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How to: photograph like a pro during autumn at the zoo

Posted by: Kirsten Pisto, Communications
Photos by: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren knows a thing or two about patience and perseverance—being the zoo’s official photographer he is well versed in, well, waiting. Waiting for the light to open up, waiting for the lemur to jump, waiting for the rain to stop, and waiting for the crowds to clear. Then the shutter clicks and we all reap the rewards.

But you don’t have to wait for fabulous photography because autumn is here and now is the perfect time to bring your camera to the zoo. With golden orange light cascading from crisp leaves, a rainbow of changing foliage and long, beautiful shadows dancing across zoo grounds, November is an ideal time for photographers of all skill levels to visit the zoo.

Jeremy joined us in his official capacity as staff photographer in August of this year, although he had been a volunteer photographer for three years prior. Here he gives us some pro tips on making the most out of the season’s shifting light and clues us in on a few of his favorite spots to shoot. We also asked him a few questions about his job (since he might have one of the most coveted jobs at the zoo).


You have a two hour block of free photo time, where is your go-to spot at the zoo?

Tough question…I don’t really have one particular spot. Well, unless the raptors are doing their flight demonstrations. I show up to those as often as I can. Very challenging photography from a technical standpoint, but when you nail it the results can be quite spectacular.


So far you’ve managed to capture a ring-tailed lemur in midair, a grizzly bear moments before catching a salmon, Oregon spotted frogs literally jumping into the wild, and Malayan tigers plunging into their pool. What advice do you have for folks who are trying to get these iconic animal action shots?

Planning, practice and patience. Have a good idea of what you’d like to capture, and practice how to make that happen. Since our animals are free to choose how they spend their day you might have to wait awhile for that to happen—so be ready to have some patience! A good example was the lemur shot. I knew I wanted a mid-air shot, and that I wanted it with a nice even background. I practiced presetting the focus point and controlling the depth of field alongside the shutter speed so the shot would be technically good. Then it was a matter of waiting for good light and the animal to hit the preset spot. I got lucky on this one and it only took two visits. Other shots took revisiting over the course of weeks and months—some have been years.


What is the one piece of camera gear you never leave without?

My Canon 70-200 2.8 is my workhorse lens, mostly thanks to its incredible versatility. Short enough for landscapes, long enough for portraits, and fast enough to handle low light and deliver lots of depth in the shots. If I had to keep only one lens, that’d be the one.


Photos have the ability to stop time, to inspire, to really change people’s minds. What is something you hope to accomplish through your work here at the zoo?

I think you pretty much summed it up! I hope that my work inspires viewers to care more about our world and the animals in it, and even better to act on making a better place for the entirety of creation.


Can you describe a photograph that you felt really connected your viewers with the animal?

I love the expression in this one; the moment captured in it. It's a reminder of how wild and awesome our animals really are.


Your background is in aviation photography. Have you seen any correlation between shooting Cessna Titan and, say, a laughing kookaburra?

Oh absolutely. For one, they’re both kinda funny looking with those long noses/beaks that taper quickly to a fine tip point, so that makes photographing both enjoyable in a weird aesthetic way. Both fly pretty slowly compared to other birds too, so they’re a bit easier to track and considerably less maneuverable than, say, a ferruginous hawk (80/mph vs ~20/mph) or an F-22 Raptor (1,498/mph vs 267/mph).


Thanks, Jeremy! We can't wait to see more of your work!

And now, here are a few tips and tricks for anyone who is exploring a fall photo shoot at the zoo:

Autumn is in the details
Consider getting close to your subject. While traditional landscape shots are an easy fall benchmark, the subtleties you’ll find by tightening your frame are just as magical. Moving closer to your subject allows you to explore the textures and tones, without getting caught up in the bigger picture.

The golden hour
The golden hour is the point at which the sun’s light has to pass through the most atmospheric haze in order to reach Earth, and that creates the magical golden glow we associate with autumn. There are technically two points each day where the sun makes its magic: once right after sunrise and again just before sunset. In Seattle, that time is right around 7:06 a.m. and 3:54 p.m. (This website tells you exactly when the golden hour will hit your neck of the woods.) Take advantage of these hours, and get outside in that soft, red light!

Take advantage of gray skies
If you happen to find yourself on zoo grounds during a gray sky day, don’t worry, gray is sometimes gold! An overcast day doesn’t mean putting away your lens. Take advantage of this natural softbox which provides bright, diffused light. A gray sky is a nice time for wildlife portraits, especially of dark furred beasts, when the light is soft. Just make sure your white balance is correct to avoid colder tones taking over.

Whether you are telling the story of a single leaf or a family of ring-tailed lemurs, think about perspective. If you are shooting a leaf, consider getting close to the ground. If you are trying to tell the story of a particular animal, consider getting down to eye level with that creature. This easy maneuver can really change a lot about your framing, opens up your angles and allows your audience to see things from a surprising viewpoint.

Get here early Early risers get the best action shots, because most animals are more active in the morning. It is during this time that many of the larger animals explore the outdoors, looking for their breakfast or just checking things out. You’ll have the opportunity to get positioned in the right spot with fewer visitors during the mornings as well.

Remember to tag #woodlandparkzoo when you share your photos with us!