Help/critique with photographing a snow leopard

Discussion in 'Digital Photography' started by kallisti, Jun 4, 2014.

  1. kallisti macrumors 65816

    kallisti

    Joined:
    Apr 22, 2003
    #1
    As many of you may know, I recently took a trip that included the San Diego Zoo. Animals (especially zoo animals) aren't my usual subject, but I'm kind of enjoying it. Went to my local zoo today and took some pics of a snow leopard.

    I usually shoot with a Leica rangefinder and a 50mm prime. For this type of subject I've been using my Nikon D800 and an 80-400mm zoom.

    I've noticed a learning curve during this process. Compositions are more challenging than what I am used to--or rather using a longer focal length I'm having to think a bit differently when I compose. It's not as much about including or excluding extraneous background elements, but more do I want a head shot or try to include more of the animal's body.

    Focus is a much larger issue compared to what I normally shoot. With moving animals you can't really manually focus and trying to choose the best auto-focus settings really matter. I've switched to using continuous auto-focus and changed the auto-focus mode to the 3D setting. This tracks the focus point as the animal moves both closer and farther, as well as with changes in composition. As long as the initial focus point is spot-on, changing the composition or having the animal move will still generally result in good focus. If the camera picks the wrong initial focus point however, I've found that I'm kind of screwed when shooting a burst.

    I'm also shooting in continuous high mode for the maximal frame rate. When something interesting seems to be happening I'm relying on "spray and pray" to not miss a shot.

    Shooting wide open, which for this lens is f/5.6 @ 400mm. Hoping to be able to get the fastest shutter speeds that will still result in a proper exposure shooting in Aperture Priority mode.

    Are these reasonable settings? Am I thinking about this correctly? Any advice on shooting settings for this type of subject?

    Part 2:

    Below are some shots I took earlier today. The Snow Leopard was active so I was able to get some shots that weren't just of him sleeping far away.

    Much more than what I normally shoot, I'm struggling with editing them in broad strokes--I'm usually pretty good about picking out the keepers from the throw-aways. For this subject I'm having a harder time though.

    All of these were shot RAW. None of them are cropped. None have had anything done to them in post. I'm okay making adjustments once I decide on which ones merit further attention. But I'm having a much harder time than normal in making this decision on the first pass. Would appreciate help :)

    [​IMG]#1 Lots of foreground clutter out-of-focus. Could easily crop to "zoom" in on the cat. One of the weaker ones I think though.

    [​IMG]
    #2 Similar to #1 but the cat is looking at the camera. Foreground clutter is overlapping the head, but the eyes are free and in focus. Might be okay cropped. Still one of the weaker ones I think though.

    [​IMG]
    #3 First of the close ups after the cat moved from its remote perch. Included most of the cat's body in this one, but not sure this is a good composition. Doesn't seem balanced to me and also doesn't jump out at me as interesting.

    [​IMG]
    #4 Better than #3, but still not doing it for me. I like that there is room in the left of the frame for him to move into and I also like that it is more dynamic and shows off his huge paws.

    [​IMG]
    #5 First of a few that are closer up even uncropped. He is sniffing a bird feather that he found.

    [​IMG]
    #6 Similar to #5 but with his tongue slightly out.

    [​IMG]
    #7 Stalking.

    [​IMG]
    #8 Head shot. One of my favorites of the series.

    [​IMG]
    #9 Another head shot. This one less cute and more menacing.

    [​IMG]
    #10 Post-pounce. Auto-focus chose the wrong thing to focus on, but it is still a dynamic pic. I have one of him in mid-air that is completely blurry, but still interesting in an abstract way. Won't show you that one :)

    [​IMG]
    #11 Back on his perch. This is another full body shot.

    Sorry for the very long post. Would appreciate help with 3 things:

    (1) Optimal camera settings for photographing wild animals (in this case animals at a zoo) specifically relating to auto-focus settings on a D800. Related to this is any advice on helping the camera pick the right focus point with fast-moving subjects.

    (2) Compositional tips when shooting wildlife, again specifically related to animals in a zoo.

    (3) Comments/critique on the images I included in this post. Which ones work? Which ones really don't? Again, all of these are straight JPEGs from the RAW files in Lightroom. None have been cropped or had anything done to them in post. I'm okay with that part of things, but I'm having a really tough time doing a first-pass edit with these to determine which ones deserve spending time on them in post.

    Thanks in advance :)
     
  2. monokakata macrumors 68000

    monokakata

    Joined:
    May 8, 2008
    Location:
    Hilo, Hawai'i
    #2
    #10, to me, is dynamite. The best one in the set. It has everything I like going for it.

    Don't get me wrong. Animal "portraits" are cool. But animals in motion, especially in settings where it's not immediately obvious that it's a zoo, are much cooler.
     
  3. Apple fanboy macrumors Core

    Apple fanboy

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    Feb 21, 2012
    Location:
    Behind the Lens, UK
    #3
    I love a big cat, but I'm no pro so I'm probably not the best person for advice. However if they were my shots I'd concentrate on 4, 5 and 8. I would look to clone out some of the leaves if possible and brighten up the face area, especially 5 and 8.
     
  4. Cheese&Apple macrumors 68000

    Cheese&Apple

    Joined:
    Jun 5, 2012
    Location:
    Toronto
    #4
    As you mentioned, moving subjects are tricky. I use continuous auto-focus with single point for slower and closer moving subjects and 9 point for faster moving and more distant subjects such as a small bird in flight. The object being to get the eye(s) in clear focus. The remainder of focus, in or out, isn’t as critical and can be written–off to selective creativity.

    I’ve never had much success with 3D auto-focus with my D600 and the 80-400. I find it hunts too much. For me, it works better, and I have greater success, to take it slower and try to nail that shot, preferably using continuous single point auto-focus, right on the critter’s eye.

    Also, I rarely burst shoot. If I had a D4S, I’m sure it would be a different story but I find that I can acquire focus more consistently by cycling through shots manually, which I can do at two to three frames per second. Besides, think of it in these terms: Shooting at 1/1,000 sec., I can capture 2/1,000 to 3/1,000 of a second of subject movement vs. capturing 6/1,000 of a second in burst. I don’t believe I’m missing much in that 3/1,000 of a second.

    As far as composition is concerned, if the subject is static (at rest) the eyes are critical. Looking directly at you or in your direction over either shoulder works well as long as the eyes are clearly in focus. If the subject is moving, flying, running, hunting, etc. that’s makes for a very interesting and dynamic contextual shot. With a moving subject, eye focus is not as nearly as important but if you can get it that’s great - no matter which way your subject is looking.

    As for a clear unobstructed view, obstructions by branches and vegetation can be a royal pain but try your best. Sometimes this means waiting patiently for a ridiculous amount of time to get the shot and sometimes it means waiting patiently for a ridiculous amount of time and never getting the shot.

    Personally, I think #2 would be a stellar shot with a tighter crop – framed with his face at the left third and a slight dodge applied to the eyes.

    ~ Peter
     
  5. kallisti, Jun 4, 2014
    Last edited: Jun 4, 2014

    kallisti thread starter macrumors 65816

    kallisti

    Joined:
    Apr 22, 2003
    #5

    Thanks so much. All very, very helpful suggestions. Since it's a local zoo I'll be going back regularly. Also have a son on the way, which means I have innumerable zoo trips in my future :)

    Here is the pic of the snow leopard in mid-air for the pounce. I had dropped the camera from my eye trying to see what was going on prior to the pounce. So I was bringing the camera up as the action was happening which introduced camera motion blur. I wasn't zoomed out all the way for this (135mm) and the camera chose a shutter speed based on my settings of 1/focal length--so 1/160 sec. Too slow for this shot, further introducing blur both from camera movement and subject movement. An argument for shooting full manual (or at the least shutter priority with potentially dynamic subjects). Having said that, I find this interesting in an abstract sort of way....


    [​IMG]
     
  6. monokakata macrumors 68000

    monokakata

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    May 8, 2008
    Location:
    Hilo, Hawai'i
    #6
    It's very interesting, and not surprisingly I like it a lot.

    I already said that animal portraits are fine. To me, the problem is that there are endless series of them, and they often look very much alike. After a while, to me, it gets boring. And do portraits really capture what an animal's all about? What I've seen over the years is that portraits are meant to as much to show us the photographer's view of the animal as to show us anything important about the animals. Noble! Savage! Frightening! Tender! Oh those eyes! Oh those teeth!

    I won't go on. But your two shots of the snow leopard in motion are very different. There's a lot of energy in them. And to me, they're quite wonderful. My partner, a poet (who has published a poem called "Dream of the Snow Leopard" and has a broadside featuring one) took a look at the shot you just posted and said, "Fabulous."
     
  7. kallisti thread starter macrumors 65816

    kallisti

    Joined:
    Apr 22, 2003
    #7
    Thank you so very much for this. This comment moved me more than any response I have ever received on this site. It's easy to get wrapped up in the "concrete" aspects of photography. Is something in perfect focus? Have you followed the accepted rules of composition? Many of my favorite photos I've taken aren't "good" by any objective measure, but speak volumes (at least to me) despite their technical imperfections. It's nice to be reminded that photography is about art on some level, even if it sometimes happens by accident and not design :)
     
  8. monokakata macrumors 68000

    monokakata

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    May 8, 2008
    Location:
    Hilo, Hawai'i
    #8
    You're certainly welcome.

    There are many ways to make great images. I got a D800 because IQ's important to me, and also I like what a D800 RAW image lets me do in LR and PS (but mostly LR).

    There's an important place for focus and careful composition -- I'd never say they aren't important, never. I shoot a lot of landscape, so I understand this.

    Then there are those other shots, like yours. They won't be to everybody's taste, and what's wrong with that? Nothing.

    You ask about M and auto ISO. I don't know the answer (I rarely shoot anything other than A with a specific ISO) but I found "Mastering the Nikon D800" by Darrell Young to be an excellent guide. Young clearly spent a lot of time handling the D800.
     
  9. kallisti thread starter macrumors 65816

    kallisti

    Joined:
    Apr 22, 2003
    #9
    I edited my post to take out the bit about "ISO priority." It didn't have anything to do with the thread and was easy enough to answer on my own by playing around with my camera.

    The answer is "yes." Nikons (at least the D800) shoot in what could be termed "ISO priority" when switched to M mode but with ISO set to auto. What this would allow you to do creatively is set the aperture to what you want for DOF reasons and the shutter speed you want (to either freeze motion or blur motion). The camera will then change the ISO to achieve the "correct" exposure depending on your metering mode (matrix, center-weighted, spot, etc.) as long as an ISO adjustment will achieve this (i.e. wont help with an overexposed image since the ISO can't go any lower, but with potential under exposure it will increase the ISO to compensate). This creates two different manual modes: a true manual mode and one where you are setting the aperture and shutter speed for creative reasons but can still count on the camera's meter in some sense. Could be useful say at a concert where you know the aperture and shutter speed you need, but because of dynamically changing light levels the correct exposure is constantly changing.
     
  10. kallisti thread starter macrumors 65816

    kallisti

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  11. Apple fanboy macrumors Core

    Apple fanboy

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    #11
    The eyes being clear of the plants, certainly makes this one. The crop has been a big improvement.
     
  12. compuwar macrumors 601

    compuwar

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    Oct 5, 2006
    Location:
    Northern/Central VA
    #12
    Catchlights in the eyes are critical for living subjects. Getting down to toddler level is also often a very good idea. Outside of that, for wildlife you have two main choices and an alternative:

    Choice #1. Find the ideal location and wait for the subject to enter it[1]. Pre-focus or use focus priority if you can't get good tracking. Wait. Come back. Wait some more... Eventually, you'll either get the shot you want or move to another technique.

    Choice #2. Observe the subject's behavior over time and learn to anticipate their actions. As you study how and when they move, learn to get ahead of them with the lens.

    Alternative #1. Spray and pray and try to get lucky.

    The other thing to practice is panning with the subject's motion. It's easiest to practice on cars and bikes, then move to animals. This way you can get motion blur of the background- look at good vs amateur race photos to see the difference.

    Take real time to figure out the motion for the subject and "plan ahead" even if it's 2-3 feet into a clearer area. Over time your shots will get better, and you'll have more of a feel for your subject and your images will show more of it's character as you learn what makes it it.

    Paul
    [1] Optionally baiting in the wild to get the subject to that location.
     
  13. Apple fanboy macrumors Core

    Apple fanboy

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    #13
    Good idea for birds and squirrels.

    Best avoided for bears and tigers :D
     
  14. compuwar macrumors 601

    compuwar

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    #14
    I've seen images from people baiting preditors where it's legal, generally with roadkill, and it hasn't seemed to hurt their results, and with something edible to focus on (NPI,) their safety was probably better in most cases ;)

    Paul
     
  15. Apple fanboy macrumors Core

    Apple fanboy

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    #15
    It's the ones you didn't get to see that are the problem. We don't have any preditors here in the UK that any human has to worry about.
     
  16. Cheese&Apple macrumors 68000

    Cheese&Apple

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    Jun 5, 2012
    Location:
    Toronto
    #16
    Well done kallisti. Two small suggestions...

    1) With the leopard looking directly at you like this without an obvious head tilt, I would adjust the horizon so the eyes are perfectly level.
    2) I would punch-up the eyes a bit by painting in a dodge

    You sure about that AFB? What about that MacRy character seen lurking in your subway system. :D
     
  17. kallisti thread starter macrumors 65816

    kallisti

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    Apr 22, 2003
    #17
    Thanks. This a little better?

    [​IMG]
     
  18. Apple fanboy macrumors Core

    Apple fanboy

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    #18
    Lol.
     
  19. MacRy, Jun 7, 2014
    Last edited: Jun 8, 2014

    MacRy macrumors 68040

    MacRy

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    Apr 2, 2004
    Location:
    England
    #19
    Help/critique with photographing a snow leopard


    He sees when you are sleeping.......he knows when you're awake.....he knows if you've been bad or good, so.....be ........good...........for.........good......ness.........sake.....


    [​IMG]
     
  20. kallisti thread starter macrumors 65816

    kallisti

    Joined:
    Apr 22, 2003
    #20
    You completely missed the eyes of the animal with this one. Having said that, you captured the predatory nature of the species quite well. Rules exist to be broken?
     
  21. MacRy macrumors 68040

    MacRy

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    Apr 2, 2004
    Location:
    England
    #21

    Along with legs.....what?

    ;)
     

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