Shooting wild animals at the local zoo can be both fun and a challenge. The best time to catch some of the outdoor subjects is when the temperatures are not so cold that the animals remain indoors and not so hot that they just lay under a shady tree motionless. As we approach the end of Winter here in Maryland, unseasonably warm temperates have afforded a great opportunity to take advantage of a visit 'off-season' to the zoo. One will also find that there are far less visitors in winter months allowing you more freedom for a photoshoot.
However, as with any photoshoot, one should be prepared. Here are a few tips to help you gain more consistent shots by understanding the: WHY, WHEN, WHERE, WHAT and HOW factors in order to make this a rewarding venture. For this blog, I will focus on how to shoot outdoor subjects only - no cages or glass are between the camera and the subject.
WHY... It is is important to understand the 'why' of your visit. Is this a pleasure visit or a serious photoshoot? If this is a visit for pleasure, you will most likely want to see everything and will want to carry a camera that can be used in a wide variety of situations - indoors and out. You will be in ever changing situations demanding a 'point-n-shoot' capability. This dictates a 'walk-aorund' zoom capability for the camera of choice. You are there for the enjoyment of walking around and will not want a lot of photo equipment bogging you down. Depending on the size of your zoo, you could spend most of the day there, walking around, having lunch and just relaxing. Planning, does not play an important factor and the convenience of having one lens, easy to shoot camera, will be important. If, however, your purpose is to obtain one or two 'special' captures, planning becomes much more important and you will need to consider each of the photoshoot factors to make this a successful venture in obtaining quality, consistent images. Planing ahead will pay off with better images and can also help you maintain some of your sanity.
WHEN... It is always best to be at the public zoo when it first opens to gain good parking and research the best vantage point for your shoot. In the morning you will also find the animals to be more active than they are later in the day. And, the morning sun can add a special warmth to your shots that is just not possible in the late morning and afternoon. Many zoos open their parking lots hours before the published hours. I often find that I am finished my shots and ready to leave as some families are just entering the gates.
WHERE... As with any photoshoot, one of the most important factors to consider is location - location - location. There are a few factors to take into consideration. You will want to try to fill the entire frame with your subject so you will need to get as close as possible to your subject. You can do this by carrying a strong zoom telephoto or position yourself at the closest, unobstructed vantage point for a clear shot of your subject. If the background adds to the shot, include it - but do so sparingly. And, you will want to consider what is in the background. You should take a moment and walk around the area to select a shooting location that will capture what is least distracting from you subject. To obtain a realistic environment shot, bars, fencing, concrete, etc. should be eliminated from your angle of view. Getting to the zoo early, surveying various shooting locations and then staking out your spot with a tripod can be a big advantage. Most public zoos will post their information on the internet. You should research the layout of the zoo and what areas you will want to concentrate. When you plan your visit you will want take into consideration where to park (if the zoo has multiple entrances) and what areas make the most sense to cover most efficiently in the time you have. Try not to be too ambitious by intending to capture a lot of subjects rather than spending more time getting a few great shots of fewer subjects.
WHAT... Always bring only what you need - but no more than you need. Trust me on this. Since many of the subjects will be far away, a good telephoto prime or zoom is a must. For your best closeups, a 200mm+ zoom should be considered. The shots on this blog were taken using a Nikon 70-200 VR II with a TC-17e II (1.7 converter) , TC-14 (1.4 converter), Sigma 120-400 and a 18-200mm (walk-around) lens on a Nikon d7000 DSLR. By using the d7000, the effective focal length was multiplied by a factor of 1.5. The 200mm became a 300mm and the 400mm became a 600mm. These were the only lenses I found that were useful for the type of images I wanted to capture. I carried several for testing purposes - normally I would only take two (walk-around and long zoom). Also bring a sturdy tripod or monopod. I found that the monopod, although convenient for carrying, was not as effective for staking out my area and for overall successful shooting
HOW... For best results consider several factors - composition, light, motion.
Composition is in part about location. Try to fill the frame and position yourself accordingly. Tightly cropping the subject's face or body will help add impact. Focus on the eyes as you would in portrait photography. Position yourself at 'eye' level if possible - which may mean getting down low. Shooting in a low position can create a sense of closeness and also add impact to your capture. You will have a more 'natural' looking image.
Light is always an important factor. When using long lenses, the f/value can become an issue as less and less light makes it way into your camera. There are a few considerations here. The first consideration is the f/value and available light. As mentioned earlier, the morning is the best time to catch animal feedings and more movement by the animals. It is also a great time to take advantage of the warmth of the sun in your images. However, this often means less available light and the need to lower your f/value, lower your shutter speed or increase your ISO. The last two adjustments can have adverse effects if not properly controlled. Also when adjusting the f/value, consider the 'sweet spot' in terms of your lens' sharpness (often f/8) versus having a nice bokeh for a pleasing background which requires a low f/value (f/4 for example). The 'sweet' spot for sharpness is lens dependent. For higher-end lenses this is not as much an issue.
Motion is another important factor. Motion will be affected by two factors - the motion of a hand-held lens and the motion of the subject. We can compensate camera motion by either using a tripod or turning on VR (Vibration Reduction) or IS (Image Stabilization). However, we also need to take into consideration the reciprocal factor of the zoom vs shutter speed. As a rule of thumb, one should set the shutter speed no slower than the reciprocal of the focal length you are using. For example, if you are using a 300mm lens, you should shoot no slower than 1/300. The other consideration is the motion of the subject. By using a high shutter speed, the subject's motion will be frozen. But, again the trade-off is the balance with the f/value to have a properly exposed image when using high shutter speeds.
ISO is also a consideration. We can adjust the ISO to help accommodate the f/value and shutter speed if the combination of the two does not allow for a properly exposed capture. The higher the ISO, the less light is needed. However, the higher the ISO, the more noise will be introduced into the image. Most cameras today have very good internal noise control and, if shooting in RAW, post-processing software can often mask some of the noise (grain). As a rule of thumb, it is better to have an ISO less than 400 for your top images. This is even more important if your image is going to be enlarged as the grain will show up that much more. The benefit to the higher ISO, however, is there will be times when using a high shutter speed and f/value that there would not be nearly enough light for a properly exposed image. In these cases, one is forced into using a higher ISO and make corrections in post-processing software. I limit the ISO to be 100 - 1600.
Most cameras today have a continuous focusing capability that you will want to use. By setting your camera to single focus, the spot that you have locked in will not be the spot that the subject will be in if the subject is moving. You may have a sharp background, but the subject will be blurred. The continuous focusing setting allows the camera to track and adjust accordingly as the subject moves. Some systems also have a 3-D focus tracking that is useful if the subject is moving more towards your position rather than across your position. As stated earlier, always focus on the eyes of your subject as you would a portrait. When an image captures the details of the eyes of the subject, other areas that may be out of focus are not as noticeable.
In terms of exposure, either use spot or center-weighted based on the amount the subject is filling the image. By using 'average' metering, often the background can 'fool' the meter into creating an exposure that, although o
verall balanced, will not allow for the proper exposure of your subject. You will want the face of your subject to be properly exposed at all times.
With all of this in mind, patience will be required. Often I will go to the zoo for four hours to shoot only two subjects - waiting for just the right expression or action. I will also shoot in bursts of several frames per second. Sometimes you will find a situation where there is perfect pose, or action that will pay off. Sometimes you will just have to wait and wait - like fishing - and come back with less than you wanted. But it is a numbers game - the more shots you take, and the longer you are patient, the more likely you will have shots that you will cherish.
Shoot in RAW for the best results in post processing software such as Adobe Lightroom and CS5. You will have more control of the exposure, clarity, sharpness, etc. of the image before applying any effects. There are times where a touch of HDR can bring out details that a traditional 'flat' image loses - but use HDR sparing so as not create a cartoon-like, unrealistic image. After adjusting shadow-detail, cropping, and other touch-ups, add sharpness last.
Good luck and happy shooting.
/john soulé, IPA