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Wildlife Camera » Go early, stay late at the zoo

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Go early, stay late at the zoo

18 November 2009


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white-faced saki monkey

I recently asked a well-known wildlife photographer if she had any tips about taking animal portraits in the zoo. Her answer was brief: “Go early, stay late, and don’t be ashamed of taking zoo shots, we all do it.”

She told me that most of the finest pictures of large animals are zoo shots, or at least safari park portraits. “You can go on shooting, day after day, until you get it right,” she says. “A shaft of light, a brief change in the animal’s position, two animals interact or one of them yawns, and you’ve got a picture which will sell and sell.”

She works with big digital reflex cameras but started out by taking “cheap shots for cheapskate publishers” with a basic compact zoom. “I found I had a talent for being patient and for seeing the picture when it turned up,” she says. “You have to know when to go click. I’m always amused when I am waiting for something to happen and, when it does, I hear amateur photographers saying, I wish that animal would stay still! If the once in a million picture is there, they won’t see it.”

The best advice is to take your time, stop thinking about the technology and concentrate on the picture. Even the most basic zoom compact is going to do most of the work – just do what it says on the box, Point and Shoot.

One of her main problems is that zoos often object to casual photographers using tripods and “looking just too professional”, so she props herself against pillars and railings where she can and “prays that the anti-shake system is going to work this time. It does get better with each generation of cameras.”

As for going early and staying late, there are two reasons. The first is that the animals and birds are more active, especially in the warmer months of the year. And the second is that low light angles are often highly photogenic: “It’s worth facing the cold to get that flattering sunlight.”

Any other tips?  “The other big thing that sells pictures is accurate captions. If you sell through agencies, they are often looking for a specific bird or mammal to illustrate a story. A parakeet might not be enough, they are looking for a monk parakeet. And it is useful to know that the monk parakeet might be called a monk parrot in some places, and is probably better known as a quaker parakeet. So you put all that in the caption and you sell your picture.”    (Text and photo of white-faced saki monkey at London Zoo by Willy Newlands, copyright).


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