A cold winter day at the Cleveland Metropark Zoo

Well, it was about a week from the last time I touched my camera so I sat at home trying to come up with an idea of somewhere to go on a cold January day.  The morning started out great with blues skies and a nice crisp air.  Unfortunately, I slept in so attaining those golden hour photos was out of the question for the day.  To make something out of the wasted "great" morning (as far as photography went), I worked on my website and a website I am designing for one of my clients.  My wife and I went out to find a new pair of glasses for her and believe it or not, goldilox (my wife's nickname, especially when it comes to shopping) found a pair on our first stop.  Ok, the day is getting much better at this point.  We had lunch and went home to where I was twiddling my thumbs again, contemplating where to take my beloved Canon 7D.

I know a couple very talented local photographers via Facebook.  One, who is probably as passionate (or maybe even more than I), is Ron Skinner.  Another, who took an absolutely amazing photo of a Koala bear, is Douglas Hupfer.  Both Ron and Doug made a recent trip to the Cleveland Zoo and had some great photos from their visit.  Add in the fact that the Zoo had a half off admission special for the day and it was a no brainer.

The day temperature was in the low teens so today's visit was going to require ski worthy dress attire.  Three layers of clothes, neck warmer, two hats (yes, I said two hats), and my awesome mittens with an opening to remove the end, exposing my fingers from the first knuckle.  If you're a photographer, mittens like these are a must.  It makes handling the camera easy, while keeping your hands warm.

After paying my whopping $3.50 admission to the zoo, I immediately set out for the Lions, Tigers and Bears (except in my case, the reverse order of that...).  The first exhibit I came across was the Polar Bear exhibit.  This little girl, in Polar Bear eyes, was pacing back and forth looking for something to do.

I initially set my camera to aperture priority mode with center weighted metering but I wasn't happy with the consistency of exposure settings that my camera was choosing.  Since snow was all around me and my subject, I changed the metering to spot and shot full manual.  I metered off of the snow and set my exposure to +1 2/3 stops.  Problem fixed!   I like to shoot in aperture priority mode when light conditions are rapidly changing and I'm shooting moving subjects.  In this case, the sky was overcast and the light was pretty constant.  Once I set my exposure, I just altered it when I wanted to change my depth of field.

Right next door to the Polar Exhibit is the Brown Bear, better known as the Grizzly Bear exhibit.   As you can see in the photo below, this brute looks like he had a steady Cleveland diet over the years.  According to one of the zoo staff members, this guy weighs in just under 1000lbs (about 960).   The question in my mind was who could eat more, this big brute or Jimmy Demora?  They both look as round.  As wild as this beast may be, I think I could trust a 1000lb grizzly bear over a corrupt P.O.S like Demora.

Ok, enough of bears, where are the Tigers?  For whatever reason, I always have a hard time finding the Tigers at the Cleveland Zoo.   The existing layout of the zoo is quite loopy and clear paths are hard to follow (especially when you don't visit the zoo too often).  I always hear how good the Columbus Zoo is and I think I know why.  At the Columbus zoo, you can easily follow a path, which is circular, leading you to every exhibit without any type of backtracking (or guessing).  I think the Cleveland Zoo has some really nice attractions but the layout of the Columbus Zoo trumps the Cleveland Zoo hands down.  If it wasn't for this, the Cleveland Zoo would get my vote for the best zoo in Ohio.

After circling a few times I finally came across an exhibit that hosted two, very active, Bengal Tigers. These guys (or gals - couldn't tell) never  stopped moving. I didn't really get a chance to capture a "good" photograph of both of them together. Instead, I just kept my eye on the two as they paced back and forth and constantly repositioned myself to capture the best angle and background surrounding the Tigers. Listed below are a few photos that I captured from this exhibit:

*Tip: shooting animals is a lot like taking photos of kids. They never stay in one place and you'll often have to use faster shutter speeds to freeze their motion. For those who are new to photography, image stabilization, or VR (Nikon), only fights against camera shake. IS (VR) does nothing with freezing action. Most newer dSLRs perform exceptional at higher ISOs. Don't get caught always setting your ISO to 100 or 200. When shooting animals, bump up your ISO to a level that gives you a fast enough shutter speed (1/500th sec or faster) with your chosen aperture settings. Also, don't get in the habit of pixel peeping. Most of any digital noise you'll see on your computer monitor will be a non-factor on prints. The only exception to this rule is if you start ordering enlargements (16x20", 20x30" for example). If you are shooting with a point-and-shoot camera, see if your camera has a sports mode. If so, setting it on sports mode will tell your camera to use a faster shutter speed.

It was getting close to 4PM and the Zoo closes at 5PM.  Time to find the Lions.  On the way to my next destination, I came across the bird and Koala bear exhibit.  To see Eagles close up is quite amazing to say the least.  These Rapors are extremely large and their weapons of mass destruction (Talons, beak) are quite intimidating.  The photo to the left is a picture of a Stellers Sea Eagle.  Sea Eagles are one of the most powerful Eagles on the planet (right up there with the Harpy and Philippine Eagles).  They can have wingspans of 8 feet and weigh almost 20lbs.  This raptor can easily take down small dogs and cats.  Hide the pets!

The Koala Bear exhibit is located indoors and has a very balmy humid atmosphere inside. This is absolutely great for most people, especially on a day that has outdoor temperatures in the low teens. For photographers, this can be like walking in a field covered with land mines. What I'm getting at is moving your camera from an extremely cold climate to a very warm (and moist) climate is very dangerous. I swapped my 70-200 F4L lens for my 24-70mm F2.8L lens while still outside. I ventured into the exhibit and immediately notice the condensation building up on my camera body. I currently use a 7D and while the weather proofing is extremely good, it's no 1D series. I was able to fire off a few shots when common sense kicked in and told me to get out of there. If you find yourself in a similar situation, just pass up the exhibit and shoot it on a different day. My equipment was fine but I took a real risk damaging the electronics due to condensation build up. Lucky for me and the build quality of the Canon 7D, the condensation stayed on the outside of the camera body. The lens, a 24-70mm F2.8L is built like a tank and could probably survive a nuclear blast. No worries for the lens. All is well.

Now for the best exhibit, the Lions.  What immediately caught my eyes was the interaction between the male and female lions.  I think the cold day helped out quite a bit because these two lions spent about 90% of the time near each other.  I was able to capture a few roars and some affection between the male and female.  The female, which I found to have a beautiful coat and a strikingly powerful, yet graceful appearance, was my favorite.  Listed below are a few photos that I captured on January 22nd, 2011.  This collection of photos are definitely my favorite shots of the day.  I think you'll see why:

To view the entire, High Resolution Gallery, go to Cleveland Zoo, Winter 2011. Prints are available at very reasonable prices. All print orders will be processed by Bay Photos. Bay Photos, located in California, is a premier print lab and their prints are absolutely amazing.

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