I was preparing for an exhibition earlier this year and had the concept of restricting the content to a 12 month period of one of my favourite subjects – Wildlife.

In the lead up to the exhibition I had just started shooting with the D800E.  I was so captivated by the huge files and the ability to capture incredible detail in the images that I decided to shoot some local content specifically for the exhibition with that camera.  This is where the idea was born to combine my selection of existing wildlife images (all taken within a 12 month period) with a selection of more intimate portraits of wild species taken at the Auckland Zoo.

It was a great concept on a number of levels.  The juxtaposition between the wild animals in their natural habitat – alongside those living in Auckland Zoo – was a great way to remind people of what is at stake when it comes to protecting wildlife habitats, and also to recognise the efforts of entities like the Auckland Zoo who sink a sizeable sum into animal conservation each year.  As the exhibition was going to be part of the Auckland Festival of Photography, it was also a great way to show budding photographers that we don’t always have to travel to Africa to take great animal photos – practice in your own back yard!

And so “A Year in the Wild Life of Chris McLennan” was born and I was on a mission to capture 12 brand new images of wild species at the Auckland Zoo, all within a few days!

The zoo were very co-operative and were happy to give me great access to shoot the animals I had requested.  However the very interesting point to make here is that the majority of the images ended up being photographed from public access areas!  There are endless photographic opportunities at animal parks and zoos, and with a little bit of patience it’s a great way to practice and perfect your photography skills.

The Auckland Zoo has gone to huge efforts to create large and natural environments for all of the animals, so I was able to creatively use the space around the animals where needed.  I looked for lighting opportunities that would give me great images (back lighting or side lighting) and I was happy to wait it out if the animal I wanted to photograph was playing coy with me.

I was really lucky to get up close to a few special characters, for example Janie the 60-odd year old chimpanzee and Inkosi the rhino, and during these occasions it was incredible to witness the true bond the keepers have with their animals.

Carlo: – the male zebra.  This image was in my head before going to the zoo and I knew exactly what I wanted to capture.  It took about an hour to get the perfect angle for the shot I wanted – half of the zebra’s head in frame with my focus on the eye, with Carlo’s out-of-focus body filling the rest of the frame – and no cropping!  This was a really graphic and abstract image which I managed to get in both landscape and portrait versions.  Carlo’s deep brown eye gives a touch of colour to an otherwise seemingly monochrome image.

Nikon D800E.  Nikkor 500mm f4.  ISO 320.  F4 at 1/2500 second.  Lexar 1100x CF card. 

Tipua: – Tipua is a female tuatara and was a very obliging subject.  She remained very still allowing me to use a relatively slow shutter speed for this shot.  The slow shutter speed provided the dreamy effect to the waterfall, which I framed as the background to provide some depth and light in this image as well as giving it a sense of environment.  Tuatara are amazing subjects, and by shooting Tipua up close with a lot of texture in her against the soft background, I was able to create an image that is almost prehistoric in its appearance.

Nikon D800E.  Nikkor 70-200 2.8.  ISO 100.  F8 at 1/3 second.  Lexar 1100x CF card. 

Charlie: Charlie is a large male Bornean Orang-utan.  I had observed Charlie on a number of occasions when visiting the zoo with my family – he has a love for his blanket and is usually seen slinking away with it wrapped around his head in a shy manner.  On this particular day he was sitting under a large wooden structure with his back to me.  I waited with my camera set up on my tripod and focused on the back of his head for around an hour and a half – I didn’t dare look away and risk missing a shot!  Finally Charlie turned and gave me a look that said very clearly “Ok, I see you are not going to give up”, before rewarding me with a half-smile.  The moment literally lasted one second before he disappeared back under his blanket, turning his back to me and wandering off.

Nikon D800E.  Nikkor 600mm f4.  ISO 400.  F4 at 1/500 second.  Lexar 1100x CF card. 

OZ: Oz is a male Sumatran tiger.  My plan when shooting Oz was to have him on an elevated rock near the front of the outdoor enclosure which catches stunning early morning light.  The keeper worked with me and placed one of the large chunks of Oz’s food on the rock that we had chosen before Oz was released into his enclosure.  But Oz had other plans of course…!  He strolled by, picked up his food and took it to a shady area near the rear of the enclosure, quite the opposite of what I had in mind.  So I moved my position and “found” a stunning frame with beautiful backlit gold and green foliage behind OZ.  After waiting around ten minutes I was rewarded with direct eye contact and a ‘tigerific’ snarl from OZ.  And that was my shot!  I waited another 30 minutes or so but OZ was already bored with me and determined not to look my way again.  As I had exposed for Oz this created a fantastic “glowing” bokeh of colour behind him, with a great catchlight in his eyes reflected from the skies above.

Nikon D800E.  Nikkor 500mm f4.  ISO 800.  F4 at 1/640 second.  Lexar 1100x CF card. 

Janie: Janie is the matriarch of Auckland Zoo and has captured the hearts of all the staff there.  She is one of the original tea party chimps from the 60’s and is around 60 years old.  Like many humans in their golden years she can be grouchy but with lots of talking and “vocalising” Janie interacted with us for quite some time allowing me to capture this portrait which I immediately fell in love with.  For those of you who know Janie, this shot really highlights both her wise years and her somewhat cheeky and unique character.  I intentionally didn’t show any of the zoo staff the images before the exhibition as I wanted them to experience the full benefit of the images printed up large, and I can honestly say there were a few teary eyes around the Janie image on opening night!

Nikon D800E.  Nikkor 500mm f4.  ISO 800.  F4 at 1/200 second.  Nikon SB910 off camera speedlite with small softbox.  Lexar 1100x CF card.

Like all projects I started out with a bunch of ideas in my head that I wanted to achieve – some of them came to fruition, others were not so successful – but that is the nature of wildlife photography – no pun intended.

The 12 images I created at the Auckland Zoo looked amazing and created a lot of attention – easily as much as the images from the wild – due to the different style and more intimate feel in the way they were captured.  The exact same principals apply when shooting animals anywhere, whether in the wild, at an animal enclosure or in your backyard.  Have a concept in mind but be creative and ready for whatever may happen.  Respect the animals and learn what you can about each species.  Be patient but not complacent.  You often have to wait hours for an event that may last seconds – but it is always worth it!

As published in D-Photo Magazine.

Editor’s Note: Janie sadly passed away on the Friday the 11th of October and is no longer with us. Says Auckland Zoo’s Head of Life Sciences Kevin Buley “Janie was and always will be a special part of Auckland Zoo and we are very saddened by her loss. While it was a heartbreaking decision, the overwhelming desire to preserve Janie’s dignity meant [euthanasia] was the right one.”

Janie was the oldest animal at Auckland Zoo, and was one of the oldest chimpanzees in any zoo in the world.

The rest of the series of 12 zoo images:


All images Copyright Chris McLennan

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