Zoo Studio’s Photographer Ken Answers YOUR questions

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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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