Photography at the Calgary Zoo

by Dr. Robert Berdan
July 23, 2011

Zoos do themselves and their society a disservice by creating an atmosphere in which visitors
approach them only with a mindset of social recreation, rather than of intellectual discovery.

                                                                                                                                          David Hancocks


I have mixed feeling about zoos, on the one hand they offer tremendous teaching opportunities and some zoos are involved in conservation, outreach and animal rehabilitation. However, I believe zoos also serve as "animal prisons" and could do a much better job creating more natural looking habitats for the animals and in encouraging conservation and animal education with less emphasis on entertainment. If a zoo prohibits you from taking pictures, requires a special permit or charges a fee to take pictures - frankly I wouldn't support them. Some zoos may only permit you to take photographs for personal use - again I wouldn't support or visit them. If you are concerned check with the zoo about their photo policies. Most professional nature photographers prefer not to photograph animals at a zoo, but then not all of pros can afford to travel to far away places to photograph certain wild animals. If you plan to take video for commercial use you will almost certainly require permission and a written release from the zoo and you may alse need permission from any recognizeable people in your film - thankfully we don't need a model release from the animals! The Calgary zoo visitors policy can be found here, but I have not found an official photography policy, though they offer photo workshops on site.

Owl, Whopping swan and Black crowned night-heron by Robert Berdan ©

Great Gray Owl, Whopping Crane, Black-crowned Night Heron - Calgary Zoo

I recently took a group of photography students to the Calgary Zoo to learn more about wildlife photography and how to use their camera to take better animal photographs. I gave them an assignment list which included trying to portray the animals as if they were wild and another to show the animals in their cages. I also asked them to spend time photographing some of the plants and insects. Photographing captive animals at a zoo or wildlife rehabilitation centre can be a good way to learn more about the animals and learn how to use a camera and can be especially useful for new photographers. Zoos don't require long distance travel and their are often many species available including: birds, various plants and insects. Below are some suggested guide lines for photographing at a zoo. Note certain zoos may have specific regulatons regarding photography and you will need to follow them if they do.

View Assignment List - PDF

Ethics and Suggested Etiquette for Zoo Photography

1. Don't disturb the animal by yelling at them, tapping on the windows, feeding them or throwing coins

2. Don't try to pass a photo of a captive animal off as a wild animal - it will hurt your reputation

3. Obey all zoo rules and regulations and don't cross or climb over the barriers (see YouTube videos below).

4. Don't block other visitors views and be particularly careful when using a tripod not to disturb other visitors

5. In some places a flash may not be allowed - watch for signs that prohibit the use of flash

6. Use your visit to the zoo to learn more about the animals and what you can do to help them survive in the wild.

7. If you see that an animal is not being properly cared for or the habitat is inadequate - document it and use the photos     to try and bring about an improvement.

             Discussion: What are some of the pros and cons of zoos? Should certain animals not be in a zoo or aquarium?

Aerial map of the Calgary Zoo

Aerial Map of the Calgary Zoo - located in the heart of Calgary on an Island surrounded by the Bow River

Some of the Challenges of Photographing in a Zoo

1. To remove a fence in the foreground put you telephoto lens as close as possible to the fence and use a wide F-stop setting e.g. F2.8.

2. When photographing through glass or plastic, find an area that is clean with few scratches and place your lens close to the surface. Sometimes a polarizing filter can be helpful to remove reflections of the glass. A lens hood can also be helpful in reducing flare.

3. Be patient - spend some time watching the animals or return to the same animal enclosure a few times.

4. Visit the Calgary zoo on bad weather days - its cheaper and their are fewer people. Overcast light often results in better animal portraits then clear sunny days which produce high contrast and dark shadows.

5. Photoshop can be used to remove animal tags and fences (use the content aware fill feature and cloning tool). See example of Hippos below.

6. The best lens to bring is a zoom-telephoto lens e.g. 70-200 mm zoom lens, and a macro lens for flower shots. A tripod is useful for flowers or other low light situations.

Hippos retouched at the Calgary Zoo by Robert Berdan

I removed the ropes in front of the Hippo using Adobe Photoshop's clone and content aware tools 70-200 mm F4 lens

My students captured some beautiful animal and plant photographs and some of the photographs, especially those of the apes, made most of us feel sad. It's hard not to feel empathy for the primates in their tiny enclosures and their expressions suggested boredom. However I also saw many children at the zoo excited to see numerous strange animals for the first time and I couldn't help but think that anything that teaches them more about animals must be a good thing. I only hope that their experience also teaches them that we need to do more to conserve spaces for the preservation of animals in the wild and that animals have just as much right as we do to live on the planet.

Snow Leopard Calgary Zoo by Robert Berdan ©

Snow leopard photographed behind a wire fence - 300 mm F4 lens

I know that some zoos provide rehabilitation and breeding programs as well as conservation and outreach programs, but zoos have been criticized that most of the bred animals are sold to other zoos rather then be released back into the wild (see Wikipeadia article below).

Tiger at Calgary Zoo - Photoshop was used to remove the fence in the background. 300 mm F4 lens

From a photographers viewpoint the Calgary zoo is an interesting place to visit and offers a wide variety of animals. The lion and tigers exhibits appear quite natural and the enclosure includes clear glass windows where photographers can photograph through (see below). The primate cages appear to be constructed out of concrete, rope and hanging fire hoses with very few plants other then grass. I believe the primate enclouses could be more enriched by adding more natural vegetation and trees. The fire hoses may be fun for the animals to swing from, but they hardly appear natural.

Lioness at the Calgary Zoo by Robert Berdan ©

Lioness at the Calgary zoo photographed through glass window - 300 mm F4 lens

In 1976, as part of Seattle Zoo's bioclimatically based zoo plan, we built the world's first naturalistic exhibit for gorillas. Other zoo directors warned us against it. They predicted that the animals would kill all the plants. They also said the animals did not need so much space. And I was told it was irresponsible to allow the gorillas to climb trees, from which they could fall and break their necks. Those zoo experts refused to believe our more natural approach could work, or to believe it when it clearly did.

David Hancocks - The Future and Ethics of Zoos see Link to his essay below

About 20 years ago the Calgary zoo hosted a polar bear that would pace back and forth in its tiny enclosure in spite of being drugged and it was a relief for some of us when the animal finally died. There was talk about bringing back another polar bear to the Calgary zoo which I oppose, and protests appear to have stopped that proposal for now (read discussion). I believe that certain animals should not be caged in a zoo or aquarium and that includes polar bears, killer whales, beluga whales, dolphins, gorillas and chimpanzees and other higher apes. I am not sure where you draw the species line as some animals appear quite content to be taken care of - I know my pet cat likes human company and being cared for. The argument that if the animals were not in a zoo they would be killed is unacceptable to me. I realize we have human lives to consider in some places in the world, but if we don't learn to curb our population growth and establish more parks and animal sanctuaries for them to live in the wild, our own chances for survival don't look bright either.

Flowers photographed in the Calgary Conservatory - bring a macro lens with you! 100 mm Macro lens and tripod

One of the highlights of the zoo is their gardens and various plant exhibits. They also feature a butterfly room where photographers can get up close to these beautiful insects. Bring lens paper or cloth with you if you visit these humid exhibits to clean the front of your lens frequently from the condensation. The Calgary zoo also features a dinosaur exhibit area, though it pales in comparison with a visit to the Royal Tyrrell museum and a visit to the Badlands areas around Drumheller and Brooks, Alberta (see my article on dinosaur provincial park). Smaller mamals and birds appear "comfortable" at the zoo and you can get some great shots of various birds species including owls, cranes, peackcocks and flamingos.

African Crane - soft overcast lighting 300 mm F4 lens

North American Sandhill Crane - full sunlight 300 mm F4 lens

Peacock walking freely around the grounds - 300 mm F4 lens

Flamingo by Robert Berdan ©

Flamingo - 300 mm F4 lens

Postman Butterfly - from the butterfly room 100 mm Macro lens and Flash

Burrowing Owl - even though these birds breed in Alberta, I have yet to find one in the wild - I am still looking. 70-200 mm lens

elephant by Robert Berdan ©

Elephants are popular but the enclosure does not appear natural - its design probably focuses on the ease of keeping it clean

If you are traveling to Calgary and enjoy photography a visit to the zoo can be a rewarding experience. Western Lowland Gorilla by Robert Berdan ©However, in spite of the numerous new exhibits at the Calgary zoo, I would like to see the Calgary zoo make some of the current enclosures more natural and include more plants especially those housing the primates. Furthermore not everyone agrees with the concept of having zoos (e.g. PETA), but even in our national parks animals are killed regularly by speeding cars and trains and we could do a better job protecting these animals by enforcing the speed limits. In general, I am in support of zoos, I believe they can play an important role in education and changing the attitudes of young people so they might support more conservation. Some folks might argue that photographing caged animals is only for our entertainment with little educational value, but they would be wrong. All of the nature photographers I know care deeply about the animals and plants we photograph and most of us try to use our photographs in support of conservation and various educational programs (e.g. see my article on photographing wolves). If an institution or zoo doesn't take proper care of its animals - photography can be a powerful weapon to draw attention to the problem (see links about Guzoo in Three Hills Alberta). Finally, visitors and zoo photographers should realize that taking a picture of an animal at a zoo is nothing like the excitement of photographing a wild animal in its natural habitat, but the problem is the number of wild animals and space for wild animals to roam is disappearing and unless we do something about it - zoos may be the only place where we will be able to see and photograph certain animals in the future. RB

Rock Hayks from Africa by Robert Berdan

Rock Hyaks from Africa - photographed through the glass enclosure in the Africa exhibit - 70-200 mm F4 lens

Links to articles about zoos

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