“Making Wildlife Images on a Budget” (July 2009 Show-Me Nature Photography Newsletter)

If you enjoy shooting wildlife from faraway places (like African safari wildlife), or would like to photograph a reclusive, hard to find critter (such as a wolf or bobcat), and you don’t have the time or money to travel so that you can find and photograph them, why not try the local zoo? Zoos can be great places to photograph these animals, and the animals here are habituated to people, so they won’t run away when they see you! Other places to consider are refuges or sanctuaries, or rehabilitation organizations, where sick or injured animals are nursed back to health before being released into the wild. Use the tips in this month’s column to help you find and photograph these critters on a small budget.

The first thing to do is to find places locally where you can photograph. You can check the yellow pages or contact a local conservation group. Most larger cities have zoos … and many have rehabilitative or sanctuary groups. Once you have located a location, you are on your way to getting some nice photos.

When ready to photograph, be sure to check the camera settings. ISO should be as low as you can get away with (100 or 200 is a good starting place). If the animal you are photographing is very active, you will likely need to increase the ISO to 400, maybe even 800, depending on the lighting and the amount of activity. Remember, lower ISO ratings usually give you better color saturation (without needing to do any additional processing in an external editing program), but higher ISO’s will be necessary to “freeze” any action you may encounter. Fortunately, most captive animals are not that active, so play with the ISO and check your camera’s LCD display to assure you are capturing the action satisfactorily. White Balance will normally do well when placed in the “Auto” mode. If you will be capturing action shots, try setting your camera’s shooting mode to “Shutter Priority”, then setting a shutter speed of 1/250 to 1/500 second. This should help freeze the action for you. Lastly, before you head out, be sure you have a fresh battery in the camera, an empty memory card in the camera, and spares of both batteries and cards in your photo bag or pocket.

Another, frequent reminder I always give someone when they are trying something new, is to “shoot a lot” … remember, digital photography is cheaper than film photography since you have no film to be processed. So, try changing the control settings on your camera a lot, including the shutter speed, the ISO setting, etc. Any “bad” shots can later be dispatched to the wastebasket with a press of a key, so shoot a lot and vary the conditions. You’ll also be surprised how much you can learn just by experimenting!

Another tip for photographing captive animals: always look over the available subjects and find the best one to photograph. Things like eartags or legbands detract from the photo (unless you are doing a shoot on captive animals and want these to show up in your images). And if all the subjects have an eartag, wait until they face the opposite direction … often the eartag is only in one ear, so letting the subject turn around will “hide” the eartag from the camera. Also, check for overall condition of the subjects. Often, one subject will have a fuller compliment of feathers or fur than other subjects. You want your best subject, so look around and be patient. Also check the lighting. If the day is early or late, you will likely have great, low-angled light to work with. But if you are shooting mid-day, then you will likely have very harsh shadows around the animal; one side will be in very bright, harsh light, but the other side will be harsh shadows. Instead of shooting this way, wait until the animal walks into the shade. Images in the shade often will “smooth out” inconsistencies in the lighting, and will render much better photos. Again, shoot, shoot, shoot … try different lighting conditions to see what you like.

The next time you are at the zoo, try these tips and see if they help your images. Do you have any tips to offer? Just send them to me at this convenient link: showmenaturepix@hotmail.com

Happy Shooting!

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