Our first safari: A trip to the Bronx Zoo

Our first safari: A trip to the Bronx Zoo
Our first safari: A trip to the Bronx Zoo

Although fun, a first safari to the Bronx Zoo falls short as preparation for the real thing.

It was an unusual group. Someone counted 147 people, but to me it seemed like hundreds.

If I were asked to describe the group (and hadn’t been embedded among them), I would have said it looked like an aged out peace rally or a group of militant baby-boomers protesting the perils of nuclear power at Indian Point.

A majority of the members looked like denizens who lived on the West Side of Manhattan. In fact, many of the ones I spoke to actually were. There was also a sizable contingent of people from “the outer boroughs” as well as from the larger New York metropolitan area, including New Jersey, Long Island and Westchester.

Most were dressed in jeans, khakis, or convertible pants with zip-off legs. Almost all of them wore hats, vests, and fancy backpacks with multiple pockets and compartments, bulging with cameras, tripods, monopods, and other camera gear. These were serious photography enthusiasts.

Meetup at the sea lion pool

We assembled at the sea lion pool at the Bronx Zoo on a Tuesday morning, the day after the long Memorial weekend. The threat of showers hadn’t yet materialized.

Some were retirees; others were working people who graciously gave themselves another day off after the holiday weekend. There was a respectable mix of women and men, but only a sprinkling of people under the age of 30.

Everyone there had signed up for a Bronx Zoo Photo Safari sponsored by the iconic New York superstore, B&H Photo. The email invitation, forwarded by my brother-in-law, described the almost-free event:

Join veteran nature and travel photographer David Cardinal for a walk on the wild side. David will lead a photo tour through the beautiful Bronx Zoo, with plenty of photo instruction and tips along the way. 

Whether you are looking to brush up on your wildlife photography skills in preparation for a planned safari, or just want to enjoy some of the best animal photography opportunities anywhere in the New York area, you’ll enjoy and learn from participating.

Attendees will not only receive instruction as they walk, but a helpful handout with time-tested tips for photographing mammals and birds in a zoo setting.

The timing of the “free” event was perfect because my husband and I had plans to join tour operator, Micato Safaris, on a trip to Tanzania and Kenya in less than a month. Therefore, we seized this opportunity to pick up tips that would help us observe and capture photos of the wildlife we would encounter on our trip.

The icebreaker, as we waited for the safari to begin, was “What kind of camera do you shoot with?” Almost everyone we spoke to was an apologist. “I got mine a couple of years ago,” was the standard reply. Then the person would explain with a bit of embarrassment why he/she didn’t have the very latest DSLR camera with all the bells and whistles. Those of us with point and shoots simply fell back and listened to the conversation.

While there was no banter as explicit as “Mine is longer than yours,” there was an appropriate degree of reverence and respect for those who carried the longest, and presumably most potent and expensive, telephoto lenses.

Let’s get ready to rumble

A B&H employee named Deborah, with a big bullhorn, took her position beside the sea lion pool at precisely 10:15AM to rally the troops. “You will be divided into four groups, according to the maker of your camera,” she said.

Like birds, we were tagged with green, yellow, pink and purple wristlets to represent followers of Tamron, Nikon, Canon (the largest group of all), and Olympus and others (a catch-all category for the rest of us).

Before the expedition had even begun, a B&H employee called out, “Did anyone lose an Olympus lens cover? The “loser” sheepishly owned up to his error but not before being chided by the B&H guy, “What’s the serial number on that cover?”

The group was a true menagerie: There was the award-winning photographer/instructor, a crew of B&H employees, the camera mavens from the companies, and the rest of us.

Cardinal gave a brief talk with some helpful hints and handed out copies of an instructional pamphlet to take home, but the majority of our time was spent  jockeying for space in front of various exhibits. As ingénues, we quickly learned animals don’t necessarily pose for you. Even in a zoo, you need to wait patiently and  “capture their image” at the right moment.

Making the hunt even more challenging were the marauding groups of carefree school children who were there with their instructors, too, for a day at the zoo with cellphones and lunchboxes.

Lessons learned

We took home a few photographic tips that we’ll take with us to Africa:

  • The best pictures of animals have their ears facing forward. If you can’t do that, get ones with their ears facing backwards. Avoid awkward shots that have one ear facing forward and the other facing backwards.
  • Always try to photograph the animal’s eyes for a captivating photo.
  • Capture whole animals rather than missing major body parts, like tails, in your photos.
  • For the best shots, isolate the animal from anything unnatural in its environment.

And we returned with a few tips for others who plan to visit a zoo on a photographic safari:

  • Don’t forget to pick up a map when you enter the park. It’s easy to get separated from the group and you may need to navigate the place on your own.
  • It’s difficult to see, hear and learn in a large group in the outdoors. You might be better off reading up on wildlife photography and going it solo.
  • Avoid fences and Plexiglas by either shooting through the holes in a fence or placing your lens directly on the glass to avoid reflections.
  • An expedition with B&H can be very helpful if you have specific questions to ask about a particular model camera you are using or contemplating buying, although this usually can be done in the store as well.
  • The numbers of schoolchildren there that day probably outnumbered the butterflies. Although children can be distracting, follow their lead. They are the first to hear and see things that people over 50 may miss, like the bird on the ledge over my head.
  • While this inviting B&H course was “free,” a day at the zoo is an expensive undertaking, almost as expensive as an off-Broadway theater ticket. The senior tickets we purchased in advance and online (to save money) were still $23 each with an extra $15 to park, a total of $61 for the two of us. (On Wednesdays, visitors can enter the zoo for free, with a suggested donation.) We spotted a convenient ATM machine, probably there to finance the cost of lunch or a snack at the zoo.

Everyone who has been to Africa says, hands down, it is the trip of a lifetime. We can’t wait for the real thing and hope to return with photographic evidence of another memorable adventure, albeit one of a different species than the zoo.


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  1. Am really looking forward to your pictures from the safari. I especially hope to see some good elephant and flamingo shots. Do you anticipate doing any blogging during the trip?

    1. Hi Marion,

      Seems like I’m addicted to blogging wherever I go. If there is a wireless connection, I’ll be able to post. Otherwise, I’ll be sure to have lots of blog fodder when I return:-).

      Best, Irene

  2. What an interesting and useful expedition to the zoo! I can’t wait to read about and see your experiences in Africa.

  3. Great tips. But once you’ve finished that safari, you will never want to go back to a zoo again. Seeing animals in the wild will change you forever. It did me.

    1. I’m more of a wilderness girl. 🙂 Although I will say that the image of a gorilla shielding his eyes while peeking through the glass into the chimpanzee area at the Detroit Zoo is still stuck in my mind. So haunting.

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