I admit I have mixed feelings about zoos. Given the choice, I’d much rather see the animal in it’s natural habitat doing the natural animal thing. Having said that, our family has had many enjoyable outings at the Nashville Zoo. We have had a family membership for several years now and have made all the usual mistakes made by most other zoo attendees. “Hey, it’s the third week of June, it’s sunny and 11:00 AM. Let’s go to the zoo!” Yeah, you and everyone else.
1st mistake: Unless you love crowds more than the animals, going at the same time of year as everyone else is going to lead to crowds, lines, and stress. Think of the zoo when most people don’t. Middle Tennessee does have four distinct seasons; but most days, even in winter, the highs are 40 degrees F or better. There are so many more days that are conducive to going to the zoo when you think of it this way (of course if you are in Maine or Siberia, your zoo season may be much more limited).
Also make note of the natural habitat of the creature you wish to see/photograph. If their home range is the tropics, you might do well to visit them during the summer months. If they are limited to the northern hemisphere, a February visit may be more productive for observing them in a more active state.
2nd mistake: Sure, we all seem to be more perky when the sun is out. Unfortunately, the camera does not love harsh sunlight as much as we do. Our eyes can handle significantly more dynamic contrast range, the range of light to dark, than cameras can. On a sunny day the range between the sunlit areas and the shadows is more extreme than on overcast days. Our eyes can compensate, but the camera doesn’t. It may be counter-intuitive, but as a general rule cloudy days are better for photos. So don’t wait for a sunny day to go to the zoo. Besides, some animals may be more accessible on cloudy days (they’re not hiding in the shade).
3rd mistake: Did you ever notice that the “cats” always seem to be laying around doing nothing when you see them at the zoo? Ever stop to think that they might be nocturnal? If you want to catch these species while they still have a little life in them, be there when the doors open and go straight to the cat exhibits. You’ll avoid the crowds and have a chance at catching the critters playing, running around, and being generally “animated”.
So how do I know all this? As much as I’d like to take credit for thinking this all out on my own, some of the information I gleaned from taking a couple of zoo photography courses from the Nashville Zoo emeritus photographer Christian Sperka. But to prove that I have taken my own advice to heart, I took the photo of the Red Panda above this past Sunday (super bowl Sunday). We went just after the zoo opened. On all our previous visits, the pandas had always been just lying about. This time they were up, active, and interesting. When I took this photo, besides us there were only about 8 to 10 people in the entire zoo.
For the techies, this shot was using the following parameters:
- Canon 5D Mark II
- 70-200mm F/4L IS @ 165mm (this is a time I wish I had the f/2.8 version of this lens)
- f/4 @ 1/125 sec (shoot wide open to blur the backgrounds– besides, you’ll need the light, especially since you’ll use a telephoto lens that requires faster shutter speeds)
- ISO 3200 (again, you need the light. and the 5D MkII sensor has pretty low noise at this ISO– you can probably even get away with this setting on Rebels made in the last couple of years)
- Center point focus on AI Servo setting
- White Balance: Shade
- Limited post production in Photoshop Lightroom 4