13 Reasons Why Animals Should Not Be Kept In Zoos Is It Possible to Take Good Wildlife Photographs in a Zoo?

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Is It Possible to Take Good Wildlife Photographs in a Zoo?

Many, many years ago I was commissioned to photograph zoo animals for the official brochure of the National Zoo in South Africa.

The director was specific in his instructions: there was to be no sign of man-made objects—walls, fences, feed troughs, cages, etc.—they were to appear in or out of focus in the picture, and all animals photographed were to be to be in good condition. If the oryx with the twisted horn stood at the edge of his enclosure smiling and waving his twisted horn at me. I had to lure the perfect two-horned oryx closer to me, and he was the one to be photographed.

For two glorious weeks, I climbed above the cages to put a white cloth over the bars so that the bars of the locking bars would not show on the animals’ faces. The feeding times were arranged according to my shooting schedule and the feed troughs were distributed after the feed was loaded onto the ground.

Armed with a 600mm Nikkor lens lent to me by a wildlife photographer friend, I set out each day to turn the wilderness into captive animals.

Unlike human subjects, we did not expect the animals to connect with me, but they had to look in my direction. For zoo animals who have tried every sound to get their attention, this was no easy task.

I found they were impervious to my entire repertoire of whistles and vocal efforts, until I got lucky imitating the peafowl’s raucous cry. This would cause them to glance in my direction for a moment, and that was the moment I had to seize. Needless to say, my peacock impersonation also gained the bemused attention of the other zoo visitors, but damn, I had a black box in front of my face and I doubted I’d run into them again.

The pictures were great, the director was happy.

Yesterday I tried to repeat my earlier success, but unfortunately the friend with the 600mm lens was long gone in the bush and I had to make do with the pathetically inadequate 200mm lens. For this to work, I knew the animals would have to practically climb the fence closest to me and take a deep interest in my work.

There are several obstacles to taking good photos of zoo animals unless you want the photos to scream “captivity”.

First, there are no straight lines in nature, which means you cannot have any geometrically perfect vertical or horizontal objects, even if they are completely out of focus, in the background.

Next, the vegetation in a zoo is all wrong. You can’t include the fir and flowers completely out of focus but still identifiable in the background, or it will look like you took the photo of the rhino in your back garden.

Zoos keep opening hours so you’re out of luck with early morning and dusk light, and you’ll have to make do with backlight or flat cloudy light on a dull day.

And finally, zoo animals are pathologically bored and ultimately unhappy, and how do you keep that out of pictures?

So the answer to the question posed in the title is “Yes” and “No”. “Yes,” with a suitable long lens focusing on the young animals at the zoo, or the old prisoners tired of the young, you can probably get something worth taking home with you. And “No,” because as an adult, it’s hard not to be saddened by the dwindling of lives taken by the wild. And sad photographers taking pictures of even sadder animals are not great photos.

Disclaimer: The scope of this article does not cover the incredible work done by zoo breeding projects, the dedicated zookeepers who care for the animals, the continuous improvement in enclosures, and the millions of satisfied visitors who do not have the luxury of seeing wild animals in their natural habitats.

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