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.
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;
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Awesome post. Thanks for putting this together, Brian.
You forgot the importance of a naturally good eye for framing the shot, and a sense of what the animals will do next, a quiet manner for approaching the critters, and just being able to see a unique way of taking the shot. All of which you so obviously have!
God bless! Jeremi
You need to come down to the NC Zoo in Asheboro one day - it is a heaven for animal photography (most of my pictures from there are from the days before digital, though).
Really good stuff. You've inspired me. I bought a cheap digicam before I left Canada (I'm living in China this year), and I've gotten the opportunity to see some great sights (and get some decent shots, despite my low-tech equipment), but there are some things I can't do. I don't have much zoom, my camera can be finicky on movement, framing, focusing. I have to take my time and get lucky. I think I'll upgrade.
I liked the way you have utilized available natural light.
gorgeous shots, brian.
i'm particularly proud to see...the flehmen response! a picture to be appreciated by any good behavioral neuroendocrinologist.
i have yet to be to the bronx zoo, and i've only peered over the edge of the central park zoo. guess i should stop being so cheap and actually go, one of these days...
Kate; Thanks! I put "smelling" in quotes because I know that the Jacobson's Organ doesn't "smell" like our nose smells (it's more chemical detection), but that's fodder for a post in itself.
You really must go to the Bronx Zoo (let me know! I'll be your personal tour guide, heh), and it's free on Wednesdays if I remember correctly. The Central Park Zoo is ok, and although I have been meaning to go back there I think I'll make it to the Bronx Zoo again first.
Really great picture's(: i really love tigers so I haha saved them to my computer and put them on facebook(((: