Photographing Zoos, Or Capturing Your Memories On Film
Have you every visited a Zoo and wanted to photograph an interesting animal, but somehow the photographs don’t come out as well as your memories? Have you ever wondered how someone was able to get that great shot of a Sloth, the cute Gorilla or that special action photo, and all you seem to get is sleeping sloths or a big exhibit with tiny animals? Are your photographs too blurry or fuzzy, slides too dark, animals too small? I will be talking about and showing slides of some of the problems I have encountered and overcame while photographing at the Zoos I have visited.
Every Zoo I have visited has had interesting Exhibits and animals. I’ve gotten great shots of Binturongs at a small Zoo in Michigan, seen some fantastic signage at a Zoo in Ohio, had a good chance to photograph Red Pandas through glass in Minnesota, and so on. Every Zoo, no matter how small or large, has something interesting to offer and even photograph.
Large exhibits can have many common problems. Animals too far away, low lighting, or animals hiding. Smaller exhibits can have their problems too. Low or almost no lighting, or having to photograph through glass, wires or bars. What do I do? Give up and go have lunch? Nope. For every problem there is a solution. The challenge is to find it. With a tripod and longer lens you can get that Capuchin against the back wall. Now we have another problem, long lenses cost big bucks. Or do they? A good 300mm prime lens can cost over $5000. But do we need that $5000 lens? Granted, I want one, but I don’t need one to get good photographs of animals at the back of the exhibit. A 300mm zoom lens, a zoom lens is where the barrel of the lens slides or rotates to change the focal length of the lens from 75mm to 300mm, costs from $100 to about $300 which is a lot cheaper.
Modern lenses are being made of Titanium plastic, a very strong and light plastic. With longer lenses you may be able to hand hold it, but a good tripod is necessary for the longer exposures. If you can’t get a tripod you can use a monopod, or lean against a wall or railing and still get some good photographs.
Bars, wires and other obstructions.
Have you ever gone to an exhibit and wanted to photograph that Red Panda, Cheetah or bird, but the exhibit has bars or wires across the front? What do you do? If you have a camera that has manual focusing you can get a good photograph without bars or wires. When the animal is far back as possible, get as close as possible to the bars or wires and manually focus on the animal using a small depth of field. For those of us who wear glasses, this is similar to having dirty glasses and still seeing. The lens, or eye, “sees” right through the obstruction and you will have a chance in eliminating the bars or wires in the photograph.
Low lighting? Can’t you just wait until the sun is more cooperative? Well if you’re on vacation no, you can’t. So what do you do? Using a good flash can give you 2 to 3 times more available light. Another option is a flash extender. The extender can give you up to an additional 3 times more light and costs around $30.
What other problems can there be photographing Zoos while on vacation? If you’re like me, you always seem to forget to write down what species of primate that was. I’ve gotten into the habit of photographing the signage. Most Zoos spend a lot of time and money putting up neat and interesting signs in their exhibits telling visitors, and Docents, what they have and a little about their animals. Photograph the signage, it helps later.
Sometimes no matter what you try, you cannot get that photograph of that special animal you traveled specifically to see. It can be off exhibit, sleeping or simply not cooperating. What do I do? If you’re patient enough you can just wait it out, you figure sometime in the next few years you can get the photograph. But if you can’t wait, what can you do? Sometimes a little research a head of time can help. Do you want to photograph an animal that is active in the mornings and sleeps in the afternoon? Visit the animal in the morning. Is it most active during feeding time? Find out when it gets snacks. Was the animal active a few minutes ago? You may have to wait for awhile to see it come back out. If you want a certain type of lighting in the exhibit for your photograph, you may need to know which season to visit the Zoo. Speaking of seasons, certain animals do look better in different seasons. Know ahead of time which animals look best on your visit.
Even with all your research you still can’t get that special shot, what do you do? Be creative, go with the flow. Look for other things to shoot besides animals. Zoos spend a lot of time and money to make their Zoo pleasing to look at and visit. Check out their gardens, you may be able to get some great photographs of flowers. Some warmer climate exhibits may have flowers and plants that are not native to your area. Some Zoos have butterfly gardens. The colour and wing designs of butterflies make fantastic photographs to show others. Other interesting subjects to photograph are signs, signs, everywhere signs. One zoo I visited had a lot of interesting information about primates that I didn’t know. Photograph and learn. If you can’t photograph what you want, make the best of it and try expanding your photographic skills and try new things. Long exposures, different filters, double exposures. The list goes on. Pick up a book on Zoo and Animal photography. See what you really like, find out what the photographer did and try to copy it. Imitation is the best form of flattery.
Usually when someone mentions close-up photography they are thinking of getting a few inches away from a flower or insect. However close-up photography is much more. With a 300mm zoom lens, which remember runs from $100 to $300, you can get as close as 5-6 feet. Try zooming in on that Peacock, Wolf or Reptile with a 300mm lens getting full frame of their feathers, eye or skin. Look for patterns on the animals that you can photograph. The 300mm zoom lens you used to photograph that animal way in back? That same lens can be used to photograph a full frame picture of a Wolf’s eye and nose.
Have you ever tried to photograph a Golden Lion Tamarin, did you notice that he never stops moving? How do you photograph him? I have dozens of photographs with his body still, but his head is a blur. He just doesn’t stop! Try using faster film, 200, 400 or 800 ISO, and or use a flash. A flash can add a few stops of light, turning a poor opportunity into a good chance of getting the photograph. If you’re still too far away from the animal, you need a longer lens. A 500mm to 600mm lens can cost more than I make in a few months. Try using a teleconverter. A teleconverter can increase your 300mm zoom lens to a 420mm or even a 600mm lens, at a fraction of the cost of a $8000 600mm lens. A teleconverter can run from $50 to $200, depending on whether you need autofocus. When using longer lens they can get heavy and you will need to stabilize the lens. They do make special stabilizing lenses that you can hand hold, similar to camcorders, but they can be expensive. Here is where tripods and monopods come in handy. A tripod can stabilize your camera lens for long exposures.
Although they can be heavy, bulky and expensive, they are worth it. If you decide to get one check out the size and weight of the tripod and tripod head at a Camera store and get the best one you can afford and carry. They can run from $100 to well over $500. A monopod is a lot cheaper, and can work just as well or even better in a lot of situations. A monopod is a contractible stick, so you wouldn’t have to carry a 6-foot stick, with a camera head on it. They are a lot lighter and smaller, so you can use it in a crowd without bothering visitors. I’ve used them down to a 1/30 second with a heavy lens with good results and even slower leaning against a wall. A monopod can run about $30 to $60, and up. Check your local Camera store, as well as K-Mart, Wal-Mart and other discount stores. I’ve gotten into the habit that when I’m using one of my longer lenses I almost always use either a monopod or tripod.
Glass, flash and low lighting. A bad combination. When you are using flash with glass you need to be careful. Glass reflects the flash and could turn an okay photograph in to a terrible photograph. You can avoid this by using a flash correctly. I will be showing examples of both good and bad attempts at photographing through glass. Never shoot through glass straight on, especially in very low light. The reflection of the flash will come back at you and you will have glare spots on the picture. Shoot at an angle, about 30 degrees, to the glass and if possible have the flash off the camera. This way the camera could be straight on but the lighting, the flash, would be at an angle to remove as much glare as possible. Also get as close to the glass as allowable and permissible. The light from the flash has less chance to reflect back into the camera lens. Flashes can be a big help, it will give you more light and fills in darker areas, but it also can create shadows. When shooting through bars and wires with a flash, shadows will develop. Get the flash as close as possible to the bars or wires, so the shadows will be less.
Other helpful suggestions:
Film. What type of film should I use? What brand should I buy? What speed should I use? A lot depends on what you plan to do with your photographs. Are you planning to do slide shows of your animals? Then slide film would be better than print film. Do you want to put them in an album to show? Then print film would be a lot cheaper. Are you planning to frame larger prints, 8x10s or 11x14s? Either slide or print would work, but you should use a slow film, a 50 or 100 ISO film with a tripod or monopod. If the largest print size you would ever need would be 4×6, then you could shoot 400 or 800 ISO without a tripod. Your film type, brand and speed depends on what your needs are, what are you going to do with your photographs?
Digital photography is one of the newest fads. There’s a lot you can do with a digital camera. The convenience of taking a photograph and being able to email it all over the world in a short period of time is a lot of fun. Digital Cameras are everywhere; you can take 1000s of photographs on vacation and not have to spend hundreds of dollars to process the film. I personally use scanners, printers and Digital Cameras, but they do not (yet) replace my use of 35mm film. However they may for you.
What makes a good picture?
If you like your pictures, then it’s a good photograph. Composition is simply “the act of putting together parts to form a whole.” It is way to evaluate and critique your photographs. What you create on film should be pleasing to you and give you fond memories. However most Camera Clubs and serious photographers follow certain rules, unless they intentionally break them for a reason. Even if you are not a serious photographer there are a few rules you can follow to help you get a good picture. One of the most important rules to follow for composition is what is called the “Rule of 3rds”. You simply imagine 2 horizontal and vertical lines on your viewfinder, and the upper, lower right and left intersections are the “3rds”. Place your subject on one of the intersecting lines. This will help prevent the subject from splitting the image in half.
When placing the subject on one of the interesting lines, you will notice that most of the picture is empty. Try to have the subject facing, running, or walking into the picture.
Ever see a photograph and notice the walls leaning or the horizon not straight? Look around in your viewfinder, before you take the photograph. Another good rule to improve your composition is that horizontal lines should be horizontal and the vertical lines should be vertical.
The last rule is KISS. Keep It Simple Silly. Try to avoid putting too much into your photograph. Find your subject, that you want to point out or show to everyone. Then look at what else is into the photograph. Does it enhance the subject or take away from it? How can you remove the excess clutter? Some suggestions are: try getting closer, move farther away, use longer or wider lenses, experiment and see what works best. But don’t forget to take the picture. It may not win awards, but it’s your photograph and it is good. The memories will last a long time.
Photography, like other things in life, gets better and easier the more you take pictures. Read Zoo and Animal books, see which photographs you like the best and understand why you like them. Talk to other photographers and friends, ask questions, or give answers, on how to capture the photographs you like. Read, talk, take pictures, read some more, take more pictures, and so on. The photographs you take today will not be as good as the ones you take years from now, but the memories will be there and that’s one the most important parts of photography, “Capturing your memories on film.” The best part of photography is just taking pictures. So get out, visit the Zoos, take pictures and have fun.