Henry Doorly Zoo



The Henry Doorly Zoo

2/21/2008 Omaha, Nebraska

Review: If I’m going to operate on a 10-scale rating, there’s gotta be a 10. Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo was, without a doubt,  a TEN.  An incredible zoo with an impressive collection in a wonderfully photographable display, this is the best zoo I’ve ever visited.  While it helps that connections gave us a little behind the scenes access, the zoo would have been equally sensational without it. With incredible exhibits at every turn, and even a dining spot overlooking the tropics with big free flight birds, it’s no wonder my friend Judy and I managed to spend a whole day at this incredible zoo.  (Check out Judy’s photos here and here

Photographability: Finally, it’s as though a zoo has taken photography into mind as they designed each and every one of the exhibits.  Natural barriers were implemented as often as possible, and if not, the glass was uber-clean and vertical wire fencing, a photo friendly barrier, was used in place of that dreaded ugly cyclone fencing. I used my Canon Mark IIn with a 70-200 f/2.8 zoom lens and a 28-70mm with a macro, variable ISO from 200-1600 depending the exhibit light as well as the Canon G7 to take some videos and photograph some of the aquarium bits. The G7 has an excellent macro lens and is really easy to use at the glass with the viewing screen.

Highlights: I’d heard the zoo was good, but hadn’t read up too much on the collection. The aquarium wing was really impressive and I was thrilled to see king penguins!  Going inside the exhibit was a total unsuspected thrill and my all time favorite zoo photo is still from this zoo visit. 

Lowlights: Seriously, no lowlights, aside from it being freezing, but that’s my fault, who goes to a zoo in Nebraska in February! 

Pleasant Surprises: The World of Darkness was incredible!  Not really a place for photography, never mind that i was too freaked to take photos, the place was like an amusement park ride, except we didn’t sign a waiver and I think my life might have been in more danger than I actually know.  The rogue giant bull frog hoping along our path and the screeches from the muskrats gave us a real fright! Did i mention King Penguins!?

Would I Return?:  Yes, absolutely.  Though I might try to coordinate it with the College World Series in the late spring as opposed to a winter wedding in Iowa!

Rating: 10 (out of 10)

The Stone Zoo


stonezoo1809The Stone Zoo

1/08/09 Stoneham, Massachusetts

Review: The Stone Zoo is my local zoo and I visit it more often than any other zoo.  It’s a small zoo with a nice collection of animals in a very walkable layout.  It’s really hit or miss, and the seasons play a huge role in that, but with many large cool animals (bears, coyotes, mtn lions, jaguars, otters, snow leopards and wolves) you’re likely to come away with a good memory.  I enjoyed watching the bears with some annoyance (see photographability) and have posted my favorite photo from that encounter.  

Photographability: The relatively new black bear exhibit is very frustrating.  While the viewing areas have great potential, the backlight provides for some very distracting reflections.  I think zoos should hire photographers when they go about designing exhibits, we see the viewing issues!  The covered space is nice, shade is a good start for hindering reflections, but a simple black curtain covering the back opening (advertise on the OTHER side) would greatly enhance the pleasure of this exhibit.  If I can’t shoot through a reflection, it means viewers can’t see through it either.  Seriously, Stone Zoo, if you’re reading this, try it, you’ll enjoy the bears that much more too! That gripe aside, I was determined to use my new 15mm fisheye lens and the bears were right up at the glass.  I met little success (1 success posted) given the number of frames i snapped, but found some luck bulking myself up and shooting through my solid reflection.  (tip: wear a dark solid shirt to the zoo, you can usually maneuver -albeit sometimes awkward- to block out the obnoxious background.)  I used the Canon G7 for a majority of the shots of the bears because I was able to use my torso to create a clean shot.  I cut off a lot of heads though too, because i couldn’t see the view screen.  The rest of the zoo is actually pretty photo friendly, though the exhibits with the meerkats and tamarins are dark and the sloth exhibit is covered in condensation. I used my Canon Mark IIn with a 70-200 f/2.8 zoom lens, variable ISO from 200-1600 depending on snow levels and exhibit light.

Highlights: Despite my complaints, the bears were very playful and fun.  The coyote was going to town on a bone, cool teeth, and the wolves were howling.

Lowlights: The Stone Zoo advertises often with a close up of a snow leopard.  It’s a gorgeous animal, and could easily be a highlight, but I haven’t seen the snow leopard in several visits.  

Pleasant Surprises: The zoo is making cool looking improvements to an otter exhibit and has another area portioned out for a white cheeked gibbon exhibit too. A baby emperor tamarin was born recently.

Would I Return?:  Yes, absolutely.  Maybe again in the spring when “Lord of the Wings” the free flight bird demonstration is back on.

Rating: 4 (out of 10)

The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore



The Maryland Zoo

10/07/08 Baltimore, Maryland

Review:  I stopped at the Maryland Zoo on my way down to visit some friends in Washington, D.C..  I spent a lot longer than i’d anticipated, two reasons, the zoo is set pretty far back in from the parking lot, and the chimpanzees were totally engaging.  The zoo overall was underwhelming, the exhibits were really spread out and it was easy to miss exposures for some exhibits without backtracking.  The zoo has quite a few exhibits but I didn’t really feel like i’d seen many animals.  The montage confirms that. 

Photographability:  I strive to keep barriers out of my photos.  This proved especially challenging with the elephant exhibit, and while I know it’s all in place for my safety, it’s unfortunate that the restraints went right through the normal line of view.  I opted for the Canon Mark IIn with the 70-200 f/2.8 zoo lens with the 1/4 extender.  It was a REALLY bright day, so i was fine to lose the 2.8 aperture and get my shutter speed away from 8000. The chimpanzee exhibit was especially challenging, the plexiglas barrier is VERY scratched up and grimy hands from shrieking children gummed up one side, while the chimps did their part with their mouths and other items from their side.  Add in some glare and it was almost unbearable to even observe them!  I used the Canon G7 on manual for the majority of the chimp shots as they were right up on the glass and i was able to readily control the exposure with the funky light.  Overall a very challenging photographic experience. Whew!

Highlights: Baby elephants are really cute, and Samson was no exception.  The top right photo continues to be one of my favorites.  I’d never seen a baby spoonbill (first column, second down, and bottom right), and while I generally try to avoid birds in the combos, this was an exciting sight.

Lowlights: The chimpanzee exhibit was impossible to work with/view, with or without a camera.

Pleasant Surprises: I did no research on the zoo aside from finding address for the GPS, so the baby elephant was a real treat!  The polar bear exhibit has a real Tundra Buggy, and while it was cool to see, it may have tempered my urge to go out in one with a whole lot of people i didn’t know.  Stuffy, cramped.

Would I return? Probably not, I’d more likely be eager to get to the National Zoo or Philadelphia Zoo on either side.

Rating: 2 (out of 10)

The Phoenix Zoo



The Phoenix Zoo

12/24/08 Phoenix, Arizona

Review: I’ve been going to the Phoenix Zoo on Christmas Eve day with my family for 22 consecutive years.  A wonderful tradition, it’s also a really good time of year to visit this zoo.  The Phoenix Zoo is a big zoo and it can involve a lot of walking with very little return.  I’m not crazy about the new interactive trail exhibits, and the Spectacled Bear’s Forest of Uco is a perfect example of this failed layout.  I’ve seen the bears once in about 10 years, and it wasn’t on December 24th.  Good for the bears, I guess, bad for the viewers.  I love the open African veldt, it’s a wonderful place to rest the legs and enjoy lunch with a great view. The Phoenix Zoo has made a commitment to keep their elephants, and the new renovation to their exhibit looked impressive even though the elephants were out of sight.  

Photographability: I used the Canon Mark IIn with the 70-200 f/2.8 zoom lens.  I opted not to use the 1/4 extender as it takes away the aperture flexibility, and I knew I wanted to shoot predominantly at f/2.8.  Not much use for the Canon G7, the zoo has few reptiles, amphibians, or other things the focal length of 70-200 couldn’t handle.  The zoo has a nice collection of tamarins, but they’re in cross bar-old school cage enclosures that in combination with sunlight are impossible to shoot beyond.

Highlights: I have a new crush on the Warty Pig (bottom left). The free range squirrel monkeys in Monkey Village (top right) were super active, it was much more fun to watch them than to try to photograph these quick bundles of energy.  

Lowlights: The orangutans were on exhibit for just a few minutes.  Too cold at 60 something degrees, oh well.

Pleasant Surprises: A photograph I took of Kasih, the baby Orangutan, as a feature for the Associated Press is being used on a large sign promoting a new Orangutan enclosure that will be built soon, or as soon as they can raise the $5million they need, i guess?

Would I return?: Absolutely, every time I visit Arizona, I make it a point to visit the Phoenix Zoo. I’m a member!

Rating: 8 (out of 10)

Central Park Zoo



The Central Park Zoo

12/05/08  New York, New York

Review:  The Central Park Zoo is my favorite little zoo. With a Tropics building unparalleled by any other zoo I’ve seen, what I also like so much about the zoo is my familiarity with each exhibit. They don’t have a huge collection, but it’s a really solid collection.  Here’s a little insider information about my photo montages:  Every zoo has birds, and birds for the most part, are pretty routine. I try to keep them to a minimum in the presentation, so if you see a combo with lots of birds (reference: left) the big animals were sleeping!

Photographability: The tropics building tends to be a tad dark, but the Canon Mark IIn with a 70-200 f/2.8 zoom lens with a 1×4 converter at 1250 to 1600 ISO still manages to hold the quality.  The birds are super colorful and it’s easy to get clean (or natural) looking backgrounds. Looking down into the snow monkey exhibit makes for boring photos, so it’s cool when they are up on their cliffs at eye level.  The polar bear exhibit is tricky, shooting through thick plexiglas at any angle leads to soft photos. The penguin exhibit in December is dark, dark dark.  Good for them and their cycle, bad for viewers. Best to see them in June when the lights are at their brightest.

Highlights: I like when Gus the Polar bear is swimming.  And I love ducks, and the Eider Duck (third column, bottom) is one of my new favorites.

Lowlights: The usually rambunctious snow monkey troop was hunkered down out of sight.  And the penguins, literally: low(no)-light.

Pleasant Surprise: Unrelated to animals, it was great to visit with my friends and colleagues that I used to volunteer with at the zoo.

Would I return? Absolutely!  A new lemur exhibit has just opened, and snow leopards are coming this spring!

Rating: 5 (out of 10) 

Franklin Park Zoo



The Franklin Park Zoo

12/12/08 Dorchester, Massachusetts

Review: As an ice storm gripped a lot of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, my friend Judy (see her photos) and I made our way south to the Franklin Park Zoo.  Because it was FREEZING, we had the place entirely to ourselves.  It’s not that I don’t like other visitors, but seldom do we have the opportunity to linger at, and dominate each and every exhibit like we did.  Winter is a great time to visit zoos, the people traffic is down, the temps are much cooler, and the animals are just as active!

Photographability: The Franklin Park Zoo recently renovated their tropics building. With multiple floor to ceiling plexi exposures of the gorilla exhibit, and few visual barriers at the other tropical exhibits, it’s not technically challenging to make a good picture.  It is still indoors though, and as a result, dark. I shot between 1250 and 1600 ISO on my Canon Mark IIn with a 70-200 f/2.8 zoom lens.  The Canon G7 came out a few times for those amphibian and reptile close ups.  The light outside was great and quite a few of the exhibits are free of visual barriers.  Moats as barriers require the reliance on a zoom lens but it sure beats cyclone fencing!

Highlights:  I’d never seen a Bornean Eared Frog (middle column, third down)

Lowlights: That pesky overlapping cyclone fencing prevented good photo opportunities of the gorgeous Amur Leopard.

Pleasant Surprise: The animals were perky and active given the frigid temps.  We learned quite a bit from the zoo keepers who gave us kudos for visiting on such a cold, cold day.

Would I return? Yes, but not immediately, it’s a bit of an unpleasant out of the way drive to get there.

Rating: 6 (out of 10)


Wildlife World Zoo and Aquarium

Wildlife World Zoo and Aquarium


Wildlife World Zoo and Aquarium

12/28/08 Litchfield Park, Arizona.

Review:  This was my first visit to the brand new aquarium (check out the zoo review here). The late sunday afternoon visit with two adult friends was quite pleasant , it was void of  screaming children and school groups.  The new buildings are clean and spacious, the exhibits well lit, and the glass was free of fingerprints, grime, and those pesky reflections. 

Photographability: I shot primarily with a 15mm  lens on a Canon Mark IIn and with the macro setting on my Canon G7.  ISO range from 640 to 1600, some of the exhibits were pretty dark.  Warped plexiglass looks cool, but just pass up trying to photograph through it. 

Highlights: I’d never seen a lion fish in a tank without a blue backdrop, nor swimming upside down.  And while I didn’t ride the log flume, it passes through some of the exhibits, and that looks really cool.

Lowlights:  Not all the exhibits had residents, the octopus hadn’t yet arrived.

Pleasant surprise: I didn’t expect Arizona to pull off an aquarium, but they spared little in designing a nice space.  At $26 admission, it’s nice that you can visit the adjoining zoo. And, after 5pm, when the zoo closes, entry to the aquarium is just $17!

Would I return: Yes, the next time i’m in Arizona, I’ll check out the aging process.

Rating:  5 (out of 10)