Dave Stevenson blog

Shooting macro at London Zoo

Ok. This one is cooool.

You might already know that I run photography workshops at London Zoo with my pals from the Zoological Society of London. (What's that? You didn't know? Well here's a link. And here are some of the other photography workshops I do.)

For years now, one of my favourite places to shoot has been the reptile house. Built in 1926 and now home to hundreds of different snakes, amphibians, lizards and all kinds of other things you'd be upset to find in your sleeping bag.

It's a surprisingly good place for photography: it looks so dark when you first go in but there's actually reasonably good lighting in a lot of the enclosures so it's possible to rattle off a few decent images.

But it's limited. You're limited to how close you can get, so even those with macro lenses might not be able to capture the finest details. You're obviously limited in terms of angle, and you're definitely limited light-wise. There's enough light for steady images, but, generally, only with the aperture of your lens wide open, which means very tight depth of field.

So you won't be able to do anything like this.

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Or this.

Both of those images were taken under studio lights with the Canon 100mm f/2.8 macro. Not through glass, not through wire, just me, a keeper supervising and some of nature's most interesting critters on a studio table. Partly that's a perk of being a photographer; blagging your way into interesting spaces and taking pictures you normally wouldn't be allowed to, but here's the cool bit: you can do this too!

For two dates this year (Saturday 16th September and Saturday 14th October), you'll be able to score exclusive backstage access to the reptile house and shoot some of their incredible occupants, close up. No bars, no cages, no glass, and, importantly, LOTS of light. Using continuous LED lights will allow us to stop down our lenses and get lots of texture and detail from our subjects. Unique access, unique space, unique subjects, unique shots.

No idea what any of that means? No problem. All you need to bring is a camera with a macro lens and I'll help with the rest. Shutter speeds, ISO, aperture – if you have no idea what any of that means this is the perfect time to start figuring it out with some of the most interesting photographic subjects around.

(Quick sell-y bit – these workshops operate in a relatively tight space and as such are SMALL. Six spaces on each one and some of the spaces are sold already. If you want to get in there it might be a plan to make that booking sooner rather than later! That link again: https://www.zsl.org/experiences/macro-photography-workshop)

The North Island, New Zealand

Our Kiwi rental car was a nine year-old Nissan Sunny with a quarter of a tank of petrol, creaking suspension and a knackered drivers’ side door lock that could only be undone from the inside.

At Karekare we had miles of black sand and ocean almost all to ourselves. That’s the thing about New Zealand: we were very nearly as far from London as it’s possible to be without getting closer again. Not many people come here and the crowds are easy to lose.

Fraser Island, Australia

We rolled off the ferry on the island with a few other cars, which promptly roared off and left us nervously purring across the sand. Fraser Island’s eastern beach is paradise. We drove along firm, tightly-packed sand with the ocean roaring to our right and the horizon clear. Every now and then we’d thump through a freshwater creek, and I tried to ignore the sticker on the inside of the windscreen that said “No insurance for immersion.”

Mt Bromo, Indonesia

The alarm trilled while it was still dark.

We’d organised a thermos from the hotel kitchen the night before, and we sipped still-warm tea as, breath visible, we wandered down the road.

We reached the viewpoint, a mere 2km through the village, in under half an hour, just as the sun was rising. In Cemoro Lewang the sun rises over the town, before angling down into Tennger massif and Mount  Bromo. The top of Mount Bromo, steam rushing from its crater, was capped with gold when we reached the carpark, and the rest of Tennger massif was a perfect sea of black. It was like being on the moon; we were the only ones there.

Sydney, Australia

Man, did I love Sydney. We've left now, but three months in one of the friendliest, cleanest, best-looking cities on the planet was ace. If only it was a bit closer to home.

Kuta, Bali, Indonesia

We spent nearly two weeks in Kuta, and frankly it isn’t surprising that my notebook struggles to account for the time spent. We ate at several of its many excellent restaurants, slept in, swam in its beautifully-warm water and surfed.

Ko Taratao, Thailand

Attempting to reach Taratao underlines its remoteness. We rose at five and presented ourselves to the first tuk-tuk driver we saw. He waved away our attempts at bargaining, and pointed us in the direction of a dilapidated red pick-up truck with an even more dilapidated driver. He agreed to our lower price, and we rode to the bus-station in the back of the truck with – I swear I’m not making this up – his zimmerframe.

From the bus station we rode for 90 minutes to Satun where we wandered aimlessly until another tuk-tuk presented itself. We hopped in and were whisked to La Ngu, where we hopped out again and waited for our third tuk-tuk of the day. This third one finally dropped us off to the pier at Pak Barra, from which the islands of Lipe and Tarutao are reached.

No sooner had we sat down on the boat than we were joined by Tim, an ex-Derby man on his way back to Malaysia via Ko Lipe. I asked him what he did for a living. “Fuck all,” came the cheery reply, which I took to mean journalist. Close: he was working on a documentary about a Malaysian woman who formed a one-person resistance to the Japanese during the second world war.

Suddenly he leaned forward, earnestly. “Listen,” he said. “Don’t tell anyone about this place, ok? Word of mouth is fucking murder for places like this.”

When we arrived on Tarutao I saw what he meant. The island is a designated national park with a single road, wide enough for a single truck; no houses and no permanent population. We arrived at the quay with a huddle of holidaying Thais; our boatload contributed the only people we could see to the footprintless beach.

Tarutao is as close to untouched as it’s possible for a place to be and still have links to the rest of the world. There are no internet cafés or bars, just a few miles of trails through the jungle. Wandering no more than 200 meters from the camp, we saw lizards the size of dogs, monkeys swinging in the trees, and heard enough strange snuffling noises to have us nervously clutching each other every night we were in the tent. It even has resident eagles, which we caught fleeting glimpses of.

Even when we were there, the signs of construction were there. I recommend that you go, of course, because deserted, kind-of accessible tropical islands aren’t exactly a dime a dozen, but it might be best if you go sooner rather than later. Sorry, Tim.

South Thailand

Thailand’s southern islands are the stuff of legend. Powdery white beaches caressed by light blue water, with bamboo shacks on the waterfront selling Tiger for 50p a bottle. Shoals of outrageously-coloured fish flirting with divers and bungalows on the beach going for a song.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

We woke up at 4.30am, the better to see the sun rise over Angkor Wat.

Unfortunately, a few thousand other people had had the same idea, and by the time we arrived the air was rich with the sound of a thousand cracking shutters. Still, make the best of it, eh?

Ban Lung, Cambodia

Ratanakiri sits in the far northeast of Cambodia, near the border with Laos and only a few hundred kilometres from Vietnam. Getting there was a treat.

The bus took eleven and a half hours. The first eight of these were on flawless, sealed, modern roads. We had plenty of legroom and the air-conditioning, mercifully, was working at full capacity. Then the sealed roads ended. The last few hundred kilometres into Ban Lung (capital of the Ratanakiri region) are on dusty, pock-holed dirt tracks, wide enough for two buses to comfortably pass each other, but not what you’d exactly call “smooth”.

Ban Lung is little more than an afterthought on the Cambodia tourist trail. It could hardly be anything else. It’s not big enough to offer clever shopping options, and there are none of the backpacker staples like all-day bars or bungee jumping. But it was nice, for once, to be somewhere that only had a handful of westerners staying in it. It was very easy to be left alone.

The next day we squeezed ourselves onto the bike again. (Three on a bike has the same dynamics as two on a bike, except for the person in the middle, who has to live with being crushed.) Ban Lung has a selection of beautiful waterfalls dotted around it, and we spent a few hours at each, jumping in and seeing exactly what it was like to swim under a waterfall.

We were in Ban Lung for two full days. We had intended to stay longer: the nearby national park is famous for its trekking, and you can stay for up to a week in the jungle, animal-spotting and visiting local villages. The idea of sleeping in the jungle in a hammock holds appeal as well. However, not for the first time, we were caught out. We had brought $300 with us; a decent-sized trek would cost us $200; leaving us with an insufficient amount to pay for our bus tickets out of town and to pay off our hotel. There's no cash machine.

We left town reluctantly. Ban Lung is only a footnote. We weren’t there for long enough and missed out on the most interesting thing it had to offer. Still, it was nice to be left alone for a few days, and the temptation of a jungle trek is enough to persuade us back.