I shoot better zoo photography (and you can too!)

I run the London Zoo photography workshops, and have done for (checks) almost a decade.

Crikey.

In that time I've met hundreds of people, answered thousands of questions and shared – this learning process is a two-way thing, you see – loads of tips. One of my favourite jobs is the occasional request from ZSL itself to help it keep its stack of animal photography updated. These images are licensed very widely, allowing ZSL to use my images for PR, in advertisements and on large scale displays.

They're enjoyable little jobs – a few days at a time, in places I know well, practising what I preach. They're also more or less the only times I end up carrying photographic kit around either zoo – I gave up doing it on workshops because a) I didn't end up taking that many useful pictures and b) my back started killing me. I particularly enjoy getting a bit more backstage access than I get on workshops, which gives me the opportunity to set up wireless flashes and things like that.

 Weeee! Canon 5D III, PocketWizard, Canon Speedlite, brolly. Although using lights does mean you need a spotter; I don't need to hear my insurer laughing when I tell them a monkey broke my flash.

Weeee! Canon 5D III, PocketWizard, Canon Speedlite, brolly. Although using lights does mean you need a spotter; I don't need to hear my insurer laughing when I tell them a monkey broke my flash.

If you're heading to London Zoo and want to do a nice job photographing it, let me help. Here are a few tricks and tips to send you on your way.

Use the right kit

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It's easy (and discouraging!) to tell people to just use gigantic lenses, which is why I don't do it. Paul Goldstein, over at Exodus Travels, says the best wildlife photography is shot with either very long or very wide lenses, and I think he's right. For this marvellous ring-tailed lemur, I brought a 500mm prime, only to spend most of my time struggling to stay far enough back from my subjects for it to work properly. Switching to a 24-105mm and finding a good spot solved it: the iffy background and light here really don't matter – this frame is all about the immediacy of the subject, its attentive, curious pose, and the detail in its fur and paws. Sure, figure out how to use big primes, but don't let that become an obsession.

Don't be afraid of ISO

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If you absolutely must use that 500mm prime, stick in a big pile of ISO and use a sensible shutter speed. Noisy images are better than blurry ones.

Get up to the glass

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The fundamentals of shooting in a zoo are the same as everywhere else: positioning and craftiness is everything, and dodgy snappers will get better shots than talented ones if they can figure out (or fluke) the best place to stand.

For glass, your best approach is to be as near to it, with your lens as perpendicular to it, as possible. The further back you are, and the more of an angle you're at, the tougher the glass is going to make things. Best case scenario: hazy, washed-out shots. Worst case: a mime wearing a high-contrast black and white striped shirt appears in all your shots.

Mind your backgrounds

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Oh god. Here's the beauty of shooting in natural habitat (fine, here's the whole list: it's exciting, the food's awesome, you meet cool people, the weather's more interesting, you get to go on a PLANE, the wildlife is more diverse and surprising, and the beer's cheaper): backgrounds are easy. Unless you're in an especially busy patch of the Masai Mara, or, like me a few years ago, you're in one of 40 Jeeps watching a Bengal tiger cross the road, you'll almost never have anything man-made in your background, which gives you loads of freedom of composition.

Zoos, not so much. London Zoo stands out in particular – I really like running workshops there because you have to work really, really hard to produce clean-looking images. A very long lens, with concomitantly tight depth-of-field, helps, but even then you can't rely on bokeh to sort you out. So be a background-watcher: it almost doesn't matter how good your foreground and subject are if the background's distracting. The Giraffe House, which I love to hit on my London Zoo workshops, is particularly good for this: from a few places, such as the angle above, backgrounds look absolutely sensational (if you can meter them right). From virtually every other angle: disaster. It's a great learning environment.

Come on a workshop

 Come on a workshop, get menaced by a monkey

Come on a workshop, get menaced by a monkey

Hear me out, hear me out. Workshops (and not just mine, either, there are plenty of other good folks running excellent wildlife photography workshops and courses in the UK) are an amazing way of figuring your camera out. Too scared to start using manual modes in real-life situations? Having a photographer nearby is a great way of getting over the first hurdle. I also really enjoy giving real-time feedback on the images people shoot – I've sold enough wildlife pics to be able to be able to help out with all kinds of stuff, from big-picture things like exposure and focus, to the minutiae of composition. If you'd like to come and learn how to take better pictures, hear a frankly exhausting amount of animal puns and come away with a travel wishlist as long as your arm, hit us up at ZSL.

How to be a successful freelance photographer

I've been freelance for *sucks teeth* ten years this year. Over that time I've gradually segued from all the words, all the time, to almost exclusively photography. Studio shoots, location shoots, workshops, some video work here and there, you name it.

It's awesome. It's a HUGE amount of work. The cry of MAXIMUM EFFORT often echoes through the vast corridors of Stevenson Towers.

Here, in handy, shareable (PLEASE GOD SHARE THIS), listicle form, are a few of the things I've learned. If you're going freelance, thinking going freelance, or are already freelance, maybe this will help.

  1. You're a professional. Act like it.
    Set an alarm. Get out of bed. Eat breakfast. You're not a student. You can't freelance in your pyjamas while Homes Under the Hammer plays in the background.
     
  2. Freelancers only tell you about their success.
    You know what I don't tweet about? Every knockback, refusal and unreplied-to-email I get. These vastly, VASTLY outnumber positive responses.

    Things I do bang on about: that time I was paid £££ to go and shoot the Northern Lights for a TV company, or when one of my images was used in National Geographic, or how I'm the Zoological Society of London's exclusive workshop leader.

    Things I don't talk about: how once a mag editor turned down a selection of my images and sent me a link to a competitors' website where their Photoshopped-beyond-imagination images leapt off my screen and singed my retinas as an example of something they wanted instead. Or how I was once fired from a social media account for "not being funny enough". Weirdly, I keep quiet about those.

    Everyone does that, and it means what you see online, from every freelance but particularly creatives, is distorted. We all get knocked back and told no; we just don't tell YOU about it. Don't take your lead, or measure your success, from what fellow creatives are saying on social media. They're all LIARS. Including me.

3. Good work is only part of the battle

I take a pretty good picture these days, though I can still balls it up with the best of them. I know there are countless talented photographers out there: I get work because I understand that clients don't only need quality images. They need a photographer who'll stay chipper as an eight-hour day turns into a 15 hour haul; someone who will lug equipment (not necessarily theirs) up and down four flights of stairs; who won't bitch when the catering extends to a Kit-Kat and a weak tea.

Neil Gaiman puts it quite nicely:

People keep working, in a freelance world – and more and more of today’s world is freelance – because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don’t even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. They’ll forgive the lateness of the work if it’s good, and if they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as the others if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.

This has been summarised in a billion viral venn diagrams but you can hear it from the horse's mouth in this excellent commencement speech. Be more than just a snapper for your clients; go further; lift more; be helpful. That way if your images are a pile of shite you might get more work anyway.

 Me, absolutely crushing it on a shoot last year.

Me, absolutely crushing it on a shoot last year.

4. Beware Hollywood math
Hey! Guess what cost me over a grand this year! So far! Christ!

That's right, it's getting to work. Between kit, insurance, repairs, parking, trains, paper backdrops and miles and miles of gaffer tape, being a photographer is expensive, and that's before you get a bill for your tax. Treating your gross income as money you actually have is dangerous, and it's memorably described in this exposé of Johnny Depp's economic clustermess as "Hollywood math".

All those guys turning up to do headshots for Instagram influencers for £90 a day will be out of work this time next year because you cannot afford to be a working, profitable photographer for that kind of money. Sustainable clients worth working for understand that and expect to be billed sensible amounts.

5. Rates are a negotiation
Just because your client declaratively tells you what their budget is does not mean they're telling the truth, nor does it mean they can't find more money. Every time you say "yes" to a client without first saying, "more, please" you are leaving money on the table. I have lost work because I was too expensive; I have never lost work because I asked for more. In quite a lot of cases I have ended up with, you know, more.

Does that help? I hope so. I'd have liked to have known it a decade ago when I was stressing about work and clients and taxes and invoices and WHAT IF EVERYONE HATES MY WORK. Now if someone with ten years' more experience than me could chime in with everything they know that'd be great.

Professional Northern Lights photography (for idiots)

"So, what happens if we don't see the Northern Lights?"

This is a reasonable question to ask. It's a reasonable question if you're a sole traveller, spending hundreds to get to a bit of the globe where the Northern Lights are even a possibility. The Arctic costs a lot to reach, and you're guaranteed to need to make a big effort. Long days are followed by nights that are often longer and always colder. Equipment takes a beating (ask me how climbing a waterfall in Iceland a few years ago cost me a thousand pounds in repair bills to my backup camera). Photographically you always have to go the extra mile – even if you're just shooting for yourself there is a LOT of great Northern Lights photography out there, so setting up your 18-55mm on the cheapest tripod you could find and hoping for the best is never going to cut it.

So yes, the Northern Lights are a challenge however you attack them.

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But here's the great thing about being an amateur photographer: if you attempt something and it goes completely wrong, you just don't tell anyone. You bin a camera's worth of outtakes and have another go the next year. What happens if you don't see the Northern Lights? Not much.

What happens if you don't see the Northern Lights as a professional? Bad Stuff. For this shoot, we promised Philips an incredible set of images and videos that would make their Ambilight TVs look the business. To do that, we built in a bunch of cool Arctic-type stuff – you know, snowmobiles, dog-sledding, awesome-looking locals – but the centrepiece was always supposed to be the experience of filming the Northern Lights, which, most nights in winter, you have a roughly 20% chance of seeing. They are INCREDIBLY weather dependent.

The plan was as simple as we could make it. Four days of intensive filming and photography, covering off as much as we could in whatever light we could get our hands on, and then five nights – if necessary – shivering in the cold, hoping to get as much Northern Lights material as possible.

We flew into Oslo. Half the crew nearly missed the connecting flight to Tromso. A big pile of kit immediately went missing. The snow fell lightly on the crew transport from thick grey skies. If omens are a thing, we did not have good ones.

Nothing ventured, of course, so we headed out. If we didn't get a good display on night one, we had four nights left to keep trying. Leigh – all round good egg (with whom I've worked on two other jobs since), director and cameraman for the documentary we ended up making – looked on the bright side. "If there are no Northern Lights for a few days, at least there's a bit of good jeopardy for the docco."

Poor old Leigh. Night one: boom.

For these shots I went with a tried-and-tested kit combo. A 5D MKIII (still failing to put a foot wrong despite my attempts to kill it over several Northern Lights adventures), and Canon's 14mm f/2.8. I've used that combo for night time work before (here I am illustrating a frankly depressing story about the US government's ongoing indifference to Native American land), and I love it. The fast aperture gives you OPTIONS, not least of which is dipping the ISO a bit for cleaner images. Image stacking for noise isn't really something that works with the Northern Lights, so you want the ISO as low as you can get it. I've had pretty good success shooting the Northern Lights on Canon's 24-105mm f/4, so you don't need a super big aperture... but it never hurts, and the client was paying.

Incidentally, night one was the night I banged off what might be my favourite frame of the trip.

Everyone, meet Alister. Alister's the man. He's very well known as a cameraman (I was on a shoot with him recently where he was spotted by fans THREE TIMES in, like, the middle of Nebraska) and, like me, is a natural world junkie who loves filming and photographing nature in all its weirdness and wonder. I started this exposure without – thinking about it – much of a plan. Shoot a long exposure and flick on a light at the end? Merge a frame of Alister with proper lighting with the Northern Lights frame? I dunno. Anyway, a few seconds into the exposure, a car hoved over the horizon and, ever so briefly, lit Alister and everything in my foreground before rushing off into the night.

Obviously the client has been told this shot is the result of meticulous planning and careful lighting.

Anyway, Northern Lights, dogsledding and snow mobiling are all things I've shot before, which doesn't make them any less fun. One thing I hadn't done before was work with native Sami people – the indigenous, nomadic folk who populate the wilds of Scandinavia. I've shot a few Sami people in Sweden, but these guys, because they were going to be in our film, really looked the part.

These guys were super fun to work with. For these frames I worked behind, alongside and underneath the camera crew, so there wasn't a lot of direction to give (rule one for unit photographers: know your place in the hierarchy). I used Canon's 85mm f/1.2, which I originally got because I thought waffer-thin depth of field would be fun. As it is, the 85mm f/1.2 isn't all that hot wide-open – but it gets positively absolutely amazing when you stop it down a bit. Bear in mind that stopping down three stops from f/1.2 is still about f/5.6, so you're still working with fairly shallow depth of field. And that thing, at that aperture, is SHARP. Believe me, you could print these portraits up the side of The Shard and they would bear up incredibly well.

Big thanks to Liam, Leigh and Alister who paid for, directed and filmed respectively.

Here are a few of the films we made.

And here's the making-of, which if you're anything like me you'll want to watch more than the actual advert itself.

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)

Shooting the Fox Glacier

The South Island is all about drama.

Fox Glacier is an impressive thing. Its face (terminal, geography fans) rises about sixty feet off the floor of the valley, and rises over eight thousand feet into the southern alps. The ice flow itself is thirteen kilometres long, and the terminal can move up to four metres towards the Tasman sea per day, which in glacier terms is positively supersonic.

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You can't go near it without a guide. Glaciers are tricky things for the unwary.

The biggest challenge was actually the temperature. In the sun – go on a day with good daylight, not cloud, to get the most from the blues in the ice – you sweat profusely as you clamber over the ice. Dip into the shadows and the sweat freezes. Wear clothes that breathe.

On purpose jumping out of a plane on purpose

"But why."

What's the most exciting thing you've ever done to break up a long car journey? Stopped at McDonald's? Bought a magazine? Written a friend's phone number in a toilet stall under an inventive description?

Stopped for a few hours, donned a parachute and a trained skydiver and dropped out of a plane?

I've done three of those four things.

Lake Taupo is the southern hemisphere's largest lake, and it sits prettily against a backdrop of towering, snow-capped mountains and rolling hills. The road runs against the side of the lake and, with a following wind and a cool breeze, you could drive forever.

So why not pull over, climb into a plane and then hurl yourself out again without waiting for it to land?

Most skydiving institutions in New Zealand offer you two choices: twelve thousand feet or fifteen thousand feet. The difference is a few seconds of freefall, so we opted for the lower of the two, and signed our health insurance away on the contract, which included a clause that said that if we got into the plane and decided not to jump, we'd pay anyway.

Has that ever happened? I asked, ever so casually.

Not that I know of, replied the teenager. "One woman got up there and started crying and everything. Eventually she was persuaded and when she got down she said it was the best thing she'd ever done."

Crying and everything, I thought. I can top that.

Suddenly, I was wearing a jumpsuit.

My tandem partner was a German named Albert. Luckily, Albert seemed like a reasonably well-centered individual. As well-adjusted as you can be, I suppose, when your day job is throwing yourself from planes. Mendy did less well. She was tied to a Brazilian wearing a fluffy blue helmet who introduced himself as Jam.

The view, I recall, was incredible, all tiny forests and winding, quiet roads, capped by mountains and occasional glimpses of the lake. This was ok. The plane was a bit shakey, but this was, all in all, fine.

Suddenly, the door at the back of the plane was thrown open and the wind rushed in. Three professional skydivers moved to the back of the plane and stood on the ledge.

They paused forever. I noticed the wind whipping the edges of their jumpsuits. They looked inexplicably happy. Then, abruptly, they were gone. One minute they were standing on the edge of the plane, and the next they had vanished . It looked violent and very, very dangerous. It struck me that this was what skydiving was: paying a great deal of money to come very close to having an appalling accident.

Mendy was next. She and Jam shuffled to the front door and she sat for a moment with her legs dangling over the edge. Then, they tipped forwards, and fell.

It was the falling that surprised me. I think I expected them to hover gently in the slipstream of the plane for a moment or two before descending. Instead Mendy vanished beneath the plane: if you blinked you would miss the entire thing. It was less of a jump and more of a tumble.

We were next.

Just before you jump out, a camera in the corner of the plane pops off a quick shot of you and your tandem partner. I'd like you to take a moment to compare and contrast the difference between Mendy's shot and mine. Mendy has her thumbs up, a big smile, and looks for all the world like she was born to fall from a plane:

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Mine? Eyes wide, pupils dilated, mouth dry and slightly open, manically unfocussed stare. It is not the look of a man having the time of his life. It is the look of the man about to be savaged by a pack of dogs.

 So proud.

So proud.

I sat, heart thumping, on the edge of the plane. My legs dangled over the edge and I became aware of the very real possibility of my shoes blowing off in the hurricane whipping at my face. The single saving grace was that Albert didn't ask me if we ready again, because I'd have said no.

Then we were out the door. My eyes were welded open and I caught a split-second glimpse of the plane and horizon spinning madly away. The acceleration was unlike anything: imagine taking off in a jet plane and times it by, I don't know, a million. It was like being roared at by God.

Once you're out of the plane, there's nothing you can do. Whatever self-preservation instincts might tell you not to jump vanish because... that's it. Your life, for a few seconds, is basically over; your future as long as it's ever been and simultaneously very, very short. At that moment, at two hundred kilometres per hour and hurtling towards certain death, I could not have been happier.

Then the parachute snapped open: it was like being lifted at the shoulders by a giant. The roaring stopped, and we hung in the air. We landed and, very discretely, I was the teensiest bit sick on the grass. Job jobbed.

Shave the bunnies

Ever seen a rabbit being shaved? Me neither until we went to Waitomo.

Without further ado:

 Yikes.

Yikes.

People will tell you that the reason for going to Waitomo is to see the world-famous caves, populated by galaxies of luminescent blue glowworms, but the reality is that if you have half an hour you should really go to the Shearing Shed, which is two minutes up the road, is free, and gives you the chance to watch a German Angora rabbit have a shave.

The whole thing was hosted by a pair of middle-aged women, one of whom gave a blow by blow account via a rather unnecessary microphone and speaker assembly. We met Garth, an enormous Angora rabbit, who belatedly realised what was about to happen and scrabbled around frantically on the smooth shearing table, desperately trying to find enough grip to scoot free. It was too late, and before long he was stretched out on the table by four elasticated cables.

Angora rabbits, it was pointed more than once, die if they're left unsheared during the summer, but there's little more pitiful than watching a sad rabbit go from the size of a fluffy hatchback to that of a small dog. Still, you can always buy a sweater on the way out.