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 were to be no sign of man made objects – walls, fences, feeding troughs, cages etc, were not to appear in or out of focus in the shots, and all the animals photographed had to be in good condition. If the oryx with the twisted horn was standing at the edge of its enclosure smiling and waving its twisted horn at me- tough. I had to lure the oryx with two perfect horns closer to me, and that one was the one that was to be photographed.
For two splendid weeks, I climbed on top of cages to drape white cloth over bars, so that the stripes of enclosure bars would not feature on the animals faces. Feeding times were arranged around my shooting schedule and the feeding troughs were dispensed with as feed was offloaded onto the ground.
Armed with a 600mm Nikkor lens lent to me by a wildlife photographer friend, I set out every day to put the wilderness back into captive animals.
Unlike human subjects, we did not expect the animals to relate to me, but they did need to be looking in my direction. To zoo animals that have had every sound tried on them in order to gain their attention, this was no easy task.
I discovered that they were impervious to my whole repertoire of whistles and vocal attempts, until I struck luck by imitating the raucous cry of the peacock. This would cause them to glance up in my direction for a moment, and that was the moment I had to capture. Needless to say my peacock imitation also gained the puzzled attention of the other visitors to the zoo, but what the heck, I had a black box in front of my face and doubted I would ever bump 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 had long since disappeared into the bush, and I had to make do with the pathetically inadequate 200mm lens. For that to work, I knew that the animals would have to be practically brushing up against the fence nearest me, and taking a deep interest in my work.
There are several obstacles to taking good pictures of zoo animals if you do not want the photos to scream “captivity”.
Firstly, in nature there are no straight lines, which means that you cannot have any geometrically perfect vertical or horizontal objects, even if they are totally out of focus, in the background.
Next, the vegetation at a zoo is all wrong. You can’t include the completely out of focus but still identifiable fir trees and flowers in the background, or it will look as if you took the picture of the rhino in your back garden.
Zoos keep office hours so you are out of luck with early morning and dusk light too, and will have to make do with back light or flat overcast light on a dull day.
And lastly, zoo animals are pathologically bored and terminally unhappy, and how do you keep that out of the pictures?
So the answer to the question posed in the title is “Yes” and “No”. “Yes”, with a suitably long lens focusing on animals new to the zoo, or jaded old inmates with young, you can probably get something worth taking home with you. And “No”, because as an adult, it’s difficult not to be saddened by the diminishment of the lives taken from the wild. And sad photographers taking pictures of even sadder animals, doesn’t add up to great pics.
Disclaimer: The scope of this article does not cover the incredible work done by zoo breeding projects, the dedicated zoo keepers who look after the animals, the continuing improvement in enclosures and the millions of delighted visitors who do not have the luxury to view wild animals in their natural habitats.