On Safari: Shooting at the San Diego Zoo

Ok, so it’s not really a safari but it was a heck of a good time! Maine has lighthouses, the history of the East Coast, and beautiful fall foliage. San Diego has beaches, bikinis, and the San Diego Zoo. Knowing that I was going to spend Monday afternoon there I packed my camera bag and was ready to shoot.

Knowing that I would want to get in nice and tight on the animals, I threw on my Nikon 70-300mm VR lens and an SB800 with a diffusion dome for good measure. I anticipated that since I was there late in the afternoon and there would be lots of heavy shade, I would probably need to pop in some on-camera fill. I spent the whole day walking around with that setup on my D90. I didn’t change lenses once which made me very happy.

One word of caution: if you’re going to walk around a very public place with your gear and you even look like you know what you’re doing, people will come up to you and ask you to take a picture of them with their camera. Do the right thing and politely take the photo for them.

Why would I want (or need) such a long lens? Simple really. Even though the animals might only be 10 to 15 feet away, you want to fill the frame with them [your subject] and you just can’t do that with an 18-55mm zoom. If you have an 18-200mm zoom or something similar, you’ll be in heaven because you can shoot wide as well as tight. Had I not been with my family, I would have had a wide lens on my D40 and the 70-300mm VR on my D90 so I could switch back an forth without changing lenses. But I didn’t want to look like Super Photo Geek and embarrass my family. Like I said, if it would have just been me I wouldn’t have had a care in the world.

Here’s a few shots that I got that day:

When I was racked all the way out (300mm) I had VR on all the time. Even with a higher shutter speed you are still susceptible to camera shake, especially at longer focal lengths. The shot above of the waterfall I was able to shoot at 1/13th of a second, handheld. Yes, I said handheld. Of course I was shooting at 70mm and not 300mm.

So the next time you head to the zoo, make sure you bring some long glass with you to get in nice and tight while you’re standing with everyone else on the walkways. You’ll thank me for it!


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