Zoos can provide a great place to practice your digiscoping techniques as it provides you with countless opportunities to get close to more people-accustomed animals. They tend to sit still for longer, move slower, and not be as far away as in a wild situation. But zoos also provide a number of challenges in getting decent photos.
Wire as a background
Because one is in an unnatural setting, it is very easy for the image to look like it was taken in an unnatural setting. Despite the natural rocks in the Northern Wheatear image, above, the wire background destroys the image. The trick is to:
- minimize the distance between you and the bird
- maximize the amount of space between the bird and the wire fence, and
- reduce the depth of field by using the largest aperture possible (smallest f number). This will also give you the fastest shutter speed, which is very useful when digiscoping birds.
get more distance between the bird and the fence, reduce depth of field. northern wheatear/Steinschmäzer
If you manage to get the photographic subject in a good position, don't be shy to snap off lots of photos and to play with the settings to create an acceptable image. In the second digiscoped photo of the northern wheatear, above, the bird is far enough away from the wire that the wire falls out of the depth of field and is not visible at all. [I have been really struggling to get photos of northern wheatears in the mountains - it takes a huge amount of walking to get to a good spot and when there, there is no place to hide, so they tend to stay distant. and, at the moment there is just too much snowin the Tirolean Alps to find them on their breeding grounds].
a shadowed/darker wall and reduced depth of field can produce a matt black background. Egyptian vulture/Schmutzgeier Neophron percnopterus
Another possiblitity to deal with wire backgrounds is to take advantage of darker surfaces in the cage. This egyptian vulture's cage was 95% wire and had a lot of light shining on it - making for a very difficult background. By moving about a bit, I managaed to put a shadowed concrete wall behind the vulture. Because of a very short depth of field, the concrete wall came out as black, making for a rather appealing series of photos.
black background effect using a shadowed wall and a short depth of field. Little Bittern/Zwergdommel Ixobrychus minutus
I found a spot to which this Little Bittern kept on returning. There was pleasant side lighting (although a bit burnt out as it was just after mid-day), with some reflection from the pond, and a shadowed concrete wall and log behind the bird. I was only about 5 meters from the little bittern, and the wall was about 1m behind the bird so, using a very short depth of field I managed to replicate the black background effect.
Wire between the camera and the subject
I really wanted a couple of Lynx photos (despite the poor light conditions), more happy-snappy photos than anything else, but there was always a great big wire fence between the camera and the [beautiful] animal. The result was a washed-out grey across the images. This can be ameliorated in a number of ways:
- try to find a patch of fence on to which the sun is not shining. A shadowed fence poses far fewer problems (the Egyptian vulture shots were taken through shadowed wire)
- if the wire mesh is fairly large, then adjusting the position of the digiscoping setup slightly may help
- if you do have washed-out areas then try to keep these off the subject (a washed-out background is less disturbing than a foreground)
- use a short depth of field with both the camera and the photographic subject far away enough from the fence that the wire is completely out of focus.
adjusting the camera position slightly meant that I could shoot through the wire mesh. Eurasian Lynx/Luchs Lynx lynx
Keep the photos tight around the subject
Simply put, the more space you have around your subject, the more chance something unnatural is going to creep in to your image. This could be a garden hose on the floor you never saw, or even something as subtle as animal tracks and worn logs that look like they are in a cage.
it is hard to get a whole bird shot of a large bird/animal without introducing unnatural elements. Bearded Vulture/Bartgeier Gypaetus barbatus
By keeping the image tight around this Bearded Vulture (Lammergeier), and by restricting the depth of field, I managed to exclude many of the cage elements. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to get a full animal shot of such a large bird when it is in some sort of enclosure as it is almost impossible then to exclude all unnatural elements (without photoshopping, of course).
For larger birds in particular, try to find rather plain, uninteresting background with as few artificial structures as possible. The cliff behind the Northern Bald Ibis looks artificial when in focus, but when it is out of the depth of field, it just becomes a rather natural-looking rock structure.
The animals and birds might not be wild, but they are also not going to always be the most cooperative for digiscoping/photographing.
sometimes even loads of patience does not pay off. if that is the case, you might as well just relax and enjoy the pretty animals. Eurasian Lynx/Luchs Lynx lynx
I found this Lynx in a tree in what looked like a stunning position - the green foliage highlighted the soft brown hues of her fur, and the sunlight peeking through the branches would have made a wonderful image. I sat. And I sat. And I sat.
Eventually, I decided that if she were anything like our house cat then she would not be moving that head for quite a while. I never got the shot.
One thing that stood out to me about the other visitors to the zoo on this sunny spring weekend day, was that when they wanted to take a photo, they made all manner of noise to try to attract the animal's attention. "Does that golden eagle over there look like a dog to you?", I wanted to ask.
I am sure our mere presence and smell is disturbing enough, without us actively trying to annoy them.
I am far from a fan of zoos. In fact I really don't like the idea of any animal being kept in a cage (yes, I know I worked for a captive-breeding based reintroduction program of scarlet macaws, but even that was hard). The cages and enclosures always just seem too small. After 18 months in Tirol, I finally made it across to Innsbruck's zoo: the Alpenzoo (which only has native species!). And, as zoos go, it was actually quite nice, and it was apparent that a concerted effort is being put in to improve the conditions for the animals.
So, if you are looking to pique your digiscoping performance, you might want to think about somewhere like a zoo, or the local duck pond.