I live in a zoo so when I’m visiting one I should feel right at home. Zoos are great places to take the whole family as it’s economical and who doesn’t like seeing exotic animals from around the world? I would imagine that this would be a much cheaper venture than going to the plains of Africa and capturing nature in her own backyard. Granted, you’re limited by certain factors such as enclosures and operating hours, but these are minor inconveniences for my day of fun. I had the chance to visit the Naples Zoo in Naples, FL. I had heard how great this place was and it was worth a visit. It’s about a 90 minute drive from where I live so we left early…really early to make sure we got there when they opened. Those of you who know me, know I don’t do mornings so this was going to have to be one of those special occasions.
The night before I charged the batteries, cleaned the lenses and made sure that all of camera cards were clean. When the alarm went off the next morning, I rolled out of bed and tried my best to get my bearings. I packed the gear and drove the to meeting place, when I got there I was glad that I wasn’t the one driving down to Naples. I did remarkably well as I was able to keep both eyes open and when asked a question I was able to get all of the words in the correct order, mostly. When we arrived we were lucky as we had access to one of those blue cards that you hang from the rear view mirror so we didn’t have to walk in from the back forty. We got out and started to compile our gear. One of the folks that I rode down with had a great idea. She bought a grocery cart that had four wheels on it. We put all of our stuff in it and we looked like the richest homeless person that you ever saw.
We entered the queue to get our tickets. As I looked around, I could see that they took a note from Disney as the exit was conveniently placed in the gift store. Having been to other zoos, I could see this was going to be a tiger of a different color. We paid our money and got the approval stamp on the back of the hand, literally. As we made our way out the door, pushing our Mercedes homeless cart we came upon some parrots.
I called this one “Woody The Parrot” because he was eating a wood toy that was next to him. Just imagine what he could do to a finger! For equipment, I took my 18mm-200mm, 80mm-400mm and my 50mm f/1.4. Since I had never been here before, I wanted to take a few lenses in case I found myself in a challenging lighting situation. These parrots were under huts and in the shade so this was going to make getting all of my dynamic range really easy. I started with the 18mm-200mm mounted on the camera and this allowed me to fill the frame, as these guys were pretty close. Since I was in lower light, I chose and ISO of 800 with an f-stop of 5.6 as that is the minimum aperture that this lens opens at the 200mm end. This allowed me to get a shutter speed of 1/80. This is kind of slow as the rule of thumb is that you want to be as fast as your focal length, in this case I should have been at 1/200. My camera is going on six years old so my noise to ISO ratio isn’t as good as the newer cameras that are out so I have to watch my ISO. Nonetheless, this worked out. We spent thirty minutes shooting the different parrots and getting some great shots. Realizing that we had only made it fifty feet into the zoo we made the executive decision to grab the homeless cart and move on.
There was some kind of racquet coming from the “lagoon”. There was a monkey exhibit where these creatures were swinging from one rope to another. I noticed as one of the boats filled with tourists armed with cameras approached, these guys would start going bonkers. I guess they have their routine or maybe the boat guide throws them a banana. I was on the shore watching this unfold in front of me. These guys were a fair distance away so I was going to bring out the big gun as my small pea shooter of 200mm wasn’t going to get it. I reached into the cart and switched out the 200mm for the 400mm. I was able to fill three quarters of the frame. Since most of what I’m doing for these days is for the internet I can crop, knowing that it will still hold together at 72dpi. It wasn’t long and the natives were getting restless.
As you can see from the above photo, they got into a quarrel about whose turn it was to pay the dinner check. I have the camera set up for continuous or burst mode at high speed. I didn’t realize that they were showing teeth until I got home and went over the images. This is what the wife and I usually look like when the big brown truck comes with a box from B&H!
It was time to move on from the pissed off monkeys and on to the lions. When we arrived, the first thing that I noticed is that Naples Zoo uses a double fence system to keep people away from the hungry lions. If you are an average Joe this is perfect, if you’re a photographer, this is going to create a challenge. Shooting through one fence is bad enough, but trying to make two disappear was going to be virtually impossible. This was going to require a long focal length such as 400mm. To add to the photographer’s fun, the lion was also passing in and out of full sun into shade. This was going to require some patience and good timing to get a good shot, let alone a photo at all. We got lucky for a moment and the lion jumped on top of a platform that only had one fence in front of it. I pushed the camera over the first fence to get it as close to the second fence as possible and the resulting photo is above.
After a few moments he jumped down and went back to walking all over the place. I was determined to try and get a usable photo through this double fence. As I was looking through the lens, one of the other folks that I went with had found a good vantage point. Once I got on my knees, I lined up the two fences as best as possible and put the lens right on the first fence. I was able to make the fence disappear by lining up the wirework.
As we wandered around there were people lined up with little kids to let them feed the giraffes. I positioned myself on the sidelines to get a great shot of a father offering his son to the giraffe, I mean his son feeding the giraffe. Since there were families lined up to do this, I was able to get my composition and exposure down. After reviewing the different folks that fed the giraffes, this was the one that I liked the most.
Along one of the routes was a bear exhibit. They had a little cave set up so they would feel at home as much as possible. Since these guys are covered in black fur, this can throw the meter. I took one where the meter told me was correct and I saw a black bear with no detail. I over rode the camera and opened it up one stop. This allowed some of the detail in his fur to come through. Hence, why I shoot in manual, the camera isn’t always right! This was also shot through a fence, same as before I used a long lens and pushed it as close to the fence as possible.
As we made our way towards the exit of the park we found the cheetah exhibit. Again, he was walking all over the place and getting a sharp shot was going to be a challenge. After a few moments he laid down on a mound that they built for them and stayed still. There wasn’t any fence in the way, but there was a plate of acrylic that was covered in little handprints. At this point you know the drill, I put the lens right on the acrylic and all was clear. The lens was hunting as it did in some of the other examples, so I switched the camera to manual focus and adjusted it myself. If you look closely, you can see the flies buzzing his head.
It was a successful day at the zoo. Even with the challenges that were present, you can get some great photos to take home at the end of the day. This location was really challenging due to the double fencing. I prefer the “pit” system where they have a make shift fence up at waist height and there is a huge pit to keep the animals from jumping into your pockets. This makes getting photos much easier. Another tip, if you don’t have the funds to go to Africa, when you go to the zoo, fill the frame as much as possible and create portraits of the animals. This way no one is none the wiser that you went down the road instead of across the pond. Check the backgrounds when you are shooting, if you can get an uncluttered background that will help your photos. One final tip, shoot lots of photos and keep the kids fingers out of the lions enclosure!
Until next time…
Keep Your Glass Clean