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Black and White Wildlife Photography: Jaguar at the San Diego Zoo

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Jaguar at the San Diego ZooFemale Jaguar, Nindiri, at the San Diego Zoo
35mm Ilford Delta 400 film pushed 1 stop
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I'm a cat person through and through. I like cats. I "get" cats. And I'm absolutely enthralled with big cats. So when my girlfriend and I planned a trip to the San Diego Zoo, I made sure to stop by all the big cat exhibits.

Now I don't consider myself a wildlife photographer. I don't know why I'm not that attracted to photographing animals, but one thing that does light my fire is black and white wildlife photography. I mean just look at the stunning work of Nick Brandt (check out Artsy's Nick Brandt Page) or Andy Biggs. And oh man would I love to photograph wildlife with my medium format camera and a 110mm lens wide open to f/2.8 on some B&W film. Hey, a guy can dream...

I'm certainly not on the same level as Nick Brandt or Andy Biggs - they are masters of their craft - but I thought I'd do some casual black and white wildlife photography at the San Diego Zoo to try my hand at it.

I brought my 35mm camera and a single roll of Ilford Delta 400 film. I didn't take a single shot almost the entire day. Fences, mesh screens, dirty glass, and ugly, ugly light all gave me good reason to leave the camera in my backpack. But we eventually made our way to the African Rocks exhibit where we watched a gorgeous jaguar named Nindiri eat her lunch.

This cat was just stunning. Her smooth coat dotted with jet black spots, I concluded, is the most beautiful of any animal I'd ever seen. And lucky for me, her favorite eating spot was right up near the glass in a dark enclosure with soft light pouring in from the side. Beautiful animal + beautiful light = Nick's breaking out the camera for the first time all day. And unlike many of the other animals we saw, Nindiri was kind enough to face the camera.

It was a very tough shooting situation. It was ultra dim lighting that was repeatedly blocked by other patrons. And never mind their annoying red AF assist beams and on-camera flash killing the light I was trying to capture.

My ISO 400 film didn't give me a shutter speed nearly fast enough. It came out to something like 1/4 of a second, and I had no tripod. So decided to push my film 1 stop to ISO 800. For those of you unfamiliar, pushing film is a process wherein you use the film at an ISO rating higher than what the canister says, then just develop it like it's a higher ISO film. The result is a higher working ISO which allows for faster shutter speeds. The trade-off is that it results in more pronounced grain and exaggerated contrast.

Higher ISO, lower image quality. That old story...

But I was willing to make that tradeoff because the high grain can actually look kind of cool, and this was really my only option to get the shutter speed faster. So with my film pushed to ISO 800, my shutter speed increased all the way to 1/8. Still really damn slow. I had to just do my best with this slow shutter. I turned on image stabilizer, squatted down low, braced myself against a pillar and the glass, held my breath, and waited for moments when Nindiri was relatively still.

Many of the photos came out blurry from her movement, but I'm happy to say that no picture was ruined from camera shake. That's what you call a steady hand...

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Jaguar at the San Diego Zoo

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Jaguar at the San Diego Zoo

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Jaguar at the San Diego Zoo

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Jaguar at the San Diego Zoo

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Jaguar at the San Diego Zoo

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Jaguar at the San Diego Zoo

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Jaguar at the San Diego Zoo

Oh, and I got a couple pictures of the meerkats on our way out:

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Meerkats at the San Diego Zoo

Black and White Wildlife Photography: Meerkats at the San Diego Zoo