I spend a LOT of time at the zoo. On average, I visit once per month. That number used to be roughly three times per month, but alas, life has a way of getting in the way. It was at the Pittsburgh Zoo that I really found my calling as a photographer. Before I was hired for my first full time out job out of college, I’d spend countless hours at each exhibit (with an extended period of time at the big cats) just staring and snapping, staring and snapping.
The type of image I was, and still am, after is just like the one you see above: a nice, tight image of the subject animal with zero indication that the photo was taken at a zoo. The snow provides a natural, realistic backdrop for this amur leopard which lives in snowy regions of Russia. It’s a fantastic photo, but for me, it sort of felt like a been there done that moment. I needed to switch things up to get out of a creative rut. But how?
I continued on through the zoo, still searching for a theme or idea. Doing what I normally do in the winter time when it’s cold, I headed to the aquarium to breeze through the exhibits and warm up a bit. To my delight, it was empty without another soul to be seen. I won’t get in to all of the technicals of my shots, but suffice it to say that being alone gave me a lot of freedom, and time, to work on some techniques for shooting through the glass of the exhibits. I’m very pleased with the end results and next time, I might not heed the advice of our absent minded fish friend, Dory. I won’t just keep swimming. I’ll wait then shoot, wait then shoot. And hopefully I’ll swim away with some winners!
Well it’s Monday and that means another weekly installment of my Kickstart series. Looking at the forecast the night before, last Monday seemed like it was going to have all the makings of a beautiful day. And it did! I started off my week by heading to the West End Overlook, one of my favorite spots in the city, to work on the week’s series. The clouds were nice and moving quickly, but they were overly abundant and the light of sunrise just never developed. Dud! There went that idea.
I returned home and wondered how I would fit in my Monday shoot if the morning session was a bust. Harsh mid-day light does not make for flattering scenics and I had plans in the evening. It didn’t take long before I convinced myself the Pittsburgh Zoo would be an excellent choice for such a nice day. Now I could have settled for my theme (which I like all of my Kickstart posts to have one) to be animals. I took it a step further and decided only African mammals would be included. Still that wasn’t enough. I didn’t want to head to the zoo and simply slap on my longest lens, take some nice closeup portraits of the African wildlife, and call it a day. I needed something unique and challenging, something I’ve not done before.
On the drive to the zoo, I wracked my brain. Even as I was going up the escalator into the zoo, I’d not come up with anything. Then I got to thinking about camouflage and how both predator and prey generally do not like to be seen. Some have natural physical features to aid them in remaining well hidden and others employ techniques for hiding. Now at the zoo, most animals don’t have a reason to hide, and obviously visitors don’t want them to either, not that they have any control.
Enter JP. After thinking about this a little further I realized that if the animals were not going to hide, I was going to make them. The zoo does a great job of keeping the habitats looking pretty natural so there is no shortage of long grass, brush, and tress. This lush greenery would serve as the “hideout” for the animals. Instead of the rhino, for instance, positioning itself behind a tree or bush, I positioned MYSELF so that the tree would be between my lens and the rhino. I did this at all the exhibits I visited and to be frank, I really enjoyed the challenge. And a challenge it was!
Now you may be thinking to yourself, “Well, I am having no problems seeing the animals in the photos. They are not very well hidden.” I agree. I had and still have no delusions that the photos would be a “Where’s Waldo” of the wildlife sort. My challenge to myself was to portray the animals at the zoo in a different perspective and create the illusion that perhaps they were out in the wild as opposed to in captivity. I’m sure I got some strange looks and some “what the hell is this guy photographing?” along the way, but I enjoyed the challenge and it got me thinking out of the box. And for me, that’s what helps me grow.
Ever since I can remember I have loved wildlife. Growing up I wanted to be a either a zoologist or a marine biologist. All throughout high school my passion for wildlife was present, if only a little less prevalent. I was really good at math and physics, however, so people said I should be an engineer. I listened. And even though I became that engineer people recommended I become, I held on to my affinity for wildlife. In fact, after college when I picked up my first camera in 2007, that affinity grew. It was the zoo and its animals, not the Pittsburgh skyline, that I had a connection with as my interest in photography began to bud. I would go 15 or so times a year and spend hours going back and forth between exhibits. My favorite animal(s) generally speaking are the big cats so I spend the most time at their habitats – lions, leopards, and tigers primarily which is great because I have access to them. When you spend enough time at the exhibits like I do, you’ll tend to have better luck seeing them up and moving about as opposed to laying there like a lump, which is all too often the case. I also learned that winter is the BEST time to go. The animals are active, the snow (if there is any and hopefully there is otherwise backgrounds for photos tend to be very….well BLEH!) provides a calm scene especially if it’s falling, and it’s empty! I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve been the only one at the zoo, or so it would seem at least. Unfortunately, though, my trips to the zoo have dwindled in the past two years. Life has a way of taking over and we somehow forget to make time for things that are important to us. I wanted to put that to an end so last Friday, Valentine’s Day, I set out for the zoo while my wife was at work. It was cold and snowy and I was all alone, just how I like it. I figured maybe there’s no better day than Valentine’s Day to reconnect with an old friend. I was right!