Being Creative with Zoo Photography and Wildlife Park Photography

June 16, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

In this day where everyone is skimping and scraping to save a penny here and a penny there thanks to these wonderful measures this government is dishing out, except to themselves I expect, it is great to talk about something that bucks the trend. Recently I have had problems with my Hawke binoculars in that the eyepiece broke. I contacted Hawke Optics UK about it and they sent me a replacement eyepiece stating that if this did not work then I will have to send my binoculars to them. No matter how hard I tried I could not fit it so I packed it up and sent it to them. They returned it to me fixed for a small fee. The trouble was that I now could not focus on anything. I contacted them again stating this (they did state the reason but it went straight over my head) and they said that if I returned the binoculars to them they would replace them with a cheaper but better model with better glass even though I did not have the receipt. I did this and a week later I received a pair of brand new binoculars free of charge. Throughout the whole process Simon Chisholm, the service manager, has kept me well informed about what is happening and I cannot thank him enough with what he, and his staff, did. At the bottom of Hawke Optics UK email there is an advert which states "A NEW LEVEL OF OPTICAL PERFORMANCE". It is so close to what I think of Hawke Optics UK that I think under each staff member's names on their emails it should state "A NEW LEVEL OF PERFORMANCE". 
 

Before I start please remember that some zoos and wildlife parks own the rights to the wildlife so you can take photos for your own use but if you try to sell them you could get sued unless you have a property release form signed by the owners of the zoo or wildlife park.
 

 

Some wildlife photographers belittle zoo or wildlife park photography for several reasons including: - the wildlife is not “wild”, the wildlife is in a cage and cannot escape, the wildlife does not act normally etc. Personally I do not class this kind of photography as wildlife photography (if you do take images of this kind of photography then please don't try and kid people that it is a wildlife photo as you will be found out and your credence will be out the window) having said that it can be fun. I have never taken an image in a zoo because I don’t particularly like zoos, animals in small cages no not for me, but I have in wildlife parks and, if you think outside the box, it can be very different depending on how creative you are. Just digressing for a moment, I just stated that I don’t like animals in small cages but animals in a wildlife park is just animals in bigger cages isn’t it? I still don’t class them as “wildlife” so how big must a cage be before it is acceptable and I class them as wildlife? This might sound like an odd question but think outside the box, is 3 acres surrounded by a fence big enough? 3,000 acres, 30,000 acres, a small island it might not have a fence but it is surrounded by water, a type of fence. Take Brownsea Island near Pool in Hampshire for instance. It has got Red Squirrels on it and is surrounded by water so are they caged, trapped, confined, imprisoned? As they are, then is that not just a big wildlife park? England is a big island with lots of animals on it but it’s the same as Brownsea Island only on a bigger scale. If these animals are trapped, confined, imprisoned (you choose the word) then can we call them wildlife? What’s your view?
 

Recently I have seen some very good mono photographs on Facebook from, amongst others, Jim Palfrey and Paul Fine with an image of wildlife, picking on a certain area of the wildlife, usually the eyes, and the rest of the image is left very dark. I don't know if these images were taken in a zoo or a wildlife park but it's a great way of thinking outside the box and being very creative in hiding the “human” element of a zoo or wildlife park. Below are two examples of thinking outside the box.
 

Jim's Lynx
 

The first is of a Lynx and was taken by Jim Palfrey.
 

Paul's Gorilla
 

The second is of a Gorilla and was taken by Paul Fine.
 

 

Thank you Jim and Paul for letting me use your fine images in my blog to explain a point. Obviously this is not the only way of being creative but I will leave that up to your creativity.
 

 

To begin with what equipment will you need? Well any camera will do as long as you can change the aperture on it. The lens you need should be in the region of 100mm to 300mm for a full frame camera or a 50mm to 250mm for a crop sensor camera but it does depend on the type of image you are after. You could use a monopod if you wish because a tripod will get in the way of other people especially in a zoo and it will be more hassle then its worth. I have seen and heard stories of these problems including a tripod being hit by a child running with the photographer nearly having his camera damaged as it fell over and coming to blows with the child’s parents. So stick with handheld or a monopod. You could take a flash but some places do not allow it and it might cause unsightly reflections.
 

 

One of the first barriers, no pun intended, you need to cross is the cage. If you take a photo looking through the cage you will get the bars in your image and this is the kind of “human” element you want to get rid of, unless you are being creative and you want to include them. I know you can “clone” them out afterwards but do you really want all that work? To overcome this use a large aperture, like f2.8 or f4, put the front of you lens as close to the cage bars as possible, use a lens hood to protect the front element of your lens against the cage wire and aim the centre of your lens in the space between the bars. BE CAREFUL not to press the lens against the cage because some lenses move backwards and forwards when focusing and if you press against the cage you could stop the lens movement and damage your lens. Along with this try and wait until the wildlife is some distance away from the part of the cage you are photographing from, as this will help blur the cage bars because you are using a large aperture. Try and pick a part of the cage that is in shadow to photograph through because it will be less noticeable than a shiny part that the sun is shining on. Also be aware of the shadows the bars can cause on the subject, ground and background.
 

 

Some zoos and wildlife parks have glass cages or areas where you can look through glass to view the animals. This is great but it does create a few problems for the photographer. Try and pick a clean unscratched area of glass to point your camera through. If it’s not then try cleaning it, but be aware of scratching it when doing so. Some cameras “hunt”, go backwards and forwards, when they are trying to focus so you might have to use manual focus, heaven forbid that’s so last year. The other problem is reflections. Do the same as I mentioned above for a cage. Put a lens hood on your lens and hold it up close to the glass. Remember the warning above in regards to some lenses.
 

 

Before you actually go to the zoo or wildlife park look it up on the internet and see when feeding times are happening as usually this is when there is plenty of action at other times the wildlife could be just sitting there or even sleeping, not very exciting. Along with feeding times there could be shows where the keepers bring the wildlife out to “meet and greet” the public. This means that you get closer; the wildlife might be doing something and no cage bars. With this information to hand you can plan your day and know where to be at the right times. When planning your day try not to pick too many animals, it is better to pick a few and give them the time they deserve rather than try and cram them all in. Also check if they will allow photographers in early, stay late or even hold photographic events where they will allow you to step over the wire to get closer or even let you into the cage with the wildlife. Try to attend the zoo or wildlife park during the week and when “the kids” are still at school as this will give you more space to photographing animals. Some places, especially wildlife parks, have a closed season so another good time to go is right at the start or the end of the season because there will be less people then. When the day to go has arrived think about the weather. Grey skies and rain might be good for some photos but it could send the animals indoors and your time will be wasted.
 

 

Armed with all this information you attend a zoo or wildlife park and now is the time to relax and slow down. Do not rush from cage to cage in a zoo or enclosure to enclosure in a wildlife park. You cannot expect to turn up at a cage or an enclosure and “the moment” happens right there and then. You have to be patient and wait for it just like normal wildlife photography. At this point I will state the obvious – please don’t bang on the cage or throw something at the animals just to get them doing something just so you can take a photo and check the cage thoroughly before you start taking photos especially the background you do not want to get home and see a bright red bin in all your photos which you had not noticed because you got caught up in the moment. (It was hidden I'm telling you). If there are not many people in the area then get on the floor, either on your knees or lay down you will be surprised how good photos are from this viewpoint. You might, no sorry, you will get some strange looks but who cares your images will be better because you are not demeaning the animals by looking down on them. Also be aware of your camera equipment getting condensation when you come out of the “hot house (snakes)” and into the cold.
 

 

A couple of years ago I went to the London wetland centre http://www.wwt.org.uk/wetland-centres/london/ because I heard that they were introducing Otters. I went there to have a look around and to get some images of these otters. I went during the week but being in the middle of London there were still quite a few people there. I arrived as soon as it was open and went straight for the otters but so did everyone else, some with cameras and a lot of others with prams!!! I held back because I knew I was going to be there all day. About mid-morning I finally saw the otters briefly and I did not think the enclosure they were in was big enough for them. There were still quite a few people there taking photos I don’t know what of because the otters had disappeared!! For the rest of the day I sat opposite the enclosure waiting for my moment. This came about 5:30pm which is about 30 minutes before the centre closes. The area was empty of people except me and three otters came out to play. I took several shots but the one below is my favourite.
 

Otter
 


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