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.
My wonderful husband treated us to a four day vacation in the Vallée 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.
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.
A 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 ??
That’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 ?? Well, 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
*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 !!
Fence, 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…
Reach. 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 😉
And 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.
Of 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.
The SEL35 is also very bright, very sharp, with excellent subject isolation
I 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.
Of 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.
If 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.
If 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).
My husband feels the same about gorillas. He can spend half a day watching them doing what they do best… nothing !
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…
So 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….