The Wriggly Road Show slithered, scuttled and strutted into town and a fascinating and interactive show it was. Snakes, lizards, crabs, albino rats and hedgehogs formed the cast and many thousands of frames were burned in a very enjoyable practical evening.
Perhaps the key to photographing animals, both wild and domesticated, lies in reconnaissance, having knowledge either direct or through an expert at hand. The latter was definitely the case in our session, given the exotic nature of the animals Wriggly Road Show brought with them. The welfare of the animals (and the photographers) is paramount and what may appear to be innocuous behaviour to the untrained eye could be stressful for the animal. There is a balance to be struck and if we believe the maxim that if your photograph isn’t good enough it’s because you are not close enough (Robert Capa) then there is an indicator to be had about choice of lens. However, that is a function of the environment that the animal is in and the size of the animal itself, as much as anything else.
Photographing domestic pets successfully is a different proposition to photographing large animals on a farm, is different from taking pictures of animals on safari (that’s the photographer being on safari rather than an alligator with a DSLR). Any way that you want to cut it animals are most likely going to be more work than your average subject. Cats and dogs may be the most frequently photographed animals (and certainly they take up a fair amount of space on Flickr, about 2.8m and 2.1m respectively) but they are also creatures with their own minds and curiosity.
I was shooting either in Handheld Twilight mode (Multi-frame at ISO 6400, wide fixed aperture, variable shutter speed) or aperture priority and auto ISO, plus some with fill in flash from the camera. Direct flash is rarely a good option, risking as it does red eye, and being generally unflattering, but needs must. I do not pretend I know what I was doing but the decisions were actually driven by the conditions.
Two positions were well lit, the others were more reliant on the ambient light. The animals were fairly static, none of them particularly quick even when mobile (having been fed), so moderately slow shutter speeds and moderate apertures with high ISO’s (1000 – 6400) did the job mainly with longer focal lengths. No chances to pan whilst shooting, no need to. From the look of most of the results I got I think I was concentrating more on the camera than the subject for some of them. That is sure sign of being short on practice. On the other hand it does not pay to be stingy on the number of frames that we commit to in pursuit of the shot we want.
Metering, especially the insects, where I was using fill in flash, was quite tricky and I found I was dialling in quite a bit of compensation. Fur is always interesting to get a reasonable meter reading from, tending to be either darker or lighter than the average for the environment the animal is being photographed. Spot or centre weighted metering, when metering from the camera, is probably preferred in these sorts of situations, but if shooting against backdrops it pays to be aware of how they will appear in the shot. Getting right at the point of taking the shot saves time in post production.
Focusing again depends on our subject, more specifically the speed it is moving across the frame, but also whether you are up close or standing back. Single shot, by and large is good enough close up because focus won’t shift that much and the shutter won’t fire till focus locks. A dog bouncing through the long grass is probably a candidate for Continuous AF and we live with the out of focus shots to get to the one or two for which the focus is bang on.
None of which will counter poor composition. The eyes have it, just as with people portraits. Viewers will seek the eyes first. We take our clues from the perceived expressions and the eyes are the windows of the soul, after all. Knowing the animal, having a rapport with it, are not necessarily the same things. Your pet snake will act differently to your pet dog, though both will have ways of attracting and directing their attention. It is also important not to stress the animal. The usual tools of composition can be applied, just getting there involves subjects who may be less predictable than a landscaper or a portrait photographer, or the yet-to-make-up-their-mind-ographer might be used to.
Here we can just scratch the surface, the tools we develop as we gain experience are mostly relevant, but as ever an ounce of practice is worth a pound of theory (kilogram and kilo translations also apply) and the Wriggly Road Show certainly provided us with that.