Shooting at the Zoo – Part #1 (Podcast 79)

by | Mar 21, 2007 | Fundamentals, Musings, Podcast | 0 comments

If you listened to Episode 3 of the Focus Ring podcast that I did with three other Photocast Network members last month, you’ll have heard that I visited Chester Zoo one day during my visit to the UK in January and February of 2007. I think shooting at Zoos is a great way to hone your wildlife photography skills, without the expense of going to the countries or exotic locations where many of the animals you’ll see actually live in the wild. Today I’ve selected a number of photos from that afternoon to talk about, interweaving some tips and tricks on how to make the most of you time there.

Since first mentioning my zoo visit and the intension to do this Podcast last month, there’s been a fair amount of discussion on the forum about shooting in zoos too. I raised the point about whether or not shooting in zoos in ethical some time back in this Podcast, and there’s a thread about that in the forum too. My own personal view on this is that any zoo worth its salt is probably doing a lot for conservation through breeding partnerships of endangered species and other programs, and the days of them being cruel to animals or locking them up in a tiny compound only to wheel them out for us to glare at during the days are over. Indeed, if you believe you know of a zoo that might be being cruel to any of their animals, I suggest you stop griping about the ethics of photographing their animals, and get down to your local police station or society for the prevention of cruelty to animals and report them. If you don’t have any hang-ups about zoos, then I’m sure you’ll agree that they are a great place to shoot, and get invaluable practice shooting animals that would otherwise be impossible without actually getting on a plain and visiting an exotic location. Of course, if you turn up there without ever having photographed a wild animal, there are all sorts of issues that could prevent you from getting a decent shot, so doing what you can to prepare beforehand, with the help of your local zoo, can save you time and money. Even if you’re an experienced wildlife photographer though, the other, and probably most important thing is, it’s fun!

European White Stork [C]

European White Stork [C]

So, as I said in the introduction, today we’re going to take a look at a bunch of shots from my Chester Zoo trip, and I’ll talk about some tricks or just plain advice that I can give to help you get great shots in similar conditions. The first tip, and this is something that I always try to do, but don’t always succeed, is if you have any wish to ID the animals or birds you shoot, take a photograph of the name plate or information board associated with the subject. Or of course you can just note it down as you shoot. Now for the first photograph I’m going to show you today, I could not find a plaque. This is probably more from lack of searching properly, but believe me, it takes so much more time to ID an animal or bird after the event, and sometimes, it isn’t even possible in a reasonable amount of time. In image number 1312, we can see a beautiful white bird, which I unfortunately haven’t yet ID’d. What I wanted to talk about here is that despite the beautiful clarity of this shot, I captured this image through a mesh fence. The mesh was relatively dense, and I also couldn’t get that close to it. I’d say there was at least two to three feet, or one metre between me and the fence, but it has not registered at all in the image. Now, most of you will already know what I did here, but for those that don’t, we can magically make these things disappear, to a degree, by simply using a wide aperture.

This is really only going to work though when the subject is also a reasonable distance from the mesh. I haven’t tested this, but I’d say you need the mesh to at least be half way between you and the subject to make this work. If it’s much closer to the subject than it is far from you, you will probably start having problems. Another thing to note is that the first thing to start showing problems, in my experience at least, is not the subject, but the bokeh, or the out of focus areas around the subject. This starts to become adversely effected and textured in the shape of the fence before it starts to really show up on the subject itself. If you are shooting with a compact digital or a lens that doesn’t open up to a very wide aperture, you might start to see this effect even with the aperture wide open too. I shot this image with my 70-200mm F2.8 lens with the 1.4X Extender fitted, and the aperture set to F4. An Extender is what Canon calls a tele-converter for those of you not familiar with the terminology. This at full range gives me a 280mm focal length, which allowed me to fill the frame with the subject. The F4 aperture was enough, as I say, to totally remove any trace of the fence, and yet still get beautiful detail around the eyes, indeed the face, beak, neck and breast of the subject. It also throws the green grass in the background into a just a slightly mottled green with patches of brown, which stops it from becoming a distraction.

Note that for most of the shots we’ll look at today, all but the last shot I think, I shot in Aperture Priority mode, and because this bird is mostly white, I added two thirds of a stop Exposure Compensation. It was an overcast day, so pretty dull, which meant that I didn’t want to overdo the compensation. Had this bird been in full sunlight, I’d probably have needed more like 1 stop. It’s necessary to bear this in mind when filling the frame with a mostly white subject.

Note also that all images from the day were shot hand-held. I’m not sure if it’s OK to use a tripod, and couldn’t find anything on the Chester Zoo web site, which I’ll put a link to in the show notes by the way, that says either way whether it’s OK or not to use them. Most of the time though, I’d say that zoos are pretty busy places, and even if it’s not against the rules, you’d be better off planning on shooting hand held. You’d quickly start to annoy other visitors if you started setting up a tripod, and the chances are, they’d start kicking the legs anyway trying to get in to get a look, which would in turn annoy you back.

So the next shot I want to look at is image number 1314, in which we can see two Black Rhino’s in a pretty cool face-off kind of pose. These two kept of butting each other in a show of power which was really quite cool to watch, with the dull thud of the horns clashing together along side the grunts of these incredibly powerful animals. In a talk by one of the zoo staff, we heard that Chester Zoo are heavily involved in conservation with a number of partners, one of which actually has a number of rangers in Kenya, helping to protect the Black Rhino in its natural habitat. This is something that is made possible by redirecting the admission fees and donations from visitors in such a way. This is great news as it not only is a very good cause, it also helps to dispel the myth that zoos are cruel to animals and only interested in making money. I personally think this is an excellent way for zoos to give back, and for us to help support conservation while having a great day out at the same time.

Black Rhino Face-Off [C]

Black Rhino Face-Off [C]

We also heard that Black Rhino and White Rhino cannot be easily told apart by their colour, as according to the person that spoke at Chester Zoo, they are both pretty similar in colour. Kind of like an eighteen percent grey really which makes exposure really easy if you fill the frame with the Rhino. I’m thinking of getting one to replace my WhiBal card. Seriously though, the main difference is, as you can see in this photo, the Black Rhino have like a triangularly shaped, kind of pointed top lip, whereas the White Rhino that grazes on grass, has a squarer mouth. The Black Rhino apparently has developed the pointed, triangular lip as it grazes in the forest on thorn shrub. I did actually select minus one stop of exposure compensation for this shot, as it was in doors and really not that bright. I had cranked the ISO up to 800, and with an aperture of F4, again with the 70-200mm with the 1.4X Extender, I was getting a shutter speed of 1/25th of a second. Way too slow for sensible photography, and I got a number of images that were too blurred to use, but in the moments when the animals stopped moving before another head-butting session, it was possible to capture this shot. There was nothing between me and the animals this time by the way. I was leaning on the wooden fence around the enclosure, which also helped me to stabilize the camera at such slow shutter speeds. Of course, I was also using the lenses Image Stabilizer feature. If you are wondering what kind of lenses to buy for this sort of shooting, I strongly suggest you keep image stabilization or vibration reduction on your list of requirements. It boosts the cost of the lens sometimes but often makes the difference between getting the shot, and not.

Moving on to the next image, let’s look at image number 1316, in which you’ll see a close-up of an Emu. Another portrait type shot. This image was shot through mesh made of very thick wire or metal slats if I recall correctly. I have to place the lens so that I had a clear line of sight to the Emu’s eye, but the rest had wire running right across it. I was able to make this disappear as this time I was literally pressed right up again the fence, with only the length of my lens hood keeping us apart. Again shot at F4, with ISO 400 this time, at 235mm focal length, with minus two thirds of exposure compensation as it was a dull day. This is really just another example of shooting through the mesh, and I’d like to reinforce the idea of getting your subjects eyes sharp. This kind of wide open aperture photography might not be for everyone, but to me, as long as you get those eyes sharp, the overall soft effect of the rest of the image is quite pleasing.

Emu Portrait [C]

Emu Portrait [C]

One other thing I wanted to touch on with the next shot, number 1315, is that it’s also important to keep your eyes open for something different, not just in zoos but whenever you’re out with your camera. Although it’s important to get the eyes sharp if they’re included, there’s no rule that says you have to put an animal’s eyes in the shot in the first place. When this Emu turned around I recall chuckling to myself at how comical he looked, and couldn’t resist shooting this image of the back of his head. I’d zoomed in slightly to 250mm, but still at F4 so the shot is very soft with a totally even green background, but we can see detail in enough of those hairs, and have captured those nice blue patches on the sides of the head too, which help to make this shot work.

I Need a Shower! [C]

I Need a Shower! [C]

Let’s take a look now at image number 1317, in which we can see a beautiful specimen of a Geoffroy’s Marmoset. A really handsome fellow, or fellowette, whatever the case may be. I found from the Bristol Zoo Web site that Geoffroy’s Marmosets are from Brazil and are one of a few species that specialize in feeding on tree sap. The marmosets first bite and chew through the trees bark to start the sap is flowing. Then the tree tries to stop the flow by producing gums, resins and latex that seal the hole up. Marmosets then return to the holes later and eat the gum covering, and eat the sap that starts flowing again once the gum is removed. Anyway, again, I’m using the 70-200mm F2.8 lens with the 1.4X Extender, with the aperture wide open, which is F4 for this combination. This gave me a shutter speed of 1/30th of a second with ISO 400. There was nothing between me and the subject this time. The Marmoset was sitting on a branch probably around 12 feet or 3.7 meters from me. This meant that I didn’t need to make a fence or dirty glass disappear, but still I use a wide aperture because I simply like the aesthetic of this type of photography. Years ago I used to shoot at all sorts of apertures, just to cover my bases, but I found more and more that I was always using the image that had the widest aperture to get the part of the shot necessary, such as the eyes here, in focus. I don’t care if all the detail of the fur in visible. I know that the Marmoset is covered in fur, and I can see enough detail in this shot to confirm that. To me, the soft surrounding of those tack-sharp eyes is much more to my liking. This is not always going to be the case, and you may disagree, but this is my taste.

Geoffroy's Marmoset Portrait [C]

Geoffroy’s Marmoset Portrait [C]

Geoffroy's marmoset #1 [C]

Geoffroy’s marmoset #1 [C]

Let’s look at something interesting now though, with regards to the Depth-of-Field. I tend to get in pretty close with most of my subjects, and again this last shot has been a portrait. These again are initially selected to talk about from the shots I made that day because I like them better than the full body shots that I do sometimes make, when the subject or surrounds command I do so. I would normally try to not show you multiple shots of the same subject, but today I’ve included two more shots of this Geoffroy’s Marmoset to emphasise the effect that distance to subject has on the Depth-of-Field in your shots. Before we look at them, take note of not only how shallow the Depth-of-Field is on the subject, but also note that the background is again really just a totally blurred green and brown backdrop. There is no detail to be made out whatsoever. Then let’s take a look at image number 1318, which was shot at exactly the same distance to subject, at the same aperture of F4. Now you’ll see that we do not only have more of the subject itself looking very sharp, but we can now make out more detail in the background. This is because the focal length has been changed from 280mm in the last shot, to just under half that, at 130mm. Although still out of focus, the bokeh in the background has many more identifiable patches of green and brown than the last.

Geoffroy's marmoset #2 [C]

Geoffroy’s marmoset #2 [C]

If we take a look at the final shot in the series, 1319, which again was taken from the same distance to subject, though this time with a focal length halved again to 73mm, you can see that all of the subject, including its long tail is now in sharp focus, and we can make out much more detail in the background. We can see branches and leaves, although not totally sharp, but enough to make out without doubt what they are. This helps us to see the surrounding in which the Marmoset is living, but they are out of focus enough to stop them from becoming a distraction. So we can see here very clearly how aperture effects the depth-of-field at exactly the same distance to subject.

To give you an idea of the actual depth of field, I fired up Barnack. This is a free Windows utility that I’ve mentioned in previous Podcasts for calculating depth-of-field and hyperfocal distance etc. I’ll put a link to this in the show-notes in case you don’t already have a copy. Anyway, I’m not sure exactly how far away I was to the subject, but let’s say I was 12 feet or 3.7 meters as I mentioned earlier. When I enter the shooting details of, focal length at 280mm, aperture of F4 and focus distance of 3.7 meters, I’m told that the depth-of-field is around 4cms, which looks about right from the photo, though possibly a little shallower, so maybe this guy was a little closer. When I change to 130mm focal length, the same as the second image, Barnack now tells me that I had a depth-of-field of 19cms at the same aperture and distance to subject. The even wider image that we looked at last of the three, was shot at 73mm, which Barnack tells me would give me a depth-of-field of 61cm, or 24 inches. Like I say, this is really just to give you an idea.

Anyway, moving on. Let’s take a look at three more pictures of the same subject. Once again, I don’t usually like to talk about the same subject too much, but there are reasons I’ll get to shortly. So let’s look at image number 1321, in which we can see another beautiful bird, which is a peacock. This guys was just sitting on the inside of his enclosure, maybe just over a meter or four feet or so from me. Again, I was able to lean on the wooden enclosure to stabilize my camera to minimize camera-shake, which helped me to get this really crystal clear portrait of this stunning creature. You can see I’m right up close, and he’s looking right back at me. I actually make this look pretty easy, but he was in almost constant motion, preening his feathers and just generally spinning that head around all over the place. I had a number of shots in which he just hadn’t kept still, and so they contained motion blur, ruining the shots. I was really quite close, so I closed the aperture down just slightly to F5, and with an ISO of 400 this was giving me a shutter speed of 1/200th of a second. Again, I was exposure compensating to the tune of minus one stop, so the scene didn’t get too bright in the dull daylight. You’ll notice again that I have just really gotten in close, but you really don’t have to do this yourself. By all means shoot the whole bird if you can get it in. I tried, and was just not happy with the results. I could see too much detail in the grass surrounding for my liking.

Peacock Portrait [C]

Peacock Portrait [C]

The reason I decided to include more than one shot of this peacock is again to emphasise the benefits of looking for an alternative angle. In image number 1320, you can see that I closed in on a small portion of the peacocks tail. Those beautiful eye like marking makes for a great subject all on their own, and few people would not be able to recognize them like this. Here I was paying close attention to the positioning of the eye marks. I closed the aperture down a tad more to F5.6 to get a little more depth-of-field, and positioned two primary marking diagonally in the frame, on top right, and one just off centre bottom left. The other marking are forming an arch, leading our eye around the shot, so that we can investigate the detailed textures made up of the markings themselves amongst the fibrous strands of the feathers.

Peacock Feathers #1 [C]

Peacock Feathers #1 [C]

Peacock Feathers #5 [C]

Peacock Feathers #5 [C]

In the next shot, image number 1325, I basically reduced the aperture to F5 again, to make the eye-like markings a secondary, out of focus, subject, really this time bringing the beautiful feathers on the top of the peacocks back, between the wings, and of course the markings on the wings themselves, into the limelight. This was shot at full extent with the 70-200mm with the 1.4X Extender, again at ISO 400 and I’d switched to manual, as the peacock was moving around so much that I was getting unacceptable fluctuations in the exposure in Aperture Priority mode.

And that’s about it for this first of what will be a two part episode on my visit to Chester Zoo. I hope that if this was not already something you’re aware of, you’ll be able to appreciate now how much fun shooting at a zoo can be. Also, how much this will help you to prepare for shooting real wildlife, that is, animals in the wild as opposed to captive ones. Some of the tips like using a wide aperture when shooting through mesh, would of course not really help you in more natural surroundings, unless you are shooting through foliage and want to make that disappear, but really what you can hope to gain from this practice, is becoming confident in your gear before faced with a moving subject that will perhaps only grace you with its presence for a fleeting moment, before disappearing into the distance, never to return. If you start fumbling around with your gear at that point, you’ll have lost your chance. Next week I’ll interweave some more tips as they become relevant, including some tips for shooting through glass, which is always a good one when shooting at zoos.

So thanks for listening again today. I’ve been receiving more encouraging email lately than to date, with people telling me how much they appreciate the effort I put into creating these podcasts, and how much they look forward to each episode. Some people are in the middle of a marathon listening session to catch up on all of the archives. I have to say, that my hat goes off to each and every one of you. I really appreciate you taking the time to listen to each individual episode, and to listen to all of them at this point, with 79 episodes and counting, is a test of stamina if ever there was one. I also appreciate people taking me the time to let me know what you think. Also, please do spread the word amongst your friends and colleagues too, if you are finding this interesting. And with that, I’ll sign off for today. Have a great week, whatever you’re doing. Bye-bye.

Show Notes
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