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Creatures up close with Denise Baynham

Creatures up close with Denise Baynham

Monday, 25 September 2017

In celebration of our current exhibition Wildlife Photographer of the Year, we decided to seek out the hidden photographic talents of our Museum whānau and share their passion for the medium with a few select images from their personal collections.

Photographer Denise Baynham

Denise Baynham, a photographer in the Collection Imaging team, chats to us about capturing animal close ups, being creative with catch lights and more.

Can you give us a brief overview of your work here at the Museum?

I'm a full time collections photographer working in the Collection Imaging hub. I started here working for the pictorial department, photographing the artworks.

I’m now part of the wider collections imaging team photographing a diverse range of objects.  It’s not very well known that we have a large modern photography studio here at the Museum, and a great team of commercial photographers.

How did you get into photography and what has been your journey to this position at the Museum?

In my previous life before photography, I worked in the world of commercial law where I was involved with company acquisitions.  However, photography was always part of my master plan and it was while living in London with my husband that I decided to take the plunge and make the career change.  I’ve never looked back!  

After completing my study, I worked in a busy studio in central London doing mostly commercial and editorial photography. It was a dynamic and fast paced environment and a great way to establish my photographic skills.  

When I came back to NZ to have a family, I started my own business and focused on commercial and wedding photography, as well doing studio photography for a top NZ retailer and ecommerce business.

For the past three and half years I have been teaching adult photography workshops at the Auckland Zoo on a part time basis (where the photographs in this article are taken).  It makes for a busy life but I’m passionate about sharing my love of photography.

I’ve been fortunate to have worked across many different areas of photography.  Unlike the UK, the NZ market is much smaller, so it is definitely beneficial to be able to turn your hand to different types of photography. Wedding photography is a great discipline to develop a wide range of skills.  It’s a little bit of portraiture, macros (close up), landscape, fashion and photojournalism!  

Building great client relationships are crucial, and definitely assists in happy relaxed looking clients. Studio photography is the best way to fine tune your technical skills.  There is no better way to get a solid understanding of lighting and photography equipment and how to best use both to meet creative briefs.  

What has it been like working as a professional photographer at the Museum?

I’ve been working as a professional photographer for about 14 years and really I just feel privileged to be able to work at the Museum.

I’m really passionate about photographing the collections and there’s never a dull moment when you’re photographing different objects, everything is incredibly interesting and I’m discovering a lot.

Also, like the work I do at the Zoo, I’m surrounded by very passionate people who love what they do and get excited about it; it’s a great environment to work in. It’s constantly evolving how I approach photography and the techniques I build to grow and develop in my field.

Have you visited our current exhibition Wildlife Photographer of the Year and what was your favourite image?

I have visited and it’s always an amazing exhibition. I would visit when I lived in London and I always find the kids submissions very humbling.

My favourite has to be Eviction Attempt, by Ganesh Shankar. The symmetry of the composition and the clean graphic feeling really appeals to me, but it’s definitely hard to single out one image.

When teaching my students I always recommend a visit to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition as it’s the ideal way to learn new techniques and tools.

Each image includes the set up the photographer used to capture the shot, ISO (speed of the film), and aperture (the amount of light the camera lets in) etc. Looking at the images and understanding how they apply in camera is great knowledge for the aspiring photographer.

All the images in this series were taken at the Auckland Zoo where I have been running photography workshops. I don't take a lot of photos when I'm running workshops because it's more about teaching the participants, but I'll take the odd ones here and there.

Can you tell us about some of your favourite Zoo-images?

Buddy the rainbow lorikeet

© Denise Baynham

This is Buddy the rainbow lorikeet. Sadly the much-loved Buddy, who was elderly, died recently. He was one of the animals the Zoo’s Animal Experiences team would take out and about in the Zoo for visitors to meet up close.

What was great about Buddy was seeing the relationship he had with the keepers – they had this amazing close bond.

If I'm taking photos at the Zoo, I'll use a Canon 5D Mark III. I'm a Canon girl through and through. And I use my 70-200 lens, which I absolutely love because you are able to get close to the animals and then you get that gorgeous bokeh (blurred) effect.

The 70-200 lens was perfect for capturing Buddy as it allowed me to stay far enough away so that I didn’t startle him, but fast enough to get a crisp image even though he was very excitable, squawking and jumping about.

Eastern water dragon

© Denise Baynham

There’s a new Australian exhibit at the Zoo that is home to this eastern water dragon. He’s usually reclusive, as is this reptile’s nature, but I happened to chance upon him when he was sitting in the open (often he is hiding amongst the features in the enclosure).

I tend to photograph the animals when the workshops are running during the day, so the animals are often alert at that time. Generally I’ll head out to capture some shots around feeding time when the animals are more active.

Greater African flamingo

© Denise Baynham

Again for this image I used my Canon and 70-200 to utilise the zoom, ideally I'd have something with even more zoom capacity but this lens is a bit of a beast as it is!

Usually you see the flamingos in large groups as they are very social birds. On the day this was taken they were running as a flock around the enclosure (a courtship behaviour).  Initially I attempted to capture that but the image didn’t look too unique, so I turned my attention to this flamingo on its own instead.

In the classes I teach at the Zoo I tell my students to look for interesting elements to include in their composition like reflections to add interest.

I try to plan the image I’m trying to take- with this I wanted to capture the reflection of the Flamingo drinking so the water would act like a mirror, with the beak touching the reflected beak.   However it didn’t quite work out like that!  


© Denise Baynham

This image features the kaka in the Te Wao Nui Forest aviary at the Zoo. I love it as the clean white background gives it a really graphic feeling but I didn't use any post production or editing.

Instead I utilised the fact that light was entering from behind him and so I let it blow out the background.

When teaching I explain to the students how to balance the back light and the foreground, as there is the possibility it could create a dark silhouette.

It can take some time to really hone that skill- in studio environments you would use a flash to fill in the foreground but you can’t use that at the Zoo as it would startle the animals, so it’s really just trusting your instincts and having an eye for the image.


© Denise Baynham

Here’s a definite crowd-pleaser, one of the meerkats at the Zoo. I captured this shot as he was distracted by a plane passing overhead. 

They are usually very skittish and on sentry duty (predator watch), so it was a case of being in the right place at the right time that allowed me to get this photo.

I learned during my early days in photography to ensure the eyes are always pin-sharp in focus, my belief is this is where the viewer will focus their attention. I am also trying to capture the catch lights, that’s those little reflections in the eyes, it really adds life to the subject.

Most photographers are obsessed with catch-lights and you can achieve them by positioning your subject near a light source such as a window or using a flash, anything to get that little gleam in the eyes.


© Denise Baynham

This was taken in the same aviary as the image of the kaka, and I think it’s the closest I’ve ever been to a tui and I was astonished at just how vibrant the colours of the feathers are.

It’s also such a graceful bird and I think the photograph captures that.

We’ve photographed a lot of tui specimens here in the Collections Imaging Hub and that iridescence in the feathers remains for many years.

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