Shooting at the Zoo – Part #2 (Podcast 80)

Thoughtful Eyes [C]

Shooting at the Zoo – Part #2 (Podcast 80)

Last week we started this two part series in which we’re looking at a number of shots from a visit to Chester Zoo during my visit to the UK in January and February of 2007. Today I’ve selected another eight photos from that afternoon to talk about, interweaving some tips and tricks on how to make the most of you time there. Thanks to all of those that mailed me over the last week giving me a big thumbs up for the last episode. I’m really pleased you enjoyed it, and hopefully there’ll be something for you to take away from this episode too. If you didn’t listen to last week’s episode, which was number 79, it might be a good idea to go back and listen to that first, as I’m not going to go over most of the details again today. Let’s just get right into it.

Following on from last week, I was probably around half way around the zoo by this point. Let’s look at the next shot I am going to talk about, which is image number 1327. Here we can see a baby Asian Elephant feeding from its mother. It’s always great to catch a tender moment like this. The baby was suckling literally for just a few seconds, so I felt a little lucky to have been in the enclosure at the right time for this. Note that I haven’t tried to include the mother in her entirety, or probably I should say in her enormity! There are two reasons for this. First, is that, as I said last week, I usually just try to get in as close as possible in most of my shots. We know what an elephant looks like, and the important thing here is the suckling baby. Had I included the mother as well, the baby would have been dwarfed by comparison and the detail would have been lost. The second reason is simply because this is a zoo, and to include the mother in her entirety would have meant including the surrounding too, to some degree. Although I do not try to hide the fact that these shots were taken in a zoo, I feel images which were obviously shot in a zoo come across as just that. They look like snaps from a day out at the zoo. If that’s what you’re after, that’s fine, but that was not one of my objectives.

Suckling Elephant [C]

Suckling Elephant [C]

On the technical side, I was again using my 70-200mm F2.8 IS lens, with the 1.4X Extender or Tele-converter as it’s commonly known. As I mentioned last week, I was hand-holding for all my shots, so the Image Stabilizer of the lens was coming in very handy. I was shooting here at ISO 500, with an aperture of F4, and a shutter speed of 1/50th of a second in Manual mode. Note too that I was not using a flash at all. I find that when possible, upping the ISO gives much better results than using a flash. I’m not opposed to flash, but when I can get away without one, I try to. Also, when your subject is a living animal, you’d be running the risk of startling them with the flash, and would more than likely not get natural results from a pose perspective as well as the light.

I wanted to also touch on something that also came up, I think in the forum, which is condensation forming on your equipment. I went into this rather humid elephant house from the cold outside and for a little while my protector filter on my lens steamed up. It was probably 3 or 4 degrees Celsius outside, so the temperature difference was quite large. Had it been below freezing outside, I’d be running the risk of condensation forming on the inside of my lens or camera body, not just on the outside. I’ve mentioned this in the previous Podcasts on shooting in sub-zero temperatures, but it is a real threat and should be kept in mind if you go from sub-zero to warm temperatures, and vice versa. If you need to make this temperature shift, the best thing to do is to put your camera in an air-tight bag and wait fifteen minutes or so for the camera to warm up before taking it out of the bag. Now, this is not very practical if you’re walking around the zoo with friends, but it may be the only way to go on extremely cold days.

Next we walked around to the giraffe enclosure, and found that they were all inside, which worked out fine, as I could get up nice and close, shooting between the iron bars to get shots like the one we’ll look at now which is image number 1328. Here I was kind of lucky to get a pose with some real attitude. This looks just like the juvenile giraffe is giving me a big “humph” sort of look, but in reality, he was licking his lips. I have another shot where the blue-grey tongue is visible, but it’s not that great. I found this one to be much more interesting. I guess the tip here would be to shoot multiple shots in succession, not just one shot at a time. Trying to nail this sort of shot as a one off is pretty much impossible. I tend to hone in on a subject, then if it’s moving, I just keep the shutter button pressed down for a second of two, in the hope that I’ll capture something interesting. It’s also to try and get one sharp shot from a number of shots that could potentially contain a lot of subject blur, especially when you’re shooting at slow shutter speeds as I was here, at 1/25th of a second. Again shot at ISO 500 an aperture of F4. I was shooting in Manual mode still, as I didn’t want to deal with the contrast between the giraffes and the dark background. I’ve mentioned this a number of times, but basically when the background or other elements in the shot are either much brighter or darker than the subject, or the subject may move between a dark and light background, to stop me from having to worry about my subject becoming under or overexposed, I usually just meter off the subject itself, and then take a test shot and check the histogram to see if I’m getting the exposure right. If all looks OK, but just shoot at those settings until the lighting conditions changes again.

Grumpy Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) [C]

Grumpy Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) [C]

Next let’s take a look at image number 1332, in which we can see a beautiful, to me at least, Gaboon Viper. I was really pleased to see this amazing creature lying just a few centimetres from the glass of its enclosure. I switched my lens to the 100mm F2.8 macro lens, so that I could get right up to the subject to capture that piercing eye and scales. I’d have loved to have gotten a flitting tongue in their too, but this guy just didn’t seem to be tasting the air. I closed the aperture down a little to F5.6 here, as the depth-of-field is very shallow for macro shots, and again, I was using a shutter speed of 1/25th of a second, now at ISO 400. The 100mm macro lens I have does not have Image Stabilizer, so I had to rest my hands on the ledge of the enclosure, and really support my camera firmly to avoid camera shake at these shutters speeds. You’ll have heard in previous episodes about the focal length to shutter speed rule of thumb, but just to recap, if you don’t have image stabilization or vibration reduction on your lens or camera, the slowest shutter speed you want to use is the same as the focal length. So I should be aiming for a shutter speed of 1/100th of a second here, as I’m using a 100mm lens. If I was using a camera with a focal length multiplier of 1.6, I’d need to aim for a slowest shutter speed of 1/160th of a second. If you have IS that will give you say three stops worth of help, you would go down to 1/15, or 13th of a second safely, as long as the subject isn’t moving of course. Anyway, not wanting to go into too much detail on that, here you can see again, I’ve closed in on the face of the subject to give us a really close-up look at this beautiful reptile.

Gaboon Viper (Bitis gabonica rhinoceros) #1 [C]

Gaboon Viper (Bitis gabonica rhinoceros) #1 [C]

In the next image, number 1333, you can see that I have again looked for the alternative view, and not just concentrated on the face of the subject. Here you can see that I’ve closed in on the scales of the Viper. This is really because I couldn’t resist getting a shot of the texture of the snakes scales, and also, I spotted an X there in the patterns along the Viper’s back. I think this is one of the few times when bulls-eyeing, that is putting the main subject smack in the middle of the frame, actually works. Most of the time, using the rule-of-thirds or any other composition where you move the subject off centre will give better results, but sometimes, as I fee is the case here, a bulls-eye approach will work well. A reminder I guess that the rules are made to be broken. I changed the shutter speed to 1/8th of a second for this shot by the way, with the aperture and ISO the same as the last shot, so I was really pushing it hand holding for this shot now.

Gaboon Viper Scales (Bitis gabonica rhinoceros) [C]

Gaboon Viper Scales (Bitis gabonica rhinoceros) [C]

This actually moves me on to my next tip, which I forgot to mention earlier, and that is for shooting through glass. Now, if you too are shooting macro and trying to get close up, you’re probably going to automatically put the lens hood right up against the glass as I was here. This is another way in which I kept the camera still, while composing and shooting these images. In doing this though, you are ensuring that the only thing that will reflect in the glass is the inside of the lens hood, which is going to be black, and therefore not reflect in the glass at all. If you choose a nice clean piece of glass, that means that nothing is going to get captured on the film or your digital sensor. If you are shooting at an angle, you may well start to see something reflecting from the edges. In this case, it’s often enough to just put your hand up against the glass where the reflection is, to stop whatever it is from reflecting. If you find your hand is now reflecting, try something dark in colour. Maybe you have a dark coat or some other clothing. In the extreme, you might want to carry some dark material around with you for this.

Two Rhinoceros Iguana (Cyclura cornuta) [C]

Two Rhinoceros Iguana (Cyclura cornuta) [C]

In the next shot, again I was shooting through glass, ensuring I was right up close to it, for image number 1337. Here we see two Rhinoceros Iguanas, one in the foreground in sharp focus, and I aligned myself here so that the second Iguana in the background was perfectly in line with the first. Although their bodies are at different angles, their heads were facing roughly the same direction. A kind member actually left a comment that this shot reminded him of the 70’s movie ‘The Land that Time Forgot’ because of the poses on the rocks and the depth-of-field emphasising the distance between these dinosaurs. I have to admit I’d not thought about that at all, until he said that, but it’s so true. Well spotted John!

This image was shot at F5.6 for 1/50th of a second at ISO 400. I didn’t shoot totally wide open so that we could make out the second iguana without any problems. I didn’t want to go with too deep a depth-of-field either though, as I wanted to keep our attention on the first Iguana. The main subject. Anyway, I wanted to mention one more tip here, and that is that I had to adjust the white balance of these shots, because of the extremely warm interior lighting. The original lighting was very yellow, giving all the shots a strong yellow cast. I could of course have shot my WhiBal card, and either used it as a reference later, or set my Custom White Balance from it in camera, but to do that, you have to get the card under the light conditions, which would have meant ideally getting it behind the glass, inside the compound, which I of course could not do. I could have shot the card parallel to the glass, and got a very close reference, but I decided not to, opting to just move the White Balance around a bit in Lightroom until it looked right. Of course you need to be shooting in RAW to adjust the white balance after the event, but in addition to a wealth of other benefits, this is one of the reasons I do shoot in RAW. It doesn’t matter if you don’t use Lightroom. All RAW developing programs allow you to change the White Balance by either selecting presets, or with a slider, or both. Just try a few settings until it looks right.

The next image is the one that I also entered as an example of how I interpreted Silence for the Silence Assignment. In image number 1339 we can see a black and white shot of an elderly chimpanzee. I chose this for the silence assignment as he just looks so intelligent and deep in thought, but he has no way of speaking in words that we would understand. Of course, chimpanzees do have quite a complex and structured language, so I am in no way trying to make out that our closest relatives are stupid, but it just seems as though he could almost want to say something in a language that we would understand, but can’t. This was actually shot through really quite dirty glass, but the wide aperture as well as using a normal lens instead of a macro lens, so I was focusing much further away from the glass helped. Note that when glass is really dirty often the only thing you can do in addition to using getting very close to it and using a wide aperture, is to find the least dirty part of the glass to shoot through.

Thoughtful Eyes [C]

Thoughtful Eyes [C]

As it was pretty dark in the chimp’s house, I upped the ISO to 800, and shot this at F4 for 1/25th of a second. I chose to make this black and white, to emphasis the profound expression on the chimps face. To stop this episode from getting too long, I’m not going to go into details about black and white conversion, other than saying that although I’m currently in love with the black and white conversion tools in Lightroom, for this shot, I actually just split the RGB channels out in Photoshop, and through the blue channel away, then applied the copied the red channel over the green one and selected the Hard Light effect from the pull-down at the top of the layer palette. This gives a really rugged, rough looking effect that I found suited this subject more than the refined black and white that I can get with Lightroom.

The next shot, image number 1340 was again one of those serendipitous moments, probably 70% luck, and 30% observation, where I caught a beautiful expression on an Orang-utan’s face. As I said earlier, it was pretty cold outside, and a number of the Orang-utans were wearing these sack cloths as shawls. In fact, thanks to long time forum member and moderator Landon Michaelson I now know that this sack cloth is called burlap, so thanks to Landon there for the edification. Although I felt a little sorry for these orang-utans having to use these sacks to keep warm, this one was doing forward rolls and spinning around with the cloth, and seemed to be quite enjoying himself. Anyway, I saw this guy starting to turn and look my way, and started to shoot, again in continuous mode, as he turned his head my way. Well, as he did, I caught this amazing expression. He at first seemed quite spontaneous, but then as he saw me shooting, he sort of pulled his chin in and down, looking almost embarrassed to be being photographed. I’m perhaps personifying this orang-utan a little too much here as I often tend to do, but I just got that feeling, and still do from this image. I really wanted to show it you today to both share in my enjoyment of the image, and to say once again, that we have to be open to these moments by both being observant and persistent, as well as a little lucky.

Embarrassed Orang-utan (Pongo pygmaeus) [C]

Embarrassed Orang-utan (Pongo pygmaeus) [C]

On the technical side, I was outside again, and had switch back from Manual to Aperture Priority mode, as there was no longer anything challenging about the lighting, but as it was a very dull day, I was exposure compensating to the tune of minus one stop. Again, I didn’t want the scene to be brightened up falsely, and I think it worked out just right. I was shooting at F5 for 1/250th of a second, with ISO 400.

So, we’re going to wrap up today with one last shot, of a beautiful drowsy Jaguar, that we can see in image number 1341. This big cat was sitting, sort of dozing on the log for the whole time I was there, so there was technically nothing difficult about this shot. It was a little dark, so I set my ISO to 640, and with an aperture of F4 the shutter speed was 1/25th of a second. I was shooting through glass, but again, just making sure that I was right up to it to eliminate any possible reflections. Actually, when I started shooting here, a woman that was standing next to me with a compact digital asked how she should shoot the Jaguar as she seemed disappointed with her results, and figured that I, with all my expensive equipment would be able to help her out. I had noticed that she was standing some distance from the glass and also using the in-built flash. I said for her to get closer and turn off the flash. If you use a flash it will of course reflect in the window if you aren’t pushed right up against the glass, but in addition to that, when the subject is this far away, a built in flash, and quite often even an external flash is not going to reach the subject anyway, so you might as well turn it off. There is something called a Better Beamer that I know some listener’s are using with successful results, but despite wanting to, I’ve not used one yet myself. Basically the Better Beamer concentrates the light from your flash, to push it further out to a distant subject, but I won’t go into detail on it, because I don’t use one myself as yet. Anyway, the woman that I’d given the advice too turned off her flash and got up really close to the glass and moments later was then jumping around with delight having checked the first successful image of the Jaguar on her LCD. She then went on in her euphoric stupor to say how successful her shot was even though she only had a point and shoot digital compared to all of my expensive Canon gear. This of course is very relevant. If you have the zoom range you can get great shots with a compact digital. Still, just thirty seconds earlier she had no idea how to shoot the animal, proving emphatically that it’s not the equipment, rather it’s knowing how to use it. Anyway, having resisted the temptation to lower my heavy, expensive Canon equipment at great velocity onto her cackling cranium, I got back to my own shooting which resulted in the shot we’ve just looked at. Of course I’m only joking about hitting her over the head. I wouldn’t dream of messing up my favourite lens up in such a way.

Dozy Jaguar [C]

Dozy Jaguar [C]

So, that’s it. I hope you’ve enjoyed these two episodes from the Chester Zoo. I wanted to just say a quick thank you to listener Colin Horner’s daughter, and I’m sorry if I pronounce this wrong, Nikki Potgieter for IDing the white bird that we started the first episode with, which I now know is a European White Stork. Thanks very much Colin and Nikki. Don’t forget that the Simplicity Assignment is underway, and this is the assignment in which we’ll find out who will take away the amazing Lowepro Stealth Reporter D650 AW camera bag that Lowepro have been kind enough to offer us as a prize. I myself went out shooting last weekend with this in mind, and I think I have a shot in mind. It wasn’t quite what I was hoping for, but if I can’t improve on it in the next few weeks, I now have something to go with. As usual, thanks for listening, and have a great week, whether you’re out shooting or whatever you do. Bye-bye.


Show Notes
Music from Music Alley: www.musicalley.com/

Check out Chester Zoo’s Web site here: http://www.chesterzoo.org/


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Michael Rammell

Posted on behalf of Martin by Michael Rammell, a Wedding Photographer based in Berkshire, England. Michael also has a long-standing passion for Nature & Landscape photography. To catch up with Michael, visit his Web site, and follow him on the following social networking services.

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