Some Faces from the Los Angeles Zoo

“Take a lover that looks at you like maybe you are magic.” This quotation, often misattributed to Frida Kahlo, sums up my ambivalence toward my Nikon 610, a practical and perfectly functional camera, compared to my Nikon D500, which is clearly magical in its speed and focusing abilities. I own a wildlife camera and a portrait camera, and I chose the portrait camera for a visit to the zoo.

I took the D610, 200-500 f/5.6 lens, and SB800 flash to the Los Angeles Zoo, and wrestled with three quandaries: 1) Would the D610’s dynamic range and large sensor be more useful to me than the D500’s uncanny focusing abilities and small-sensor pixel density? 2) As the proponent of “no bad light,” could I find a way to let a bright, contrasty day LOOK like a bright, contrasty day and still make good photos? 3) Is fill flash practical and/or necessary compared to the faster shutter speeds I could use without flash?

In brief, I came to these conclusions: I need the D500’s expansive focusing system to get eyes in focus with off-center subjects, along with the greater “reach” provided by the cropped sensor. I need to try “found light” rather than flash, because the 1/200 shutter speed limitation reduces critical sharpness, particularly shooting at 500mm; besides, trying to overwhelm bright sun with a small flash at considerable distances is a fool’s errand. And yes, it’s possible to recreate the squinty brightness of a sunny summer day, but I’m not sure I want people squinting at my photos.

So, I’ll be heading back to the zoo with a different camera and a different mindset. We’ll see how it goes.

Eyes so deep-set that one cannot expect fill-flash to help much at all. Best to wait for a catchlight and let the shadows fall where they may.

I was too close to the action when this hippo got a dental exam. This would have been a greater challenge with the D500’s smaller sensor.

During the very bright middle of day, the D610 actually does a great job holding highlights and shadows.

I couldn’t get close enough to the fences to make them disappear, so I tried to make them part of the photo.

I have a series of these, and like this one, they are not critically sharp. Shooting a 500mm lens at 1/200 second cannot always be saved by vibration-reduction and flash.

Had I chosen the D500, I think I could have gotten tighter, sharper compositions.

When the light is suboptimal, I look for interesting expressions/gestures, which can cover a multitude of technical sins.

Sometimes images look oversharpened without actually looking sharp. That’s bright sunlight (and sometimes flash) hitting fur/whiskers.

Here is another case where the D500 would have given me better focusing options. The focus sensors in the D610 do not cover very much of the frame.

In addition to my technical quandaries, there’s also the fact that zoos are inherently sad places. Yes, I know they do a lot of good, but who among us wishes to live in a cage?

The Tasmanian Devils were moving too fast for my flash-constrained shutter speeds, but in this moment I understood the whole “devil” reference.