Photos & Projects

Shooting Black & White Film at the Zoo – by Christian Schroeder

January 16, 2020

I have found a new thrill: photographing animals at the Hanover Zoo, my local menagerie.

Well, what is it about then? Taking pictures of animals differs from taking pictures of humans. Do animals get uncomfortable when they notice a camera? No. Or do they tend to pose instead? Again, a clear denial. In addition, each species exhibits a specific behavior – some hide inside their hole while others frolic around. I suppose, therein lies a large portion of the fun.

One thing I have learned fast: it takes time to get some good shots. As so often in life, patience and humbleness are the key. According to my experience, it helps to restrict oneself on just two or three species per visit. The tigers and the hippos? Why not? Or the flamingos and the giraffes? Good choice. Maybe the rhinos and the polar bears? That’s okay, too. But not all of them the same day. In this regard, the conditions are favorable for me: the zoo is located in a 10 minute-range from my home and I hold an annual ticket. Thereby, I am able to go there quite often – and I don’t feel the urge to see as many animals as possible when I’m on the site.

Red river hog at the Hannover Zoo.

Red river hog. I love their funny squeaking noises.

Catch them if you can

The zoo seems to be one of these places where people still bring their “real” cameras with them (though smartphone photography is ubiquitous here, too). Once I was watching the red panda, when a DSLR shooter joined me. He pointed his telephoto lens at the little fellow rushing through the tree tops and started a machine gun fire. If I had to guess, I would say my colleague took at least two hundred images within five minutes. I, for my part, quickly realized that the red panda was too far away for the 90mm lens I had chosen. Hence, I continued to observe and didn’t press the shutter at all.

With 35mm, I typically end up with 38 exposures per roll. So the combination of film photography and erratic moving animals can easily equal a losing bargain. I am still struggling to realize the right moment for taking the shot. How often have I thought “This could be it!”, a split second later followed by a “Maybe it will get even better?”. The moment I am mentally ready to execute it, the situation has already passed. Street photographer’s crux, I guess: nailing the point between “I was too fast” and “I hesitated too long”.

But it’s not that the first photographs of animals were shot with the invention of digital cameras. A myriad of impressive images was created before on film, over a span of many decades. (Just think of National Geographic.) As Gregory “Egor” Simpson once pointed out: “Analog photography, unlike digital, required actual work.” If you want to use film photography for certain types of subjects, you have to acquire certain skills. And for me, this fact is just: a great thing.

Too much monkey business

Why do some animals get so much attention, more than others? Why do we want to watch them for hours? I suppose, often it is this “look in the mirror” thing. Take the Gorillas: they resemble humans in their facial expressions and their body language. Sometimes, the Gorillas are contemplating a serious problem. But are they really? Or they seem extremely bored. Excited. Tired. Satisfied. Annoyed. Happy.

For me, strolling through the zoo feels mostly like a little vacation. Do you remember the comedy movie “Office Space”? When the frustrated programmer Peter Gibbons attends a hypnotherapy session and asks the doctor: “Is there any way that you… sorta just zone me out that I don’t know that I’m at work? […] Could I come home and think that I’ve been fishing all day?” – Sometimes, we all need a place where the peculiarities of work melt away.

Yawing gorilla captured on black-and-white film.

“Should have gone to bed earlier!”

The scope of this short article lies on the subject matter and not on the tools I used. This time, I find it more appealing to report on inspirational places rather than on familiar (to you) types of cameras. Hence just a short note gear-wise: I relied on different Leica rangefinder cameras and lenses combined with various black-and-white films (the usual suspects made by Ilford and Kodak). So if the usual gear shot opener is obsolete, what to do instead? Correct, I present you another animal!

Hippopotamus photographed at the Hannover Zoo.

The hippo came directly out of the pond – thus, it’s skin looks like molten metal.

Rhinoceros photographed at the Hannover Zoo.

Rhino going for a walk.

Finally, I would like to thank the Hannover Zoo for the kind permission to publish these photographs here at 35mmc. If you live closer by, pay the zoo a visit. And thank you for reading!

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  • Reply
    Aristo Ioannidis
    January 16, 2020 at 10:05 am

    Thanks for sharing Christian. I feel as though the animals pose to the cameras as if to say take your best shot.

    Great story. Like you I do encourage my wife to reward herself so that I may do the same.


    • Reply
      Christian Schroeder
      January 17, 2020 at 11:00 am

      Thanks for your comment, Aristo! Keeping one’s wife satisfied is indeed a great strategy. Saves trouble. 🙂

  • Reply
    Duncan G
    January 16, 2020 at 10:53 am

    Great images! Being able to go to places like this on your own and wait patiently for the right image is key – I go to the zoo every couple of years with my family and we HAVE TO see EVERYTHING in each visit!! Achieving results without bars, cages and other unnatural features is also hard but you have done brilliantly!

    • Reply
      Christian Schroeder
      January 17, 2020 at 11:03 am

      Hi Duncan! You are right, there is so much visual clutter around. For example, I tried hard to snap a picture of the elephants, but it was impossible without catching a fence in the foreground or other visitors in the background. Therefore, I focus on whatever works.

  • Reply
    January 16, 2020 at 2:52 pm

    I. Am. Impressed. I really enjoyed the writing, and the images. Taken on a rangefinder, and monochrome film as well.. Brilliant. Many thanks for this.

    • Reply
      Christian Schroeder
      January 17, 2020 at 11:04 am

      I prefer the combo of rangefinder camera and monochrome film for any “non-static” subject – it feels just right. Thank you for your kind words!

  • Reply
    Gandhi Cabañas
    January 16, 2020 at 8:26 pm

    I enjoyed your story and your great images. Congrats!

    • Reply
      Christian Schroeder
      January 17, 2020 at 11:05 am

      Thanks, Gandhi!

  • Reply
    Steven Bleistein
    January 16, 2020 at 9:42 pm

    These are absolutely stunning photographs.

    • Reply
      Christian Schroeder
      January 17, 2020 at 11:06 am

      I’m glad you like it, Steven! I should look out for living subjects more often. 🙂

  • Reply
    Charles Higham
    January 16, 2020 at 10:21 pm

    Really nicely observed shots.

    • Reply
      Christian Schroeder
      January 17, 2020 at 11:07 am

      Thank you for your comment, Charles!

  • Reply
    Matthias Steck
    January 16, 2020 at 11:11 pm

    Das erste Bild von dem Gorilla-Weibchen finde ich ganz großartig ! Und auf die Idee, in einem Zoo schwarz-weiß zu fotografieren wäre ich auch nie gekommen.

    • Reply
      Christian Schroeder
      January 17, 2020 at 11:09 am

      Bei den Gorillas habe ich tatsächlich die meiste Zeit verbracht, sie sind einfach zu faszinierend. – Kannst du ja auch mal probieren, farblos im Zoo. 🙂

  • Reply
    January 16, 2020 at 11:38 pm

    This is my new favourite 35mmc post. I feel inspired to go to the zoo. Thank you!

    • Reply
      Christian Schroeder
      January 17, 2020 at 11:11 am

      You are going to visit a zoo? Great, mission accomplished. I’m happy to hear your feedback, Jim!

  • Reply
    January 17, 2020 at 1:48 am

    Whaouuuuu : BRAVISSIMO !!!

    Animals are not easy to photograph, the same for kids, or other subject, there you arrive to one impressive level of talent in front of this difficult moving subject : wonderful BW (it’s not important, but it is not a high speed film, more a slow one, but it is not important 😉 ), REAL TALENT, great composition, artist eye to find the decive moment to give a kind of humanity to this animals (sometimes for example in street photography the persons are not well taken at the good moment which not gives the best of them …), very high sharpeness, and really a story, I stop here because there is more compliments to give, …
    Thanks 35mm and you for sharing this impressive and … humble way, what it is also the mark of the photographer with great talent

    • Reply
      Christian Schroeder
      January 17, 2020 at 11:15 am

      Hi Eric, thank you a lot. Normally, I go for architecture (photography-wise) – therefore, moving animals are a welcome variation (and challenge).

  • Reply
    Peggy Marsh
    January 19, 2020 at 9:05 am

    Those are some of the best zoo shots I have seen and an inspiration. Thank you for publishing them.

    • Reply
      Christian Schroeder
      January 22, 2020 at 3:26 pm

      Hi Peggy. I’m glad to read they’ve inspired you.

  • Reply
    Daniel Castelli
    January 20, 2020 at 9:28 pm

    Your article and images brought back memories! I taught photography for 35 years, and for a great majority of those years, my photo classes went on a yearly ‘photo safari.’ We traveled from our rural, small town in Connecticut to the Bronx Zoo. Every student had a small list of required photos, and the freedom to make any type of photo they wanted. Imagine 40 students (16-18 yrs. old) with adult chaperones spending eight hours at the zoo. Pure terror & fun! We printed ‘photo safari’ t-shirts, played Simon & Garfunkel’s “At The Zoo” and mounted a photo show back at the high school. All done with black & white film and cameras from B&W disposable units to big SLR’s w/massive zooms. Moms & Dads came along…
    The trips ended when the local Board of Education issued strict guidelines on field trips. We were crushed under the weight of the fear of another terrorist attack and the runaway cost of coach rental and insurance.
    I recommend looking for one of the best books on zoo photography titled “Please Don’t Feed…” by Andy Morley-Hall.
    The hippo resembles a nice sausage. Very funny!

    • Reply
      Christian Schroeder
      January 22, 2020 at 3:28 pm

      Hi Daniel, thank you for sharing this story.

      The fear of terrorists has changed a lot in the last years. I recently came across a hobby photographer specialized in trains. He told an interesting story dating back to 1974: a phased out steam locomotive was transferred to a furniture store, where the loco should find a new home on static display. The easiest way for the heavy-duty transport lead right across the airport! As the loco crossed an active runway, even a Boeing 727 aircraft had to pause. The photographer was so excited that he climbed the airport fence just to get his shots. The crazy thing about that: the escorting policemen noticed him but didn’t bother to intervene at all. Those were the days.

      Check out this image!

  • Reply
    Clive Williams
    January 22, 2020 at 12:10 pm

    Your articles are always good to read and great to look at, Christian, and I love this one. There’s a fascinating ‘floating’ quality to the hippo and rhino pictures that lifts them clear of the background while keeping them in context, and the way you’ve caught the light around the red river hog (a favourite animal of mine too!) is just beautiful.

    I’ve seen brute-force photographers like the one you mentioned at zoos in the UK, sometimes wearing full camouflage gear as if they’d stalked through the mountains and not ridden the little tourist train to the leopard enclosure. I prefer your more contemplative method.

    • Reply
      Christian Schroeder
      January 22, 2020 at 3:29 pm

      Hi Clive, thank you for your comment! I share your observations: there are many of these hobbyist-Indiana Joneses around. Maybe the zoo serves them as a kind of trial environment? Whatever works – the only thing that counts is to have fun, I think. 🙂

  • Reply
    January 22, 2020 at 3:21 pm

    Really nice shots, your method definitely paid off!

    • Reply
      Christian Schroeder
      January 22, 2020 at 3:35 pm

      Thanks, Huss!

  • Reply
    January 24, 2020 at 8:15 pm

    Really love the images and how dimensional they look. Great captures Christian! Quick question, does film enhance that 3d look many Leica lenses produce or would the images have the same rendering between digital and film? Also, which lenses did you shoot this images with? Going forward i want to invest in lenses that render with a lot of dimensionality.

    • Reply
      Christian Schroeder
      January 25, 2020 at 3:06 pm

      Hi Jeremy, thank you for your feedback!

      Well… I don’t know exactly how film affects this 3d look – and wheter it would be the same with digital or not. I suppose the look has more to do with the figure-ground relationship: differences in luminance (bright/dark) or surface textures (soft/rough, glossy/matte). Concerning bokeh and “3d pop”, you should definitely give Hamish’s two-piece lens compendium a read:

      I shot most of these images with a Leica Summircon 90mm from the 1980s. For the portrait of the gorilla (the yawning one) I used an older generation Summilux 50mm.

      • Reply
        Jeremy Soto
        January 29, 2020 at 1:39 am

        Thanks for the reply Christian! I’ll check out that article.

  • Reply
    5 Frames with a 35mm Summicron-R Lens at the Botanical Garden – by Christian Schroeder - 35mmc
    April 18, 2020 at 10:01 am

    […] be honest, plants are a grateful subject. In contrast to the animals I found at the zoo, plants don’t move. You can take your time – a lot(!) of time – to compose your image, until […]

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