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From the West: A Walk on the Wild Side – Photography in a Zoo

In flight

Visiting the Sonora Desert Museum south of Tucson last week I was surprised at the variety of photo opportunities, especially a morning presentation by a group from Raptor Free Flight. Beautiful birds in flight and with careful planning and a few camera and lens tweaks, the presentation really worked for bird flight photography and the spectators enjoyed a great time as well.

Walley Hestermann, with red tailed hawk

Raptor Free Flight team member Wally Hestermann shown here with a great performing red-tailed hawk. Released from a remote location, the hawk perched at the top of a saguaro for nearly 15-minutes before taking to the sky. The red-tailed hawk gained altitude and flew over a mile to the north — a small, dark speck in the overcast sky. Hestermann placed a small piece of meat on his glove, waved several times with both arms to attract the bird’s attention and the response was a high speed “stoop” or dive from long distance on a flight path that carried the hawk within inches of the spectator’s hats to land on the glove. The morning presentation included ravens, owl, prairie falcon, but since I can’t find a bird book I’ll let you try to identify a few birds and several other species from the following hike through the zoo.

prairie falcon in flight

great horned owl and cholla

I mentioned tweaking the camera and lens for the walk on the wild side, here are a few tips that may help capture photo opportunities at the zoo.

First, I didn’t concentrate on camera and lens selection, an older digital single lens reflex and a moderate zoom lens, a 70-300mm was used. For the most part, I let the camera, set on shutter priority, select the appropriate exposure and it did a fine job. With the flying birds in what was a backlit, open and hazy sky, I set the camera’s “exposure compensation” between +.75 and + I f-stop, since I expected the bright sky would over influence the exposure. A nearby photographer mentioned that he had done the same on his last trip, but “didn’t need to,” as the camera’s center-weighted exposure default did a great job. I tried to use the “shorter” focal lengths of the zoom lens which seem to be sharper, and also I changed the ISO settings for lower light, inside photography. Some of these images were taken at ISO 650, which let me use a shutter speed of 1/2000th of a second to help stop the birds in flight.

Another tweak for flying birds would be to default the camera/lens auto focus to “continuous” — if I could hold the bird in the viewfinder’s center, every once in a while the focus would be close, and of course, those subjects that were less speedy worked out well at either continuous autofocus or single autofocus settings. Another advantage of the digital age, the camera has on-board image stabilization (IS) and I didn’t use a tripod.

Anyway, you’ll walk on the wild side if you visit a zoo. Good Luck!

hummingbird honeysuckle 2



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