Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Going on a photo safari at the zoo...


If you're like me, you like to take photos of exotic animals, but you don't often get the chance to get out to the African savannah, deep in the jungles of South America, or some other far off locale.

Fortunately for us, most major cities have a zoo. This can afford you the opportunity to take some great photos of some wildlife that, unless you're an accomplished world traveler, you may never come into contact with.

Most zoos have a wide variety of animals from all across the globe. From aardvarks to zebras you can get a great wealth of shots from just one short visit to the local zoo. In the wild you'd need to spend hundreds of thousands of hour traveling and stalking your prey, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of dollars in traveling expenses!

Just like when you go on Safari you should pack well before heading out to the zoo for a photo safari. There's nothing worse than showing up and realizing that you don't have the right equipment to get the shot. Now, this is good advice for any photo-taking excursion. Make a list of the equipment that you might need and double check it before heading out!

This weekend I was contracted to shoot a wedding in Ft. Worth, TX. Since Ft. Worth is a good three hour drive from Austin and gas is crazy expensive, I decided to make the most of the trip and get some photos of other things as well as to have a little fun. I've heard nothing but good things about the zoo in Ft. Worth so I decided to check it out.

The first thing we should cover is an equipment list. You don't need to drag out every piece of camera gear that you have, but you do need to make sure you have what you need. Here's a short list of what I packed in my camera bag:
  • Nikon D300 - Although I have quite a few camera bodies I chose this one mainly for it's high ISO performance. Often times the light can be low in some of the animals enclosures creating the need for shooting at higher sensitivities. The D300 excels at high ISO's with low signal to noise ratio. I almost opted for bringing the D60 due to it's significantly smaller and lighter body, but since I was using a heavy lens, I didn't want to place any undue stress on the D60 lens mount.
  • Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8D - Most people have stepped up to the 70-200mm VR lens, but I've had this lens for quite a few years and it works just as good as it always has. It's a fast, sharp, well-built lens and I'll probably use it for many more years to come. The main reason I chose this lens was simply to get close-up shots of animals that I knew would be pretty far off. A long zoom such as this one allows you to get close-up, intimate portraits of far away animals. Another consideration when choosing this lens was the fast aperture. The wide aperture of this lens comes in handy in zoo situations for a number of reasons. First and foremost a fast lens gathers a lot of light allowing you to shoot at faster shutter speeds to reduce the effect of camera shake and/or allows you to shoot at a lower ISO setting to reduce noise. One of the main reasons I like a wide aperture lens at the zoo is for the shallow depth of field. Having a shallow depth of field allows you to blur out the background details that can make you pictures look like they were shot at the zoo. Of course they were shot at the zoo, but you don't really want it to look like that. The shallow depth of field also comes in handy when photographing animals through fences. Getting the lens close to the fence and opening up the aperture make the fence almost disappear. The image below was shot through a fence with an aperture of f/2.8.


  • Manfrotto 681B Monopod - This is one of the most important pieces of equipment that I brought with me on my trip to the zoo. When shooting at long focal lengths camera shake is greatly exaggerated, this can cause your images to be blurry. While the telephoto lens magnifies the subject it also magnifies the slight movements of the camera from holding it in your hand. Even the most rock-steady person will get a blurred image if the shutter speed isn't high enough. The rule of thumb is that the shutter speed for hand-holding your camera should be the reciprocal of the focal length of the lens. On the DX format D300 the focal length of a 200mm lens is equal to about 300mm due to the crop factor, so your minimum safe hand-holding shutter speed is about 1/300 of a second. This eagle was in a very dim spot so even at f/2.8 I would have needed to crank the ISO past 1600. This would have resulted in an overly noisy image. The monopod stabilizes the camera, minimizing camera shake, allowing you to shoot at a much slower shutter speed without getting a blurry image. Of course, had I been using a VR lens, I may not have needed the monopod. A good monopod costs around $60, a wide aperture VR lens costs about $1600. You do the math. A monopod is a very affordable way to get sharp images if you don't have (or can't afford) a VR lens.
  • Extra Nikon EN-EL3e battery - This should be a given. Every photographer should have at least one spare battery in their camera bag at all times. There's nothing worse than losing a once in a lifetime shot because you didn't bring enough batteries.
  • SanDisk Extreme III 4GB CF cards - I packed 4 4GB CF cards. The D300's uncompressed 14 bit RAW files take up quite a bit of space. You can fit about 150 uncompressed 14 bit RAW images on one card. I shot 540 pictures that day. Needless to say, be sure to bring plenty of memory. Nothing is more aggravating than having to erase images on the fly to make room on your card. I choose to use four 4GB cards rather than one 16GB card because I think it's better to not put all of your eggs in one basket, so to speak. If your card fails and you only have one card, you can lose all of your images. It's better to keep them separate so in the unlikely event of a card failure you'll still have some images.
  • Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 - I brought this lens just in case I wanted to get some wider shots or some shots of animals that were closer. I didn't end up using this lens at all, but it's better to have something you might need than to need something you don't have.


For camera settings I like to be sure I can get as much image information as I can. For this trip I set my camera to record uncompressed RAW images at 14 bit. This ensures that I get as much color information as I can and gives the images smoother gradation in colorful areas. These parameters can be set in the Shooting Menu under the NEF (RAW) recording setting.

I also set my camera to Active D-Lighting - Normal, this is also found in the Shooting Menu of the D300 and D60. Active D-lighting adjusts the exposure and adds a slight curves adjustment in real time. This allows you to avoid blown-out highlights while giving you details in the shadow area. Active D-lighting expands the dynamic range of your images.

If you choose to shoot JPG's, I suggest setting you Picture Control settings to Vivid and adjust the sharpening +2 and the saturation +1. This also can be done in the Shooting Menu under Set Picture Control. If you desire you can save this setting using the Manage Picture Controls option in the Shooting Menu. I have this saved and labeled as Vivid+. You can also upload these Custom Picture Controls to Capture NX and apply them to images from any other cameras.


That's it for now. Next time we'll talk about composition and other techniques. Have great Fourth of July and be safe!

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