Photographing Captive Cetaceans

This article was written for Dreamstime.com — original post appears here.

I spend a lot of time at zoos and aquariums, sometimes as a volunteer and mostly as an observant visitor (I am currently studying to work in a zoo or rescue facility, as well). As a photographer, this means I have invested a lot of time learning to photograph the animal ambassadors that call these facilities home, and thought I would share some of the techniques I have learned with all of you!

KNOW THE SHOW

Whether it be where to sit or where to aim your camera, studying YouTube videos goes a long way – the animals are often trained to perform certain behaviours in specific locations, and there is usually a general format to the show itself. That said, no show is ever the same twice as the trainers change things up to keep the animals stimulated, so stay alert!

KNOW THE ANIMALS

Some animals have signature moves, and others are more likely to be teamed up together (such as Kasatka and Orkid below), so knowing who is performing might increase the likelihood of getting that “wow”-shot.

WATCH THE TRAINERS

I know, it can be difficult to take your eyes off those gorgeous cetaceans, but at some facilities, trainers indicate where to look after a behaviour has been requested. And becoming familiar with those hand signals used to communicate with the animals can take time, but pays off as you will know what to expect and (possibly) where to watch for it. A few seconds warning can go a long way in snapping the perfect shot!

THINK FAST!

These animals are FAST (Hana, below, could swim faster than the speed limit of Stanley Park where she lived), so use a lens with fast and reliable autofocus. Don’t be afraid to increase the ISO (within reason for your camera) in favour of a faster shutter speed — it pays off in the end. I personally find having the camera set to continual autofocus helps ensure the animal stays clear throughout all stages of the behaviour, but it is far from foolproof. But hey, isn’t the challenge half the fun?

Tweak your aperture to your personal tastes, being mindful of the points above. My preferred setting is around F7 or F8 (give or take) to help compensate for those moments autofocus zeroes in on splashing water rather than the animal. It helps if you end up with more than one animal in your shot, too!

LOOK BEYOND THE FLASHY STUFF

Watch for these special moments that highlight the human-animal bond. These are social, curious creatures who forge very close bonds with their trainers. They often enjoy interacting with guests as well, so be sure to check out those underwater observation windows!

Training and enrichment sessions can also be rewarding. Below is a very young beluga whale at Marineland Canada who was watching the adults participate in a training session and decided it wanted to play too, so the trainer held the target out for it. The young whale looked most pleased with itself afterwards!

SPLASH ZONE?

At your own risk! Make sure you have fast reflexes and never let your attention waver! I carry a towel and water-resistent jacket, having them ready on my lap case I need to suddenly cover my gear. Early on I sat where it was theoretically safe, but after noticing patterns, I began to take bigger risks. Although this has paid off, I was putting several thousands of dollars worth of gear at risk that I couldn’t afford to replace.

The most important thing to remember, of course, is to have fun! Humans learn best when having a good time, and zoological facilities are a great resource for being inspired to care for the natural world, whether you are a child or an adult.

 

 


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iPhoneographers: Get Real, Or Get A Real Camera

Over the past few weeks, increasing throngs of people have approached me to smugly state that DSLRs are obsolete, citing recent projections in the cellphone industry. Even before that, I long lost track of all the times I’ve heard “Oh you’re a photographer? Yeah I just bought the latest iPhone/iPad/whatever and it takes great shots!” or “If you knew how to take pictures, you wouldn’t need all that. See?” as the speaker pulls out their phone and activates camera-mode…

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Seriously guys, just stop. Even if the technology does get to where you think it will, it is far from being there now. And a cellphone will never be as good as a dedicated camera. You are insulting those who invest our valuable time (and however much money we can afford) into the art, and costing us by either ruining our shots, or refusing to buy our work because of the “my cellphone has a camera so if you can take that shot so can I” mentality.

I worked in an art gallery, and actually had an iPhoneographer compare a panorama composed of over 100 high-resolution photos to what his cellphone can do, saying “if that guy can sell his pics for that much, I am going to start selling mine!”  Even if you could theoretically take the same shot: did you?

fnf-koalas

My camera+600mm lens were like a beacon to iPhoneographers, who were quick to crowd in and start snapping away even though their phones could not “see” the koalas.

Do us (and the wildlife) a favour and accept that you will never get the same close-up of an animal or bird as someone with either a telephoto lens or “superzoom” camera, so stop running up to whatever we’re photographing and inevitably scaring it off. The photographer has probably spent much longer than you can even conceive trying to get the perfect shot, only to have you ruin it for nothing.

fnf-corella

And stop piggybacking onto our work by crowding against us when you see our tripods set up, or purposely standing immediately in front of us to snap the same scene on your phone. I once had a woman repeatedly block me while photographing the sunrise on an otherwise empty beach, until I picked up my gear, marched straight into the ocean, and plopped it down. The look on her face was worth soaked shoes and pants.

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And this makes a much better print than the back of someone’s head.

“The best camera is the one you always carry around!” iPhoneographers smugly declare. This is true to a point – indeed, DSLRs are bulky and many photographers (myself included) have a more compact unit we carry around for emergencies — but if you can make phone calls with your camera, it isn’t a camera and you are not a photographer.

ipadographers-updated

You also look like an idiot.

 


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