So I Went to our zoo and all I got were these lousy photos
I recently experienced this exact outcome myself. Even though I consider myself, at the very least, a semi-professional photographer -- not everything is going to go your way when it comes to photography. In fact, it's more likely not going to go your way. But my most recent trip to the zoo was basically a complete bust (photographically speaking). My prior (to this trip) trip to the zoo yielded some of my better photos of "wildlife"* and other photos so my expectations were pretty high for this trip. It was a relatively cool day, there was a nice breeze, the zoo was not at all crowded (it was a Thursday), and the coolness was a welcome relief from the typical North Carolina summer heat. I was expecting active animals, low difficulty in obtaining shots due to weather, lighting or people. I had imagined, during the 2.5 hour drive almost the ultimate zoo photography experienced. I was very pumped and didn't mind at all carrying all this gear with me. I remembered everything I needed -- even my earbuds and my sunflower seeds. It was going to be a perfect day.
I wish I could insert a turntable needle scratching hideously off of an LP right now.
Not one of the animals I was planning to photograph that day were up and about. Every single one of them was lazing about in whatever shade they could find, practically comatose. The lone elephant actually near enough to photograph (and on all four legs) turned out to be all that not interesting though he seemed to be rather interested in me. Despite him coming fairly close I just wasn't able to get a photo that captured that. Instead what I had was fantastic snapshots, at best. The lions were all napping in semi-tall grass and when any one of the showed the slightest sign of movement by excitement told me I was reaching for something that wasn't there. Is it getting up???!?!? (ready the camera!!). Oh. It's dreaming about something -- muscle twitch -- yawn? -- rolling over -- Oh My God! Don't you at least have to pee or something??!? I moved on.
At this point I'd spent over two hours watching animals doing what I should have been doing. Enjoying the gorgeous weather -- though in my case; on a hammock with a nice adult beverage, preferably on a beach, with girls in bikinis playing volleyball -- but I digress. On to the next objective.
Inevitably, walking the paths at the zoo between exhibits people would see me hauling my gear, and exclaim something along the lines of, "Now that's a camera!". Well, yeah. You're holding a phone. Which brings me to my point. If you are going to the zoo and thinking you are going to get great shots of the animals and all you are armed with is the latest SamApp version 23 phablet -- you're going to be disappointed. You can and likely will get some fantastic snapshots of your loved ones at the zoo. My wife had some really great photos of our girls as a matter of fact. But if you're thinking you are going to get killer photos of the animals -- think again. Even if you are bringing an actual camera with you, the mere fact that you have it doesn't guarantee great photos. Nor does the size of your lens or how many cameras you have. There's a need to learn how to use it and I don't mean just how to operate it. It it was as simple as buying the biggest lens on the market then the richest people in the world would have all the best photos possible.
Since I'm writing this I'll also mention that if you really want to get a good photo, particularly of animals, then patience is a must. I waited for a total of over two hours to get the shot I wanted of a male gorilla. Granted, I have a thing for gorillas I cannot explain so your wait time may vary. Additionally, while the park was not that crowded the gorilla exhibit (much to my personal annoyance) attracts fellow hominids like a pile of dog poo on a hot summer day does to flies. So there were some missed opportunities to fellow hominids being somewhat "unaware" of their immediate surroundings due to the "monkey"** being so close to the glass. I did eventually get the shot I wanted but it didn't turn out the way I would have liked.. mainly because of the fact that it looked like I shot a close up of a gorilla's corpse through some really thick glass.
So shooting through glass is yet another challenge at any sort of institution that houses animals. After this latest experience, though it breaks my heart, I have decided not to try any longer to photograph the gorillas because it will only end in frustration. Getting a clear, glass free, view is important since you will avoid reflections, and other abnormalities the glass will present. If you live somewhere that you have gorillas or other primates you can observe, free of glass, I truly envy you. My next trip to the zoo I plan to just spend time enjoying watching my black-furred cousins for what they are, and actually allow myself to enjoy watching them do what they do, even if it is just sleeping. If I ever am able to come back to this Earth as anything I choose, I choose gorilla. I can't tell you how many times over the years I've made direct contact with a gorilla (through glass, of course) and he or she has looked straight back at me; not breaking eye contact. It's not like looking at a dog (though I love them) or a cat, or a fish or anything else. There are thoughts behind those eyes and they seem to be evaluating me just as much as I am them. I love it.
So, to bring this diatribe (?) to a close. If you plan to get great photos at a zoo don't judge what your camera can do by the size of your kit. Know how to operate it. There are plenty of resources out there on the web to learn how and likely hands on resources locally you can take advantage of. Be patient. You will almost certainly not walk up on an animal at the zoo doing something worthy of a photo. Avoid glass if you can. If you cannot, put your lens directly up against the glass trying to create a seal between your lens and the glass -- letting no light in other than what the lens allows. Visit the zoo on off days. Days when the weather is less than optimal for two reasons 1) You will have to deal with less people 2) if it's a cool and cloudy day the animals are likely to be more active. Contact your zoo ahead of time to find out good times to capture your favorite subjects. Some zoos do feedings or can tell you the habits of the animals on exhibit so you can try to do some planning. Don't bother with a flash. Any situation where a flash is necessary likely means glass is also involved -- you'll end up getting a fantastic shot of your flash bouncing off the glass. This goes back to learning how to operate your camera as well.
What other tips can folks share? While it would be great to go on safari to actually capture these animals in their natural habitat, for many of us photographing them at our local zoo is the most realistic option.
* There is, I guess, some understandable debate as to whether photographs of zoo animals are truly wildlife photos. True, they are in captivity and they are most likely not in their natural habitat. My counter-argument to that is a) they are not domesticated b) okay, go ahead and get in there with them. I'll re-evaluate my belief then. ;-)
** Seriously people, please, PLEASE, learn the difference between an ape and a monkey. Monkeys have tails, apes do not. If you show me a monkey the size of a six year old male gorilla I promise I will properly soil my pants and scream like a seven year old girl shoved into a room full of spiders, all at once.
Keywords: Zoo, Zoo photography, Zoo photos, advice, patience, photography technique, photos, technique
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