Wildlife and Nature Photography Tip 25 - Screening Your Subjects – A Zoo Problem and Solution

Part 1

As I checked in through the fee kiosk, I made sure I had all the equipment I needed for the day at the zoo. My daughter was home from college and she wanted to spend some time sketching some of the mammals she studied this past quarter in her “Evolution of Primate Behavior” class. Well, as you all know, I enjoy wildlife photography. This was a one day trip to Africa and South America and a few other regions, without having to deal with airports and lost or damaged luggage.

The concept of shooting wildlife confined to a restricted environment is an engaging one, but often the images reflect those boundaries, and by doing so, lose their outdoor appeal. One of the primary contributors to this effect is one having to shoot through screen or mesh of various sizes. Therefore, I shot a few images in hoping that they will illustrate to you what I do to make a visit to the zoo more palatable.

The very first prerequisite is to have time. After that, have more time. And when you have managed to line up those two things in the schedule, make sure you have enough time to spend with each subject. Don’t expect to see every creature at the zoo on each visit, but the time spent with just a few species will be well worth it. As an addition, the zoos are usually less populated during the weekdays as opposed to weekends.

So how do I capture these images? During Summer, most animals are just sitting motionless enduring the heat as you will be, with all that camera gear. Go during the Fall/Winter months for the most part. If you are in the northern hemisphere, that would be from October through February. The cooler months provide a much better activity level throughout each day. Dress warmly, and be prepared to sit and watch.

I have many people ask me how I was able to get photos without including the screen. As they thumb through their cell phone pics, I, and everyone who gets shown the photos, has to imagine each animal without the infamous “grid” pattern in each shot…very distracting. So here is the game plan, and why you should have time to set up for the shot.

I will include a diagram at the end of this article. It will make more sense after viewing the sample images while reading the text. Shooting photographic images involves seeing in 3D, but recording in 2D.

Camera placement in relation to subject is very important. Even though the concept appears somewhat complicated, after a bit of practice, it will all come together. Oh, have I mentioned to give yourself time as you learn this stuff??? Time is your friend.

The first two images demonstrate what you would view as you look at the subject through the bars or grid mesh. I have drawn in the grid bars to better illustrate these concepts. As you move the camera closer to the subject, the opening between the grid bars appears to increase. In actuality, your lens is closer and your angle of view fits better within the grid. This illustrates the objectionable foreground you would get from a lens with a wider angle, like a cell phone camera, if you shoot an image farther back from the grid or bars. (See below)

The above image shows the limited subject information included within each grid.

Below we can see as the camera is moved closer to the grid, more information of the subject is included in the frame.

The second pair of images (below) deal with subject focus. In the first shot I have drawn what the bars would look like when you focus on them in the foreground. The second image illustrates what happens when you focus on the subject with the bars out of focus. Depending upon how close you can get with your camera to the bars (the closer, the better) the bars will seem to disappear and/or become less of a distraction.

The last example pair (see below), is describing how I center a subject to have the least effect from the bars or mesh even when I employ the first two techniques. The first image has the grid partially over the lower portion of the face. Sometimes it may be the eyes or mouth, etc. Try to include the most important features in the opening the best you can.

I have also included a pair of images of a Ringtail Lemur that happened to be very close to the mesh. There is no way to eliminate the mesh in this kind of capture, but you can see that having the important features in the opening is significant in rendering a pleasing image.

In addition to camera placement and focus, choosing different Fstops also provides visual limits to include just the parts of the scene you want to be sharp. Out of focus objects begin to be more difficult to resolve as you move from F16 to F8, F5.6, or even 2.8. This shallow depth helps you to secure the isolation required for less visible clutter in the scene.

The two drawing/illustrations demonstrate how the foreground bars are more distinct in the photo when I use a higher Fstop, and then open to a lower F number.

When setting up each shot, remember that these techniques will always be more prominent as you increase the focal length of the lens. Use the longest focal length possible, get as close to the barrier to shoot through, and have the subject farther back from the barrier when shooting. See the final samples and comparison images from my shoot. The original framing is in the upper photo. The cropped final is in the lower shot.

Ringtail Lemur

Understanding the Drawing Below

The drawing below is an aerial view of three positions one could use for a shot.

With camera placement A you can easily see that Bar D is in the center of the image. This will cause the reduction of the image quality in the very center of the subject. Not a good choice.

Camera placement B is much better as the Bars D and E are only blocking the outside edges, but they would effect the head of the bird where the most interest would lie.

Camera Placement C shows how moving the camera a bit closer enabled the photographer to include all of the subject within the framing and also not have the bars passing in front of any significant part of the subject.Look forward to “Losing the Background”, Part 2 of this series for shooting in enclosures.

The drawing below was provided to aid in your visualization of how the camera placement makes a difference in the final image.

As you can see, there are a few things that can enhance the shoot by eliminating that ever annoying enclosure. But remember, everything will “MESH” together when you use as many of the techniques in conjunction with each other. And as always, Happy Shooting.

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