Photographing Animals at the Zoo [Part 2] – Lemurs!!

LemurErik, Matt, and I went to the Franklin Park Zoo last weekend. Previously, I wrote a post about taking shots of the resident lion at the zoo. After meandering around the zoo for a while, we went to the Tropical Forest. Dressed in our winter garb, complete with hats, gloves, and scarves to combat the 20 degree weather and 25 mph winds, we entered the warm, humid Tropical Forest.

LemurWhere I was able to shoot at 1/1000″ at f/2.8 and ISO 200 outside, inside was another matter. I walked around for awhile, checking out the Gorillas, various birds, some hog-like creature, and various other animals when I found the lemurs. A whole bunch of them. Though their environment was naturally lit via skylights, it was still pretty dang dark, and behind a thick pane of reflective glass. I immediately knew I would have to start shooting at ISO 1600. Knowing we were going inside, I had borrowed Erik’s monopod, so thankfully I would be able to keep my non-IS Canon 70-200 f/2.8L lens steady. Recall from the previous post that at a minimum, one needs to shoot at 1/efl (effective focal length) if hand-holding a camera. Using a monopod greatly reduces that requirement, though and I was able to shoot down to 1/30″ and still get sharp pictures, even at 200mm. I was still shooting Aperture Priority Mode with Exposure Compensation to +1/3 stop on my Canon Rebel XTi/400D at f/2.8 to let enough light in and to get a nice shallow depth of field. When I started shooting these rapidly moving little buggers, I was getting between 1/30″ and 1/60″ for a shutter speed! That’s a full 7-8 stops darker than what I was finding outside. Thank goodness for that monopod and fast lens!

When I used to shoot with my Canon S2 IS point and shoot camera, I wouldn’t even bother taking a shot if I had to go over ISO 200 and ISO 400 was a grainy mess. The world of DSLRs changes that. Now, I don’t hesitate to shoot at ISO 1600. Heck, ISO 400 is kind of my starting point and I adjust from there. Sure, 800 and 1600 are noisier than lower ISO settings, but if you get a good exposure, exposing to the right, the noise is not objectionable at all, especially once you take a 10mp image and reduce it to an 800×600 image on the screen. Even printed 8×10″, the noise just doesn’t really show up….if you got the exposure right. I can’t emphasize this enough – an under exposed low ISO image will have more objectionable noise than a well exposed high ISO image. So, if the light gets low and bumping up the ISO will allow you to get a better exposure, don’t be afraid. I tell you, a blurry, dark ISO 400 shot is going to look a heck of a lot worse than a sharp ISO 1600 shot. Plus, if you’re using flash, you’ll be able to capture some of the environment and not just end up with a blown out head sticking out of a black hole.

Now the problem wasn’t camera shake, it was getting the lemurs to stand still long enough to shoot them at such a slow shutter speed. 1/30″ – 1/60″ is just too slow to capture rapidly moving primates swinging from trees and chasing their friends. I quickly gave up on trying to catch these guys running around playing, so I started focusing on the little guys eating lunch. Did I mention that they were also behind glass? So, I got down low to the floor, got my lens as close to the glass as I could (to eliminate glare) as much as possible, and went to work. Because of the large aperture, long focal lengths, close shooting distances, and subsequently shallow depth of field, I ended up with a lot of well framed shots where a nose, or a claw, or an ear was in crisp focus, but the eyes were not. It doesn’t matter if it’s an animal or a human, a portrait just doesn’t work if the eyes are not in focus. If you can’t get both eyes in focus, the near eye really needs to be in sharp focus. Also, because of the slow shutter speeds and the spastic creatures, I ended up with a lot of pictures where the fur on the body and arms was in crisp focus, but the head was a blurry mess as they moved their heads around. Again, focusing on the slow moving, feeding lemurs was the way to go and I got several decent shots.

LemurSweating from our winter garb in a tropical environment, we packed up at closing time when the zoo staff kicked us out. When I got home and downloaded the images into Lightroom (after some warm Tazo Chai…mmmmm), I flagged the ones I liked, deleted the total losers (out of focus, blurry, etc), and keyworded them. The lion picture from the last post took a lot of post processing work to get it to pop, but these lemur pictures came out of the camera almost like you see them. For a few of them, I had to bump up the exposure 1/3 of a stop or so. Because I was shooting through glass…again…there was a little loss of contrast, so I bumped up the black level a little bit, as well as the contrast and vibrance. Then, I exported them straight to flickr and Facebook with sharpening set to high, using Jeffrey Friedl’s Facebook and Flickr plugins for Lightroom.

Did you learn something? Have some questions? Am I full of it? Do you hate my photos and wish I’d shut up about them? Let me know by posting in the comments!

Back to Part 1

Photographing Animals at the Zoo (Lions, and Lemurs, oh my!) [Part 1]

Saturday, I went to the Franklin Park Zoo in Dorchester, MA (just outside of Boston) with my friends Erik and Matt for a blustery January photowalk. We all showed up with our long lenses and winter apparel and started our journey outside. I was taking my new Canon 70-200 f/2.8L out for it’s first spin, attached to my Canon Rebel XTi/400D. I really took it (and my ability) through the ringer, shooting in bright direct sun at ISO 100 handheld all the way to dimly lit interior shots requiring high ISO, slow shutter speeds, and a monopod.

First up, a lion in the snow!

You look like foodBeing winter in New England, there were very few animals outside, but we were quickly greeted by an earth shaking lion’s roar. As we approached, the guy you see here was standing on top of his rock, as if to tell us that we would be food if he could only get out of his pen. If you’ve never heard a lion’s roar live in concert, it is quite a thing to experience. Plus, the juxtaposition of a lion with a foot of packed snow on the ground was equally unusual.

Mr. Lion was kept in by two different types of barricades. On two sides, he had an extremely deep and wide sheer rock chasm. This provided us photographers with a nearly unobstructed view of the King of the Jungle. On the other sides, he was glassed in with very thick, contrast reducing, flare inducing glass.

The shot above was taken through thick, scratched glass as he was staring me down. It was difficult to capture him through the branches, but I stood on my tip-toes and leaned against the glass and was able to get a clear shot of his face. As usual, I was shooting aperture priority (Av) mode, which allowed me to chose my f/stop and ISO while the camera chose the shutter speed. In this case, I picked f/2.8 to get that nice shallow depth of field. Because I would be shooting moving animals with a long lens, I had to keep the shutter speed high. The rule of thumb is to keep the shutter speed no slower than 1/(effective focal length) to avoid shake blur from hand holding the camera. I chose ISO 200, which in this shot gave me a shutter speed of 1/1000″ – plenty fast enough to get a sharp image, hand-held, at 200mm.

In order to avoid flare and reflections from the glass I was shooting through, I made sure to have the lens hood pressed up against the glass as close as possible. Even then, I could see a reflection coming in, so I used my left hand to block the source of the reflection. I took a number of similar shots to this, but tried to wait for the moment when he was staring me down. I focused on his eyes and recomposed the image so that he was not smack in the middle of the photograph. The rule of thirds always helps make for a better image.

Here is what came out of the camera. As you can see, the image is pretty sharp, but seriously lacking in contrast and color vibrance. The Lion is also somewhat back and side lit, causing his face to be a bit too dark and the background a bit too bright. The first thing I did in Lightroom was to bring up the black levels substantially (+30). This took care of the biggest problem, which was a lack of dark tones in the image. I tried a number of things to bring out the colors in the image, but they were just lost behind the glass. So, I converted the image to black and white. My philosophy is that if the colors in an image do not do anything to improve the image, get rid of them. Black and White also gives you the ability to greatly increase the contrast of an image, which I did in this case by setting the tone curve to “strong contrast” and bringing contrast up to +77.

I also did some messing around with the color luminosities to darken the rocks and bring out some detail in the lion’s face. This changed the image from a flat grayscale image to one with some more depth and contrast. That left me with the dark face to deal with. I used the adjustment brush set to +1 stop exposure and drew all over his face. Because the feathering level on the brush was set quite high, it doesn’t end up looking unnaturally brightened. I cropped the image a bit from the left, added a slight vignette, and then uploaded it to flickr.

This is more post processing work than I usually put into my images, but I think it paid off here. I don’t consider this my best work by far, but I think it shows what you can do with a decently composed, yet somewhat technically flawed image.

To finish up, I present you with this odd juxtaposition:

Let me know what you think or if you have any questions.

Next up, LEMURS, indoors!

Weirs Beach at Sunrise

This past August, my wife and I found out that we were expecting. Knowing that our vacation time would be limited for the next, oh, 18 years or so, we decided to take an impromptu vacation around labor day up to Weirs Beach in Laconia, NH. We rented ourselves a nice cabin with a beautiful view of Lake Winnipesaukee and went up there for a brief vacation on Labor Day.

The town was dead. Very few businesses in the very small town were open, and there was hardly a soul around. This was perfect for us since we hate crowds and all we wanted to do was spend some nice time together, go hiking, and generally just relax. I, of course, brought my camera everywhere we went.

Weirs Beach Dock at Sunrise #2

One evening, while my wife was taking a nap, I went out to get some sunset shots at the marina right by our cabin. I spent a good hour or so waiting for the light to “happen”, but came back with nothing great. The lake is to the east, and the clouds weren’t crazy enough to provide an interesting sky in the east. So, the next morning, I decided I would get up at the crack of dawn – before first light, if possible – to get some sunrise shots of the marina. In my limited experience photographing sunrises, I’ve found that the light is far better than sunset light.

Something like 5AM came, I begrudgingly rolled out of bed, put on some warm clothes, grabbed my camera, tripod, filters, and remote trigger and walked down the hill to the lake. It was, unfortunately, well past first light, but the light was still beautiful. Since I had been there the night before, I had some ideas for compositions already, so I got to work.

Weirs Beach Docks at Sunrise
I had decided on using my Sigma 17-70 lens since I knew I would want to take shots from a variety of focal lengths. I love my Sigma 10-20, but it’s not very easy to adapt to changing conditions and ideas since even 20mm on a crop camera is only 32mm, which doesn’t get you very close. It was pretty dim light, but the sky was still significantly brighter than the docks and water, so I put on a 2 stop graduated neutral density filter to bring the exposure of the sky down. Without it, I’d either have a shadowy foreground with little detail and a lot of noise, or I’d have a blown out sky. The color in the sky was a beautiful pastel color and I wanted to make sure I captured that. I didn’t have my gray card with me to custom white balance, but I was wearing a gray sweatshirt, so I turned the camera around and set a custom white balance using my sweatshirt. (Note to self, purchase an 18% gray t-shirt and sweatshirt).

I knew I wanted to get some long exposure shots in order to blur the water to a glass-like surface with frosty reflections of the dock, and I also wanted everything in clear focus. So, I chose f/11, ISO 100, and tried a 25 second exposure. I find that the light meter only gets me in the ballpark on shots like this, so there is a bit of guesswork involved to get the ‘correct’ exposure. I wanted to use the dock to lead the eye out into the lake, mountains, and those beautiful cloud wisps beyond, so I started the dock in the lower left corner, and brought it out to the middle of the image. I adjusted my height so that the sky took up a third of the image, and the water took up 2/3rds. The dock occupies 2/3rds as well. By now, you should be getting the fact that I like utilizing the rule of thirds to help compose my images. Centered images are boring (usually) and offsetting the subject matter does a great deal to bring interest to a photograph.

I set up my tripod (yeah, I know Ken Rockwell doesn’t like tripods – I’d like to ask him how to get shots like this without one), set the mirror lockup mode on, and took the shot using the settings above, and it came out just as I wanted. My histogram looked as you see here. Nothing was blown out, but it was nicely exposed all the way to the right, just as I wanted. The first thing I noticed was the incredible pastel yellow throughout the image. I loved it! The color actually came from some blue fibers that were woven into my “gray” sweatshirt that I had white balanced to.

The basic idea of exposing to the right, minus all the technical jargon is that you want to expose your shot so that it is as bright as possible without clipping off the highlights. Most cameras that show a histogram will flash clipped highlight areas when you display the histogram. The basic reason for this is that half of all the information the camera captures is in the brightest one stop of exposure. Conversely, the least amount of information is stored in the shadows. So, to get a noise-free image, expose it as far “to the right” as possible (without clipping) because you can always darken it in post processing, but recovering detail from the shadows is all but impossible.

I moved around quickly as the sun was coming up fast – once the sun breaks the horizon, the game is over. The light is spoiled and it’s back to bed. I got 3 ‘keepers’ from the few dozen that I shot over a period of 30 minutes or so. It just so happens that they were the first 3 shots that I took! I find that happens frequently – my best images are often the ones that seem most intuitive. After I’ve gotten the shots that seem right and natural to me, I start looking too hard for other images to take and end up getting into analysis paralysis to some degree. This is especially prevalent with sunrise and sunset shots, as the light is constantly changing and you never know what is around the next temporal corner.

The sun came up, and I went back to the cabin, knowing I had a few keepers. I didn’t have my computer with me, so it would be another few days before I could download them. So, I did what any sane person who got up at 5AM on vacation would do…I went back to bed.

The final version of the first photograph I took that morning is the first image in this post and is the one I will be talking about further.

When I got back home a few days later, I downloaded the images. To the right is what came out of my camera. As you can see, the dock is a little darker than in the final image, the horizon is a bit crooked, and there is a beer can on the dock that I didn’t notice at the time, but other than that, there was very little editing required. I always try to do my best to get the shot as close to the way I want it in the camera since editing is not something I generally enjoy. I brought the RAW image into Adobe Lightroom and went to work. First, I straightened the image with the straight edige tool resulting in a -1.14 rotation. Try as I might, I can never get my horizons straight when I’m on the scene. I think I need to get a bubble level for my hotshoe. Then, I added +25 Fill Light, to bring up the brightness of the dock and mountains without adjusting the midrange and highlight tones, added +43 contrast, +43 clarity (to bring out some texture in the wood), and +17 Vibrance. I added a slight vignette to the image and did a tiny amount of sharpening, also in Lightroom. Because the beer can was so small and unobtrusive, I was able to avoid going into Photoshop, and I just used the dust removal tool in Lightroom to edit it out.

Hopefully, this gives you some idea of the how and why of creating this image. Questions? Ask in the comments section!

Christian Science Building

Erik and I went over to the Christian Science Building after a day out of shooting at a Cranberry Pond and got a few shots of Boston and the Christian Science Building/Church.

Boston at Dusk from the CS Building 3

Both of these shots were taken with a Canon 400D/XTi with a Sigma 10-20. I had a tripod with me, so I worked at f/11 to get a decent depth of field as well as allow for a long exposure (10-15 seconds) to get some interesting texture in the sky.

Boston at Dusk from CS Building 2

Since I had exposed to the right, the images came out very bright and boring. I edited them in Lightroom to darken the images, increase the contrast, and bring out the textures in the building. As I have been doing a lot lately with many images, I significantly desaturated the shot to be almost B&W, but not quite. The top image was also edited in CS4 to add contrast into the sky by using a levels layer and a layer mask.

Let me know what you think!