Female Snow Leopard twins born last year at the Bronx Zoo.
When I initially started posting pictures on my blog, I didn’t know if anyone would have anything to say about my pictures. I frequent zoos, museums, and aquariums, usually shooting between 200 and 600 shots per trip, the handful of good shots making their way onto the internet. I’ve been certainly pleasantly surprised, therefore, to see all the positive remarks made about my pictures, especially since I don’t really have any idea what I’m doing. Still, many of you have asked how I have been able to get the kind of shots I’ve posted up here, and so I’ve written this little overview of how I take photographs. This isn’t a “How-To” guide, but rather a summary of my own style, as highly amateur as it may be.
While an expensive camera does not in itself mean that you’ll come home with lots of photos suitable for framing, it does help quite a bit, but good cameras are often prohibitively expensive. While it would be nice to have high-tech camera costing upwards of $1,000, most of us just don’t have the cash (or want to make that big of an investment on something that’s “just for fun”), but you can find some good deals if you look around a bit, especially if you’re willing to buy a used camera. My own choice is an Olympus Evolt E-300 digital SLR camera, and as you can see from many of the photographs I’ve posted I couldn’t be happier with it. While many of the buttons are somewhat intimidating at first, the camera allows the photographer to change settings fairly quickly, going from color to B&W, changing the contrast, or going from “Portrait” to “Landscape” settings in just a few seconds.
I still haven’t read the instruction manual and I don’t know what all the little knobs and gizmos do, but for a complex camera it’s easy to pick up and start shooting with right away. The camera body itself is only half the actual “camera,” however, the other important part being the lenses. When I purchased my camera for about $350 (it was a floor model at a store in New York) it came with a relatively short lens, good for taking photos of friends or subjects where I could get close up. Given that I wanted to take photographs of animals (in the wild and in zoos), I knew this wasn’t going to work, so I invested in a Zuiko 40-150mm automatic lens (it cost about $150), the lens allowing me to point at the subject and lightly touch the shutter button to bring it into focus. This lens also has a relatively shallow depth of field, allowing me to focus past glass or thin cage bars to give the illusion of a natural setting. The camera does allow manual focus as well, but I usually don’t use this unless my subject is going to be still. I should make mention of the memory card as well, many pictures requiring a lot of space, so I use a 1G memory card which holds about 600 pictures that are 8 megapixels in size (although this can vary depending on what file format you choose).
Getting the Shot
Many of the photographs I take are a result of patience, understanding of the subjects, and luck (actually, most of it is probably luck), knowing when to visit an establishment like a zoo and when to show up at a particular exhibit allowing for many more photographic opportunities.
Photos don’t have to be absolute gems to be “good” or interesting. This shot of Zeff the Amur Tiger “smelling” another tigers pee during a flehmen display won’t hang on the wall, but it’s interesting.
As mentioned in a comment thread a week or so ago, knowing the best time of the week/month/year to visit a zoo or museum will make a huge difference in the photographs you take. If you visit the zoo on a sunny Saturday afternoon in May, you’re going to be inundated by strollers and all the animals are going to be either tired or reclusive given all the screaming children running around. If you must visit when it’s warm and sunny, show up around opening on a weekday and make sure you see the big carnivores, especially cats, first. If you really want a relaxed experience, though, visit the zoo during the winter and show up early; you’ll have the run of the place. Some of my favorite shots of African fauna were taken at the Philadelphia Zoo on a cold February day, the shorter days allowing me to get pictures of the animals not long after sunrise and just around the beginning of sunset. Here are some examples of what natural lighting during the winter can do for your photos;
Zeff in the middle of a yawn. If you see an animal starting to yawn or exhibit some behavior, don’t be afraid to shoot away as quick as you can. This shot was a fluke, capture because I took several pictures when I saw the tiger start to yawn.
Persistence can make a big difference, as I visited the cheetah enclosure at the Philadelphia Zoo four times in one day, hoping they’d start moving around. They staying in their little hut all day until about 3 PM, but when they emerged they were very active and rewarding me with many photographic opportunities.
Showing up early allows you to get photos of animals that others later in the day won’t have a chance to get. The Mhorr Gazelle at the Philadelphia Zoo are a bit reclusive, but when I showed up at 10 AM this one was right near the edge of the enclosure, close enough to get a much better shot than I had been able to previously.
Although it depends on the quality of the institutions near you, many zoos have breeding programs of one sort or another, springtime bringing a glut of baby animals with it. Not only are these animals cute, but they’re often inquisitive and will be more active than their parents, so it pays to keep your eyes on news announcements from zoos when babies are born.
This baby Reticulated Giraffe at the Animal Kingdom Zoo in NJ was as interested in me as I was in it, properly framing a difficult shot creating a very cute picture.
While the tire takes away from the “naturalness” of the shot, it’s still pretty darned cute.
Sometimes you’re able to get lucky and get an animal that’s either involved in a certain behavior or will otherwise remain in one spot, allowing you to experiment a little. If the subject is close enough you might even be able to screw on/cap on special lenses that magnify the subject for a “macro” shot, insects and invertebrates usually allowing for this kind of work (either in the wild or in small glass enclosures).
This cuttlefish was in a cylindrical glass tank near the glass, allowing me to attach some macro lenses to get more detail on it that I would otherwise. Needless to say, big mammals usually don’t allow for this kind of work.
Black & White photographary can also yield some especially powerful shots, especially if the lighting is right. Indeed, some animals just look better in black and white shots, notably some fossil specimens and dark-colored animals like gorillas.
In my experience gorillas just look better in black & white, allow properly lighted color photographs can be quite striking, too.
Fossils can be fun to photograph if you can get the right angle. I took this one of a Camarasaurus skull while low to the floor at the AMNH, the shallow depth of field and open background giving this shot something of a 3D look to it.
The pictures I’ve included thus far are just a handful of many more, and it’s important to take a lot of pictures of one subject to get it “just right.” Especially when you’re dealing with a moving animal, you never know what difference the changing background or motion of the animal will make, and it’s far better to take plenty of pictures and have to delete a few than gamble it all on just one shot. Still, sometimes you run into unexpected opportunities or are dealing with animals that are constantly moving, motion blurs, poor lighting, or other problems taking away from (but not ruining) otherwise great shots.
Dolphins at Sea World, taken from a closed-in glass viewing deck. Dolphins are difficult because of their activity levels, but if you have a fast shutter-speed and can anticipate their movements, you can still get some good pictures.
I didn’t expect the Giant Anteater at Disney’s Animal Kingdom to be up, this shot taken “off the hip” as it rushed by. The dense cover and light sand of the enclosure made this mammal a difficult one to photograph.
So there you have it. There’s nothing revolutionary or new here, but I hope some of you found this helpful. Because you’ve made it this far, here’s a few other pictures, just for the hell of it.
A Sloth Bear at the Philadelphia Zoo.
A Snow Leopard pair at the Bronx Zoo.
A Weaver Bird at the Central Park Zoo.