Super Zoom on Safari

Photographic Innoventions by Scott Thomas

In 1998, a wannabe wildlife photographer’s dream came true when Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened. I’ve always wanted to bring a super zoom telephoto lens to this park and I did just that during Mousefest 2008. There were three specific locations at Animal Kingdom I wanted to try my super zoom lens, Nikon’s 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED Autofocus VR Zoom Nikkor Lens, on. They were the Kilimanjaro Safari, Pangani Forest Exploration Trail and Maharajah Jungle Trek.

Kilimanjaro Safari is a ride on large vehicles, called jeeps, which are designed to give a very bumpy ride. In the past, I’ve used 200mm zoom lenses with much success. The Nikon 80-400VR is much heavier at 3 pounds than those shorter lenses. I was a little worried about being able to steady it even with Nikon’s Vibration Reduction (VR) technology. This proved to be a problem and, when the ride vehicle was in motion, I found it nearly impossible to get any non-blurred photos at 400mm.

I was more successful using lesser focal lengths like with this lumbering White Rhino taken at the shortest focal length of the lens at 80mm.

A White Rhino lumbers past a safari jeep in Disney's Animal Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida

A White Rhino lumbers past a safari jeep on the Kilimanjaro Safari.
Nikon D70/80-400VR, 1/400s, f/4.5, 560 ISO, -0.3 EV, 80mm Focal Length

The lens did allow me to get a photo I’ve never been able to get on all my previous safari trips. The Cheetahs are very far from the road the safari jeeps use and, being cats, are either not in view or lying down sleeping. On this day, they were in full view and posing! Using the lens at its full 400mm focal length (which is 600mm on my Nikon D70 1.5x cropped body), I was able to get the following photo which has been further cropped from the original.

Pair of Cheetahs seen on the Kilimanjaro Safari adventure in Disney's Animal Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida

Pair of Cheetahs seen on the Kilimanjaro Safari adventure.
Nikon D70/80-400VR, 1/400s, f/5.6, 1600 ISO, -0.3 EV, 400mm Focal Length

The Pangani Forest Exploration Trail is a walking trail featuring African wildlife from Naked Mole Rats to the mighty Silverback Gorillas. One of the highlights for me on the trail is the colony of Meerkats. Like North America’s Prairie Dogs, Meerkats have a sentinel member keeping watch of the surroundings when other members are out of their protective burrows. This Meerkat portrait shows the nice bokeh (out of focus background) of the Nikon 80-400VR lens shooting wide open at f/5.6 and 400mm focal length.

Meerkat sentinel on the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail in Disney's Animal Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida

Meerkat sentinel on the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail.
Nikon D70/80-400VR, 1/400s, f/5.6, 200 ISO, +0.3 EV, 400mm Focal Length

The trail features a family troop of gorillas in a large compound with great viewing locations for people to see and photograph these magnificent animals. Here is a picture of the leader who reminds me of the gorilla, Kerchak, in Disney’s Tarzan animated movie. Normally, I would discard a photo like this but his eyes make this one a keeper.

Male Gorilla on the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail in Disney's Animal Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida

Male Gorilla on the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail.
Nikon D70/80-400VR, 1/400s, f/5.6, 1000 ISO, +0.3 EV, 400mm Focal Length

Another walking trail, the Maharajah Jungle Trek features wildlife from the continent of Asia. I was fortunate to catch the Komodo Dragon alert and the Nikon 80-400VR gave me the reach to capture this portrait of a species you wouldn’t want to be this close to in the wild.

Portrait of the Komodo Dragon on the Maharajah Jungle Trek in Disney's Animal Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida

Portrait of the Komodo Dragon on the Maharajah Jungle Trek.
Nikon D70/80-400VR, 1/400s, f/5.6, 1000 ISO, -0.3 EV, 400mm Focal Length

The Asian Tigers are in a compound themed as ruins of a jungle palace. The residents act as royalty often lounging and sleeping as big cats often do. I try to be there in the late afternoon when they are more likely to be active as they are feed about a half hour before park closing. I have gotten many sleeping and resting tiger photos in the past so I was thrilled to get a few on this trip as they moved about their lair.

Asian Tiger on the prowl on the Maharajah Jungle Trek in Disney's Animal Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida

Asian Tiger on the prowl as seen from the Maharajah Jungle Trek.
Nikon D70/80-400VR, 1/640s, f/5.3, 200 ISO, -0.3 EV, 200mm Focal Length

After the Maharajah Jungle Trek, I was ready to put the large 80-400VR lens back into my camera bag. I got some great photos I would not have been able to get with shorter lenses. Though it is not something I think I’d take to Animal Kingdom again in the near future unless I have a need to get some really close up photos of animals I can’t find elsewhere.

For more on Animal Kingdom photography, check out my previous articles on Kilimanjaro Safari Photo Tips and Maharajah Jungle Trek Photo Tips.

Scott's "Photographic Innoventions" blog focuses on intermediate to advanced photography concepts and techniques relevant for Point and Shoot and Digital SLR cameras.

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