Monday, October 3, 2016

2016 Connecting with Animals Calendar – October Story

Cassie looking heart-breakingly cute

As I've posited more than once on here: sometimes my shots are a result of waiting for hours in expectation of something great, and sometimes they are just a matter of dumb luck. Well, sometimes they require both in equal measures.

Cassie on the prowl earlier in the fall
The red panda exhibit is one of my favourite places to shoot photos at the Toronto Zoo. There are no obstructions (screens, glass, etc.) and the exhibit itself is quite lovely. It can be quite frustrating at times, though, as it's often hit-or-miss as to whether these adorable fur bundles will actually be out and about, and not sleeping somewhere inside their fenced-in paddock. Anything other than relatively moderate temperatures will ordinarily find them seeking shade or warmth inside; the rest of the time, when they aren't asleep outside they are flitting about rather rapidly, which can pose problems of its own as their habitat is not particularly well-lit. Still, when you do get "that shot" it's supremely rewarding because their colours – and those of the background – usually make for a striking picture.

Cassie trying to snooze in her sling-bed
On this particular day, in early December a couple of years ago, the temperature was hovering around freezing and it had just started to snow. The newly renovated Eurasia Wilds had just reopened and I found myself heading there first on most visits to the Zoo, this day being no exception. I wasn't holding out much hope of seeing either Cassie or Ralphie, though, as the cold seemed to suggest they'd be seeking out warmer quarters. I was pleasantly surprised to see them both wandering around when I arrived, but as I got my camera out of my bag Cassie headed up a ramp made out of a tree bough and began to curl into a ball in her "hammock". I turned my attention to Ralphie for a little while, then considered moving on to the camels because Cassie didn't appear to be in any hurry to leave her comfortable perch. But she just looked so adorable curled up there that I decided to stay for a while. There were hardly any other visitors around so it was a pretty good place to just relax and find some Zen. After a little while, Cassie began to rouse herself and suddenly raised her head up to look down at Ralphie, still moving about on the ground beneath her. Having thankfully not put my camera away I brought it up to my eye, focused on Cassie's face in a tight zoom, and began to shoot. I'm not sure if it was the sound of the camera or just the realization that somebody was there watching (remember, they had been out of the public's eye for a couple of years), but Cassie sleepily looked directly at me and held her gaze for several seconds. That's when I was able to get some ridiculously cute shots, including the one I used for October in this year's calendar. I think what really makes this particular shot stand out for me is the way Cassie has her ears kind of pinned back; this was the case solely because she had been sleeping in a tight ball only moments earlier. Patience + timing = huge reward.

The t-shirt crop and colour-bleed
After I created the calendar I went back to the original image of Cassie. Because I was unrestricted by the demands of an 8 1/2 x 11 inch page, I re-cropped it in a way that I found quite pleasing (Rule of Thirds and all that). Then I began to play around with the colours in PhotoShop, It's not perfect – note the splash of colours over her right paw – but it wasn't bad for a first attempt (I've since been able to perfect it). This image made me so happy that when Vistaprint prompted me to consider buying a t-shirt with one of my photos on it – for a huge discount – I jumped at the chance and uploaded this shot. I'm pretty happy with the way it turned out; on the shirt, the left-over colour patch is virtually unnoticeable. I'm seriously considering playing around with this "colour subject on black & white background" effect quite a bit more and using the best ones as images for our hallway at home.

For anyone trying to work out how to tell them apart, here are a couple of photos of the two of them in the same frame. In the first one, Ralphie is on the left. He is much darker and redder than Cassie, the rings on his tail are far less pronounced, and he is smaller (the weight difference is actually much greater today than two years ago). In the second photo...well, let's see if you can work it out for yourself. There's a very big hint in the slightly blurry background!

Quick historical note about the two types of panda: red pandas were actually discovered first. The best theory on the etymology of the name "panda" is it is derived from the Nepalese "nigalya ponya", which translates as "eater of bamboo". When the larger, more famous, black & white animal was discovered 50 years later, scientists took note of the similar diet and habitat, but also the astounding evolutionary adaptation of a "pseudo-thumb" (sort of an "extra digit" formed from an extension of the wrist bone) with which these two species were able to grip bamboo in order to eat it. To differentiate, the names "giant panda" and "lesser panda" were used – although, to anyone who has seen them, the larger creatures are anything but "giant". It wasn't until quite recently that zoologists worked out that giant pandas are actually related to bears, whereas the lesser – or "red" – pandas are a species unto themselves, their closest cousins being raccoons. One last cool note: in Mandarin, a panda is known as "Xióngmāo", which translates best as "bear cat". This really makes sense when you look at the original panda (the lesser panda); the name now is taken to mean the giant pandas, though, which makes a little less sense. I'm oversimplifying quite a bit, but those are the basics.

I've another red panda photo from this past year that is so sweet I might not be able to keep it out of 2017's calendar. The competition, however, is very stiff indeed; only time will tell. I hope to have it finalized and an order placed before this week is out. I'll keep you all posted!

Next month: an animal I finally featured in a month other than December or January, with a shot taken with the use of a borrowed lens. Tune in then!

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