Readers’ animal photos, with bonus natural selection

January 3, 2012 • 1:02 pm

Andrew Berry,who teaches and advises students at Harvard, is an old friend of mine. He’s also a great photographer, has traveled widely, and now favors us with a few of what he calls his “holiday snaps”. The commentary is also his.  Click to enlarge.

Atlantic puffins (Fratercula arctica). Flannan Islands, Scotland.  June 2008.  The Flannans are among the most remote of the UK’s islands, lying NE of St Kilda and some 20 miles W of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.  Since the automation of the lighthouse in 1971, the islands receive very few visitors.  A grand, lonely place to be on bright Scottish summer afternoon.

Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus).  Great Saltee Island, Ireland. June 2008.  There is a small and easily accessible gannetry on Gt Saltee; perfect late afternoon conditions when I was there.  Gannets are the most magnificent of all N Atlantic birds; it’s a special thrill to see them hunting fish, arrowing vertically into the ocean.

Here’s a YouTube video of gannets fishing (I don’t think they’re Northerns because of the plumage, but the hunting technique is the same). Amazing what natural selection can do: they go completely underwater, emerge avec poisson, and then take off again.

Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus). Serengeti, Tanzania.  Jan ’09.  A group of four young siblings took a shine to a safari vehicle as a vantage point; makes a change,  I suppose, from termite mounds.  They look positively domestic sprawled on the roof of the vehicle, but I saw the same group in action a couple of hours later, and ‘domestic’ was not the term that came to mind.  Certainly the Thomson’s gazelle they took down (with assistance from a fifth, the mother; see below) was not given much opportunity to be confused on the issue.

Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). I was about to head out of the house a month or so ago, when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something hurtling earthwards in my neighbour’s back garden.  Turned out that what I’d witnessed was the demise of a squirrel.  The hawk was unfazed by my approach, camera in hand: no way on earth was I going to displace him/her from his/her squirrel meal.

46 thoughts on “Readers’ animal photos, with bonus natural selection

  1. I can almost hear the folks inside that Land Rover complain that they haven’t seen a single cheetah all day long … “and they told us there would be plenty ..”

    1. Did you try watching it from the front page?

      When I do I get the wrong video (on this and other posts) but when I open a new tab the video is the correct one.

      For example I just opened the first video on the front page and got north koreans bawling a Kim Jong-Il’s death instead of Ganets.

      I doesn’t do it in Chrome/IE but I do not know if it is because of Firefox or because I use flashblock and/or because I use no-script (though weit scripts are allowed so probably not).

      tl;dr: try another browser or open the post in a new tab because I don’t think the problem is on Jerry’s side.

      1. Thanks, I was watching it from the front page. I haven’t knowingly encountered that phenomenon before.

  2. Nice shots! None of them look like a particularly long lens was used. Is Mr. Berry willing to share technical data?

    1. As Jerry mentioned (thanks for posting these, Jerry!), these really are just snapshots. But here are the specs:

      Camera: Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ20


      Exposure: 0.002 sec (1/500)
      Aperture: f/5.2
      Focal Length: 41.3 mm
      ISO Speed: 80


      Exposure: 0.002 sec (1/640)
      Aperture: f/5.6
      Focal Length: 72 mm
      ISO Speed: 80

      Cheetahs 1

      Exposure: 0.002 sec (1/640)
      Aperture: f/8
      Focal Length: 66.6 mm
      ISO Speed: 200

      Cheetahs 2

      Exposure: 0.013 sec (1/80)
      Aperture: f/8
      Focal Length: 64.5 mm
      ISO Speed: 400

      Camera: Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS7


      Exposure: 1/100
      Aperture: f/4.9
      Focal Length: 49.2 mm
      ISO Speed: 400

      If anyone’s at all interested, there are plenty more photos from the ’08 islands trip at

      and from the ’09 Tanzania trip at

      BTW, the gannets featured in the fantastic Attenborough video are, I think, indeed Northern Gannets. The plumage is confusing, I think, because some are sub-adult.

      1. Thanks, Andrew! Nice pictures, too!

        JBillie, if you multiply those focal lengths by 6, you’ll get the requisite focal length for the equivalent field of view for a full-frame 35mm camera…about 400 mm for the cheetah shots, which is rather long. I suspect some cropping, too, which would narrow the field of view further. The cats were a safe distance away.

        The smaller sensor of the Lumix means a lot more depth of field for the same aperture, which is why they don’t look like long shots. You’ve got about the same DoF at f/8 on that camera as you would at about f/45 on full frame — infinite, for all practical porpoises. With a 400 f/2.8 on full frame wide open, that cheetah on the right would have his (her?) nose, left eye, and left ear in focus, but the right ear would be a bit blurry, and the cheetahs in the back row would be blobular. You’d probably stop down a bit for that particular shot, light permitting. Indeed, f/8 would probably be just about right.


          1. What kind of camera? Compact? Point-and-shoot?

            I recently got a LUMIX LX5 compact camera and I love it. It was a LEICA zoom lens (extremely sharp and fast — f/2.0 – f/3.3! 24mm – 90mm equiv). It pretty much functions as a tiny fully-functional DSLR, except for the fact that there is no TTL viewing (screen only) and you can’t change the lens. I love that it goes to 24mm (equiv) because I do a lot with wide angle. I also love the f/2.0 maximum aperture.

          2. Thanks for the reply! And I really don’t even have an answer to your first question, yet, though I’m leaning toward a p-&-s, as I seem to have been doing with them almost anything I could previously do with my film slrs, back in the day; and more!

            I appreciate the recommendation of the Panasonic Lumix–certainly a brand and model that has shown up strongly in my reseach thus far. I’ve been coveting a bit more optical zoom, tho; trying to get more shots of little, uncooperative birdies…

        1. Ben,

          It’s actually not the DOF that makes it look non-tele to me. It’s the non-flattening of the perspective. It’s uncanny that they are equivalent to that FL. 400mm (35mm equivalent) usually looks extremely flat (except for very distant objects in isolation). For example, here, which is only at 200mm (scanned KR64; you can see that the lens suffered a little from back-focus when stopped down).

          Or here (also at only 200mm, or perhaps a bit less than 200, scanned KR64)

          Per the LUMIX specs, the crop factor is an (even!) 6.0, which puts the shots at (35mm equivalent):
          248 mm
          432 mm
          400 mm
          387 mm
          295 mm

          All pretty darned long. I’m still kind of amazed.

          I have a LUMIX LX5 which I love; but it doesn’t have near the zoom range (24-90 in 35mm equivalent) of his camera (36-432 equiv). I was concerned about sharpness with the bigger zoom range (even with a LEICA lens); but it appears (can’t pixel-peep; but …) that that was not a real concern.

          I was assuming (based on IQ and frame-filling) that the camera was a DSLR. I hadn’t thought about the DOF (variance with sensot size) issue much, since all my cameras until recently were either 35mm film or DSLR with APS-C. (Theres a difference there but for practical purposes it didn’t matter; I always check DOF if I really care about it in a shot). There’s a nice discussion of sensor-size issues here.

          As sensor size increases, the depth of field will decrease for a given aperture (when filling the frame with a subject of the same size and distance). This is because larger sensors require one to get closer to their subject, or to use a longer focal length in order to fill the frame with that subject. This means that one has to use progressively smaller aperture sizes in order to maintain the same depth of field on larger sensors.

          1. I think the difference between the cheetah shots above and the one you link to is the lack of distance cues in the former and their presence in the latter.

            The jeep shot only has the empty horizon in the background. The dinner shot is at a steep angle to the ground, and the whole scene only encompasses a few yards.

            The elephant shot includes foreground and middleground elements, and a shallow enough DoF to cue you in to the distances involved. The arch shot again has objects at multiple distances, and these are far enough for atmospheric “bluing” to give a sense of distance.

            The ultimate examples of that kind of compression, of course, are of something on a distant horizon situated next to a frame-filling sun or moon.

            That Cambridge in Color site is pretty good, but it seems to miss an essential point: everything you can do with a smaller format, you can also do exactly the same with a larger format that you crop.

            Put your Nifty Fifty on a 35mm camera, shoot at 1/100s @ f/4.9 @ ISO400, crop away all but a central rectangle the height of a grain of basmati rice…and you’re left with exactly the same picture as the hawk.

            Now, swap out the 50 for a 300, leave everything else the same, and don’t crop, and the framing will be the same, but the DoF will be a lot shallower and there’ll be a lot more resolution and image quality to work with. Or, stop down to f/22, leave the shutter at 1/100s and increase the ISO to 12,800, and you’ll have the same DoF and noise / grain but that much higher resolution to work with.

            Don’t get me worng. The modern small cameras are miracles and fantastic tools. But they still can’t overcome basic geometry.



          2. Agreed, bascially on all points. But they still seem to be “less flattened”. There are fewer clues all around, including occlusion, comparable objects, DOF contrast, etc.

            Remarkably good stuff using a low pixel count P&S.

          3. Of course, the most important piece of equipment in any photographer’s kit is that which is behind not just the front of the lens but the viewfinder as well, and it’s that piece of kit that Andrew put to such good use.


      2. Thanks again Andrew. Thanks for sharing the links and the data. Nice work! That big zoom on the LUMIX is workign well for you. Do you use a DSLR as well?

        1. Very much enjoying your & Ben’s photography erudition — thanks, I’ve learned a lot! — but, nope, I’m afraid I’m a point-&-shoot simpleton. No DSLR. I seldom even use the old camera, the DMC-FZ20, these days because of its (relative) bulk and low resolution (5Mp), and because I really like the wide wide-angle on the DMC-ZS7.

          1. Ah, I remember when I would have thought of 25mm equivalent as “ultra-wide.”

            That’s one of the joys of an interchangeable lens camera system. Today, my “go-to” landscape lens is 24mm, and the only reason it doesn’t feel uncomfortably tight is because it’s got movements. I don’t really think of “wide” as starting until 20mm, and there’ve been times I’ve still felt cramped at 16mm. (And there’s a hell of a lot more difference between 16mm and 20mm than there is between 20mm and 24mm).

            And, at the other end, 300mm is just where telephoto starts…400 is long, and 600+ is where I’d use “super.”

            That range between 24mm and 300mm just feels “normal,” for the most part.

            Of course, one could also fairly claim that I’ve also spent waaaay too much money on glass….

            But don’t let that scare you away! You could put together a used DSLR kit for about a grand that’ll cover the same field of view range as what you have. The image quality wouldn’t be up to latest-and-greatest DSLR standards, but it’d still be leaps and bounds ahead of what a P&S digicam can produce. And, once you’ve gotten started, you can upgrade piecemeal only those parts that’re holding you back, and help pay for the upgrades by selling the old stuff.


          2. Ben,

            Tempting indeed to recalibrate my notions of ‘wide’ and ‘long’. I’ll do some eBay sniffing… Thanks!

  3. During summer gannets congregate in huge numbers on Bonaventure island near the village of Percé in Quebec. It is a perfect place to observe and photograph them at close range.

  4. Just to comment on the two first bird clips.
    Very interesting to see footage of these two magnificent birds from elsewhere.
    Here in the Faroe Islands we also have 100rds of thousands of puffins(lundi, in faroese) , and not quite so many gannets (súla, in faroese).
    Interestingly the gannets only occupy the most western small island of the faroes, – why nobody knows. But the puffins are just about all over, though their stock in later years is dwindling, suspectedly due to commercial fisheries.

  5. Just to comment on the two first bird clips.
    Very interesting to see footage of these two magnificent birds from elsewhere.
    Here in the Faroe Islands we also have 100rds of thousands of puffins(lundi, in faroese) , and not quite so many gannets (súla, in faroese).
    Interestingly the gannets only occupy the most western small island of the faroes, – why nobody knows. But the puffins are just about all over, though their stock in later years is dwindling, suspectedly due to commercial fisheries-.

    1. Rani,
      The Faroes! What a spectacularly gorgeous place you live in. The Faroese/Norse name for puffin features in British geography in the form of Lundy, an island in the Bristol Channel, though sadly the puffin population there has been badly hit by rats. ‘Sula’ used to be generic name for gannets: they were Sula bassana (the species name refers to the huge colony on the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth close to Edinburgh), which is surely the most lyrical of all latin bird names. Sad to say, though, taxonomic revision resulted in ‘Sula’ being replaced by ‘Morus’.

  6. Hi everyone! Can someone tell me to which email address can I send some animal photos that I have? I can’t seem to find it. 🙁

  7. Though three men dwell on Flannan Isle
    To keep the lamp alight,
    As we steered under the lee, we caught
    No glimmer through the night.”

    A passing ship at dawn had brought
    The news; and quickly we set sail,
    To find out what strange thing might ail
    The keepers of the deep-sea light.

    Ay: though we hunted high and low,
    And hunted everywhere,
    Of the three men’s fate we found no trace
    Of any kind in any place,
    But a door ajar, and an untouched meal,
    And an overtoppled chair.

    And as we listened in the gloom
    Of that forsaken living-room —
    A chill clutch on our breath —
    We thought how ill-chance came to all
    Who kept the Flannan Light:
    And how the rock had been the death
    Of many a likely lad:
    How six had come to a sudden end,
    And three had gone stark mad:
    And one whom we’d all known as friend
    Had leapt from the lantern one still night,
    And fallen dead by the lighthouse wall:
    And long we thought
    On the three we sought,
    And of what might yet befall.

    Like curs a glance has brought to heel,
    We listened, flinching there:
    And looked, and looked, on the untouched meal,
    And the overtoppled chair.

    We seemed to stand for an endless while,
    Though still no word was said,
    Three men alive on Flannan Isle,
    Who thought on three men dead.

    FLANNAN ISLE by Wilfred Wilson Gibson

  8. It’s fabulous to see that a mother cheetah can raise four babies all at once, that is quite an achievement and very cheering.

  9. WOW.

    Wonderful submission, Andrew.

    I’m struck by the facial markings of the puffins and gannet. I wonder if evolutionary ornithologists have suggested any rationale for them?

    1. Interesting question. Sexual selection is presumably responsible. The puffin bill is ornate and colorful only during the breeding season; it is smaller and darker at other times of year.

      1. Ah, yes, that should have been the first thing that occurred to me! :blush:

        Tho I was actually struck more by their eyes (guess I just expect amazing beaks with puffins…). And now I’m thinking the black markings that change the round eye to something almost whimsical in human perception are likely due to something as practical as controlling reflections or some such so as to maximize visual acuity.

        The gannet eye, too, is dramatically offset by markings. I guess in such a visually-oriented taxon (= essentially all of Aves, IIRC), that should not be surprising. I do too much knee-jerk commenting without bothering to think things through or actually–gasp!–try to look things up myself.

        At any rate, thanks again for the thought-provoking pics!

  10. Andrew, happy new year. I am finally leaving the world of point-and-shoot (Canon PowerShot S3 IS), and moving into uncharted territory for me, the entry-level SLR. I’m inspired by your talent and would be thrilled if you could spare a few moments of your time to allow me to benefit from your expertise. As usual. Please let me know at your earliest convenience.

    1. Hi Carole,

      I’m afraid I’m still in the P&S world. Check out Ben’s posts, above, though. He has some good advice for neophyte DSLR-ers…

    2. Get the best lenses your wallet can bear, and the cheapest camera body you can tolerate. If money is an object, go used — either FleaBay if you’re really cheap, or KEH if you’d rather not play roulette.

      Give me a choice between an $8,000 camera body coupled with a $400 lens or a $400 camera body with an $8,000 lens, I’ll go with the latter in a heartbeat — and so would every other photographer I’ve ever known. (Of course, all those photographers on the sidelines with Big White Lenses are using $8,000 lenses on $8,000 cameras….)

      I’d recommend either Canon or Nikon. There are other systems, but none as rich as those two. And forget about all the turf wars between them; both are superlative. Don’t agonize too much about that decision, either…you’ll pretty much be stuck with whichever you choose up front, but there’s nothing worng with either and lots right with both.

      No matter what, get a fast 50mm prime lens. It’ll be cheap — the cheapest lens in either lineup, in fact. And you’d be astonished at how much more you’ll have to spend to get a lens with better optical quality.

      Get a standard “kit” zoom, the same model sold by the manufacturer with the camera. It’ll have an excellent price / performance ratio. It’ll let you use the camera the same way you do your current P&S. And it’ll have lots of limitations…but none you’ll need to worry about for some time.

      And then, budget permitting, get one or two “specialty” lenses. If you like wide-angle shots, get a prime lens wider than the widest setting on the zoom. If you like telephoto shots, get a telephoto zoom. If you like to take pictures of bugs or other small things, get a dedicated macro lens.

      Include $150 or so in your budget for a decent tripod. The Manfrotto 3021 is a solid workhorse, as good as carbon fiber tripods costing several times as much (and weighing a fraction). You’ll eventually want a good ballhead to go with it, but those get expensive fast, so just go with anything cheap that’ll hold your camera securely.

      For cleaning, you’ll want a blower bulb (“rocket”), some Pec Pads, and some Eclipse fluid. Maybe a lens pen. All cheap. If the sensor needs cleaning, look into one of the brush systems, again cheap.

      With rare exception, you don’t want any other accessories. Don’t get any filters; they have their uses, but only in uncommon or specialized situations. Especially don’t get a “protection” or “haze” filter; if you really feel the need, get a lens hood instead — the filter will make the image worse and doesn’t protect against the most common forms of damage; the hood will make the image better and offers more practical protection.

      A cheap cardboard gray card would be a good idea, but only for exposure, not color balance; a styrofoam cup will give far superior results for color balance — better, in fact, than pretty much anything else you can buy.

      And most of the rest of the accessories you’re likely to have a salescritter sell at you are equally useless or specialized.

      That should be enough to get you started….



  11. Ben, thank you! Very helpful advice. I do want to stay under $1000. Was thinking about something like the Canon EOS Rebel T3…

    Happy New Year!

    1. That would be a superlative choice.

      Go for the Canon-branded kit with the 18-55 lens for about $500 out the door. Get the 50mm f/1.8 (it’ll be your “go-to” portrait lens) for another $100 or so, leaving you with $400. Add a 75(ish) – 300 zoom for another $150, leaving $250.

      There’re a lot of “interesting” lenses in the $250 range, including fisheye, true macro lenses, and some pretty respectable primes. Or, alternatively, that’ll get you a good tripod and a not-miserable ballhead, if that stuff is part of your $1000 budget.

      Have fun, and remember the greatest part of digital: you get an unlimited lifetime supply of film with the camera, so there’s no reason not to practice, practice, practice.



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