Pandas // Adelaide Zoo, 2018

One of my go-to YouTube videos to watch when I’m feeling low is the video of the zoo keeper trying to clean a panda enclosure, and the little panda cubs keep trying to climb into the wicker basket full of leaves. It never fails to make me smile. I have a thing about pandas; I always have. But pandas are a rarity – once on the endangered species list, they were only very recently fortunately moved onto the vulnerable list. There are only two in the whole of the Southern Hemisphere where I live; Wang Wang and Fu Ni, who live in Adelaide Zoo.

Since I’d been taking photos at Melbourne Zoo more frequently, I started to seriously consider flying over to Adelaide to see the pandas. I started looking at the Adelaide Zoo site, and found that they did a “VIP Panda Tour” that let you actually hand feed the pandas and spend the morning with them and their keepers learning more about them. I impulsively bought a pass, and used frequent flyer miles to fly over to Adelaide. I am so, so glad I did.


I stayed within walking distance of the zoo, and had to go early to meet the keepers because the tour was taking place first thing in the morning, when the pandas would be most active. Any time after that they would most likely be snoozing.  It was only a small group; there was four of us plus three keepers/aides. We met Nicole, who would be taking photographs of us during the tour (dream job right there). The keepers were Angie and Nathan.

They took us into the room where they fed the pandas and kept them overnight, and showed us the huge bamboo fridge overflowing with bamboo plants. The feeding and care of the pandas is carefully regulated as is the case with all animals in a zoo, however there is the extra focus on recording and documenting everything because reports are sent almost daily to China. The care of the pandas is a highly reciprocal partnership between Adelaide and China, and every element of their care and breeding is monitored.


Apart from the predominant diet of bamboo, the pandas both have special foods that are more “treat” foods. Wang Wang loves carrots, while Fu Ni loves apples. Both pandas also eat special “panda cakes”, made up of mulched bamboo, sugar, vitamins, and eggs for protein. I didn’t know, but pandas are actually carnivores who have adapted to a diet of bamboo. These panda cakes and handfuls of fruit and vegetables would be what we would be hand feeding the pandas.


Angie kept reiterating that the pandas acted exactly like two year old children, and that each had very distinct personalities. Wang Wang was raised a single cub by his panda mother, and so he was more laid back and patient than Fu Ni. She had been a twin, and so had spent a lot of her life being reared by people and so was more adept at getting attention and getting what she wanted. Pandas are mostly solitary creatures, and although Wang Wang and Fu Ni did interact they were actually kept apart for the majority of the time, only really coming together during the very brief periods Fu Ni came into season.

We went to see Fu Ni first. Angie told us that even in China Fu Ni was praised for having a “pretty” face. She was smaller than her male counterpart, and had a little tuft of hair that stuck up between her ears like a mohawk. She immediately wandered over and sat in front of the bars, waiting impatiently for her panda cake and apples. We each took turns to kneel down in front of the bars and hand feed pieces of apple, then once we gave her the panda cake we were allowed to pat her paws while she was distracted. She watched us intently the whole time, her little Mickey Mouse-like ears moving as she chewed happily. It was so surreal, watching this beautiful animal that I had only really seen up close in photos and on videos.



She soon lost interest in us when she realised we didn’t have any treats left, and she munched on a bamboo stick absentmindedly, waiting to be let out into her enclosure.

We then went to meet Wang Wang, who had been waiting for his turn patiently. He was definitely bigger than Fu Ni with a larger head and build, but he seemed calmer and was more happy to watch us and wait while we all took turns to give him his carrots.


While we were feeding him, Angie and Nathan told us more about the pandas; about their breeding cycle and the attempts to breed cubs so far (they haven’t had success yet), about how long the pandas have in Adelaide before they have to go back (the contract is until the end of next year, but they are trying to work out to keep them here longer), and about how they vocalise (they can sound a bit like puppies!)

Once the group had all had turns feeding both pandas, we took a few more treats out to put into each enclosure. The enclosures were separated by the feeding area, and almost in a horseshoe shape. Each panda had an indoor and outdoor enclosure, as well as the behind the scenes sleeping/feeding area. The indoor enclosure was climate controlled and sound proofed, and had plenty of branches for climbing and sleeping. The outdoor enclosures were almost like little valleys, with plenty of tall trees and crevices and rock ledges. There were tire swings, hammocks, and plenty of toys on rotation to aid in enrichment. Wang Wang apparently loves nothing more than sitting in a tub full of soapy water filled with bubblegum-smelling bubble bath that he happily splashes on himself. Fu Ni loves the smell of perfume and musk, and happily loves cuddling towels drenched in essential oils. Both love sawdust, and enthusiastically roll around in it. The keepers rotate what they leave out, and also rotate which outside enclosure the pandas go in, to keep them from becoming bored. We hid the treats in different areas to encourage them to sniff around and seek them out, then we all went out to watch them while we had morning tea.




The time flew by, and by then it was starting to get extremely hot (it ended up being 37 degrees Celsius that day, or 98 degrees Fahrenheit, so not the best day for the zoo or taking photos). I took as many photos as I could before the tour ended. We each got to choose a photo that Nicole had taken of us during the morning. Then it was over. I was exhausted and elated.

I spent the rest of the day making my way around Adelaide Zoo. I fell in love with it, and with the organic way the enclosures fit into the environment and fit together. So many animals were placed in proximity to each other, and could see and hear each other which I thought was a really cool thing I hadn’t really seen anywhere else.






The thing that kept standing out to me was how quiet the zoo was, even though it was the middle of the school holidays. Go to Melbourne Zoo during the school holidays and it is a mad crush at each enclosure to get to see the animals. But there would be long stretches where I would be walking totally alone in amongst the sounds of the animals. Although, given the heat, I wouldn’t have blamed anyone who had decided to go to the beach instead and I spent an inordinate amount of time being very envious of a hippo who did a luxurious belly flop dive into the water in his enclosure near where I was eating lunch.


I sat at the lion enclosure for a long time, watching a male and female lion interacting which is something I hadn’t seen before. They were purring loudly (it was like a muscle car idling in your ear) and trying to find somewhere cool to lay in the shade.





By the time I’d made my way once around the zoo, it was getting way too hot and there had been lots of animals hidden away that I hadn’t seen, so I decided to call it a day and head back to the hotel. But I decided I would definitely be back, and I would also try to make it to Monarto Zoo, which is Adelaide’s open range zoo and home to one of the largest lion prides in Australia as well as the Lion 360 “people cage” where people get to experience lions up close. 

I wasn’t 100% happy with the photographs I got on the day, but I try to look at it like it was a once in a lifetime experience I was able to have, and I can always go back to try to take photos another day when the weather is a bit better.

I highly recommend the experience to anyone who loves pandas. To learn more about Adelaide Zoo, Wang Wang and Fu Ni, and more about the special animal experiences available there, visit their website here!


Lion Cubs

On Monday I went to Werribee Open Range Zoo with my sister. When I’ve been taking a lot of photos of people – doing portraits or con photos – I always need to decompress by doing something completely different.
When I heard that there were four newborn cubs at Werribee I knew I wanted to go and see them before they got too big! We were really lucky, because that day was the first time people were allowed up close to the glass (they had to be introduced to crowds very gradually). They didn’t seem bothered at all, and made a great show of sharing their first bone, rolling around on the grass practicing pouncing and stalking, and bothering their parents.
One of the best parts was watching them all sit up when they heard their dad growling, and then start to run around trying to growl like him.
They are such beautiful, graceful animals and it was so rewarding just sitting quietly and watching them. The lion cubs were obviously the big drawcard, but I found the lioness just as captivating to watch. She seemed very patient with her new babies, constantly making sure they were all getting a chance to eat the bone and giving them baths. She didn’t seem overly bothered by us all watching, every so often casting us a glance but then going back to her newborns. The photo that I took of her was probably my favourite of the day.
This did nothing whatsoever to quell my wish to one day do a proper safari. I can’t even begin to imagine how amazing that would be.

Werribee Open Range Zoo // August 2016

My sister and I took ourselves to Werribee on a beautiful Winter’s day to try the “off-road safari” at Werribee Open Range Zoo here in Victoria. I’d been to Werribee before, but I’d never gone on the safari.




We had a really great safari tour guide, Matthew, who told us about the shift in zoos and wildlife parks away from the traditional attraction sites of the past to a focus on conservation and education, and the animals we saw definitely seemed to benefit from it.








They are given strictly limited human contact (only what conditioning is needed to help keep them manageable and safe) and the environment and species social groups help them to maintain their natural behaviours. It was actually really moving to see how happy and settled they seemed, even when we were driving around near them.








The only part I was disappointed about was that after the tour, we went to see the Lion enclosure but it was largely blocked off. The big cats are my favourite to photograph, so it was hard to take photos that worked from such a distance. I managed to get a couple of photos, but I wasn’t as happy with them.






I’m not really sure what prompted me to try editing them in black and white, I think I just tried it with one of the giraffe photographs and liked how striking the effect was. I did edit a couple of photos in a sort of low contrast, semi-matte colour, boosting the levels of the blues and greens using saturation levels in Lightroom, then selective colour in Photoshop. I made sure whatever I was doing with the colour in Photoshop to keep watching that the whites stayed white, which is always a good guide to keep things looking realistic (unless unrealistic is what you’re going for).






Taking photos of wildlife is, obviously, a completely different skill set to taking convention photos or portraits, and so it’s nice to stretch yourself and do something different!

Melbourne Zoo, January 2016

I should start by saying it’s obvious I haven’t kept up with my 366 Project, and I’m really sorry for that. But while I may not post something every day, I’m still going to try to post 366 things that I find inspirational. Usually it will probably be portraits or quotes, and I’ll still try to say why I find them so inspirational, or the elements in them that caught my attention.

My friend Karen and I decided that we wanted to have a sort of creative expedition this month, so we decided to go to the zoo. We tried to pick a day that wouldn’t be too hot, but Melbourne being Melbourne it ended up being a scorching hot day. Not the best conditions for the animals, us, or photos but we made do.

I have a definite love/hate relationship with shooting at the zoo. On the one hand I absolutely adore animals, and I can sit for ages – especially in the Sumatran Tiger exhibit – and just watch them. I understand that zoos are also important for conservation and research, and that often can be the difference between a species dying out or retaining numbers. On the other hand, sometimes it’s hard not to project and put feelings onto the animals and start to question the wisdom of locking them up for paying people’s amusement. One photo in particular that I captured of an elephant seems to evoke that never-ending tension.




He was actually eating at the time quite happily, and he looked relaxed and his eyes don’t betray any kind of fear or trepidation (as far as I can tell) but the bars across the frame still remind us that he is captured, he is in an unnatural habitat and we are the reason he’s there. Different people will come at the photo in different ways and with different opinions depending on your overall attitude towards zoos and conservation, but that’s what makes photography so interesting.

It also sort of highlighted for me the effect of framing and cropping and how important it becomes in the overall statement being made in a photo, which I am thinking of writing another blog post about since I’ve been working on re-cropping some of my old photos.

Because it was so hot, it became a game of patience waiting for the animals to be comfortable enough to come out. It also made it hard to find the right exposure settings, because there was a tendency for there to be too much glare and stark contrast between the highlights and shadows, so we were constantly having to adjust our settings even moving from one side of an exhibit to another (if you’ve ever heard people say it’s better to have a wedding day that’s not too sunny, they mean for the photography and it’s totally true). It was frustrating but good practice. A lot of the time I was trying to slightly underexpose, in order to have something I could work with later. It’s much easier to bring out shadows rather than try to recover highlights.




















One of my favourite photographs from the day was actually a mistake. The Sumatran Tiger was pacing back and forth between the dark overhanging leaves and the dappled spots over by the water. I had obviously adjusted my shutter to capture the latter, and then forgot as he started pacing back over towards the darkness, so the aperture/shutter speed/ISO were all set to capture a bright rather than dark setting, so the picture came out way too dark. But for some reason, the fact that all you could see was this beam of light on his face really struck me, and when I was editing it I actually exaggerated the shadows even more to emphasize this contrast.




It’s in no way perfect – I wish there was more of his eyes brought out and the light on his face was a tiny bit less stark – but it was the first picture that when I was looking through them I went, okay, I like that. So sometimes mistakes aren’t all bad, and it goes to show not to be too hasty when you’re going through your photos even if you have messed up on the technical side, because something can still come out of it. Even if it’s just the knowledge that you did make a mistake and you know to learn from it next time.

Despite the inherent tensions I have, every time I go to the zoo I come away thinking how much I want to go on a safari. It’s definitely on my bucket list.



“Someone told me it’s all happening at the zoo” Paul Simon

As promised, I have edited some more pictures from my trip to the zoo.

A playful Orangutan

A playful Orangutan

Among the treetops

Among the treetops

Basking in the sun

Basking in the sun

I’m rapidly deciding that the Sumatran Tigers are my favourite. I love the environment they have them in at the Melbourne Zoo, it’s beautiful. And the two male cubs who were there on the day I took photos were gorgeous.

A cool drink

A cool drink

I’m really trying to be conscious of not “over-processing” my photos too much, but the temptation is definitely there. I’m also trying not to compare myself with other photographers, but that is going to take a long time to grow out of.