Photo Shooting at Singapore Night Safari – No Flash, Hand Held, Total Madness

Knowing that I will visit Taman Safari Indonesia next week, I managed to purchase the perpetually sold out Nikon zoom lens and wanted to give it some practice at our Singapore Zoo or Bird Park during the long weekend.  I stared at the sky everyday and willed the rain to go away, without success.  So one evening I took my Nikon D700 with my new lens and headed to Night Safari, alone.

I have totally underestimated the challenges ahead.  Before I left home, I was very pleased to finally leave the flash gun behind since it is morally irresponsible to shoot these lovely animals with flash.  Flash photography has been a steep learning curve for me; shooting moving wildlife hand held with no flash in near pitch dark and less than ideal light source is very hard.  It is hard to describe unless you try it out yourself.

I have seen many visitors gave up after some test shots (all black, grossly under exposed).  Looking at my LCD, they were amazed at what I took; but I was less than thrilled by the results of this trip.  Sorry guys, I promise to do a better job next time.  Perhaps with a monopod and a different setting.  Below are 28 pictures selected out of close to 500 shots I took that one evening (no Photoshop, no cropping).  I have put in some captions to better describe the condition.  If the OVI player moves too fast, feel free to mouse over it, click pause, and manually forward the slide.

After the first few auto shots, I was stunned by the result (in a negative way no fault of Nikon).  Bear in mind that I have just invested don’t know how many years of my future Christmas present budget into this one lens, I stood still trying to figure out what to do next.  Auto focusing option is out because it was too dark for my camera.  The animals kept moving and the shuttle speed could not be too low.  Some animals kept moving towards and away from me and I had to keep changing the composition (i.e. zoom) and the focus.  Basically my left hand was busy with the two rings on my lens.  I have to go for full manual mode anyway because it is not a question of getting the right exposure, it is a question of how low you can possibly tolerate.  I learned as I shot.

Most of the shots I was shooting at a focal length of 200mm (widest aperture of 2.8 for all).  That works out to be an ideal shutter speed of 1/200s for hand held condition (please let me know if I talk rubbish)?  VR – vibration reduction – can slow down the speed for 3 stops for those who have steady hands (I leaned towards stationary objects whenever possible) and I had to go even lower than that.  Most of the shots, I used a speed of 1/15s.  Some I manage to up it to 1/30s.  Still, it is very hard to get a good shot with that speed at 200mm.  I tried to get a better ISO whenever I could but rarely could I go below 3200.

I had no prior experience nor read anything on manual setting prior to this trip. Most definitely, I have committed a lot of laughable mistakes.  My last manual focusing practice session was when I was a very small boy.  I did the best I could and figured the above out through experiments on the spot that one moist evening.  How glad my scientific mind kicks into action when I need to make my art works.  As always, all online and offline feedback is welcome.