Captive Wildlife

Zoo Photography Made Simple

Few people have the opportunity to photograph wildlife in the wild. If a trip to Africa, the Arctic or the rain forest aren’t in the cards for you a visit to a major zoo is the best opportunity to photograph some of the wonderful creatures that we share this planet with.

On this and several linked pages you will see a number of photographs taken at the Toronto Zoo, most of them over a couple of days in mid-November 2000. All photographs were taken with the Canon EOS-D30 digital SLR and a 300mm f/2.8L IS lens. A number of these photographs also used the Canon 1.4 extender and these are so marked. All photographs were taken handheld, and all were at ISO 400.

Photographed with Canon D30 at ISO 400. 1/180th sec @ f/4 with a Canon 300mm f/2.8L IS and 1.4X Extender.  RAW Mode.

Because the Canon EOS-D30 has an imaging chip smaller than a traditional 35mm frame focal lengths are multiplied by 1.6X. Thus a 300mm lens effectively becomes a 480mm lens. When using a 1.4X extender, as in the photograph of the tiger above, instead of the 300mm lens becoming a 480mm, it becomes the equivalent of a 672mm lens. Gadzooks.

The challenge of photographing dangerous large mammals like this Tiger in the wild is getting close enough for a decent shot, yet no so close as to end up being someone’s lunch. At a zoo, with a long lens, getting close is easier and the risks are reduced, but there are other challenges. The main ones are fences.

At the Toronto zoo at least there are always wire mesh fences between the people and the dangerous animals. For your photographs to be effective you need to get close, and this is done of course through the use of a long lens.

Lenses and Fences

At most zoos you’ll want to work with at least a 300mm lens. A 400mm or 500mm are even better, or, if you own a high quality 1.4X extender, it can make a huge difference without degrading image quality. 2X Extenders usually don’t work as well.

The trick to overcoming wire fences is for you to be very close to the fence and for the subject to be very far from the fence. This means that because of the very shallow depth of field that long lenses have, particularly when used at close range, both fences will be out of focus.

Photographed with Canon D30 at ISO 400. 1/125th sec @ f/2.8 with a Canon 300mm f/2.8L IS .  RAW Mode.

This and the frame above were taken within a few minutes of each other, the major technical difference being that the first used the 1.4X extender and this one didn’t. You can see the difference in magnification that the increase in focal length provided.

The use of a wide aperture also helps. I used the 300mm wide-open most of the day, in part because it was very overcast, but also because to close down the aperture too much would have made either the foreground or background fences visible.

The challenge of working with a long lens wide-open is naturally that you have shallow depth of field‚ what you want to avoid seeing fences‚ but a complication when it comes to achieving apparently sharp images.

The Eyes Have It

Just as with a human portrait, portraits of animals have one overriding criteria the eyes must be sharp! We will excuse other areas of an image being soft, but the eyesmustbe clear and sharp. Eagle eyes?

Photographed with Canon D30 at ISO 400. 1/250th sec @ f/4 with a Canon 300mm f/2.8L IS and 1.4X Extender.  RAW Mode.

This was probably the most difficult photograph of the day. The eagle was quite close to the wire fence behind it. If you look closely you canjustsee a hint of it in the out-of-focus background. There also weren’t very many good spots to shoot from that were unobstructed by fencing supports or branches.

Again, this shot was done hand-held at an effective focal length of 672mm through the use of the 1.4X Extender and handheld at 1/250 sec.

Image Stabilization

Long lenses, low light, hand-holding. All of these contribute to the possibility of blurred or out-of-focus images. There’s a solution, though it’s not inexpensive. Both Canon and Nikon provide lenses with Image Stabilization technology.Nikon calls it Vibration Reduction.

This is not a gimmick. It works, and it works remarkably well. I routinely am able to hand-hold at shutter speed 2-3 stops slower than I would otherwise. This technology makes photographs like this not only possible, but relatively easy. In fact, I doubt if any of these particular photographs could or would have been taken without it.

Photographed with Canon D30 at ISO 400. 1/350th sec @ f/5.6 with a Canon 300mm f/2.8L IS and 1.4X Extender.  RAW Mode.

Two cubs were born to this lioness 4 months before this photograph was taken. They have all of the appeal that kittens do. Totally adorable and a counterpoint to the mother’s regal grace.

Soft Fall Light

For this type of photography I much prefer an overcast day to a sunny one. Even when there is no direct sunlight there are problems dealing with deep shadows as seen here. If the sun had been shining this shot would have been ruined.

Photographed with Canon D30 at ISO 400. 1/250th sec @ f/5.6 with a Canon 300mm f/2.8L IS .  RAW Mode.

Dad looks a bit tuckered out guess the cubs have been keeping him up nights.

Instead of wire mesh fences, in this case I had to shoot though glass. Reflections weren’t a problem, but it did somewhat degrade the image.

Canon EOS D30 Quality

The photographs on this page were all taken with the new (Fall, 2000Canon EOS D30 digital SLR. The quality of the images that this camera can produce are remarkable. I have made 13″ X 19′ prints from each of these photographs and the quality is the fully equal if not superior to the best prints I’veevermade from 35mm film.

Photographed with Canon D30 at ISO 400. 1/350th sec @ f/4 with a Canon 300mm f/2.8L IS .  RAW Mode.

Even though the day was heavily overcast there is wonderful colour saturation in this type of light and this unlikely subject provides a lovely example of this.

Digital Photography

You’ll notice in the captions that each of these photographs was taken at ISO 400. I have never shot an ISO 400 transparency film that was worth a damn (maybe the new Provia 400 F will be an exception). But, the Canon D30 produces image quality at ISO 400 that is virtually identical that it’s primary speed of ISO 100. Just the slightest bit of extra noise in the shadows. Remarkable!

Photographed with Canon D30 at ISO 400. 1/250th sec @ f/5.6 with a Canon 300mm f/2.8L IS .  RAW Mode.

This ostrich fell in love with us. Maybe it was my bright orange rain jacket or possible the long Canon telephoto lens, butsomethingcaught his fancy. I’m glad that there was a deep moat and stone fence between us. I’ve never been afraid of Thanksgiving dinner before.

In the End

Photographed with Canon D30 at ISO 400. 1/350th sec @ f/5.6 with a Canon 300mm f/2.8L IS .  RAW Mode.

As discussed above, sharp eyes are important (yours and the subject’s), but sometimes other parts of animals, such as this elephant’s posterior, can provide interesting even humorous subject matter.

A Sunny Day – A Different Lens

Photographed with Canon D30 at ISO 100. 1/750th sec @ f/8 with a Canon 100~400mm f/5.6L IS zoom .  RAW Mode.

A couple of days after the previous photographs on this page were taken I returned to the zoo on a sunny day. Instead of the 300mm f/2.8 lens I used the 100~400mm f/5.6, a lens more akin to that which most photographers have access to.

I found the harsh light tonotbe conducive to producing the kind of image quality that I wanted. The overcast of the previous two shooting days was much preferable.

Nap Time

Photographed with Canon D30 at ISO 400. 1/350th sec @ f/5.6 with a Canon 100~400mm f/5.6L IS zoom @ 400mm.  RAW Mode.

This Siberian Tiger had just finished lunch and was sacked out for a nap. I’m enjoying doing these photographs because for me these are portraits of creatures with very distinct personalities as much so as if they were people.

This photograph was taken through a thick sheet of protective Plexiglas. It’s also interesting because many people have questioned how sharp the Canon 100~400mm f/5.6 lens is when used wide-open. Not as sharp as when stopped down, but as can be seen here still pretty good.

Monkey Shines

Photographed with Canon D30 at ISO 400. 1/350th sec @ f/5.6 with a Canon 100~400mm f/5.6L IS zoom @ 400mm.  RAW Mode.

Mid-day is never the best time for photography when it’s sunny. But, because this photograph was taken in mid-November the sun is low in the sky and created a wonderful backlight effect. This is one of the few situations where burned-out highlights are acceptable.

The monkey’s faces really are that colour, and together with the halo effect of the backlighting makes for a striking combination.

Click here for some additional wildlife photographs from the Toronto zoo which are displayed as part of my initial Canon EOS D30 review.

This subject is now featured in Volume 1,  Number 1o of  The Luminous Landscape Video Journal