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PostPosted: Mon Oct 03, 2011 9:35 am 
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Yesterday I had the first visit to a zoo in over 20 years :roll:
So I geared up with my trusty old D300, the Nikon AF-S 70-200/2.8 VRII + 1.7x tele-converter, Canon 500D close-up filter, a monopod, spare battery, and the Nikon AF-S 35/1.4G.
The location was the zoo in Nuremberg which is situated in a beautiful hilly and forested surrounding.
I captured 430 shots over the course of almost five hours and had whole series of images that were just good enough for the recycle bin :shock:
Others turned out to be not quite as good as I like them - so some sort of debriefing with myself was clearly required to distill some "lessons learned" out of this.
Mind you, I'm not competing with the great thread started by Wolfsong "A Basic Guide to Wildlife Photography" but I thought you'd like to see how a seasoned shooter can struggle and even completely fail in such a controlled surrounding like a zoo.

Btw.: Some good came also out of this and you can see my collection of the more successful shots here.

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 Post subject: focal length
PostPosted: Mon Oct 03, 2011 9:47 am 
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Let's have a look first at the useful focal length.
Just some statistics to start with:
- of the 430 shots 400 were with the 70-200mm lens
- of that 400 shots 255 shots were at 200mm focal length and 50 shots below 70mm
So most of the times I was zoomed in to the max. Plus I cropped most of the (better) images further by a factor of 1.5x to 2x. This in turn tells you that I could have used a 300mm fixed focal most of the times (on a DX body). Or a Sigma 120-300/2.8 OS - which I saw quite often with other photographers.

Lesson #1:
- Even in the confined spaces of a zoo wildlife seems to be further away than I expected.
- 200mm is the minimum on a DX body, 300mm seems a good fit which translates to a 500mm lens on an FX body :shock:
- When in doubt take the longer lens

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Last edited by Thomas on Mon Oct 03, 2011 10:46 am, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 03, 2011 9:57 am 
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Well, you might ask: Why didn't I take the 1.7x tele-converter?
- mounting tele-converters is a time-consuming process. And you're not sitting at your desk or working in your studio when you fiddle with the TC, the lens and the body. Instead you're kneeling on uneven ground, hundreds of people bustling around you, kicking up dust and dirt while walking along
- you lose 1.5 stops with a 1.7x TC.
- you have a negative impact on image quality which requires to stop down another 0.5 to 1 stop to compensate for. Which gives you a max aperture of around f/5.6.
- I had not seen the statistic of me using the lens at 200mm most of the time. So I was reluctant to restrict my shortest focal length to 1.7 x 70mm = 120mm on a DX-body (= 180mm equivalent focal length).

Interestingly after cropping most of the photos I still ended up with more pixels than my WUXGA (1920x1200) monitor needed. And that with a 12MP DX-body. So with a modern 16MP body I'd still be left with even more pixels than fit on a screen. So here's a clear case for those who love their Megapixels for the purpose of cropping - and the real question arises whether a TC would have really improved your situation.
Well I thought long and hard about that and came to the conclusion

Lesson #2:
Forget the TC if you have at least a 200mm lens with you. Simply crop.

---
Disclaimer: Lesson #2 only applies when shooting in a zoo. If your prey is even further away you definitely need a longer focal length and thus the use of a TC might be mandatory.

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Last edited by Thomas on Mon Oct 03, 2011 10:46 am, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 03, 2011 10:13 am 
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I have to agree with your assessment of taking photos at the zoo. We went to Melbourne zoo a few month ago and I took hundreds of shots.
Its a big day when taking two kids and carrying the backpack and camera gear. Surprised myself how many shots turned out worse than expected.

Mainly its poor lighting, or just out of focus as the subject is in poor light. The glass windows don`t help either. Might take a flash next time.

I thought that all the hours I have spend in the bush chasing birds etc would prepare me pretty well for taking a few shots of larger animals, but not so.
Its a different environment, often its like being indoors. I should pp and post some of the better shots.

oh and the 70-300 range on a cropped body worked pretty well.

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 Post subject: What aperture
PostPosted: Mon Oct 03, 2011 10:31 am 
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Next on is the question of aperture and lighting conditions.
Of those 400 shots with the 70-200mm I took 370 (>90%) at f/2.8. Now why was that?
- I was after maximum isolation of the subject from its backgrounds. Especially with backgrounds at a zoo often distracting.
- I had wild swings of brightness although it was a perfectly sunny and cloudless day! And I'm not talking about indoor shots only.
- 150 shots (almost 40%) were at 1/30 sec and 1/60 sec! This really came as a shock to me. Let me explain this a bit further:
I know that the human eye is very good at adapting to various lighting conditions. But really I never thought that I'd encounter exposures times ranging from 1/30 sec up to 1/8000 under almost constant weather. But that's what you get when you shoot under trees, trying to nail the subject crouching beneath an outcrop of rocks etc.
I had auto-ISO switched ON and set the lower limit to 1/30 sec which constitutes the absolute longest exposure time that I can hand-hold at 200mm. Almost 10% of the shots invoked the lower limit and consequently the camera raised the ISO.

Lesson #3:
Even on a sunny day never underestimate the lack of light in shadows - and many animals seek the shadows!

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Last edited by Thomas on Mon Oct 03, 2011 6:13 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 03, 2011 10:35 am 
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Yeah maxjj: the 70-300 seems like a good focal range for zoo shots.
But as a corollary to my lesson #3 there is this one:

Lesson #4:
If you have a lens with f/5.6 as max aperture (at the long end) be prepared to raise ISO to at least 800 to get shutter times that are short enough.

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Last edited by Thomas on Mon Oct 03, 2011 10:47 am, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 03, 2011 10:46 am 
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Now I hear you say: Best use a tripod!
Well: I would have never carried my Manfrotto 055proB around 5 hours on that hot day! So I was restricted to my monopod.
Did I use it? No! Why not?
- I had no head on my monopod to make tilt/swivel of the camera easy or switching between portrait and landscape*
- changing positions and following creatures around their cage/display was mandatory most of the times and any pod would have been in the way.
- even with 1/30 or 1/60 of a second motion blur was taking its toll on moving animals. So even longer exposure times on a tripod/monopod were a no-no.

Lesson #5:
Critters move. So leave your pod at home! Crank up the ISO instead.

---
*although only 12% of the shots were in portrait-orientation

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 03, 2011 11:57 am 
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What about closest focusing distance?
Yeah I got trapped there too: When shooting the penguins underwater I had to be close to the glass to have a clear view into the water basin, unobstructed by other visitors.
But penguins are a curious breed: They swim right up to the glass to see what strange fish are on the other side :wink:
I would have got away with a 50cm working distance but the 1.4m MFD of the 70-200/2.8 was definitely a nuisance under these circumstances.
I also assume that with a closer MFD there would have been a need to zoom out below 70mm focal length of that lens, but alas, I was in no position to test this theory.
Other instances where you have to be close to the barrier between the animals and yourself are fences: If you want to avoid having the telltale pattern of a fence in your images you better touch the fence with the lens-shade. But in these cases the animals behind the fence seldom were as curious as the penguins and kept their distance. There is also no problem with cages with barriers in front to keep the visitors some distance away from the animals: Under these circumstances 1.4m MFD is no disadvantage. So I assume that typically under-water vistas where fish, penguins and other inhabitants swim close to the glass are the only situations where you might encounter the limits of your lenses MFD.

Lesson #6:
MFD of your lens(es) and min focal length might get in your way when shooting under-water scenes.

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 03, 2011 12:15 pm 
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But there is more to the challenges of shooting underwater scenes!
After the experience with the penguins I switched to the 35/1.4G for the fish-tanks. This lens goes down to 30cm MFD (=20cm working distance) so in many cases you can touch the glass with the lens-hood and shoot fish from there. The large aperture is also quite helpful as fish-tanks tend to be dimly lit compared to outdoor scenes.
I shot at f/1.4 all the time and had half of the shots at 1/30 sec with the automatic ISO adjustment making sure I didn't drop below that. I wouldn't go lower with moving fish so everything seems fine and dandy.
Until I checked on the focus: it was off, off, and OFF. I know that at f/1.4 you have to focus carefully but I never thought that my hit-rate of in-focus images would be below 10% :shock: And most of the shots were not just slightly off, they were seriously mis-focused.
Here's the best shot I got away with:
Image
Fish 31760 by Thomas, on Flickr
ISO 200, 1/60 sec, f1.4

I tried to manually correct focus but with the viewfinder-screen of the D300 (and almost all DSLRs) much too translucent it was to no avail. And live-view was out of question.

Lesson #7:
- Fish-tanks are dimly lit. Barring the use of a flash bring a fast lens and/or crank up the ISO!
- If you want to shoot fish-tanks from close-up, bring enough time, try out focusing or get yourself a better vf-screen to focus manually.

---
This experience was so devastating that I still wonder whether I made some big mistake here. So let me hear your take on focusing with fish-tanks!

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Last edited by Thomas on Mon Oct 03, 2011 5:21 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 03, 2011 12:27 pm 
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Lesson 1 - focal lengths - it depends somewhat on the zoo layout and what you're after, but I think I run the gamut of focal lengths. Both long and short. Something like a 70-300 is very popular, although a bit more never hurts.

Lesson 2 - the TC - *if* I had a 70-200/2.8 to use in that situation I think I'd probably end up leaving a TC in place all the time. But, I'd recommend having a 2nd camera available for wider shots when needed. That 2nd camera doesn't have to be another DSLR.

Lesson 3 - shadows - while most of the time I'm a jpeg shooter, in harsh/contrasty situations is one of the few times I'd switch to raw. Direct sunlight and shadows makes for rather challenging situations.

Lesson 4 - high ISO - if you need it, you need it. I go all the way to 3200 if needed.

Lesson 5 - mobility - I rarely see people using tripods or even monopods at a zoo. You need to keep mobile if you want the best shots. On occasion I might use any fences or walls to rest on, but that's about it. If you have a stuper-tele (something with 100mm+ aperture) then taking the weight off might start to become useful! I did not find using a 300/2.8 fun at a zoo.

Lesson 6 - MFD - it is something to consider if they do get close. For underwater penguin shots I've tended to use a wide angle lens anyway, which has a relatively short MFD.

Lesson 7 - underwater - yup, those are big challenges for lack of light. The glass enclosure quality is also often against you too so you might need to move around to find better spots. It might look ok at the time but the camera seems to show up the glass flaws much stronger than the eye does.

Other note - did you run into (lack of) depth of field issues? Not a problem for bigger animals but can be something to be aware of for smaller ones.

Overall I think there is more room to use higher ISO than shown so far. Not a necessity but can help bring the odds of a non-blurry shot back to your side.

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 Post subject: Crank up our ISO
PostPosted: Mon Oct 03, 2011 1:40 pm 
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Yeah popo, you're probably right!
Clinging to the low base ISO of 200 and cranking it up only at the 1/30 sec limit was probably the greatest error I made when shooting the penguins. Even zoomed out to 70mm and with continuous AF switched ON it was hard to track them swimming by. My efforts to pull the camera with the movement were perhaps not bad but with f/2.8 the dof was often only good enough for their backsides but had not enough reach for the whole animal. See the following example:

Image
Penguin 31701 by Thomas, on Flickr
Shot at 1/60 sec, f/2.8, 70mm, ISO 200, this is the best of 21 shots :?

With ISO 1600 I could have shot at 1/125 sec and f/5.6 reducing motion blur and increasing dof. Well, perhaps this is the most important

Lesson #8:
When in doubt, crank up the ISO!

---
P.S.: There's also another learning to be had from the underwater shots: I found it quite difficult to get saturation, color balance and contrast in post-processing to a point where I was satisfied. But as I shoot RAW I couldn#t care less about those things while shooting. So perhaps there is another lessen hidden in here too:

Lesson #8.5:
Shoot RAW and worry about contrast, saturation and white-balance later.

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Last edited by Thomas on Mon Oct 03, 2011 2:30 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 03, 2011 2:09 pm 
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Lesson #6 (minimum focus distance) revisited

There was another instance where I was swearing under my breath: Trying to capture those butterflies that flew around freely in the new Manati-/tropical house. On one hand (again) 200mm on DX was often not long enough to capture them large enough so I had to rely on cropping in all my butterfly shots. But when they where coming closer those critters didn't keep themselves out of my 1.4m MFD radius :evil:
Stepping back would have been easy you say? Nah:
- behind me were tons of visitors
- by the time I had reached a better (farther away) position one of two things happened: a visitor got between me and my target or the subject of my photographic desire simply flew away.

I don't know what the best strategy in this case is:
- with a superzoom you normally have a MFD of 50cm and you can zoom in to 200mm or even 300mm
- or you mount a macro lens and capture them as close as they get - although other challenges arise with larger magnifications

But perhaps the best lesson to take away from this experience is

Lesson #9:
Be patient! Statistically there is a non-zero probability that your target eventually ends up at just the right distance from you :wink:

And then, with a little cropping you're almost there:
Image
Butterfly 31800 by Thomas, on Flickr
Shot at 200mm, f2.8, 1/250 sec from around 4m

More butterflies from that trip can be found here.

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Last edited by Thomas on Mon Oct 03, 2011 3:33 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 03, 2011 2:55 pm 
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Now here's #10, a little bonus one which I found quite intriguing.

Lesson #10:
Shooting in stark sunlight might not be your best option.

I was standing there at the place of the prairie dogs and aiming at a cute one who was gnawing away on some juicy leaves. A visitor to my right was casting a thick black shadow over the animal and I was eagerly waiting for her to move on. Luckily I took some shots of the critter in the shadow so you can compare both shots and judge for yourself.

Image
Dog in the shadow 31849 by Thomas, on Flickr
Captured with Nikon AF-S VRII 70-200/2.8 at 200mm, f2.8, 1/1000 sec

Image
Dog in the sun 31856 by Thomas, on Flickr
Captured with Nikon AF-S VRII 70-200/2.8 at 200mm, f2.8, 1/2000 sec

I like the first one in the shadow better. The distracting background can be "blown out" easily when correctly exposing for the animal. So this gives me proof for my 10th lesson.
But honestly: This is a real old one! You would have certainly known that the prairie dog in the shadow would turn out cuter than the one bathed in harsh sunlight, wouldn't you?

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 03, 2011 2:59 pm 
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Great info Thomas.

I do not shoot zoos often at all so I cannot speak on them to any great depths. Your observations hit the nail on the head for most forms of wildlife photography. With the 100-400 being my primary on the road wildlife lens I rarely see my ISO drop below 800 and people should not be afraid of this. Of course when you are in bright sunny conditions and your subject is in the open or flying in the sky your ISO comes down drastically but in the wild, and obviously in zoos as well, this is rarely the case and adjustments need to be made. Like popo I'm not afraid to go to 1600 ISO or even 3200 at times.

Focal lengths... something with a reach of 300 for sure if not a bit farther like popo said I think would be the way to go. I porbably would go with 400 just to be safe. And a second body with a shorter lens on it if you have it.

As popo mentioned I would think there would be enough things to steady yourself against where a tripod or monopod would not be needed.

In regards to critters in harsh sunlight... I've been know to purposely create shadows to try for a better image. Many feel the colors of flowers look much more saturalted in shadow than in direct sunlight. I always take some pics directly in sunlight then place my body to create a shadow just to get another look... I do the same with insects at times when I can.

On a side note... the shot of the monkey with the baby on its back is amazing.

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 03, 2011 3:08 pm 
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Thank you Wolfsong, popo and maxjj for your replies.
I see you easily go to much higher ISOs than I normally dare. But you're right: a shot lost to blur or lack of dof is worse than a shot that needs a bit of noise-reduction but is otherwise sharp.
I also start to think that wild-life shooters have a real advantage from a DX/APS-C body - as long as the quality of the lens(es) support the higher pixel densities. If I imagine having had a D700 body with me for that trip I think that in many cases I would have run out of pixels to crop as far as I would have needed with the 70-200mm zoom. So a >20MP FX/FF body would be a nice tool for this task - which reminds me, that I'm still waiting for the D800 :roll:

Btw. here's the shot Wolfsong alluded to:

Image
Balancing 31533 by Thomas, on Flickr

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