The Great Journey in Photography

So Say You – Truth About Zoos

Bald Eagle At Moonridge Zoo

300mm f4.5 200iso 1/500sec

last week I had the pleasure of shooting at the Moonridge Animal Park in Big Bear California for their annual calendar photo competition. It was a fine day and I think I got some good pictures. I have been to the park on several occasions both to photograph and just to visit. This time I was armed with a lot more experience and a desire to capture more than just bird photos. Believing that the 300 f2.8 lens would be the best choice I decided to run light and leave my bag back in the truck and use just the 300 on a monopod and a vest with my essentials. I could easily run out to the truck for a lens change or another body but as it turns out that 300 was the best lens for the job. In a controlled environment I like to shoot close, as close as I can and that means that depth of field and shutter speed are even more critical than usual. That’s just the way I do things.

I know there is a contingency of photographers out there that think photographing animals in captivity is less worthy than making images in the wild. I understand that sentiment but I don’t appreciate it. Several months ago I was talking to another photographer who I see on the trail from time to time and we were talking about photographing eagles and hawks. I mentioned that the Moonridge Park was a great place to shoot Bald Eagles and that I had a hawk image that was on their calendar. He groaned and made comments to the effect that it does not count. I thought to my self  “Oh yeah-here you are shooting at 400mm a bird that is at least 75 feet off-hand held – You don’t have any chance of making an image with enough quality to be published in print. How much does that count?”

That little exchange led me to think about what kind of roll shoot ing parks and zoos can and should play. To be a top-notch wildlife photographer, unlike other genres of photography, it is incredibly expensive. The gear is expensive and travel to exotic locations is also pricey and even at times hazardous. It is simply out of the reach of many people. I know this first hand. This Fall I will be attending a photo workshop at Bosque Del Apache and I have to live like a Hobo for a really long ime to be able to pay for it. The above Eagle shot would never be possible in the wild with out a very expensive lens maybe in the 800mm range and a trip to a place where the eagles are plentiful like Alaska. But for the price of admission at a local zoo I was able to make the shot. Not my first choice but my best choice given the circumstances. I fully believe that I will be in Alaska with an 800mm lens not too far in the future and when I am I will have the experience of having already made that shot to help make my new shots the best they can be.

Then there are those who think that shooting in a captive environment is easier. I am going to say that is not true. It is very different to be sure but in no way do I think it is the easy way to photograph. Most zoos and parks open well after sunrise and close before sunset so shooting golden hours is not an option. Seldom can you circle around an exhibit so the sun is at your back, so you are going to have to learn to deal with severe backlighting, you are going to have to learn about subtractive lighting, and you are going to have to learn to be adept at using flash. If you like getting close like I do you will soon learn that depth of field is critical. Critical to both capture the subject sharp but also to blur any unwanted background. You are going to have to know your aperture like the back of your hand. Most of the time you will have to photograph through a fence, wire mesh, corral, or glass, and sometimes 2 or three layers of fencing, that means you will have to practice manual focus. You probably won’t have the luxury of a tripod and you will also have to deal with crowds of people making noise and bumping into you, children around your feet. It takes skill to photograph in those conditions. There are times when I would much rather be out on the trail all alone.

I have heard many times that a wildlife photographer is obligated to inform their viewers if a subject is photographed in captivity. The only obligations I feel are to portray my subject in the best light possible and to avoid misrepresenting my work in any way. How is it that in other forms of photography it is encouraged for the viewer to draw their own conclusions but in wildlife it is my duty to tell them where the photograph was made? As far as I am concerned, if anyone wants to know where, when, or how a particular photograph was made they are more than welcome to ask and they will get a truthful answer.

All in all I think most everyone would rather be out in the field at a workshop in some exotic location, but the local zoo or animal park is a great place to get those images that you always wanted and will help fuel the drive to make all those other things a reality. As far as I am concerned a great quality picture is a great quality picture no matter where it was taken.

You can see more zoo pictures at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s