Monkey Shines: Tips From a Pro
How to take a great portrait, no matter what your subject's species.
“If you watch baby gorillas and small children, they’re not that different. There are a lot of gestures and things that are the same,” says Todd Rosenberg. “Gorillas don’t have filters” for their feelings — they simply act on them.
He should know. A corporate and editorial photographer, Rosenberg spent 10 years working for Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo — a perfect place to indulge his passion for photographing animals. It also gave him the rare chance to photograph some of them in a studio.
Take Mooka the orangutan, whose picture here has the composition and even the snuggly prop of a classic baby portrait. “Contrary to what a lot of people think, her hair is natural. It’s not styled to look like Don King,” Rosenberg says.
The baby orangutan was hand-raised by zoo staff, and her familiarity with humans made her a good candidate for the studio. “Unfortunately Mooka was very scared because we were using flash,” he recalls. So he shot just a handful of frames before the little primate made it clear that she wanted to go home.
While few people can photograph zoo animals in a studio, Rosenberg’s tips work for more domesticated beasts, including children. (See more of his photography at www.toddrphoto.com.)
1. Blow out the background. You need a white backdrop and at least two lights — one each for subject and background. First, set your main light and exposure, using a wide aperture to give you just enough depth of field for your subject, but not the background, to be sharp. Then set the background light’s power at least 1.3 EV greater than the subject exposure. Eliminate shadows by keeping your subject far from the background. Rosenberg put Mooka on seamless white paper on a hard floor, so the paper wouldn’t dent, and used Chimera white umbrellas with his Speedotron Black Line 2400 light heads and power pack. He shot Kodak T-Max 100 using a Hasselblad 500C/M and 80mm lens.
2. Hide the handler. Animals (and children) can’t always pose the way you’d like, or they don’t want to be separated from the person who brought them to you. One solution is to have the handler or parent hold the subject, and drape a cloth over their arms or even their bodies. Depending on their color and texture, blankets or other fabrics can add visual interest to the picture. Mooka’s handler’s arm is hidden by the towel at the bottom of the frame.
3. Say the magic word. Interacting with your subjects can be the hardest part. Say their names to get their attention. “I try to have the animals connect to the camera, communicating with their eyes,” Rosenberg says. “You can feel more of what’s going on.” Try to find words that work with pets, such as “treat.” Children often like funny words and sounds, too. If you have a child and a pet in the same shot, settle them down one at a time. Often the pet will be easier than the child!
4. Work efficiently. Neither animals nor children last long. Have your lighting and exposure ready to go the moment your subject is in place. Then make sure they’re comfortable before you start. And once you do begin, exercise patience and wait for the most natural and spontaneous gestures and moments. But don’t spend forever trying to force something that isn’t there — be willing to walk away and come back. If you respect their limits, kids often will want to come back later. “I never have my daughter in the studio more than 15 minutes,” Rosenberg says. “Kids and animals are similar: Be ready, be quick, be patient.”