To keep, or not to keep

October 21, 2009

This tutorial has been moved to http://www.digidiversity.co.uk/2009/10/to-keep-or-not-to-keep/

There are 2 areas I want to cover here.

• My workflow from start to finish

• Do I really want to delete that shot?

What shots do you delete? Do you shoot Jpeg and keep them all? Do you shoot RAW, save just the keepers in RAW and Jpeg the rest? Do you keep all the RAWs? Do you delete all your out of focus and badly exposed shots but keep the rest?…….

For a person that enjoys taking wildlife pictures, I have had very few chances to actually do this as of late. In fact I have been mostly limited to shots of the family dogs, the birds in the park and the squirrel that feeds in the tree outside the front of my house. What I really wanted is an opportunity to spend a few hours dedicated to practising my photography on various creatures. The problem is mainly finding the time. Fixing up my house, planning for my wedding (well I cant take too much credit for that one), work and many other things, I was finding it hard to set some time aside.

Then last sunday my fiance had arranged to spend a good part of the day at a wedding fair with my future mother in law. Seeing as I had no plans of my own I decided to visit the local zoo and see what I could capture.

Before I set out I planned what I would take, how I would shoot the shots and made sure my memory cards were empty and batteries charged.

Kit check:
Panasonic lumix fz28
(18x superzoom bridge camera 28mm – 486mm equivilant)
Battery and spare
TCON-17 – 1.7x teleconverter plus adaptor ring
Camera bag
Re-attach neck strap (I often just use a wrist strap)
Filters – just incase
Lens hood – also just incase
Formatted 16gb card plus spares

With the kit ready I needed a plan of action. A small sensor camera like the fz28 is limited when it comes to image quality. You dont want to go above ISO 200 unless you really have to. I wanted my images to be as sharp and detailed as possible. For this reason I would be sticking with aperture priority mode with ISO set to 100. I would check my shutter speed at each animal enclosure with a half press. If to slow I would try and increase it by either upping the ISO to 200 (maybe 400 but I really don’t want to) and adjusting the exposure compensation. Under exposing a shot not only increases the shutter speed but also means less chance of blown highlights. It would however mean more image noise to contend with, but that could be fixable in post processing as long as I stick to lower ISO’s. I would be shooting in RAW. This would allow me the maximum amount of detail to be retained to give me the best results in post processing. It would also give me greater ability to fix poorly exposed shots. I would also be using spot focusing mode so that I could precisely focus on the subject where I wanted to.

Another plan was to not use the full zoom of my fz-28. The problem with superzoom camera’s as well as many large zoom range DSLR lenses is that they get quite soft at the full zoom. I have used my fz-28 at the full zoom many times and unless in very decent light I always tend to be disappointed with the results. For this reason I would be sticking to about 10-12x zoom – 300-350mm (35mm equiv) and use my TCON-17 to make up the difference. This would mean I lose some light but I would end up with the same zoom level and sharper results than using the fz-28 at full zoom without the tele-converter. I had practised this a few days before and it seemed to work.

The zoo didn’t open till 10, it only takes 25 mins to get there but I didn’t want to be stuck in a queue. So I left a little early so I could arrive about 20 minutes before the zoo opens. I got there and it was empty. I guess at this time of year its to cold to rush to the zoo on a Sunday. I passed the time with a few practise shots on the birds flying around near by.

10 am hit, i paid my entrance (plus the optional donation as it’s for a good cause) and decided I would start by heading to the Tigers. I always wanted an exciting shot of these big cats. I always hear animals tend to be more active early on. Despite being 10 and not really that early I thought I would give it a shot. On the way there I kept seeing these creatures that roam freely around the zoo. They look sort of like a cross between a rabbit, wallaby and deer. The name totally eluded me but have found out they are called Mara. They are apparently relatives of the guinea pig. They would provide a good chance for somef practise shots.

The namless one

Mara - the guinea pigs BIG cousin

Out of all the different shots of these cute creatures I took I felt this one was the nicest. It’s not exactly exciting but its a nice portrait shot. The exposure was kept within limits with no highlights blown and its nice and sharp. A bit of cropping was needed to finish it off.

Off I set again towards those amazing powerful beasts, the Tigers. On the way I get distracted yet again by the Red Panda enclosure. I always found these little guys very cute and seeing as no one was there I decided I better see if I can get a good shot. At first the enclosure looked totally void of life but I kept scanning the tree. Then it popped into vision. It was just cuddled up to a tree branch staring at me. Perfect position for the shot I wanted. I had some issues with this shot. Firstly the Rad Panda was backlit but also mostly covered in shade. Even with exposure bias set to -2/3 and ISO 200 I could only get a shutter speed of 1/100. Not exactly desirable. With this in mind I supported my self against the small fencing and took a few shots.

Red Panda

Red Panda

I was pleased with the composition with this one. I even found that I managed to sharpen up the image to an acceptable level but I was disappointed that I blew the highlights around the head and ears. All that said, I am very happy that I got a shot of this cute little thing staring straight at me.

Right, now it was time to go to the Tiger pen and no more distractions.

When I got there I realised I needed to find 2 things. First I needed to find the Tigers and secondly I needed a spot where I didn’t have a fence in the way. If you have a DSLR then fencing isn’t such a problem as you can open the aperture and make it so out of focus its invisible. However a small sensor camera doesn’t have such a luxury. Its depth of field is to great to achieve this. I managed to find a place where they have a bridge that overlooks the pen so I headed there. Set up and in place it was some time for some classic Tiger action shots.

The lazy Tiger

The lazy Tiger

WOW… I hear you say. Needless to say I was a little bit disappointed but it does look fairly comfy and happy in its little bed. I did see one walking around but it was in a part of the pen where I couldn’t see it without a fence in the way. I just enjoyed the moment and moved on. I did check back a couple of hours later but the Tiger was still having its nap.

I had a look at the map and just decided to randomly follow the roads and paths and see where they took me. Luckily they led me straight to the elephants. There I saw mother, father and baby all heading towards the feeding area. With my camera at the ready I got my self into position and started shooting. I was after a shot of them all together as a family and a shot of the baby under the mother or fathers body.

a family strole

a family strole

Baby under protection

Baby under protection

As you can see I got both the shots I was after. They were fairly far away, so even with the TCON attached I needed to do some cropping to get the compositions I wanted. In the family shot I also would have preferred not to have a building and fence in the background. I could clone them out in Photoshop, maybe I will at a later date. My favourite of the 2 is the baby shot as its sharper, better exposed and has no man made structures ruining the shot.

The next animal I stumbled across not only almost blinded me through sheer vibrancy but also reminded me to use a very useful setting when it comes to shooting animals.

We all know Flamingos are a very vibrant pink/orange colour but sometimes I forget just how bright. This also made getting the exposure correct a little tricky. It seemed no matter what I did I was blowing the highlights. Then my brain switched on again and I remembered about spot metering mode. I turned this on, set my AE/AF lock to only lock the exposure and then I was all set. Target the brightest part of the animal, lock the exposure and then compose the shot.

I was after the classic solo flamingo on one leg and a shot of a flamingos beak in the water meeting its reflection.

Perfect balance

Perfect balance

High Flying, High Fasion

High Flying, High Fasion

The second shot has some slightly blown highlights and I would have prefered no tag on its leg but for my first time shooting animals at a zoo properly, I am fairly pleased with the results. I was glad to get the flamingo meeting its reflection, it took a little patience but it was worth it. I just love how vibrant these birds are.

When I arrived at the Hippo enclosure I was greeted straight away by one of the Pygmy Hippo’s. He toddled up to me, gave me a funny look then went to have a scratch against a tree stump. Then he did exactly what I wanted him to do. He yawned.

Pygmy Hippo Yawning

Pygmy Hippo Yawning

I got a bit lucky here as I rushed the shot to get it but it came out well enough. I also went and looked at the large Hippo’s. They were swimming in the water but the light was so harsh that the shots all had blown highlights no matter what I tried. I also totally missed one opening its mouth, showing its teeth looking straight at me as I was watching the other one at the time. A shame as that was the exact shot I was after.

I made a quick stop at the penguins after this. I knew I would be able to get fairly close there and get some fairly detailed shots. They all stood around fairly motionless, some huddled together. One or two were swimming as well. They are good subjects for practising your composition and exposure.

Portrait of a penguin

Portrait of a penguin

Water wings

Water wings

One of my favourite creatures is normally the Bear. Large and strong yet they look so gentle at the same time. I visited them several times to try and get a picture I liked. After several attempts I wasn’t overly impressed with the way any of them turned out. Because the walls are so high its hard to get a decent angle that isn’t overbearing (im sure theres a pun in there).  After looking at them a few days later I felt my best one was of my first visit to them when one was hiding under a bush.

A shy guy

A shy guy

The angle of the shot made it seem like I was not so high and it shows off the bears gentle side.

I visited many other animals on the way to all the above mentioned, but few gave many chances for exciting shots. The various deer, buffalo, donkeys and even Rhino’s did very little to give an interesting shot. I got some snaps but nothing worth showing off. In fact the best of these shots involved a type of deer chewing on some food.

Not the most exciting of shots

Not the most exciting of shots

The cheetah sat on the other side of the pen and I only just managed to see it. It was sitting against a fence ruining any illusion of wilderness.

Keeping a lookout

Keeping a lookout

A bit of creative cropping did help a lot in the end.

I had a similar problem with the wolves. Most were hiding in the grass and all of them were very far away. Again, a bit of cropping managed to save one shot. Shame about the fence.

On the prowl

On the prowl

Im also fairly sure the wallabies didn’t like my presence. So much so im pretty sure this one wanted to kill me.

The death stare

The death stare

Even the Giraffes refused to co-operate. They wouldn’t even look at me.

Camera shy

Camera shy

More disappointment was to come. I went to the discovery centre (which was indoors). Knowing full well that my camera really struggles with low light I didn’t get my hopes up, but I went in regardless as I like to go see the creatures in there anyway. Just as I thought, the light was so low that it was hard to get any decent sort of shutter speed. It was also dark, which would mean even more noise. I had a go at a few shots and most came out rather terrible. I managed to salvage one in post.

All coiled up

All coiled up

I had to up the ISO to 400 and reduce the exposure to -2/3 and even then I only had a shutter speed of 1/13 of a second. Luckily the fz-28 has a very good IS (image stabilization) which allowed me to recover some sharpness in post for a reasonable result. It was about 300 degrees in that place and I was wearing a winter coat so I had a quick look at the other animals and then made an exit back into the cool autumn air.

As with all things, the best was very much saved till last. I had mixed moments up until this point but any downsides were completely made up by the last part of this trip. First I went to the chimpanzee’s. I was watching two of the young ones play fighting but unfortunately couldn’t get a decent shot off as there were wooden structures in the way of the shots. Parts of them would always end up being behind something or other. I wondered around to the other side of the enclosure and there I was treated to a much more entertaining show. The same two young chimps had stopped play fighting and decided to play with the ropes. With a clear view to them, reasonable light and my camera ready to go I started to fire off some shots of them in action.

Chimping around

Chimping around

The swing king

The swing king

I had to use ISO of 200 and reduce the exposure compensation slightly to get the shutter fast enough (1/500) and I was very happy to have actually got some shots of chimps swinging on the ropes.

My day then got even better as I went into the Lemur enclosure. These cute little guys were the highlight of the trip. You can walk through the middle and get so close to them that you can actually touch them (although your not actually meant to). These guys did all sorts of entertaining things from sitting on a swing, chasing each other on the ropes to sunning their bellies in a way they look like they are meditating. They were so used to humans that you can go right up close for a high detail portrait shot. I got by far the most ‘keepers’ from this lot.

Lemur on his swing

Lemur on his swing

Lemur off his swing

Lemur off his swing

Meditation is the path to enlightenment

Meditation is the path to enlightenment

Mr bright eyes

Mr bright eyes

Meet the Lemur

Meet the Lemur

I was incredibly happy with what I got here. An amazing chance for all kinds of up close and personal shots. They are so playful that you can sit there and watch them all day. Unfortunately my time was running out fast so I decided to call it a day.

However on my way back I walked past the Otter pen and had to stop for some shots. A group of them were all playing around, and again, I got so close it was a good chance for some high detail shots. These guys were also very cute and I managed a fair few decent shots. Here are my favourite two.

Otter having a snack by the river

Otter having a snack by the river

Otters in love

Otters in love

I just loved the colour of these little guys and the detail I managed to get of their fur and whiskers.

That, alas, was the end of the trip. Time to head home, pick up my beautiful fiance from the station and then start processing the shots.

As my first ever photographic trip to the zoo I think I did OK. I missed a few key enclosures and would have liked more time to get some decent shots of certain animals. These things all mainly come down to a combination of luck and patience. I have the patience but didn’t always have the luck. That all being said I was very happy with my Chimp, Lemur and Otter pictures. I also loved the Red Panda (shame about the highlights) and the baby elephant.

I will be upgrading to a DSLR (Canon 500d) in November so this has given me a great learning experience for then. With the large sensor and higher quality lenses I will look forward to doing a zoo trip again. Maybe next time I will concentrate on fewer animals and try to get more shots of those instead of trying to see as many different animals as possible.

Things to remember

– Use spot metering on animals. You can recover shadows a lot easier than the highlights. There is almost always details in the shadows but a blown highlight is pure white. It’s also a lot more important to have a properly exposed subject than background. Also, as long as the highlights aren’t blown, it can all be fixed later in post.

– Small sensor cameras blow the highlights very easily. This is yet another reason to use spot metering. The dynamic range is also a lot less than with a DSLR.

– By not using the full zoom I ended up with sharper images. I had to crop them a bit more in post but the final result still ended up looking better.

– My camera leaves a red colour cast AND adds a lot of cyan to grey and black furs. I already knew about the reds and I fix that with a levels adjustment in Photoshop. The cyan I fix using a hue/saturation adjustment layer, select cyan from the list and reduce the saturation.

– Have your camera ready. I missed a few shots while I was checking images on the LCD. Do that at the end when your about to move on. If you see you missed anything at the end, then try and retake them.

– Don’t expect to get all the shots you want. Animals are just that. They do their own thing. Patience is the best way to see what you want.

– Have an idea of what sort of shots your after. This will help you when choosing what animal to follow and help you predict when it may happen.

– Try and compose your shots to eliminate human presence as much as possible.

This tutorial has been moved to http://www.digidiversity.co.uk/2009/08/bokeh-or-blur-how-to-do-it-and-how-to-fake-it/

The term ‘Bokeh’ comes from the Japanese word for blur (or so i have read). This term is used for the photographic technique of blurring the background while keeping the subject in focus.

It is created by something called the Depth of Field (DoF). This is the area in which your photo will be in focus and where it will start to fade out of focus (start to blur). There are 2 main factors involved in controlling the Depth of Field. The aperture and the focal length……