SHOOTING THROUGH GLASS
One of the biggest issues for zoo photographers is how to deal with animals behind glass.
SHOOTING THROUGH GLASS: THE PROBLEMS
1. Poor transmission of light through the glass. This will be either because the glass is dirty on your side (in which case you can attempt to clean it!), or because it is dirty or covered with condensation on the animals’ side (in which case there’s nothing much that you can do about it!). It is well worth carrying a window cleaning cloth with you. It is remarkable how much effect this can have on glass smeared with the remnants of someone’s ice-cream or a set of sweaty palmprints! In addition, the optical quality of the glass used in these ‘windows’ will be much lower than that in the front element of your lens. The ‘window’ glass will cause some distortion to your image. It may seem strange, but you will often obtain much better images through bars (at least through the gaps between them) than through glass. If I have any choice I try to position myself so that I am shooting through bars or mesh rather than through windows. Of course, there are many occasions when you won’t have the choice – aquaria being the obvious example!
2. Reflections from the glass surface. These can be a problem in two ways.
a. Firstly, there may be light reflected into your lens from some object that you don’t want to be the subject of your image. This is likely to happen if you are shooting at an angle to the glass surface. You could try to shoot ‘directly’ at the glass, but you are then likely to collect a reflection of yourself and camera! The ideal situation would allow you to position yourself so that there are none of these ‘sideways’ reflections, but this can be difficult if the object is fixed in position an overflowing wastepaper bin, for example). If you can get close to the glass you may be able to eliminate reflections by shading the lens with your hand or an item of clothing (I often use a black glove).
b. Secondly, you can have problems with the ‘flash’ from your flash! This is particularly likely if you are not close to the glass surface, and you are using flash illumination. You will need to either get close up to the glass, or be prepared to shoot ‘at an angle’ so that you avoid these direct reflections.
Using a polarising filter can also reduce the effects of glare on glass, but does introduce an extra layer through which the light must pass. Use the best quality polariser that you can afford: often these are expensive as the lens thread sizes are so large on telephoto lenses.
There are particular problems involved with taking photographs inside a reptile house or aquarium. These are dealt with below. There are also occasions where you might want to photograph a reflection from glass. If you are interested in how Humans interact with animals in zoos you may be able to take some interesting images which feature deliberate reflections.
DEALING WITH GLASS: AQUARIA and VIVARIA
Timing. Try to get there early! Aquaria and tropical houses tend to become crowded, and other visitors will not be impressed by a photographer monopolising the view of the animals in small enclosures. In addition, the outside (and probably the inside) of the glass will have been cleaned by maintenance staff overnight and so there will be less ‘smearing’ to distort your image. If you can’t get there early, try lunchtime. School parties, and many families with small children, will have stopped for food – if you can cope with a ‘rumbling tum’ you may well have better access to the front of the enclosures.
Because the aquaria and vivaria are inside buildings, you will not be affected by the ambient light outdoors. Very cloudy conditions, perhaps with rain, will not affect your ability to take photographs of animals in these glass-fronted enclosures. What might have an effect is moving into a ‘tropical house’ environment if it is cold outside – you may well find that condensation forms on the front of your lens (as well as on your spectacles, if you wear them). If you wait for the lens to clear as it reaches the room temperature you may well be able to remove any lingering moisture with a lens tissue – don’t be tempted to use your sleeve!
Depth of field. The enclosures are small, and if you are focussed on an animal that is close to you it is likely that other parts of its body will be out of focus. It may be acceptable that some of the animal is not in focus, but to keep as much of the image as possible ‘sharp’ it will be necessary to increase the depth of field by narrowing the aperture. It is really important to check the depth of field preview – with a fully automatic camera, choose ‘Portrait’ mode and try to get side on to the animal.
Shutter speed. Most reptiles and amphibian tend to sit still for long periods, which means that there will be no need to ‘freeze’ action by setting a fast shutter speed. Just occasionally, there will be the need for a fast shutter speed – the flicking of a forked tongue or the swelling of a throat patch, for example.
Because the buildings in which the enclosures are located tend to be ‘dark’, and many of the enclosures themselves are at low light intensity to mimic rainforest habitats, there may be difficulties in obtaining enough light for a correct exposure(especially as the aperture may be small). Raising the ISO rating would be the first step, but some ‘fill-in’ flash might be helpful.
Using flash. ‘On camera’ flash is designed to be effective when automatic programmes are selected. Some experimentation may be necessary if you are using manual control of aperture. If flash is used, there may be two significant problems – firstly, the image will be very ‘contrasty’ as the light source is directly in front of the subject and, secondly, there may be reflections from the glass surface. Both of these problems are reduced if the viewpoint is at an angle to the subject – this will provide some detail shadows on the image, as well as reducing the effect of reflections. The risk of washed out areas on the moist skin of amphibians is reduced if a diffuser is placed in front of the flash unit.
Some interesting images can be obtained if the photographer stands some distance from the enclosure, and effectively makes an image of ‘the animal in the enclosure’. If the image is slightly underexposed, the background will be dark and the subject may stand out very well.
Remember to adjust the white balance setting to ‘flash’(essential if you are shooting JPEGs!).
Focussing. Autoexposure systems do not do well through glass. The system may attempt to focus on a mark on the glass (even a drop of condensed water), or on some floating material in the water. Results are likely to be better if manual focussing is used – this should be possible since, as noted above, many of the animals do not move about very much. If you are trying to make an image of a moving animal, focus on a point which you predict the animal will reach – this is not difficult with fish since they tend to swim around the enclosures in a fixed pattern. With small coral reef fish, try to identify a part of the enclosure where the fish are slightly ‘confined’ (perhaps in a narrow area) and focus on this point. I often try to photograph the whole enclosure (focussing on the front glass) and then crop the image to show only the animal I want to pick out.