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Category Archives: Nature
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
The more I learn about photography, the more I know that once you’ve found good light you’ve won most of the battle. If you want to hedge your bets on light you go out on the edges of the day– dawn and dusk. If you really want to put some distance between your photos and those captured by your average camera owner, you do what the others won’t do when others won’t do it– go out early and don’t be afraid to get wet, dirty, or both.
Sometimes on the weekend, I drag myself (fall) out of bed, put a hat on my tousled hair, grab my camera, memory cards, and batteries and stumble out into the dawn to capture the hell out of …something. What I’ve found on these bleary-eyed excursions is that there are some pretty interesting things going on when most people are just drooling on their pillows.
One of my favorite spots for such forays into this dew-soaked world is a small, relatively nondescript field that adjoins our subdivision (that’s it in the photo above– all of the photos in this blog post were taken in this field on a single morning). The first thing I noticed were the dew-enhanced spider webs. You won’t see any photos of them here because these weren’t nice geometrical webs created by orb-weaving spiders. They were relatively amorphous non-picturesque creations brought forth by arachnids from the wrong side of the tracks. Time to move on.
The next thing I noticed was a dragonfly airing its wings against the rising sun. When I moved in close and took a few shots I noticed that the dragonfly didn’t budge. Upon viewing the photos later on the computer I saw that the wings were totally coated in dew. No wonder I had a stationary subject– these guys weren’t going anywhere with that heavy burden.
When I found the first dragonfly, I opened the aperture to f/4 for the shallow depth of field to isolate the sharp subject from the blurry background. To get on eye level with the dragonfly, I shot from a squat position with the lens focused on the dragonfly (every time I do this I think it’s time to take up yoga so I can maintain a more stable position– really handy when dealing with shallow depth of field). Note the dew droplets on the wings.
For the photo above I chose a different point of view. I’ve found that once you locate good light and a subject it’s good to try many different camera angles until you land on one that suits your personal perspective. I like the way the colorful highlights on the legs of this dragonfly match the highlights on the wings and body. I also like the dark background contrasted with the dragonfly highlighted by the rising sun.
All things considered, I was pretty happy with the results of this particular morning shoot.
What did I do right?
- Got up before sunrise.
- Paid attention to the background.
- Shot with a wide open aperture (in most cases here I am using f/4) to isolate the subject from the background.
- Chose a low camera angle on level with the subject.
What did I do wrong?
- Number one, I should have used a tripod. My shutter speeds were fast enough that I didn’t need one, but if I had I could have shot with a lower ISO for sharper, more noise-free photos. Also, with the camera in a stationary position it would have been much easier to nail the focus exactly where I wanted it (at f/4 the depth of field was inches, at best). Since the dragonflies weren’t moving, the fastest object in the frame was the rising sun, and I wasn’t focusing on that.
- With the camera on a tripod, I would have been able to tweak the f-stop to ensure that the entire dragonfly was in focus while maintaining the blurred background.
- I’m sure there were other steps I could have taken to improve these captures and I will hopefully explore them more fully on the next shoot.
If you want your work to stand out, be at a place and time where others don’t go. Capture the unseen from a new point of view. Use your personal perspective to get the photos that only you could see.
Feel free to post your own experiences and observations about early morning photography in the comments.