Alma Leaper Says Big Cats Love Her Back

“Be respectful. Put the animals, not your lens first,” firmly says the Lead Photographer and Head of Photography Workshops at The Big Cat Sanctuary in the UK, Alma Leaper. What started with a visit to the sanctuary turned into a full-time role a short while later. Alma tells us how she bonds with these big felines and how each of them has a beautiful personality all their own.

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The bigger the animal, the more terrified humans tend to be of it. Often, this is due to a lack of understanding of the creature’s behaviors and a general fear of being overpowered in an attack. Even when you know they’re behind a glass wall or behind a cage, you still tend to keep your distance from them. While most people agree that animals deserve to live in the wild, there’s no denying that conservation parks do a lot of good. Endangered cats are bred here, and they even have an ethics committee that oversees the operations. Alma Leaper shares how she documents the residents out there and how conducting workshops has led to many people gaining a new understanding and respect for the animals.

The Essential Photo Gear Used by Alma Leaper

Alma told us:

The z9 has many features, such as animal eye tracking etc but when photographing jaguars with their rosettes, it can be distracting so I tend to turn off these extras. The autofocus is considerably improved, compared with my early run with the z7. Its early days but so far, I’m impressed.

The Phoblographer: Hi Alma. Please tell us about yourself and how you got into photography.

Alma Leaper: I was introduced to photography at the foundation stage at Cardiff College of Art. We worked in film, and I was given a Mamiya Medium Format Camera to use for that year. I remember walking into the darkroom and encountering the smell of the chemicals and thought, “I’m home” The photography tutor took a photo of my profile to use as an example. Luckily I had ironed my wavy hair that day! 

My concentration was on photography: portraiture, still-life, and landscape from that time. My initial thoughts of concentrating on painting slowly disappeared, and photography/graphics took over. I still maintained my interest in fine art, and I was particularly drawn to the Chiaroscuro of Caravaggio and the skills of Rembrandt’s self-portraits to use those flashes of natural light. This is what I wanted to continue using as my main influence in both art and photography. I was always interested in animals from an early age, and my career plan was to be a vet. At school, my biggest influential teacher was the art teacher at Tredegar Grammar School. He encouraged me in my painting and helped this completely ‘lacking in self-confidence’ student to apply for art college, where this love of photography took off.

I did not have the finances to continue in photography initially. I was accepted to the graphics course, and from then on, every job I had was because of my “Clean Artwork.” I worked hard to earn this accolade due to the graphics tutor who once said, “Don’t ever do graphic design; your work is too arty/too scruffy and not precise.” I remember saying to myself, “I’ll show him.” I worked and worked at that precision, and it paid off. 

I had my own graphics business for a while and worked in advertising. An understanding of photography was essential for most clients, and I worked with some great food photographers who expected me, as an account manager, to give the “final say.” Nikon was one of my accounts, and I helped organise annual product launches. It was also the camera I used at the time. But I also used Canon. I don’t have a favourite. They each have advantages and disadvantages, but Nikon fits and still does for what I want to achieve in a photograph and what I do currently. In 1993 I changed careers and went back to university (SOAS – The School of Oriental & African Studies) London. I did a BA (Achieved First Class BA Hons) in Asian & African Art & Archaeology, followed by a MA in Chinese Art & Archaeology. My plan was to do a Ph.D. in Photography with the Royal College of Art  – discussing the ‘Relationship between Image & Art”, bringing Chinese elements into my research. I worked in Harbin, North China, for a few months at two schools to teach English (with some art thrown in), but when I returned, I realised I wanted to carry on teaching, so I did my PGCE at Canterbury University Kent, and became a Fine Art & Photography Teacher, becoming Head of Photography at Homewood School in Kent. I was also a moderator for the Exam Board for A Level Art & Photography.

The Phoblographer: How did your career with The Big Cat Sanctuary start? Were you hired as a photographer from the start, or did you move into this role later?

Alma Leaper: Eight years ago, after the end of the school Summer Term, I visited the Big Cat Sanctuary for one of their Open Days. I had previously visited for a photography day. They were advertising for a photographer at the time. I then began working part-time with one of the volunteers, Simon, who would carry a bucket of meat treats to the cats inside the standoff areas. This allowed the photographers to gain access, and I would advise on camera settings, dealing with the mesh, and helping to keep everyone safe. We had large photo groups then of 10-14 guests. Two years later, working at the sanctuary had taken over my life (It’s owned by a wonderful family, and the keeping staff has always been great). I left teaching at the school and accepted the role of Lead Photographer and Head of Photography Workshops. I was sorry to leave teaching, but I certainly now have the best job in the world, where it’s not about money. It’s about that happiness and the privilege of just being there, near these amazing cats, some critically endangered in the wild (such as the Amur Leopard) and others who no longer exist in the wild (the White Tiger). I run workshops most days of the week throughout the year, allowing for different events and other experiences. I love teaching and I see all levels of camera expertise and every type of camera. I probably see a little more Canon than Nikon. Olympus and Sony too, are extremely popular. I’d say Sony led the way in mirrorless, and Canon caught up pretty quickly. Nikon is hopefully there now too. What I have learnt over the years is, that it’s not about the equipment; it’s about the person using it. I’ve seen amazing, different, impressive images from bridge cameras and tiny compacts. I love to see people getting the most of their equipment.

My advice to parents is – don’t buy your children high-end cameras. Let them understand the process, to know why they need to upgrade, to learn about their subject. To work with animals in captivity, it’s all about patience. It’s not about giving them treats. It’s about gaining trust. And that is what I focus on. The animal’s welfare comes first for me, every time. On the teaching side, for this who come in on auto, who describe themselves as’ snappers’ or ‘point & shooters,’ I start them off in Aperture priority; f5.6 – single point focus/spot metering helps with the mesh. WB: Nikon cloudy for mid/bridge cameras and Canon, daylight/sunlight. ISO at 200 depending on natural light.

I then get them to listen/be aware of shutter speed. A cat sitting may look sharp but parts of cats, such as tongues and ears move quickly. We then move on the shutter speed and depending on the lens used or the cat can be from 250/400/800. I want them to try all settings, so they start understanding the reason for different set-ups. My main aim for those who have a good understanding of camera settings/exposure is for them to develop a style. I say, “you know the rules; now break those rules!” I then teach overexposing and underexposing. I’m known for ‘going on the dark side.

The Phoblographer: Are big felines typically patient models for photography? Or is there a lot of waiting to get a prime shot of them?

Alma Leaper: I know all the cats – big and small – really well. They all respond to me. Their sense of smell is not what you’d expect. They listen to the sound of my voice and watch where the meat treat falls. It’s all about patience with every animal. They are usually well worth the wait. A profile shot can be as popular as a full face, and its good to show them in amongst foliage etc.

Be respectful. Put the animals, not your lens first

The Phoblographer: Do any of them sense your presence and respond to your gear?

Alma Leaper: They know me well, and are extremely vocal. They are happy to join in on workshops – it’s a form of interaction, and enrichment for them. When I’m on my own with my camera, I talk to them first, so my equipment is new intrusive. Some like to take time coming out. Particularly our Rusted Spotted Cat, Nuwara (the smallest cat breed in the world; Sri Lanka/India), but she usually shows her face and only to those she knows well.

The Phoblographer: Which are some of your favorite ones to photograph and why? Which ones can be finicky about having their photograph taken?

Alma Leaper: My favourite cat is the one I’m with. I couldn’t choose between them. I don’t usually have a problem with any of them. There is a lion, Kasanga, who gets incredibly jealous, particularly of male photographers. He was originally a circus rescue at the age of two. Now ten years old and incredibly happy and settled at the sanctuary. He will show his disappointment for bringing yet another male to accompany me by turning away and flicking his tail at them. Usually, he gives in and responds beautifully.

I’m hanging on to both the D5 and D850 until I’m absolutely sure mirrorless is the way to move forward. I’m enjoying the challenge. I pretty much like to be in control. I don’t want the camera to make too many decisions for me. I am fully manual, hate auto ISO and will never use it

The Phoblographer: You’ve probably seen many of these animals grow up over the years and maybe can’t help but be emotionally attached to some of them. Is it bittersweet to know all that may be left of them in years to come are your images that document them?

Alma Leaper: It’s the most difficult part of this job. You grow incredibly close to these cats over the years, and it’s so hard. What I try to focus on is that they had the best life possible under the care of our amazing Keeping Team, led by Head Keeper, Briony Smith and Deputy Head, Ricky Reino, alongside our vet at Wildlife Vet International.

If we lose one unexpectedly, it’s a shock, but usually it’s old age. They grow to a fine age at the sanctuary. We recently lost our beautiful Jaguar, Sofia, just before her 21st birthday, and our wonderful African lion, Tiny. Very sad days for us all. 

The Phoblographer: Tell us a bit more about the sanctuary and what it does, its importance to global conservation, and what it hopes to do in the future.

Alma Leaper: The Big Cat Sanctuary in Smarden, Kent, is a conservation charity; home to over 40 big and small cats across 16 different species. It has the most diverse collection in the UK, from the largest to the smallest, to the most endangered in the world. The primary objective is the breeding of some of the most endangered species by offering sanctuary to retired and homeless cats.

The breeding centre is proud to be part of the EEP (European Endangered Species Breeding Programme). This is a body that regulates the captive breeding of endangered cats by making recommendations for breeding to produce a strong, healthy, and diverse gene pool within the captive population. The plan is to develop to a stage where there has been no human contact, so ultimately they could be reintroduced safely into their natural habitat to mix with their counterparts in the wild.

The Phoblographer: About the workshops you run there, do people return with a renewed sense of admiration and respect?

Alma Leaper: Incredible support. Most return at least once or twice each year. They learn a lot about the cats and how to extend their knowledge of camera use/ settings/exposure. We have excellent reviews. They want to be taught by a pro photographer, and, for me, it’s all about them going away happy with great shots of each cat. I’m often asked, “Don’t you get jealous of us getting great shots because you’ve helped put the cats in a good position?” No, absolutely not. I love teaching, and I like to see photographers improve and develop a style. Most of all, I love their respect and admiration for the cats. As I say, it’s a great privilege, and I have the best job in the world. Four years ago, I added two members to the team. They are great photographers and teachers (Sarah & Chris). I’m currently training Ryan to join the team. It’s not as easy as we make out. H&S is as important as photography. We keep them safe when close up to the mesh and have the greatest respect for the cats. 

The Phoblographer: What can photographers do to raise awareness about endangered species of wild cats?

Alma Leaper: Unfortunately, some photographers can be incredibly competitive. If they hear news of the birth or even a death of a species in captivity, they will rush to put it out on social media. Fortunately, the majority are respectful to the zoo/sanctuary and to those who need to inform the public in the correct way. It’s all about doing your research on the breed(s) you are interested in. Don’t assume about animals in captivity. It’s not for all, and I understand that.

I know I am extremely privileged to have close access (in the standoff areas), but as much as the cats show affection in their own way, I would never touch them. It’s not my right. It is about respect for an animal that deserves a comfortable, happy life. Our international vet, who unfortunately is no longer with us, said to me, “If it wasn’t for places like like this, I would not have the knowledge to treat injured animals in the wild or to train their local vets.” He was so right. Be respectful. Put the animals, not your lens first. We all want photographic memories. Do it right and at that right time. It will be worth the wait.

All images by Alma Leaper. Used with permission. Take a look at her Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages to see more of her photography.

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