Thursday, July 16, 2009

Photography at the zoo

One of the great things about modern zoos is the fact that you can get amazing pictures of animals that look like they were taken in the wild. Can't take off a month to go hiking through the wilds of Sumatra looking for orang-utans? No worries, head to the wonderful Singapore zoo and you can photograph friendly ones real close.

Here's the thing though. As a travel photographer your job is to capture not just the animals - although they're an integral part of it - but the zoo itself.

Wildlife photographers can ignore any and all signs of human existence, although hopefully they don't try and tell the world that their captured beasties were photographed in the wild.

The travel photographer on the other hand is there to capture nice portraits of the animals, but perhaps more importantly the feeling of being at the zoo itself.

To do this we need to take a step back and have a bit of a think of how the zoo affects the visitor, how they interact with it. And when I say take a step back, I mean literally a step back.

The thing about zoos is, the animals are in cages. Sure they might be pretty ones with nice glass walls, moats etc but they're not out roaming around (all except the orang-utans who actually are!)

So you need to show the cages. Now in some zoos I've visited the cages are horrible, concrete monstrosities with thick steel bars. At Singapore zoo they're much more animal friendly and enable more interaction between the viewers and viewees.

With the baboon enclosure here I took a couple of shots of the monkeys themselves - close up portraits of them involved in various shenanigans. But it wasn't working for me. It wasn't where the photo was. So I backed away from the glass to take in the whole scene and that's when it occured to me that the actual picture was the enclosure itself. The fact that you had big glass panels where you could get up nice and close to the animals, the fact that they stretched in a big semi-circle to give a really wide view, and the fact that that was how the people experienced the baboons - and vice versa.

So whereas I would love to spend a day photographing close-ups of animals, as a travel photographer we need to take a wider view of what we're there to photograph. We're trying to create an image of a zoo as a destination for people to interact with animals and get to know them a little better.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Flash at night

I wanted to post a couple of photos here to show you how I use flash at night. This is a fire dancer show at the entrance to the Night Safari I was telling you about yesterday.

Now you can't use your flash inside but you certainly can outside! Only for this shot I didn't. This is all natural light. ISO 400 f9 at 1/5 second. I used a really slow shutter speed because of the guy in the background. Handheld by the way.

I was actually aiming for a full rotation of his flame sticks but you can see I just missed it by this much. A few things about this shot though that work for and against natural light in this situation.

The first is that because you have such a slow shutter speed you get a nice whirl in the background but the dancer in the foreground is quite blurry from movement - you can see it mostly in his right arm. At least for the ladies his hunky chest is pretty clear!

The other thing is that because the foreground guy's body is well exposed then the flames he's spouting out are so bright that they've gone off the histogram and are totally white. There's no detail there whatsoever. If I had exposed the picture to record the flames properly the guys would have been so dark you wouldn't have seen them. Can't get such a range of contrast in one frame. So natural light has its pluses and minuses.

Now here's the one with flash.

The first thing you notice is that the dancer is nice and clear. That's because he's completely lit by the flash and the flash alone - no ambient light. Remember that flash fires really, really fast so it stops all movement.

Even though my aperture is still the same, and my shutter speed a bit faster at 1/80 second, the flash has done all the hard work.

But how could it be flash if he's all orange you say? My old favourite - a CTO orange gel over the flash to match the colour of the fire. I wanted to have the same look as the natural light shot but the advantage of the flash to freeze the motion and get rid of dancer blur.

In this case there were no whirling background flame sticks so I wanted to go for a different effect.

You'll notice too that because I've got a faster shutter speed (making the overall picture darker) my flames are back in the land of the living. No more white, burnt out fire. My exposure is based on getting the flames right and letting the flash brighten up the darker parts of the picture. Because he's quite close to the background sign the flash has lit up that part as well and makes it look not such a dark gaping background flash shot.

So here's a couple of different alternatives to shooting night action. Natural light, slow shutter speeds and lots of blur or a bit of flash, frozen action and less blur. Or if you really wanted to mix it up you could try your slow shutter speed with a bit of flash thrown in as well. Experiment and see what works.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Pushing the limits of your equipment

One of the places I visited on my trip to Singapore was the Night Safari, a zoo with all nocturnal animals and no flash! The flash affects the animals' night vision so it's prohibited. Nobody wants to blind the little furries.

It's amazing how bright something appears to your eye, and how pitch black it appears when you look through your viewfinder!

This image is of an animal show that takes place in an ampitheatre. They paraded out otters and servals, raccoons and binturongs - just like this fellow here.

And it is really dark and difficult to photograph anything that moves. Just to show you how dark it is, this image was shot at ISO 1600 at f2.8. Even then my shutter speed was a dismal 1/25 second. And that was one of the faster shutter speeds I got! When the lighting was darker I was down to as low as 1/3 second - the lights have come up a bit here for the end-of-show introduction of the performers.

When the light is this low and your shutter speeds are this long there's nothing much to do but put yourself in the lap of the luck gods. You need to keep an eye on the action and look for slight lulls in the movement. In this case the performer was waving to the crowd but put his arm down to feed the hungry binturong. Click, click, click goes the motor drive. You need to shoot a lot of images in the hope that one (or hopefully more) will be clear.

I had the camera on a tripod so hand shake wasn't a worry - all the blur came from movement. Here I've not done too bad a job but you can see the binturong's head is slightly blurry where it's lunged for the food.

At ISO 1600 there's a worry about noise so you need to make sure your histogram is well up to the right to limit it as much as possible. Unfortunately doing this also gives you a slower shutter speed so it's more keeping the fingers crossed as you work the shutter. At least with digital you can shoot to your heart's content without worrying about the processing bills.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Monday's Link

For today's link I thought I might send you to 35 beautiful photography websites as voted for by Smashing Magazine. In there you'll find the gorgeous Burn magazine as well as David Gough's travel photography website. Not to mention the inimitable Steve McCurry and perennial favourites Chase Jarvis and Vincent Laforet. Ahh, the only problem with these sites are they remind me that mine looks terrible and is long overdue for an update.