Monday, 6 May 2013

Squirelks and Treecocks at the Children's Zoo

If you have children, it's the time of year, here in Gothenburg at least, when you start bringing them to the children's zoo. This is one of the few times you may be actually asked to bring your camera, as opposed to the more usual "do you really need to lug around that?"

The answer is obviously yes. I need to bring my camera for the same reason my seven year old son needs to bring his latest LEGO Chima toy. On top of that, I also shoot pictures. I don't really understand the reason for the question...

There is another question that matters though: How do you take interesting pictures at a children's zoo?

Let's list the problems you have to deal with:

  • Competition: Everyone shoots at the zoo. Your pictures will have to compete with those of your friends, aunt Ellen, uncle Harold, your significant other, every other relative you have, perhaps including your own children, if they are old enough to hold a camera.
  • Distance: A zoo is designed to keep humans and animals at some distance from each other, for the protection of both.
  • Angle: Many zoos are designed so that the walking paths are higher than the animals. This makes the animals easier to view. Unfortunately, getting a good shot while pointing your camera downwards at a 45 degree angle is all but impossible.
  • Unflattering light: I don't know who came up with the idea of going to the zoo, or outside, in bright sunlight, but they should apologize. A lot.
  • Uncooperative animals: Most of them will just flat out refuse to do anything interesting while you are standing there. Before you arrive, and after you leave, thats another matter...
  • The people you are with: When you finally find something interesting to shoot, they will start hollering at you to come and view something boring. Or, they will ask you to take an uninteresting picture where they pose for you in harsh sunlight.

Let's deal with these challenges one at a time.

Treecocks are more interesting than peacocks. However, this is not a good photo. Both the foreground and the background have too many distracting elements. The only appealing factor is that the peacock is up a tree.
Competition: You can deal with the competition by taking more interesting pictures than they do. To do this, walk slowly, camera ready to shoot, and look for animals, and people, who do interesting things.

For example, a peacock in a tree is more interesting than a peacock on the ground. That is because you rarely see peacocks climbing trees. At least I don't. For all I know, peacocks in the wild may be the monkeys of the bird kingdom, but I doubt it.

The treecock picture is not a good picture in many other respects: bad lighting, to busy foreground, to busy background...

The fix for that is easy: Get in closer.

According to the famous photographer Robert Capa: "if your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough." Capa was a war photographer, but the advice holds at the zoo too. Compare this picture to the previous peacock picture. Which one do you think is the more interesting?
Distance: This peacock picture is a lot more interesting than the treecock. I shot it with an 18-135 mm lens, at a distance of less than 50 cm.

To get a shot like this, you can get a 300 mm lens, or you can pay close attention to what happens on the other side of the fence separating you from the animals. It is very likely that you can find at least a few spots that allow you to come very close to the animals.

Note that I bent down low, and took the shot at the peacock's eye level. It's amazing how many photographers that do not have knee joints. Mine are creaky, but they still work most of the time. When I use them, I get better shots.

Shoot from a low angle. Get as close as you can. Don't be afraid to crop the picture afterwards, to get even closer.
Angle: To get this squirrel shot, I lay down flat on the ground. This gave me dirty clothes and a good angle to shoot from.

From the squirrel's point of view, it made me the most interesting human in view. At one point, I started fiddling with camera settings, and that is when the squirrel decided to have a really close look at me. Unfortunately, my lens wasn't fast enough to follow the little critter when he ran directly towards me, so I missed that shot.

Still, I am pretty happy with the shot I got. I am sure I'll get more opportunities to get a really good squirrel portrait this summer.

An added benefit to getting in close is hiding that you are shooting at a zoo.

Unflattering light: Wedding photographers often use flash in broad daylight to soften shadows. Very bad idea when you are shooting animals. However, there are things you can do mitigate the effects of too strong sunlight:
  • Crop the overexposed parts away. Very often, you have got an overexposed sky, or an overly bright background, that you can crop during post processing.
  • Reduce exposure. You can either underexpose a bit while taking the picture, or do it later in post. It is amazing how much this can improve a picture. For example, the squirrel picture in this article had some blown out areas that I could bring back simply by reducing the exposure setting in Aperture.
  • Increase saturation and vibrancy. This can bring back washed out colors. Go easy on it, unless you want to oversaturate on purpose.
It is amazing how much life you can bring back into a photo by doing these simple things. What is even more amazing, is that few people do.

Don't get me wrong: There are perfectly valid reasons for not fiddling with a photo after you have taken it. But, if you look at it, and see that it has potential, but isn't quite what you would like it to be, you should give it a go.

Even if your post processing goes horribly wrong, and it will at first, you will learn something, and probably have a good laugh in the process.

Uncooperative animals: If the animals absolutely refuse to cooperate, shoot something else. 

If you are alone, you may be able to just wait them out, until they finally do something interesting. If you are in the company of children, friends or family, you probably can't do that. Not for long enough.

Don't get hung up just because you planned to shoot animals, or your children petting animals. If you don't get what you came for, get something else. Focus is a good thing, but do not focus to the point of excluding good opportunities.

Brace yourself, because I am about to show you how not to photograph the people you are with:

This is the kind of shot you will almost certainly be asked to take. It is probably not the shot you want to get, and it is not the shot they will enjoy looking at later. My advice is to take it, and give it your very best. You will have happier company, and more opportunities to get shots they will enjoy viewing later on.

The people you are with: First of all, remember that you went there with other people because you like them. For some reason, often unclear, they like you too, despite your camera.

You do have the option of putting your camera away and just enjoying your time with them. 

You can always come back another time to enjoy the solitary pleasure of zoo photography. Or, if you crave company that is twisted in the same way you are, ask another photographer to come along.

In my case, my son and ex-wife are fairly tolerant, so shooting at the zoo went very well. On the other hand, we played miniature golf afterwards, and then I put my camera away. (I admit it, I tried to play with my camera in hand at first, but it just did not work.)

Be ready to shoot when the moment comes. This takes practice. Because I need to compete with some really good professionals, I practice three times a day, in addition to professional work. The trick to practicing is making it fun. Play around. Then, when the moment comes, you'll be ready. Well, sometimes...
Sooner or later, the people you are with will ask you to take a picture of them. It is unlikely that you will be able to take a good picture. Do it anyway, do it cheerfully, and give it your very best.

If you do that, everyone will relax and be happy. This increases the chances of you getting a better shot, a shot they will enjoy looking at later.