Zoo Studio’s Photographer Ken Answers YOUR questions

A cou­ple of weeks ago, I asked on our Face­book page if any­body had any ques­tions to ask about our pho­tog­ra­phy. Here are the ques­tions we received and some answers from Ken our photographer.

Cas­san­dra Ritchie How do you know WHEN is the exact moment to take the photo?

Great ques­tion Cassie! It basi­cally comes down to know­ing what I am look­ing for from my sub­ject to get the photo I am after, observ­ing my sub­ject to see when and how they do it, and under­stand­ing the behav­iour of my sub­ject so I under­stand how I can encour­age them to do it on queue.

If you just wait for an ani­mal to do some­thing, 9 times out of 10 they have fin­ished doing it by the time you and the cam­era have reacted. So you either wait for them to do it again, or you prompt them into doing it again (the approach I pre­fer). It’s impor­tant to have some tricks up your sleeve to encour­age them to do what­ever it is you want them to do, when you need them to do it. For exam­ple, if you want to get a head tilt, a squeaky noise (toy or vocal) often does the job. I spend as much time read­ing up on ani­mal behav­iour than pho­tog­ra­phy, its an equally impor­tant aspect of what I do

Larissa Jay I am doing Ani­mal Pho­tog­ra­phy for my major folio at school and adored Zoo Studio’s work. How do you get hyper­ac­tive or dis­obe­deant dogs/cats/pets to stay still in the posi­tion you want them in for an amaz­ing facial and body expression? (:

Larissa thats a really excit­ing project! This is a big sub­ject, and there are no quick answers that will work for all ani­mals. The bot­tom line for us at Zoo Stu­dio is that we are mak­ing pho­to­graphic por­traits, so if an ani­mal is really bouncy and excitable, cap­tur­ing that ani­mal sit­ting still like an angel isn’t really telling their story. Try pho­tograph­ing them car­ry­ing on like a pork chop — its lots of fun and its telling their story. Once they have worn off some energy, they will be more likely to pose for you in a calmer way. We run most of our ses­sions like this!

Most dogs will sit and stay for the right moti­va­tion (like food!) if you are patient. Get them to sit on some­thing, and only give them food when they are in the right spot — most will quickly pick up on this ‘rule’ and they will stay put — they want the food! Read up on clicker train­ing ani­mals for more tips — you will effec­tively be train­ing them to enable you to get the photo.

You must stay patient and calm, what­ever is going on. If you start to get tense, the ani­mal will pick up on it, and then you can lose them completely.

Shiona Wobbe­gong Allinson my old girl is going blind and is almost com­pletely deaf. Do you have tricks to get them to look their best even when they can’t hear a com­mand, a click or a whistle?

Old dogs are the best dogs! I do find that lots of old dogs still have some hear­ing, try dif­fer­ent noises at dif­fer­ent fre­quen­cies to see if any work. Some old dogs can also be selec­tively deaf, they don’t hear when they are being called but can hear a treat packet being opened at 50 paces. I would sug­gest also try­ing some of their other senses, often dogs with lit­tle sight or hear­ing still smell well, so get some smelly treats (cheese is a favourite) and see how you go! Hold the cheese near their nose, then slowly move the cheese to where you want them to look.

You can also try other senses like touch, but be care­ful not to stress your sub­ject, if you really are blind and deaf then imag­ine how scary it can be to get prod­ded and poked at ran­dom. Your dog will recog­nise your scent so you should be ok, but you have to be really care­ful doing this with dogs you don’t know well.

Libby Mur­ray Hi just won­der­ing what you set your cam­era for the pics of the birds inflight?…thnx

Lora Vuk­man What aper­ture set­ting and shut­ter speed do you rec­om­mend? Or is it bet­ter to use full man­ual mode? I’m bet­ter at tak­ing stills but not action shots.. ( when my cat is sleep­ing lol)

I don’t have one set­ting for any sub­ject, it all depends upon what I am try­ing to do with the photo and how I want it to look. My cam­era is always in fully man­ual mode (in and out of the stu­dio), and often for swift mov­ing ani­mals I man­u­ally focus as my aut­o­fo­cus just can’t keep up.

Learn what effect dif­fer­ent aper­ture and shut­ter speed set­tings have on your pho­tos. The beauty of dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy is that you can get instant feed­back, and it doesn’t cost to take more pho­tos. If you don’t under­stand about aper­ture and shut­ter speeds, get on a pho­tog­ra­phy course and learn all about it. There are no right and wrongs in pho­tog­ra­phy, and what works for one pho­tog­ra­pher may not work for another, so just get on and take lots of photos.

Rules are slightly dif­fer­ent in the stu­dio, in that I am restricted as to what shut­ter speeds I can use, because all cam­eras have a max­i­mum speed with which they can syn­chro­nize with the stu­dio flash lights. For my cam­era that is 1/160th of a sec­ond, not nearly Quick enough to freeze the action of a bird fly­ing. I have spe­cial lights that freeze action, so my shut­ter speed isn’t so impor­tant. Ordi­nary cam­era top flash guns also work well for this, you don’t have to spend a for­tune on gear!

Casey Smith How do you get down to the same level as an ani­mal so they will relax for you, treats, atti­tude, deme­nar. is there any one thing you do for 90% of your shoots.

Casey, this ques­tion is at the heart of ani­mal pho­tog­ra­phy! Tech­niques change depend­ing upon the ani­mal, what you would do for a dog is very dif­fer­ent to what you would do to a cat. One thing applies to most ani­mals, and that is wait for them to come to you. I never force any ani­mal to say hello, its rude, and lots of ani­mals are scared of peo­ple walk­ing straight up to them and touch­ing their head (the way most peo­ple greet dogs). I kneel down at a dogs level and let them come up for a sniff when they are ready. This nearly always builds trust.

Jeremy Tan how do you accus­tom ner­vous pets to flash?

Michael Cur­ran How much time do you nor­mally spend habit­u­at­ing the ani­mals to the equip­ment? Do you have any tricks for get­ting them to be OK with the equip­ment and lighting?

I don’t find that the flash of light itself scares ani­mals, but the noise of the flash can upset some dogs. I give them some­thing else to think about, like food or toys, and they soon for­get that there is some­thing going on that they find scary. Herd­ing breeds like Bor­der Col­lies can be par­tic­u­larly prone to noise pho­bias, and so can poorly socialised dogs.

I always intro­duce the cam­era with food, there are cam­era shy ani­mals out there (to some it looks like a big scary eye) and giv­ing them a pos­i­tive expe­ri­ence with the cam­era straight up is really impor­tant. If a dog wants to lick your cam­era, let it, its get­ting to know and trust your cam­era and thats a good thing!

We have had lots of ani­mals in the stu­dio which their own­ers have no pho­tos of, because the ani­mal just won’t let them get a pic­ture. I have had peo­ple cry with emo­tion as they real­ize they finally have pho­tos of their loved ones.  That always moves me, to think that some peo­ple have no pho­tos to remem­ber dogs passed is just heartbreaking.

Jodie Mus­ton other than ani­mals, what would be the ulti­mate thing for you to shoot? Is there a par­tic­u­lar place, per­son etc that you have on your bucket list?

Great ques­tion! I also LOVE music, and pho­tograph­ing bands is a real favourite of mine, I just don’t get time for it any­more :-( . I don’t really enjoy wildlife / land­scape pho­tog­ra­phy, spend­ing days on a moun­tain or in a hide to get a photo doesn’t appeal to me! If I’m out camp­ing and the light is per­fect then maybe I will get some pho­tos. I enjoy pho­tograph­ing musi­cians and am absolutely obsessed with pho­tograph­ing ani­mals in my studio!

Kalah M J Ather­ton What drove you to spe­cial­ize in ani­mal pho­tog­ra­phy? A few luck shots of your own pets or an abil­ity to “befriend” people’s pets easily?

Madeleine Ann Gilbert How and/or when was it that you decided you wanted to be an ani­mal photographer.…was it one of those moments dur­ing shoot­ing a ran­dom photo that was just…perfect and you had your mind set from then on? :)

I do find I have a nat­ural way with ani­mals, I com­mu­ni­cate eas­ily with them, and I love being with them and pho­tograph­ing them. I started my obses­sion by pho­tograph­ing my own pets, then pho­tograph­ing for friends and rel­a­tives, then for friends of friends, and Zoo Stu­dio came out of that. I didn’t wake up one day and say “i want to be an ani­mal pho­tog­ra­pher”, I woke up one day and said “wow, I AM an ani­mal pho­tog­ra­pher!”. I will have to do a blog entry some day about how it all devel­oped and show some of my early pho­tos! Keep an eye out for that on our blog.

Tracey Noe What does it take to get those amaz­ing solid black or white backgrounds?

Patience and tech­nique! With the black back­ground, if you want it solid black (which I don’t always do) then care­ful light place­ment is key, so light doesn’t spill onto the back­drop. For white, the tech­niques change depend­ing on how big an area you are light­ing, but gen­er­ally using LOTS of light does the trick. Too much though and the light bounces back onto the sub­ject and can take away all your con­trast in the pho­tos leav­ing them look­ing very flat and dull. At the heart of it all is man­ag­ing the ani­mals, you have to con­trol where they will be. Too close to a back­ground ruins it!

This link is to the best tuto­r­ial on set­ting up white back­grounds and light­ing that I know of. For dogs, I don’t rec­om­mend the tile board he dis­cusses, too slip­pery under dog’s paws. I use a painted con­crete floor but pho­to­graphic vinyl works well for animals.

The most dif­fi­cult thing isn’t the back­ground, its the floors — ani­mals are way closer to the floor than a stand­ing human, they drop more hair and food and drib­ble than (most) humans, and all this needs tak­ing out of the photo. This is the major job we do in photoshop.

Judi Neu­mann Hi Ken whats in the kit?

I cur­rently use Canon 5D MkII DSLR with a few lenses, the 24-70L is on the cam­era for most of the pho­tos. Hav­ing said that I really like the look of the new Nikon D800E and am dying to try it out! To be hon­est unless you are print­ing big wall pieces, which is our spe­cial­ity, don’t get too hung up on the gear. You still see pho­tos on our Face­book page that were pho­tographed with a 6MP Canon 10D and I bet you can’t tell which! Light is THE most impor­tant tool for pho­tog­ra­phers, cam­eras are obvi­ously impor­tant but not as crit­i­cal as the cam­era man­u­fac­tur­ers would have you believe ;-)

Along­side the 24–70 zoom, I use a 100mm macro lens for the face and body close­ups, a 16-35mm lens for action/play pho­tos of big­ger dogs, and a 70-200mm lens for very ner­vous ani­mals and horses at a dis­tance. My lenses are all top of the range, but if I was still pho­tograph­ing for a hobby they wouldn’t be, for sure you get bet­ter qual­ity from the top end gear but you only really notice it when you print big.

My light­ing kit is really impor­tant. I use some old Bowens Gem­ini lights, and newer Paul Buff Ein­steins, and I trig­ger them with wire­less Pocket Wiz­ard trig­gers.  If you can’t afford stu­dio light­ing gear you can get a long way with trusty flash guns, and you can get these 2nd hand rel­a­tively cheaply — thats what I used when start­ing out!

I never go any­where with­out doggy treats (we make our own) and squeaky toys, my Sekonic Light­meter is always with me, and if I am pho­tograph­ing out­side I always use a polar­is­ing filter.

Ayesha Kelly what are your tips for shoot­ing out­side the stu­dio with no equip­ment other than your cam­era (i.e. a more infor­mal shoot at the pet owner’s house, or at an ani­mal shel­ter). par­tic­u­larly in regards to light­ing. thanks!

Ayesha I very rarely pho­to­graph with­out any lights. Even with our out­door pho­tos, 95% were done with lights. I per­son­ally would never go into someone’s house or a shel­ter with­out lights, what do you do if you get there and their house is really dark? Sure mod­ern cam­eras have excel­lent high ISO per­for­mance, but images can still be noisy and I find that you need much higher shut­ter speeds for ani­mals than you would humans, which means higher ISO set­tings, and vis­i­ble noise in prints.

I would rather take the chance out of it and take lights with me. Even cheap 2nd hand cam­era top­ping flash guns are bet­ter thn noth­ing, its what I used when start­ing out. Learn about bounce flash and off cam­era light­ing (which can be achieved with a cheap­ish chord) and don’t rely on there being nice light when you arrive on location!

Some pho­tog­ra­phers get hung up on only using ‘nat­ural light’ but I don’t — I use any light thats avail­able, and if its one of my lights I know exactly what I can do with it to get the effect I am after. This approach suits me, there is no right and wrong here, just what is right or wrong for the pho­tos you are want­ing to create.

If you are out­side using 100% nat­ural light (and lots of pho­tog­ra­phers do) make sure you are using the best light. The best light hap­pens around sun­rise and sun­set, so get up early! Another rea­son I love the stu­dio :) I’m not much of a morn­ing per­son. If you are in some­ones house, find a room with nice big win­dows with­out direct sun­shine com­ing in, and use that light — it should be great for photos.

Jus­tine Per­ante how do u take per­fect pho­tos with the ani­mals that is hard to take a photo? :)

Thats a lovely com­ment Jus­tine but I don’t think I do take per­fect pho­tos — I am con­stantly look­ing at ways of improv­ing my pho­tog­ra­phy, and I hope that the best photo I ever take is the last photo I ever take. Thats the beauty of pho­tog­ra­phy, on one level its as sim­ple as press­ing the shut­ter, but on other lev­els it takes a life­time to master!

I don’t find ani­mals dif­fi­cult to pho­to­graph, its nat­ural for me and I just love it. Some crit­ters move really quickly, some seem­ingly errat­i­cally, and hav­ing some clue as to what they are likely to do next really helps. For exam­ple, I pho­tographed a Phasco­gale recently, his instinct was telling him to climb, so we posi­tioned him a metre away from his carer, know­ing he would likely move towards his carer to climb up her arm. He did, so we could set the lights and focus know­ing where he would be. Through obser­va­tion, I noted that he kept com­ing up to the lens, climb­ing inside the lens hood, so I reset the lights and focus and as he came up, I moved the cam­era back and got a photo oh him look­ing at the cam­era. If I had just tried to fol­low him as he moved ran­domly, I would never have got such a nice photo.

Thanks for all the ques­tions, I really enjoyed answer­ing them, I hope you got the infor­ma­tion you are after! If you have any more ques­tions please do send them through, per­haps if we get enough we will do a fol­low up blog.


Ken  — Pho­tog­ra­pher at Zoo Studio

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