When top notch, reliable gear matters (a zoo post)

Well, I’ve told you enough about how “itsnotthecamera”, right ?? And boy do I mean it. However, this gets not so true if you add “for a given user”. Because any given human operator (me, in this instance) will benefit from more capable equipment once they’ve reached a certain level of proficiency.

I am a *terrible* videographer. Heck, I think I’m the worst on Earth when it comes to shooting video. I wouldn’t do better with a 50K video rig than I do with my smartphone, seriously !! That’s because I don’t know *shit* about video, and don’t care that much either. So an enormous amount of folks are in this situation regarding stills. They don’t want or need any more than their phones or crappy compact cam, because they have little interest in taking quality pictures, they’re totally happy with the snaps they get out of their iPhones and the like.

BeauvalDec13-28In many situations, however, good gear will save your day.

My wonderful husband treated us to a four day vacation in the VallΓ©e de la Loire, in central France, which is just packed with extravagant Renaissance castles, truly nice French cuisine places, luxury B&B’s and also happens to home one of the world’s finest zoo parks : le zoo de Beauval. I’ve been wanting to visit it literally for years, and I was thrilled when my better half bought us two day tickets.

BeauvalDec13-27The weather was not overly kind with us those two days…

I won’t pretend getting those pictures was a breeze. Indeed, zoos offer pretty challenging conditions. Bars and fences just ruin pictures to the point of uselessness. The Beauval zoo enclosures nearly all have large glass panes that you can happily shoot through, however those will almost always come with reflections to some extent… You have to deal with them, try to minimize them, and even sometimes embrace them and make them part of your shot.

BeauvalDec13-18A direct consequence of both chainlink and glass fences is AF issues. Animals generally move (and when they don’t we wish they would !) and nine times ouf ot ten your lens will struggle and hunt like nuts, only to end up miserably focusing… on the bars, chainlink or mesh, not to mention going completely insane on glass reflection. By the time the lens has gone from a failed focus attempt to infinity, and back, your target has moved out of sight. Sounds familiar ??

BeauvalDec13-69That’s the kind of conditions when you want top end, reliable, and smart gear. And that’s exactly what I had brought with me on that trip. So what WAS, in my bag ? And what bag was that for starters ?? Retro7-01Well, it was my first real field test of my new Think Tank Retrospective 7 bag, and I have to say I’ve been stunned by how wonderful, useful, reliable, and globally just kickass this thing is ! First of all, it packs *tons* of stuff. Here’s what I was carrying on this trip : * NEX7 body
*SEL 18-55/3.5-5.6 lens
*SEL35/1.8 lens
*Sigma EX 70-200/2.8 HSM DG Macro II lens, aka “The Bazooka”
*chargers for : iPhone, Xperia Sony phone, Samsung tablet, Macbook Pro Retina laptop, and Sony NEX, that’s 5 differents devices, some of which are NOT small !
*various front and rear caps
*Sony LA-EA4 SLT autofocus adapter (mounted on tele lens)
*my large and fat Guess wallet (that’s really pretty big !)
*cleaning cloth and brush
*Samsung Galaxy 2 7.0″ tablet
Yeah, that’s a LOT of gear !! In a bag that isn’t overly massive or unwieldy to carry. We had such pouring rain that I was able to test the rain cover and it worked as intended. Overall the bag is comfortable to hold (even though quite heavy packed with all that stuff !), offers excellent protection *and* easy access to the various elements. I am very, very happy with it and can only wholeheartedly recommend it !!

BeauvalDec13-23Now let me talk about my favorite lens for a minute and why it’s more interesting to mount it on a NEX than on a regular DSLR for zoo applications…

BeauvalDec13-21Fence, remember ?? Yeah, although you can not completely “see” it there, you can guess two horizontal lines below and above the leopard’s head. Those are chainlinks. However, they are faint enough that the picture isn’t ruined. It’s not perfect, but it’s exploitable (at least imo, let me know if you think otherwise). Well, that’s what a fast telephoto will do for you. Because of its inherent thin depth of field, and assuming animals are not standing *right* behind the fence, the latter will end up blurred beyong recognition. Pretty sweet…

BeauvalDec13-25Here you have the same effect but with fine mesh. Works pretty well too.

BeauvalDec13-22Of course, nothing beats an open, unobscured view of the animals

BeauvalDec13-16So, what does the Sigma 70-200/2.8 bring to the table ??

BeauvalDec13-57NBpmFirst and foremost, optical quality. It’s there, it’s patent, it can’t be denied.

BeauvalDec13-56PMReach. Mounted on a APS-C sensor camera it gives you as much as a 300mm field of view. Which is good and useful to “grab” faraway targets, and for getting up close and personal with (potential) man eaters πŸ˜‰

BeauvalDec13-43It has accurate, fast, and silent HSM autofocus performance

BeauvalDec13-52PMBut at the push of an AF/MF switch you can immediately go manual and get rid of any reflection induced huting issues. THAT’s a big plus !!

BeauvalDec13-49And that’s when the NEX comes into play ! Sure, I probably could get even better IQ with a full frame DSLR like a D600 or EOS 6D, but then, should I need to switch to manual focus like I often did here, I would be entirely on my own.

BeauvalDec13-38Not so with the NEX ! The instant you switch to MF, and touch the focus ring, the camera automatically turns on Focus Peaking, and you can nail your shot with extreme, and unexpected, ease.

BeauvalDec13-35Of course, simultaneously turning both zoom and focus rings, while properly handling the camera/lens combo by the lens, close to the mount, is quite some gymnastics and needs some practice, a lot of care, and maybe even a touch of luck. The lens hood also needs to be either mounted forward or removed to give finger access to the focus ring.

BeauvalDec13-33I didn’t only bring The Bazooka along. The SEL35 also took a spin


BeauvalDec13-32It proved to be very useful indoor when backing space is a bit limited and you want to include a tad more background in the shot, not easy with the telephoto

BeauvalDec13-48The SEL35 is also very bright, very sharp, with excellent subject isolation

BeauvalDec13-70I had some trouble with the 70-200 in the tropical dome. Humidity is such that the huge front element gets alsmot instantly fogged up, and it takes much soft cloth action to get in back to shooting shape… Here Asato, the Gorilla tribe leader, gives the crowd a peek of his mighty jaw.

BeauvalDec13-60Of course, the main attraction of the Beauval zoo are the panda bear couple they have on lease from the Chinese government. The bears are beautiful, perfectly maintained in lovely large enclosure, and the first I, my kid or husband had ever seen in the flesh.

BeauvalDec13-65They roam a lot between in and outside, but if you’re a smidge patient you’ll see them sitting on their butt, in typical panda fashion, and happily crunch on loads of bamboo

BeauvalDec13-46Did I use the kit lens *at all* ?? I did. For about three shots,Β  but I was happy to have the wider angle at hand.

BeauvalDec13-36Like here…

BeauvalDec13-20and maybe here (memory serving me well, which I cannot guarantee, lol)

BeauvalDec13-07All photographic things out of the way, what can I say about the zoo itself ??

BeauvalDec13-02Frankly, it’s a blast

BeauvalDec13-06If you love animals, even just a little bit, it’s a must do. The park is very large, the variety of species is impressive (even though some are lacking, there are always choices to be made), enclosures are very large (for most), and the animals are perfectly maintained.

BeauvalDec13-08If you love big cats, you’re in for a treat. You’ll see Sumatra tigers (the amazing deep orange one above), larger, white tigers (I think from Siberia, but I could be wrong), regular lions, South African white lions, stunning American pumas (“cougars” or “mountain lions”), a few rare and gorgeous species of Asian panthers (including snow ones), and the mighty and ever beautiful jaguar (both the spotted and black version).







BeauvalDec13-15NBAs amazing as some other cats are (tigers, jaguars, snow leopards…), I can *not* get over the magnificense of the African lion.

BeauvalDec13-14Lions are just my all time faves…

My husband feels the same about gorillas. He can spend half a day watching them doing what they do best… nothing !

BeauvalDec13-10The Beauval zoo has a very healthy gorilla tribe. There are many babies and even a second group made of independant young males (that wouldn’t be tolerated by Asato, the lead male, anymore).

BeauvalDec13-09Yeah, this little guy (235 kg !)

BeauvalDec13-11Despite his impressive stature and ever severe expression, Asato is a patient, caring and benevolent leader.

BeauvalDec13-03I really loved this Sumatra tiger

I didn’t get to shoot other apes (save that one orangutan image higher above). Truth is I didn’t enjoy watching chimps and orangutans much. The former are very agitated, agressive, and the latter look depressive and half out of their minds due to being captive. My personal belief (and I may be totally mistaken, I’m no zoologist) is that aside from gorillas who draw deep comfort from a functioning family, apes are too intelligent to be able to withstand captivity. They’re pretty much just like inmates, with all the negative behaviors associated with deprivation of freedom. The looks they give you behind the heavy glass panes (all badly cracked except those of the more peaceful gorillas) are soul wrenching…

BeauvalDec13-17I wish I’d had more time to watch the bears. I love bears.

BeauvalDec13-24Initially, the Beauval zoo started out as a birds reserve. It’s a bird’s paradise

BeauvalDec13-26I’d never seen black cacatoes before


BeauvalDec13-30That’s how you’ll usually see the red panda

BeauvalDec13-41I was *very* lucky to find it active on the second day

BeauvalDec13-40It’s quite adorable when it’s awake !

BeauvalDec13-39A dwarf otter being hand fed by lucky teen visitors, old enough to enjoy the “VIP” program. We’ll be sure to sign in when Marla turns 10, the minimum age


BeauvalDec13-64It’s great to enjoy so many different species, from furry cuteness…

BeauvalDec13-68To scaly fright !

BeauvalDec13-66Aahhh, maps !

BeauvalDec13-67Marla has this strange this with maps. She enjoys them more over even the animals sometimes…



BeauvalDec13-50Here I tried to embrace the light reflection in the glass and make it part of the image


BeauvalDec13-47The stunning beauty of snow leopards


BeauvalDec13-34Funny little mustache dude

BeauvalDec13-42So that’s my zoo shots for the week-end. I have a couple more I need to edit showing the amazing training the zoo staff does with the elephants on a regular basis to make their maintenance easier. We had the chance to see them work with both an adult female and a baby, and I was in awe at their skill, dedication and patience…

I was also very happy with my gear and how favorably it performed in these challenging conditions. Coming home tonight I found a parcel waiting in my mailbox. A Vivitar 28/2 close focus. Ugly as pond slime but quite amazing optically. Stay tuned….



About marla2008

Shutterbug. Shallow DOF nut. Mother of Child. Student of the Horse.
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19 Responses to When top notch, reliable gear matters (a zoo post)

  1. William says:

    Amazing images, Claire. Truly impressive.

    • marla2008 says:

      Thanks for the kind words William ! I hate to admit that gear really does make a difference in that kind of super challenging situations… I wouldn’t have wanted to be there with entry level stuff 😦

  2. Martin says:

    Hi Claire
    Some fantastic images here (though I am not at all fond of zoos, they are what they are). The big cat ones are especially good!

    I recently saw some wild monkeys, bathing in hot springs, during snowfall – and I only had my old 90mm Tamron manual-only lens on my NEX-7, but managed to get some shots I’m proud of. (it’s here if you’re interested – http://www.martinirwinphotography.com/myblog/2013/12/25/walking-in-a-winter-wonderland )

    That sigma 70-200 has been on my shopping list since your prior “review”. It looks as though you put the lens through its paces. A nice collection.

  3. marla2008 says:

    Martin I checked them out, your site is wonderful, and the monkey shots are amazing !! I’m very, very humbled …. I can only imagine what you’d do with the 70-200/2.8 !!

  4. antoine says:

    very beautiful pictures indeed! It is amazing how the BW suits the lion. Did you tweak it a lot in photoshop or did it come out just as is? I can’t take my eyes off of this animal. Quick sidenote to martin: very impressive work with the monkeys. Watching your pictures (both of you claire and martin and so many other from this community) is humbling and inspiring at the same time. I’m looking forward to a time when I can do the same.
    Now about the bag: it is beautiful and not too conspicuous which is mandatory IMO (the not too conspicuous part). Now here is what I’m thinking: For a small body like a nex (6 in my case) with the kit 18-55, pen f 38mm and sigma 19mm, even with a bunch of spare batteries and chargers, there must be a lot of room left. It might be a good thing. Going to vietnam in few weeks, it is always nice to fit extra things in your camera bag: guides, maps, snacks, hats, whatever.
    Or there is the retrospective 5. Just 20$ cheaper. Less roomy but apparently enough for a mirrorless camera with 3 to 6 lenses (I read it here:http://www.thephoblographer.com/2011/05/21/review-of-the-think-tank-photo-retrospective-5/). Clearly more suited for street photography with the gear I have right now (but we know this can change quickly with the buying fever) but less so for holidays on the far side of the planet…
    What to do, what to do? I’m leaning towards the 5 because I shoot more often close to home (less room needed) and I don’t own a big zoom lens (yet!)… So I guess my question is: do you use all the space offered by the retrospective 7 and if so isn’t it heavy all day long on your shoulder?
    This comment is way too long, I apologise…

    • marla2008 says:

      Actually you need both ! Lol… I have a slightly smaller bag, that will pack a body and couple of lenses, maybe a flashgun, and a tablet or a few batteries. It’s truly the need to fit the big Sigma tele that prompted the larger bag purchase. However, after enjoying a lot of extra estate, I have to say that additional room is very sweet ! Especially if you’re traveling, last week-end I just left my purse home and dumped *everything*, pocketbook included, in the Retro 7, and it was my carry-around for the whole trip. Yes it was a big heavy at the end of the day, but only because the 70-200 is 1.3kg by itself ! I’m sure the 5 is more compact and lighter, but if you go on a trip, spring for the 7 and make it your personal bag, you’ll be glad you did. At least I think so !

      • antoine says:

        aaaah you are too much! No I won’t buy both πŸ˜‰ But that brings the question of the zoom lens. Is there an affordable option for a zoom covering something like 28-135? I think I was told about good minolta zoom lenses, but is such a zoom lens as easy to use manually with the focus peaking feature as is the pen f 38mm that you recommended? BTW I can’t resist, here is one more pic with it:

    • marla2008 says:

      Antoine, this is typical PEN goodness you’re showing off here !! And it looks like you immediately put the lens to excellent use, too πŸ˜‰ There is indeed a 28-135 Minolta older zoon from the “beercan” family, it is sharp and good but pretty heavy. If you’re willing to sacrifice AF I’d consider a modern Sigma 18-125 (I think) it has a slowish aperture but a very useful range, and memory serving me well I was pretty nicely surprised with the Nikon mount unit I tried once. If you can locate a Minolta 24-85/3.5-4.5 zoom it’s small, sharp, versatile, with cult Minolta colors, and affordable. Oops, did I just make you want to buy something again πŸ˜‰ ??

      • antoine says:

        yes you did!

      • antoine says:

        “If you’re willing to sacrifice AF ” you say, but is it a good idea with a zoom lense? When traveling, is snapping pictures of landscapes, buildings and people on the fly as easy as on a shorter prime?
        About the bag I’ve struggled all day with the dilemma “retrospective 5 or 7?” and this will end with the 7, I think. I feel a little bit like a copycat! I might end up with exactly the same setup as you.
        But you didn’t answer about the black and white, did you tweak it a lot in photoshop or is it “art brut”?

      • marla2008 says:

        Antoine, like you I’d rather have AF on a zoom, although capturing landscapes on the fly with Peaking is quite doable… If you have a NEX have you considered the 18-200 E mount lens ?? It’s supposed to be absolutely excellent in either Sony or Tamron make ? (I like the black Tamron version better myself, but then again I don’t use superzooms…). Regarding the B&W versions of my shots I usually do my normal (and very light) tweaking in PS (I have a very old version, CS3 !!) and then run the color shot in Snapseed for monochrome conversion. It’s really quick and dirty but works pretty well, as you’ve seen. I think you won’t regret the extra estate of the Retro 7 !

      • antoine says:

        Thank you for your useful answers. I have to find the time now to try and understand PS and Lightroom as they look like such powerful tools. Right now I can only use Picasa, so you see I’m pretty far behind.

        Yes I’ve considered the 18-200 lenses in E-mount but dismissed them because a/ too expansive (around 500€) b/ too big. I don’t know if I am right about this but they look bigger (and heavier) than the 24-85 or even the 28-135 Minolta you previously recommanded. And I don’t need such a long range. Right now I am a bit frustrated by the kit 18-55 but 85 or 135 will greatly suffice. If only sigma would do such a lense in e-mount!

      • marla2008 says:

        Well (you’re gonna hate this…) there IS the CZ 16-70/4 in E mount ! Just kidding, it’s horridly expensive. Have you considered the SEL55-210 ?? It’s affordable (around 200 pre-owned and minty), and is decent. Nothing to get super excited about, but native E mount, and nice range ??

      • antoine says:

        Yes I have, eventhough I thought it was more expensive than that. It’s so long! 3,5cm more than the minolta 24-85, which makes sense as the range is so much longer. I’m splitting hairs, I know but I’m reluctant to have this huge thing on my darling nex6… Maybe if I tried it. Anyhow, I’ll go to vietnam with a sigma 28-135 (or something like that) that a friend will lend me and then I’ll see what are really my needs and wants for long range.
        But thank you so much for trying to help me!

      • marla2008 says:

        The question is, will you have a LA-EA2 adapter to AF this Sigma zoom, or not ?? Any A mount lens (Minolta, Sony or third-party) can AF using the LA-E2. If you’re going to forego AF, then there are myriad of other options opening up to you ! I have an old plastic crappy Sigma 28-70/2.8-4 in EF mount with broken af which doesn’t matter as it’s MF only on NEX, and it’s super sharp and feather light. I wouldn’t mind taking it on a trip at all !

    • Martin says:

      Thank you, antoine – very kind words!
      As for bags, I am looking for a slightly larger one, and my small bag is a touch too small for anything other than the camera and a lens or two. If you can get a lightweight but decently-sized bag, I’d recommend that πŸ™‚

  5. A fabulous post! Antoine mirrors my observations in that all the pics are fantastic but the lion shots in B & W really are most impressive. I think gear is important in most any situation, but challenging conditions is where it will shine for you and make you happy you have what you have in the bag. GLas you had a good time and the poor weather didn’t get in the way πŸ˜‰

    • marla2008 says:

      Thanks Tracy, we really did enjoy ourselves tremendously, and ending up on a sunny note on both days made up for rainy mornings… Lions are fascinating to no end and I hardly even started capturing their essence, but yes black&white really does bring the expression out.

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