If you’re fascinated by the natural world and love taking photos of animals, like me, you’ll love spending a day at the Wildlife Photography Centre in Devon.
The Centre is located in Upcott Grange Farm and is one of the best places in the UK to watch animals and master your wildlife photography skills.
So if you can’t go on a safari adventure this year and you’re tired of taking photos of birds in your garden, the Wildlife Photography Centre might be a perfect close-to-home solution for you.
The Centre allows you to take photos of wild animals in natural landscaped enclosures from a relatively short distance. It’s perfect for anyone who doesn’t want to spend hours, days, or even months in the wilderness hoping for a perfect photo opportunity (like most professional wildlife photographers).
- Individual photography experience versus a group photography workshop
- How to book your Photography Day
- What to put in your backpack
- How to get to the Westcountry Wildlife Photography Centre
- A Photography Day at the Westcountry Wildlife Photography Centre
- Accommodation options next to Westcountry Wildlife Photography Centre
Individual photography experience versus a group photography workshop
I first came across the Westcountry Wildlife Photography Centre on the website of Jessops photography store. Jessops runs one of their Academy Workshops “British Wildlife Experience”, which includes a classroom theory session with an experienced Jessops Academy Trainer and many practical applications.
Initially, I wanted to attend their workshop, and I liked the idea of learning from a photographer who is more experienced than me, but the workshop dates didn’t suit me, so I decided to travel to the Wildlife Photography Centre solo on a different day. I realised later that it was the best decision I could have made.
First off, I had the flexibility to pick which animals I wanted to photograph from the substantial variety available.
Secondly, I didn’t need to compete with any other photographer for space and the best spot to shoot from, which would have been otherwise unavoidable.
Thirdly, some animals can’t be photographed by groups because of their shy nature or their enclosure layout, and I was interested in taking photos of some shy animals like pine marten.
For these three reasons, unless you are a beginner photographer who needs some photography guidance and advice on the correct camera settings, I would encourage you to choose an individual photography session rather than a group workshop.
And if your social soul cringes at the thought of shooting alone, you can come here with one or two photography buddies as well, as long as you all decide to shoot the same species.
For anyone who would prefer to attend a workshop, here is the list of all them hosted at the Wildlife Photography Centre: You can also book tuition with a local professional photographer.
How to book your Photography Day
I contacted the Photography Centre and booked my photography day directly through their website. I have never been to Devon before, and the staff went above and beyond to help me make all necessary arrangements. They booked the accommodation that best matched my needs, responded to all my questions, and advised me on the best route to get there.
For a city girl like me who had never been to rural Devon before, their help was invaluable. I also had to pick the animals I wanted to photograph in advance. You can usually select up to 6 species.
If you are interested in photographing beavers in the evening, you will need to fill in a disclaimer in advance. Beaver photography carries some risks you should be aware of.
What to put in your backpack
- Photography equipment
There are many good cameras and lenses you may take with you, but a telephoto lens is your best bet. Nearly all my wildlife photos were taken with my Canon lens 70-300mm f/4-5.6 L. If you are more into photography of small animals, don’t forget your macro lens as well.
If you want to shoot with a longer lens than 300mm or in low light conditions, you may need a tripod to get sharp images. There are some situations when a tripod is a must, but I personally prefer to handhold my camera whenever possible.
Tripods tend to be bulky, cumbersome, and time-consuming to set up. They also don’t work well for fast-moving animals. Putting your camera on a tripod may make you lose some good shot opportunities.
I didn’t use my tripod at all while photo shooting at the Photography Centre. I was taking pictures during the day and doing my best to keep my hands steady. This allowed me to track and follow my subject more naturally, but it’s a question of personal preference.
- Water-resistant outfit
Devon is notorious for fickle weather conditions. Unfortunately, I experienced it first-hand when I visited the Photography Centre in July when there was tumultuous wind and rain. I would recommend waterproof walking boots, a rain jacket, and layered clothes.
You will need a torch if you plan to photograph beavers late in the evening or walk in the area late at night.
- Groundsheet (to kneel or lie on)
I personally didn’t use it, but it might be helpful, especially for beaver photography or for whenever you want to photograph kneeling or lying down (it will happen often). It will protect you against moist soil.
You need to bring your own lunch with you. You can treat yourself to tea, coffee, and biscuits in the classroom next to the gate to the Wildlife Photography Centre, but there are no shops or bars nearby that sell food. Alternatively, you can contact a lady who provides packed lunches – Wildlife Photography Centre can share her details with you.
How to get to the Westcountry Wildlife Photography Centre
The Photography Centre is located in a rural area of Devon, and it’s not easy to get there without a car. If driving is not an option, you can take a taxi from a city nearby.
I took a cab from Okehampton, and it took me less than 30 minutes to get to my destination. Buses run regularly from Exeter through Okehampton to Halwill Junction or Lifton (which are not far from the Wildlife Photography Centre). However, you will still need to get a taxi from there.
A Photography Day at the Westcountry Wildlife Photography Centre
The photography day runs from 10am till 4pm. I met an animal handler at 10am in the classroom next to the gate leading to the Centre. She was not only very friendly but also highly knowledgeable about wildlife. I loved learning about the animals I was photographing from her, including their names, stories, and habits. She was my guide on the day and accompanied me to all animal enclosures.
Note that you can spend the whole day photographing as many animals as you want in the 6 hours you have. You can spend the whole day taking photos of just a couple of species, or you can move faster to take images of more animals. It’s entirely up to you. I had enough time to photograph eight species without any rush, and I got all the shots I wanted.
Here are the animals I photographed with basic photography tips:
I’ve always been fascinated by cats, and the prospect of taking photos of lynxes was very exciting to me. Lynxes are the only animals you have to photograph through a wire fence for security reasons, which makes photography a little bit challenging.
- Switch to manual focus when you are shooting through the fence to be in total control of your focus and to avoid your camera focusing on the fence.
- When shooting through the wire gaps, get as close to the wire fence as you can to keep that fence out of focus. I like the images where the fence is barely seen (or not seen at all) in my pictures.
- Use your tele lens and large aperture to narrow the depth of focus. Wait until the lynxes are far from the fence, unless you want to incorporate the fence in your composition. I personally don’t like the images of animals behind the wire (and I took very few of them), so I preferred to wait for the lynxes to move further back. Even though they were moving a lot, all you need is a little bit of patience and you’ll get some good photo opportunities.
The otter was one of the most adorable animals I had a chance to photograph. But taking photos of the otter was challenging as well. It was extremely fast and was very sensitive to my movement.
- I know it’s a cute little animal but don’t get too excited when you see it for the first time. It will ruin your opportunity for a nice shot. Move slowly or stay as quiet and motionless in one position as possible. Otters may have poor eyesight but can hear you from far away. If you can, try to reduce the shutter sound as well.
The owl was very easy to photograph, and it seemed to feel very comfortable in my presence. It was sitting still, watching me with its beautiful, large eyes. I had plenty of time to photograph it from various angles, and it was a pretty easy task.
- Focus on the owl’s beautiful, expressive eyes.
- Try to shoot from different angles and use your creativity to make the image more interesting. You will have plenty of time for that.
Foxes may have a bad reputation, but how can you not love them? With their beautiful piercing eyes, they are one of the most photogenic animals. The fox I had a chance to photograph at the Photography Centre was shy, but with time, it became more comfortable with my presence.
- Keep the movement to a minimum so the fox won’t see you as a threat.
- Try a low shooting angle for the best images.
- Focus on the fox’s eyes.
I didn’t manage to get too many nice shots of badgers. I found them lovely and amusing animals to watch but not so easy to photograph. They were rapid and elusive creatures, with their noses nearly always buried in the ground.
- You can use your wide-angle lens here to get an image of the whole badger family.
- Keep quiet and stay still to make badgers feel comfortable around you.
- Use a silent shutter speed if you can, as they are sensitive to sound.
The pine marten is a very shy animal. Taking photos of it is not only challenging but can be a little bit frustrating, too. This little animal hides away a lot and shows up for a brief moment just to snatch the food.
- Increase your ISO if you can’t get a fast enough shutter speed.
- Be as motionless as possible.
- Pine martens run extremely quickly, but they stop for 2 seconds every now and then; you need to be patient and alert, having your camera always ready to shoot.
I heard that many visitors to the Centre don’t consider Scottish wildcats an interesting subject to photograph because of their similarity to domestic cats. I disagree. If you pay attention to details, you will see how different they look and behave.
Wildcats are also extremely rare and elusive. It’s difficult to find them in the wild as they usually stay away from people. It is a unique opportunity to photograph them.
- Be patient and stay as motionless as possible.
- Try to shoot at the cat’s level and capture its personality.
- Focus on the eyes.
Sika deers were the last animals I photographed on that day, and it was a very relaxing experience. Even if you can’t come too close to them, they seemed to be more accustomed to people than other animals. They were moving slowly, and I had plenty of time to shoot these magnificent animals from different angles. The baby deer was my favourite subject to photograph.
- Stay quiet, be patient, and don’t make sudden movements.
- Try to focus on their eyes and capture their unique expression.
Accommodation options next to Westcountry Wildlife Photography Centre
There are many accommodation options near the Photography Centre depending on your needs. You can stay at the campsite or book one of the Shepherds Huts nearby if you have an adventurous spirit and enjoy a little bit of wilderness.
I decided to stay at the Shepherds Hut for the night. It’s a fantastic place if you enjoy being totally immersed in nature, going for a digital detox, or waking up to spectacular views of wild horses, sheep, water buffalos, and wild boars. You can read more about the Shepherd’s Hut accommodation in my blog post here.
I would recommend Shepherd’s hut for all adventurous types but if you prefer more comfort, you may choose Frankaborough Farm.
✈️ travel photographer & photojournalist
🌎 travel blog: londonandtheworld.com
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