" Animal Kingdom "

Caring for Giants

Yesterday, Walt Disney World debuted a new behind-the-scenes tour at Disney’s Animal Kingdom called Caring for Giants. An hour long, Caring for Giants is centered around elephants.  You learn not only how Disney cares for them, but researches them and uses that research to benefit elephant populations around the world. At $30 per person, this tour is well priced for what you get.  Disney says it is for kids all the way up to grown adults, but there is a minimum age restriction of 4 years old. The tour does take place in some backstage areas of Animal Kingdom, so that is something you’ll want to keep in mind if you have little ones and don’t want to shatter the magic of Disney for them.

All that been said, if you or someone you know loves elephants, this is a tour for you. Disney has ten elephants on property, three males and seven females. If your guide says that Animal Kingdom has 3.7 elephants, and then asks what that means, you can confidently reply that it’s a ratio, and it tells how many males and females they have. That’s the last bit of trivia I’ll give out; I do want you to learn new things on this tour, after all! Another unique element of this tour is that you are allowed to bring a camera with you and use it on the tour in a designated area. No backstage pictures are allowed.

There are tons of these tours a day, and they seem to leave every half hour. That being said, you will need to contact Walt Disney World Reservations to go on this tour.  You meet your tour guide by the entrance to Kilimanjaro Safaris, in what I believe used to be a camera supplies kiosk. Once checked in, you’ll get a lanyard with your name on it; be sure to turn it over because there’s a surprise on the back! From there, you’ll be lead backstage to your Adventure Vehicle, which is themed! This should show you just how committed to an incredible experience Disney wants to give you on this tour. They didn’t have to theme your transport van, but they did and it looks awesome! On your walk to the vehicle, be sure to look to your left and catch an awesome view of the mountains of Pandora.

Along the ride, your guide will point out various aspects of backstage Animal Kingdom as you take their “ring road” to your destination. That road goes around the savannas of Kilimanjaro Safari, and so you will see various night homes for the four-legged friends you’ll see on that attraction. See if you can figure out which holds the giraffes!

Soon you will arrive at the elephant house, where you may see your first glimpse of an elephant up close. As we passed by, baby elephant Stella’s father was hanging out. Then, a short drive down a gravel road and we were at the elephant berm, an elevated platform at the back of the elephant pastures. The views of the elephants were spectacular. You are much closer to the gentle giants than you are on Kilimanjaro Safaris. Disney says you are 80 to 100 feet away, but it feels closer. The animal expert you meet there is full of knowledge, and our’s said to keep our eyes on the elephants and that she would not be offended if she talked to our backs. We were allowed to touch elephant tail-hair, told how to tell the various elephants apart, and also given an update on two-month-old Stella’s growth and new social habits.

Halfway through our approximately 40 minutes on the berm, we spoke with an African cultural representative who told us about Africa and the elephants that live there. We learned why they are called the keystone of the savanna, and the pivotable role they play in keeping African ecology going. We learned how research helped discover a natural solution to keep farmers’ fields safe from elephants coming for an easy meal, and also provide them with a bit of extra income. We were told of a man who takes snare wires meant to capture elephants for their tucks and turns them into art of the animals they’re meant to ensnare. And then all too soon, we were asked to board our Adventure Vehicle and headed back to Animal Kingdom proper.

This tour is one of my favorites on Disney property, ranking up with Behind the Seeds. At $30 per person, I feel like it is a tour everybody should do. Seeing elephants so closely, learning about them, was a truly unique experience. As a photographer, I was able to take incredible pictures. My girlfriend, the elephant fanatic, was able to be closer to the largest animal in the world than she ever thought possible. I just wish we had more time on the berm; I could have stayed there all day!

Rivers of Light – Review (no spoilers)

Rivers of Light is a new evening show at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. It’s currently most famous for having been delayed quite a bit since the intended opening date of April 22nd, 2016. It began public “invite-only” soft-opening shows on February 10th for anybody with a FastPass+ reservations or is an Annual Passholder or DVC Member who is able to collect a wristband. It lasts approximately 18 minutes, and is filled with projections, water cannons, water misters, boats, and floats.

I’ve seen it described by some as a longer version of the intermission scene of IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth, where the globe floats to the center of World Showcase Lagoon. This is not an inaccurate description, but also not an entirely accurate one either. It joins nighttime rides on Kilimanjaro Safaris, Tree of Life projection shows, and the soon-to-be-opened Pandora: World of Avatar (which itself opens on May 27th, 2017) in expanding Animal Kingdom’s evening offerings. Like the Tree of Life projection shows, it does require you to bring some interpretation with you; it’s not always 100% clear what Disney is trying to get across. That last point, however, is one of the things I really like about Rivers of Light. Different people will see different things in it, and that’s fantastic.

There are no fireworks in Rivers of Light, which is necessitated by all of the animals in such close proximity to the performance area. But do not let the fact that this isn’t a Disney Nighttime Spectacular (TM) steer you away from Rivers of Light, it is still well worth viewing. The folks over at Walt Disney Creative Entertainment, and I imagine also Walt Disney Imagineering, have perfected projection technology on water. Moreover, they’ve been able to project on multiple mediums of water; there are heavy-mist “screens” in the back of the performance area, smaller spheres of mist that move around during the show, and finally greater areas of fog that are used to show moving images.

Floating lotuses and gigantic, illuminated animal floats join two boats, a “warm” red boat, and a “cold” blue one dance a beautifully choreographed dance around the Discovery River, supplemented by beautiful music and four live performers, two on each boats. One of each of those performers is designated the Teacher, and they help tell the story of Rivers of Light along with spirits of tigers, owls, elephants, and turtles, supplemented by projections and dancing jets of water that seem as if someone said “Have you seen the show in front of the Bellagio in Las Vegas? We’d like to do that, but we want the foundations for the show to float on top of a lake and move autonomously.” It’s a remarkable thing, to be sure.

I quite enjoyed the show and the message behind it. It is a show that, photographically, rewards wide shots and tight shots, but not too much in between. Discovery River is gigantic, and the floats and boats use every inch of water that they can. As a result, things are very wide left-to-right, but not so much top-to-bottom. Be prepared to crop your shots if there’s a boring sky. Telephoto lenses will not suffer from this so much, but they’ll miss the scale and breadth of everything together. That isn’t a bad thing, however, as the floats and performers are so incredibly detailed that to not capture them close-up would be a crime.

Overall, I really enjoyed Rivers of Light. I did not take a lot of pictures during this soft open show as I truly wanted to experience the show fully, and I find I cannot do that with my eye up to a viewfinder. In doing so, I learned that this is a show I will keep coming back to, even without my camera, because there is so much going on that one truly cannot see it all during a single viewing. Thankfully, with a rumored three shows an evening during summer operating hours, 15,000 people a night will be enjoying Rivers of Light. It appears roughly half of those seats are reserved for FastPass+, so there are lots of opportunities to watch. I hope you take advantage of them, because it’s a show unlike any other on property. The soundtrack is amazing without being an earworm that sticks with you for months (I’m looking at you, Boo To You) and the technology and details are incredible.

Editor’s Note: Thanks Ben for going to the preview and giving us a taste of what the show looks like.  Extra special thanks for no spoilers. I can’t wait until the next time I can go to WDW to see the new show.  

Sigma 150-600 Lens Review

[Editor’s Note: Today’s article comes from frequent contributor Ben Hendel – @wdw_ben about renting and using the Sigma 150-600 lens.  Having shot the Canon 400mm f/2.8 lens before at a High School football game, I can only imagine what it must have been like to lug a lens that long into Animal Kingdom.  But if I did have access to that lens, you bet your bottom dollar Animal Kingdom would be the place to shoot it at.  I’ve seen people at my local zoo with monster lenses like this one and I’ve always wanted to try that out.]

A few weekends ago I went to an airshow in Fort Lauderdale featuring some of the best jet teams in the world. Because of this, and some travel I have planned in the future, I wanted to bring along a super-telephoto lens to test before spending thousands on one. I had done a fair amount of research, and I settled on renting the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Sport, shot on a full-frame Nikon D610. This lens does work on a crop sensor camera, however, your effective range is 225-900mm, with an effective aperture of roughly f/7.7-10. This does mean you can see into Wednesday two weeks from now, but you’ll need a lot of light to do so.

The Sigma is a beast! Weighing in at 6.5 pounds, it is a hefty lens for which you’ll want a tripod or monopod if you plan on using it for more than a few hours. But with that weight comes a lot of glass. The reach of this lens is incredible. Never having owned a lens with a focal range of over 120mm (my Nikon 80-200mm), having 450mm of range was useful. That being said, I mostly rented this lens for it’s ability to be pushed all the way out to 600mm and remain tack sharp. Fair warning, though, I did spend a night calibrating the lens to my camera using FoCal’s wonderful calibration software. [Editor’s note, I’ve talked Ben into contributing a future article about calibrating your lenses.]

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On a practice day in Disney’s Animal Kingdom the day before the airshow, I had a ton of success getting pictures I could only dream of beforehand. I spent a ton of time on both walking trails and walked away with a ton of keepers, especially on the animals most people want to see especially: the tigers and gorillas. The sharpness of this lens was incredible after calibration. When I zoom in on the eye of the tiger (I will not sing, I will not sing, I will not sing…) [Editor’s Note – I am now singing this for you.] , I am able to see the blue sky and even some white clouds reflected back at me. The bird houses were incredibly interesting, especially because the weaver birds were busy building little houses. I was able to get clear shots of any bird I wished, when they stopped flying around, that is! Tracking a subject at 600mm is a chore, but that’s not a flaw in the lens, that’s just being really, really tight. I quickly developed a technique at the airshow of being pulled all the way out to 150mm to acquire and begin tracking a jet, then pushing in to 600mm (or as close as I wanted to zoom) to set up for the shot I was looking to take. I did not take this lens on Kilimanjaro Safaris as it would have lead to a fantastic black eye and terrible photos.

Tiger

One thing to note, when it game to objects in motion, especially at the 600mm end of this lens, fast moving objects are incredibly tough to frame, even once you’ve acquired them. Flittering finches and fast moving (we are talking miles an hour measured in the multiple hundreds) jets don’t stay in your viewfinder long if you’re not panning. And panning this lens is a chore. I recommend, if you’re worried about framing, pull out 15 to 25 millimeters and firing in a “spray and pray” manner. A less tight shot will allow you more freedom after the fact to crop and adjust your framing. This was a tip passed along to me by Don Sullivan (@donsullivan, check out his incredible photography) and I am passing it along to you. For shots like the tiger and gorilla, I was able to work more slowly and properly frame before pulling the shutter.

In the category of “ooooh, that’s a nice feature” is the tripod collar. The downside is that this behemoth of a collar does not detach. It also has three different screw bosses in it, so you can balance it on basically any camera and tripod combination. That means the foot of the collar is huge. However, it does have a fantastic little “click” to it when you’ve hit 0, 90, 180, and 270 degrees rotation with the lens. It’s a nice surprise so you know you’re locking in your camera at one of those points, and if you’ve leveled the camera on your tripod properly with one of those markers, the others will also be level if you are spinning it from portrait to landscape, or back again.

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This lens has a lot of upside. It’s incredibly sharp, it’s very accurate when focusing, and it’s reasonably priced for a super-telephoto lens. What does reasonably priced mean? The Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Sport will lighten your wallet by 20 pictures of Benjamin Franklin – $2,000. This sum of money gets you a lens, a shoulder carrying case for it (no picture of that, I’m sorry), and a heck of a bayonet that screws on to the front of the lens. It also screws on backward for transportation. There is no lens cap to speak of, but it does come with a nylon-like cover that Velcros around when the bayonet is stored backwards, with a little cutout for the thumb screw. This lens also supports Sigma’s USB Dock for Lens Calibration and firmware updates, however, it is not included. That’ll set you back an extra $59.

Formation

My biggest issue with this lens is the weight. I understand that in order to get good, sharp, super-telephoto glass you’re looking at weight. But all in, with a 1.5 pound camera strapped to the back of it, I had a package weighing 8 pounds that I was swinging back and forth on a beach in Fort Lauderdale for four hours. Monday was rough, I’ll say that much. My other big issue is that at 600mm, you get some crazy vignetting in your corners. While not noticeable on the camera’s LCD, they are prominent once loaded into a program like Lightroom. Thankfully, Lightroom contains automatic lens profile corrections for this lens, and that takes care of the corners quickly. When editing, it is the first thing I do to any photo before diving into deeper corrections. Finally, this lens does not accept teleconverters. Why you would want one is up to you (maybe you really do need a 300-1200mm lens for photographic the Church on the Blood from Nome), but this is a point to a lens I’m renting later this month.

Overall, I really liked this lens. It’s reach is fantastic, it’s fast for the price, the price is very reasonable, and it doubles as good help for bicep curls. But that last part is the biggest downfall for me. It is an incredibly heavy lens, especially when you are pointing it at an upward angle all day, like at an airshow. I would say the vignetting was an issue, but that was quickly and easily corrected in Lightroom, so it’s more of an annoyance than anything else. I would rent it again, should I need the reach at an airshow and should my upcoming rental of the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 not meet my needs for a super telephoto.

Canadia

Author’s note: There is a Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Contemporary also on the market for less money and weight. I have not shot it, so for a review, I’d recommend Tom Bricker’s excellent review here: http://www.disneytouristblog.com/

[Editor’s Note: Thanks for contributing the article again Ben!  Always interesting stuff!]

Animal Kingdom Lodge

Editor’s Note:

Hello Disney Photography Blog fans………a few weeks ago, I asked if any of our readers wanted to contribute an article and I got a couple of responses.  Today’s post is the first article from reader Mark Giglio about photographing Animal Kingdom Lodge.  I want to thank Mark for taking the time to write this article for us and I love the perspective he brings.  We often head back to the Disney Parks to try and get a shot that we’ve been working on over multiple trips and this is a story just like that.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge first opened in April 2001 and from my first visit in 2003 I’ve held the belief that it is one of, if not the most, visually impressive resorts on property.  The thatched roof lodge is decorated in wood and earth tones and has a vast six story lobby with a glass walled centerpiece.

Like many things at Disney the Animal Kingdom Lodge is spectacular, but incredibly difficult to photograph.  A combination of factors lead to this common conundrum: grandness of scale, populated areas, and limited photographic angles.  I got my first DLSR in 2007, just 22 days before going to Disney with my family, and perhaps Disney was that extra motivation to pull the trigger on a DSLR with a college student’s budget.  While I didn’t stay at the lodge in 2007, dinning at Boma provides a great excuse to walk around the grounds and take a few pictures.

The first thing you see when you walk into the lobby is the floor to ceiling glass wall covered in vines, and capturing an image of that has been my goal.  The very first image I captured of this wall was from inside looking out and featured the ostrich lights.  Unfortunately patience and care was not with me (and probably still isn’t).  I didn’t wait for the staircase to be clear, and I wasn’t standing centered.  There is also a giant bright eyesore in the bottom left corner that instantly draws your eye to it.

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There are some merits to this photograph, which make me want go back to get a better version.  First the single tall tree in the middle is a nice visual element.  Secondly the multiple reflections of the Ostridge lights intrigue me.  And last is the time of day, the lighting inside and out are nicely balanced.  Next visit I’ll probably use a wider angle lens to provide some gap between the center tree and the lights while simultaneously capturing more the wall.  As always a good tripod and some careful framing would help substantially.

My first outdoor shot focuses on the Christmas tree (but chops the top off) and shows a narrow portion of the wall.  Both of these attempts were with at 50mm f1.4 at 1.6 and 1.4 respectively, shot handheld at ISO 1600.  The narrow depth of field is apparent, and ISO 1600 shows the limit of earlier cameras, both in terms of noise and dynamic range.

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My next try at photographing the feature wall of the lodge came in 2014, this time armed with a tripod and wide angle lens I tried to capture the grandness of the whole wall, producing the photograph below.  I must have walked around for 10 minutes trying different angles, trying not to chop the tree, lights and chandeliers too much.  I’m quite pleased with this shot, a notable improvement over the last two.

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My latest attempt, again thanks to a Boma reservation, came in 2015.    That’s the photo at the top of the post.  This time I was more conscious about the balance of outdoor light to indoor light, and I wanted to capture even more of the lodge.  The last photo is my personal favorite.  Is it perfect, well no, but I like the wider capture, the fact there is details in the clouds and shadows and the slightly off center framing.

One of the wonderful things about being in a Disney family is that you get to go back to the places you love, often times getting many opportunities to get a photograph just right.  The other side to that is Disney often changes things giving us new opportunities.  Do you have any places you’ve photographed multiple times, or are they any places you wish you had another chance to photograph before Disney upgraded an area?

 

Editor’s Note:

Thanks again Mark for the great post.  Everyone, please consider leaving a comment below (you have to hit Read More) to bring up the comment link.  Also, if you are going to be ordering from Amazon.com anyway, please consider following this link.  It doesn’t cost you anything but we earn a very small commission and it helps support the site.