Park Omega highlights. Photographing in a Northern safari park
My last blog entry on the Moscow Zoo brought back some very nice memories from the time I was working in Canada. Naturally, I took advantage of the opportunities for wildlife photography (and I will eventually tell you about my favorite outdoor weekend place in Ontario). Sometimes, however, I was limited in time but still had to shoot something.... Wait, that didn't exactly come out right. Ok, I had to photograph animals 'cause I love it and the way photography works is quantity becomes quality. The more you shoot the better you get (provided you put some thought into it, not just get all trigger-happy). Park Omega was the perfect place to practice.
Park Omega in Quebec is a curious animal park in the sence that it stands somewhere between a very good zoo with spacious enclosures and a safari animal park. Park Omega holds a collection of mostly North American animals and is good for introducing kids to the native wildlife. A part of the park is a drive-through section, some animals are kept in separate enclosures. All of the park blends perfectly into the gorgeous Quebecan landscape.
That especially played well for capturing images of the Ibех, providing a more natural rocky background for these European mountain goats.
The best part is that the fences don't get in your way when you photograph because the ground on the animals' side is elevated at the perfect angle to provide an unobstructed view of the Park's furry residents. So many regular zoos could and should consider this factor when building enclosures. The end result is a shot of an apparently free animal. Needless to say, it should always be clarified whether the subject was free or captive, but it all depends on your goals. Not everyone needs a shot of a wild animal, someone may just need a nice image for a postcard or a calender. Most people wouldn't be able to tell the difference and instead would rather focus on the image. For example, the beaver in the photo below isn't a wild one since a wild beaver is not likely to let you come close, but if I hadn't mentioned it was a park animal very few people would be able to tell. Note, I am not saying this to teach anyone how to pass off zoo photos for wildlife images, I'm just saying it's fine to photograph captive animals if your purpose is to get a certain animal image. Just remember to be honest about the origins of the photo.
The White-tailed Deer could easily be found all over Ontario. Hell, one even fell through the sun roof over the swimming pool in the house where I lived. But the image I kept was taken in Omega. (In case you were wondering, the dumb deer survived the fall and was released, but it all happened when I was at work so I don't have any photos from that memorable day).
The Moose were the focus of many a photoshoot but in Canada the wild moose are often so infested with ticks they look horrible. They also may lose a lot of their fur, develop anaemia and hypothermia. Seeing those animals in the wild broke my heart every time. A captive moose doesn't experience the same problem, so it looks presentable year round.
And last but not least. When shooting a closeup like this one I would really rather have a fence between myself and the model.
Same goes for this one.
Here the visitors are allowed to feed the animals as long as they only give them carrots. I feel very strongly about people feeding animals unsuitable food despite the rules and warnings of a zoo that usually explain why you should not feed the animals. But there are places that allow such things with certain provisions and as long as no harm comes to the animals it can be a good fun way to connect with them. In Park Omega even the wolves were happy to get a piece of carrot.
The driving route is occupied by herbivores like deer, ibex, buffalo. All of these animals are used to mugging the cars for carrots. At the very start of the route the cars are greeted by elk. One time I was visiting with my best friend who's never been to such an animal park. She sat in the backseat of my car with bags of carrots and great expectations. When she saw the elk she completely rolled down the windows on both sides and before she knew it huge slobbering elk heads were pushing inside the car in a very assault-like search of food. The poor girl freaked out and I couldn't even drive away. Not because I was afraid of hurting the animals but because I was weaping hysterically into the steering wheel, incapacitated by laughter. I know, I'm a great friend. I'm not even sorry, it was too funny. I can still hear the shriek "Get out, you fugly bastard, you're scaring me!" and it cracks me up every time.
Imagine her reaction when, after sparring with a rival bull, an enormous male buffalo sauntered up to our car and stuck his muzzle (it's all that would fit through my car's window) inside. Fortunately, he came up to me, so she didn't freak out too much, but still.
Of course, depending on the season the residents may get cuter.
Bare in mind, that is subject to change. They grow up so fast....
I always had a soft spot for predators, so despite the Park's great variety of herbivores I always spent the majority of my time with their wonderful family of Timber Wolves. At this point photographing in zoos was a lot less alluring to me than shooting in the wild but I could never get bored with observing these wonderful creatures, their relationships, their facial expressions. They attracted me so much that I would make one trip around the park in my car and then return to the Timber Wolves for almost the entire rest of my visit.
Carnivores in general tend to have more complex facial expressions than herbivores (with the exception of bears who have less developed mimic muscles and communicate their emotions in other ways)...
...so their portraits are easier for us humans to relate to despite us misreading their signals most of the time. People like to anthropomorphize animals and for me it's fun to learn what emotions people attribute to my subjects and compare that to what's really going on. Despite all the snarling and displaying of pearly whites all interactions in the images below were harmless. I did observe a violent clash that ended in blood once in this group, but in general they were a closely knit family. And that clash was between two adult wolves, none of the older animals ever hurt the youngsters even though it might look so on camera. Wolves have amazingly precise control of their teeth so if their intent is to scare that's all that is going to happen. And rest assured, if it's blood they're after, it's blood they'll get. Some dominant animals may be brutal, but usually it is more show than bloodshed. This couple was very careful even when putting others in their place.
Wolves have a soft spot for their kids, sometimes even the tougher and grumpier adults turn into mushy push-overs for pups. A real wolf pack is a family consisting of the main breeding pair, subordinate grown up animals (may be pups from previous few years or even siblings of the main pair who for some reason did not establish a family of their own) and the latest generation of youngsters. Often the group of wolves in zoos contain unrelated animals so the group dynamics are a lot less natural with higher competition and ground for potential conflict. The guys in Omega though were a real family with mom and dad at the top of the heirarchy....
... and almost fully grown pups horsing around below.
The beautiful Arctic Wolves were not as rambunctious and their exchanges were much more subdued. I do not know if that was because of their age or temperament or some other reason. Nevertheless they too were a pleasure to observe.
A FEW TIPS
When I was just a kid and was learning about animal photography a day at a safari park was a dream come true and I still enjoy observing happy healthy animals in scenic enclosures. And sometimes "shooting fish in a barrel" type of photography can be very relaxing. If you are just learning the ropes it is a great place to practice and increase your chance of walking away with a more natural looking picture. It is, however, a little different from photographing in a conventional zoo.
My advice is come early. Animals in zoos are active in mornings and evenings which coincides with the best time for lighting. In the middle of the day most carnivores have a siesta and only the herbivores are active, but that doesn't really matter since the light at that time of day is too harsh. Coming on an overcast day helps remedy the situation and give you extra shooting time.
As with all zoos it helps to learn the feeding schedule. And keep your eyes on the prize. You either photograph or you feed. Can't do both, because you need some distance between yourself and you subjects, so it's better if noone in your vehicle is feeding or even showing those furry freeloaders any food. Although you can't always avoid it. For example, one winter on my drive from Ottawa to the Park my car got so much road salt on it, the ibex couldn't stay away. They lined up for their turn to try and use my car as a saltlick. The attention my car got from the large males was a bit unnerving, but they didn't leave any scrapes, just a very weird pattern for me to wash off.
Select the animals you want to focus on but keep your mind open for the unexpected . Animals, even captive ones, can be unpredictable. And also scan the surroundings for non-captive animals who may mingle with the regular residents. You may see opportunistic mammals such as foxes, rabbits, raccoons, coyotes (depending on the geography) and various birds. And these animals will be much more tolerant to human attention whith in the park than outside. In Park Omega I often saw real wild animals attracted by all the easy food and relative safety.
Safari parks all have a drive-through section. If you are not the one driving and the back seat is vacant, sit there and get the advantage of windows on either side of you. If not, call shotgun.
I remember how much my father helped me on those trips. He is interested in photography and so he could tell which angle to select for a better shot and how to position the car to give me an advantage. Plus his quick reflexes made sure I was in the right place at the right moment. I learned a lot from him when I was taking my first steps in the field and I use that knowledge even today when I myself am shooting from a vehicle or when I am working with a guide.
Most importantly when shooting from a car - kill the engine. The vibrations from a car will affect the image no matter how good you think your camera's IS is. And in winter the hot air rolling off the car will definately distort the image, so you might want to let the car cool down a bit. It is also useful to have something soft to put under the lens when you stabilize it against the car door. A bean bag is useful (and not just on this occasion), but anything thick and soft will suffice. It will help reduce any motion distortions comming from you (which is inevitable since no living human can remain completely motionless).
Also remember to observe the rules regarding your safety and the safety of the animals. Heavy machinery and large animals in a confined space are already a potentially dangerous combo. It is a recipe for disaster if you throw common sence out of the window. Don't harass animals, don't feed them stuff not meant for them, don't get out of the car where it is against the rules to do so. Have patience and don't expect animals to do everything you want them to. Play nice and it will be a wonderful educational experience, maybe even with a few good images as a bonus result.