Tuesday, June 22, 2010

I Love the Zoo

The title says it all. I have a season membership which means I can go whenever I want. The best time to go is first thing in the morning -- when the park opens. You get a great parking spot, and you can leave by noon, just when all of the crowds are starting to make the zoo an unpleasant place to be.

Another reason why I love the zoo is that it is a fantastic place to practice your shooting -- photography... not guns... you sicko... The best part about getting to the zoo early is that the sun isn't high in the sky yet. So you get pleasant light for your pictures, and more importantly, the animals aren't hidden away somewhere sleeping in a secluded shady spot.

Of course this comes at a price... animals that are awake are also moving around... a lot... which makes it difficult get a great shot. And, if you happen to be using an inexpensive zoom like mine that is not particularly fast in every sense of the word when it comes to lenses, it's even harder. Plus, you're always fighting to find a perspective that eliminates all clues that you took your shots at the zoo. After all, you want people to think you traveled all the way to the African Savannah to get that shot-of-a-lifetime.

For all of these reasons, not to mention learning to shoot with a long zoom lens, it's a very difficult task get quality images at the zoo. My philosophy is if you can get a decent shot at the zoo, then you can get a decent shot just about anywhere. Hence why I think it's the perfect place to practice.

I'll share a couple of things I've learned along the way. First, if you're a study of theory you'll know that you need a shutter speed at least as fast as the reciprocal of your focal length in order to get a sharp hand-held shot. But you know what they say about theory... in reality I've found that I need a shutter speed at least twice as fast. So when I'm zoomed all the way out to 200mm, I need a shutter speed of at least 1/400 of a second in order to get an acceptably sharp shot. And since my lens is slow, I need to stop down to at least f/8.0 or f/11 to hit the sweet spot of my lens. That means I need to crank the ISO way up. It's not unusual for me to shoot at ISO 400 in broad daylight in order to keep the shutter speed fast, and up to 800 or 1600 indoors. A fast stabilized lens would obviously be a real help, but I'm not quite prepared to shell out lots of money for one.

Lesson number two, carry a monopod. Especially when you take your camera indoors. You can bring a tripod if you like, but a monopod is less cumbersome and gets in the way far less with all of the other zoo visitors walking around. Plus, a monopod lets you get into tighter spaces for that unique point of view.

Lesson three: pay attention to the area of the frame NOT occupied by your subject. Try to find a perspective that eliminates things like fences, other visitors, or anything that looks artificial. This will make you shots look much more natural and compelling, and much less like a zoo snapshot.

Finally, if there's a bit of threat of rain, or if it's a little chilly, it's the perfect time go to the zoo. There will be less people, and the animals will be more likely to be out and about. Of course it would be a good idea to invest in some quality rain gear to protect your camera on those not so dry days. (a raincoat for you doesn't hurt either!)

I've been to the zoo five times since I got my membership. Here are the best shots I've taken on those trips.

OK, so this breaks the rule of trying to eliminate elements that give away the fact that this is a zoo pic... but just look into the tiger's eyes!

Here you really see the limitations of an inexpensive lens. Its ability to blur out-of-focus elements is probably the lens's weakest point. A better lens would have blurred the fence right out.

This time I had no way to remove the fence from the image. So I decided to make it an important element in the composition.

Probably my favourite of all. It's technically not a great photo, but the capture of action and the menacing look of the baboon's face really make this image shine.

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