Recently I was visiting the city of Pueblo, Colorado and decided while I was there to visit the local zoo to try and add some more animal pictures to my collection. Considering Pueblo is only a city of about 110,000 people I really didn’t expect much from a small town zoo. I was pleasantly surprised though. The zoo was neat, clean, laid out nicely, and had a pretty large variety of animals.
The zoo is about 25 acres in size and is part of the larger City Park area. That makes the Pueblo Zoo about half the size of the Houston Zoo and a quarter of the size of the San Diego Zoo, but relies on a much smaller population base to keep it operating year round. Admission was $10 for an adult, and considering I spent several hours going through the zoo; it wasn’t an exorbitant price. For more information about the zoo and the animals they house visit their website: http://www.pueblozoo.org
From a photographer’s perspective though; there are some good and bad points about visiting this zoo. Some of which are a matter of timing; others are just limitations built into the zoo. On the plus side of things it wasn’t crowded. Admittedly I went on a Friday in late January – but very few times did I run into other people visiting the same animal displays as me at the same time. That made it very casual and relaxed and let me set up and use my tripod without fear of people jostling it or knocking it over.
On the negative side; the enclosures are kind of small for some of the animals as it pertains to shooting pictures. As discussed in a previous post (Shooting Animals at the Zoo) if you want to shoot animals at a zoo and get the cages and fencing to not show up you need the animals to be a distance back from the front edge of the cage. Also more distance behind the subject – and a wide aperture – will allow you to blur out background details. But at the Pueblo Zoo a lot of the enclosures for the animals aren’t very deep depth wise. They’re wide to allow many people to view the animals. but not deep to allow a lot of separation between cage and animal. It definitely doesn’t help when the animal you’re trying to shoot is interested in what you’re doing. For example, here’s a shot of one of the Red Pandas.
The little guy is as cute as can be; but since he’s right up near the edge of the cage there’s no way to focus around the bars to get them out of the picture. With some patience though I was able to get the shot below which is better – but still not great.
The bright washed out vertical lines are the lines of the cage that are still visible. With some time spent in Photoshop I’m sure I could correct for most of the lines that show in the picture, and I may still do so as an practice exercise for myself.
My point is, since the zoo doesn’t have a huge space to work in; the cage sizes can pose a challenge for picture taking that wouldn’t be a problem for someone just visiting to simply look at the animals. One way to try and work around this is to move to a different position to see if you can increase the distance between the subject and the bars. If you were standing at one end of the cage; try moving to the other end. If that doesn’t work, try patience. Wait and see if the animal will move to a different part of the cage on it’s own. If that fails, walk away and come back by the cage later to see if the shot has improved.
Sometimes there just isn’t a great shot to be had. Take the best shot that you can knowing that you may have to really work the image hard in post processing to get more from it; or just walk away from it altogether and spend your time on other animals.
Another negative that I ran into – which was a function of my timing and not a fault of the zoo – is that I was visiting in mid day on a sunny day. That meant that the bars of the cages were very brightly lit. This meant that even in cases where there was physical separation between the animal and the cage; the areas of light to dark contrast still caused visual problems with the images.
There are several ways to combat that problem. First would be to visit earlier or later in the day when the light wouldn’t be so harsh. Second would be visit the zoo on an overcast day. a third option would be to get the camera right up against the fence or cage so as to not allow the light to fall on the bars in the first place – but that’s not always possible because of the distance between the pathway barriers and the edge of the enclosures; and I do not encourage ignoring the barriers in place to get a good photo.
Since I’ve listed a couple of negatives now I need to add one absolutely positive thing that this zoo had going for it. The climate. Even though it was January the temperature was right around 60 degrees; that meant that the animals were out and about soaking up the sunshine and being active. Compared to most trips to the Houston Zoo where the animals are typically hiding in the shade, panting, and laid out like wet sofa cushions; this was a bonus. This was most noticeable around the big cats that were on display.
While neither a positive or a negative, since the zoo is a small town zoo there are a fairly large number of animals that aren’t what I would call ‘exotic’. They have an area devoted to farm life and farm animals which means different breeds of chickens, rabbits, cows, and goats. While not ‘exotic’ they can still be fun to take pictures of, and a large bonus is that since they’re not fierce creatures they’re not locked away in cages. The farm-type animals are kept in pens with regular fences that you can shoot over and not have to worry about using any tricks to obscure the bars.
Truthfully at the end of the day I walked out of the zoo with a few images that I thought were okay, nothing award winning or spectacular by any means. But I did learn some more about the challenges of shooting in a zoo environment and for me that’s what it’s all about: trying to improve.
Other photos from this shoot can be found online at my Flickr account by clicking here.
P.S. I have mixed emotions about zoos in general. I know that the animals would most likely prefer to be out in the wild or in their natural habitats. But I also know and understand that many of the animals found in zoos are there as part of conservation efforts or because they have been injured and are unable to function in the wild. While it makes me sad to see animals kept; I know that most people that operate zoos are committed greatly to keeping their animals safe and healthy. I also know that it’s a privilege to be able to so easily go and see so many of these animals in person and that it wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for zoos. For me, for now, I feel the balance is that zoos try to do more good than harm and so I choose to help support them by visiting them periodically and spending my money to help fund their ventures.