Wednesday, January 24, 2018


I call myself a "life photographer" because I can see art in any subject, including subjects at America's zoos. I don't like to limit myself to landscapes, people, or cityscapes.

Like most photographers, I do enjoy getting those cool documentary shots of mammals, reptiles, and birds. However, my right brain is always looking for shapes, colors, form, texture and mood. All I have to do is find the right combination of factors. One of those factors is lighting--quality, angle, color.

Patience is extremely important in photography, but it escalates to the next level at zoos. There a lot of people to work around, most with loud children. I'm not complaining--it's fun watching kids having fun.Then there are the the animals themselves. I can stand there for fifteen or twenty minutes and the bear does nothing. I work on my patience because those extra ten or twenty minutes could bring some great surprises. I (patiently) wait for the animals or birds to do something interesting, funny, or cute. While I'm waiting, I decide on the best Compositions and take test shots, checking my Depth of field, and the best Exposure. If my patience runs out, I go shoot somewhere else and come back later and try again. More often than not, patience pays off.

With that introduction and baseline, let me walk you through some zoo images.

I'll start with this one. Although this theme is common when it comes to zoo photography, it is still artistic and colorful. Again, patience was required. I had to keep my distance, zoom in to get a tight shot, and just wait until he faced me. Click.

  (300mm; f/8; 1/500; -1 1/3; ISO 640)

After I got the more common shot, I waited and watched him closely, waiting for a less common perspective. I usually have my camera on the tripod with head loose so I can pan, always with my eye to the camera, knowing where my settings needs to be, and just wait for that split second to go "click."

(300mm; f/18; 1/125; -1 1/3; ISO 500)

I like flamingos, and have a lot of images of them in various settings--large groups, reflections, wings open, long necks in the water, etc. However, what really excites me is when I can just pull out their color, shapes, forms, and texture.

(300mm; f/10; 1/500; -1 2/3; ISO 200) 

I like to photograph those big, muscular silver backs. They know they're respected and like to show that off for us. I have several images I like, but I thought I'd share this in-your-face rendition. You're probably thinking, "Is he nuts?" Actually, there was a thick plexiglass window for us to watch him. All of a sudden he leaned against the window and I said, thank you!

With a subject this dark, I need to underexpose the shot, otherwise it will come out over-exposed. The built-in light meter sees all that dark area and thinks it needs to lighten the scene--and I don't want a washed out gorilla! I had my camera on the tripod to prevent against any hand motion.

(200mm; f/8; 1/25; - 1 1/3; ISO 500)

Okay, I know most of us don't like snakes. I don't either, unless they're safely behind glass! When I saw this green and yellow snake (sorry zoo keepers, I don't know it's zoological name), I saw color and shapes. Although I have a really tight (close-up) shot of it, I like this one. Instead of focusing on the characteristics of the snake itself, this composition gave me a sense of environment. I underexposed the image to make the bright snake "pop." 

(60mm; f/4.5; 1/10; -1; ISO 200)

Giraffes--incredible animals to watch. Does luck sometimes play a role in photography? Some say no; I say yes. All the planning in the world could not have predicted this scenario. This poppa, momma, and their youngster came together and posed for me. Oh lucky me! Click.

  (90mm; f/4; 1/2500; -1; ISO 200)

This black bear kept staring at me. After a few minutes of back and forth pacing, he moved a little closer and just propped himself down in a yoga style position. He looked like he was praying for me to go away and leave him alone. 

Okay, a little technical information is needed here. The black gorilla was shot at -1 1/3. This bear, also black, was shot at only a -2/3. Why the difference? Answer: The black gorilla filled the frame.It would have fooled the light meter to think that it needed to lighten the scene a lot. The black bear scene, on the other hand, had roughly 1/3 of the scene in light grays. The built-in light meter would not have over-exposed this scene as much as the gorilla.
So, less black (or darks) in the scene= less underexposure required.    

 (220mm; f/7.1; 1/60; - 2/3; ISO 200)

Hippos are big animals with interesting blimp-like shapes. There are so many ways to photograph them--sleeping, jaws open, getting ready for a dip, and so on. I have all those shots in my collection. Today, I want to share a less common image. I spent several minutes observing this hippo. After several minutes of getting some good shots, he eventually disappeared into his zoo lake. I knew he had to come up for air, so I prepared for that possibility. Patience. After a couple of minutes he did come up for air--right in front of me! 

  (112mm; f/6.3; 1/250; - 2/3; ISO 320)

As you might have noticed, you don't see the entire animal in most of the images I have shared. Because we are programmed to "take pictures," we tend to try to photograph the entire animal at a zoo. Yes, I do that too if I want to document it, but the most interesting and dynamic images are those that concentrate on the animal's, or bird's, characteristics--color, shape, texture, form, mood.

This next image is definitely filled with color, shape, texture, and form. I looked for the composition that emphasized the chameleon's unique ability to camouflage itself against its environment. Don't you wish you could just disappear into the walls when you're at a miserable  but obligatory party or meeting? I see you shaking your head!

  (200mm; f/8; 1/20; - 1/3; ISO 800)

I will end my tip of the month with this cute image.It was autumn at the Denver, Colorado zoo, and I took advantage of that. Everywhere I aimed my camera, I looked for autumn colors to serve as complementary backdrops. Such was the case when I came upon these extremely active and colorful birds. A common impulse when photographing subjects like this is to get the entire depth of the scene as sharp as possible. Not me. I want my subjects to "pop"--to stand out. That is why I did not use a high number/small aperture for this image. I use my f/stops to convert backgrounds to backdrops.

Again, patience is required to wait until something happens. This image always brings a smile to my face. Regardless of what they are doing from a zoological perspective, they look like "love birds."   

  (280mm; f/10; 1/320; -0-; ISO 800)

I have given you several different scenarios from which to learn. Let me finish by sharing a few left-brain tidbits. I decide on left brain factors after I have decided what right brain, or artistic, results I want. My right brain goals determine my choice of left brain factors--lens focal length, f/stop, shutter speed, exposure compensation, ISO, WB. The right brain needs to know what the left brain can do; the left brain needs to listen and obey the right brain. Does that make sense? If not, please e-mail me, sign up for one of my classes or workshops, or read RIGHT BRAIN PHOTOGRAPHY (Be an artist first). Contact me.

So, as soon as the weather warms up in your hometown, head for the zoo!!