Thursday, July 5, 2012

An Evening At the Zoo

The Zoo is an amazing place to take pictures - please enjoy this small album of shots I took at the Magnetic Hill Zoo in Moncton.

Taking pictures at the zoo, however, does have it's small challenges. As you can see in the picture above, there is a shadowy presence of the link-fence in the foreground. My little friend the Lemur here doesn't seem to mind the fence at all, so I don't mind it either (don't you just love Lemurs?). The best way to deal with link-fencing is to stick your lens right through it, or at least press your lens right up against it and make sure you have enough room to crop out the shadow afterward. But new standards at  zoos now dictates double fencing, so you have to stand a couple of feet outside of the inner fence, and this was the case here. Your camera's "default" setting for multi-point auto-focus will most likely cause it to focus clearly on the fence, resulting in the creature behind the fence to be completely blurred. So you have to take care to do one of two things:

  1. Set your camera to "single spot auto-focus". Surprisingly, not all cameras have this - my EOS 400D didn't have it until I installed a Firmware Hack. Fortunately, the 7D and the 40D which recently died on me both have Spot AF, as it's commonly referred to. For this shot I placed the Spot (as seen in the Viewfinder) on the Lemur's body, right dead centre in the photo, and my lens clearly focused on him and not the fence. I then quickly hit the Focus Lock button and took the shot.
  2. Set your camera to Manual Focus and do whatever you have to do to make sure the creature is in clear focus and not the fence (read your cameras manual on how manual focus works - it varies widely from camera to camera - and make sure you practice a lot to get a feel for it. Also, if your camera has an optical viewfinder with a Dioptre Compensation Adjuster, make absolutely certain this is set to match your eyesight)
Another thing about the zoo - the animals, especially Lemurs, like to show off for us and move around a lot, so it's not always easy to keep them in focus. Again a few tips:

  1. Use the Aperture Priority Mode, and set the Aperture to f8 -this will give a reasonable depth of field to maintain a reasonable focus on the moving animal, but take care that your shutter speed will be correspondingly slower, and if slow enough, will cause a lot of motion blur. You will have to compensate for this by setting your ISO (sensitivity to light) to a high (1600 or greater) value, which will allow your shutter to be fast enough to freeze all the motion. There now - I just gave you a practical application of the Spotmatic basics, except with the Spotmatic, you can't just change your ISO - you're stuck with the ISO of the film in the camera, which was usually "back in the day" no greater than 400 for colour.
  2. A better solution is to set your camera to "follow focus" - that is to stay in focus as you follow the moving creature around. (Canon DSLR's call this the AI-Servo Mode - other cameras would have a different name for it). At the same time, you could have your camera in Burst Mode (taking a timed sequence of shots as long as you press and hold down the shutter). Now, the problem with this overall approach, once again is the fencing. As you attempt to follow the animal's movement, the Auto Focus, even when set on Spot AF, will periodically focus on the fence instead of the critter. Most AF's these days, on DSLRs are lightening quick, so if you are burst shooting, you will probably get some shots with the animal, and not the fence, in focus. This cannot be said about most Compact Digi-Cams however, which still suffer from somewhat delayed auto-focussing, as well as shutter lag. In which case, it is probably better to use suggestion #1, except that Compacts, with their extremely small sensors, don't work very well at ISO's greater than 400 - you'll still get a picture, but it will have a lot of noise (speckles) in it.
Conclusion - even though DSLR's are bigger and heavier than Compacts, they work far better at the zoo, or anywhere else that fast action is required. This is why we buy them.

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