Sunday, February 5, 2012

Interview with a Zoo Photographer

Welcome to another Zoo Tails interview feature! We recently had the opportunity to talk to Nick Varvel, a zoo photographer. Thanks to Nick for answering our questions and sharing some of his zoo tails with us!

ZT: Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself? Where are you from and what do you do?

Nick: I am a 15 year old high school student. I live in Olathe, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City, and have for most of my life. Most of my time is taken up with school, or my various jobs throughout the year. It is a pretty short story so far, but I figure I have time to expand.

ZT: What zoo do you consider your "home" zoo?

Nick: My home zoo is the wonderful Kansas City Zoo, best known for their great Africa exhibit.

ZT: Where did your love of zoos or animals originate?

Nick: I've always been somewhat interested in animals since I was a child. I've always enjoyed hiking around in remote parts of local woods, looking for birds. I have had a number of pets over the years, from cats and dogs to guinea pigs and fish. My parents have been a big help in this as well. Neither of them are animal lovers as I am, but they have both supported and encouraged me in the field. My interests have certainly grown to dominate my life, through both constant zoo visiting, and traveling across the countyside searching for interesting birds.

How did you get involved in photography? Do you do it just for fun or commercially for profit?

Nick: The main reason I started up photography was to help record both what animals zoos I visited were keeping, as well as the wild birds I see. My earlier photos were of extremely poor quality, but I continued to improve, gaining an intrest in photography for something other than record keeping. I have experimented in all types of photography, from people to landscapes to abstract. However, I find that I both enjoy and do my best work with animals. I still occasionaly take photos of non-animals when I think it is interesting, but I usually stick to the same thing I started out with.

ZT: Someone on the Zoo Chat forum mentioned you were an "award winning photographer." What award did you win?

Nick: The award I won was for the Kansas City Zoo photo competition. The person who mentioned me as an award-winning photographer certainly makes it sound much more glamerous than it truly is. I am definatly happy to win it though, as I got a $60 zoo membership for free.

ZT:What advice or tips do you have for anyone interested in getting into zoo photography?

Nick: Well, I'm not sure if I'd be the best person to give advice, but the best I can think of is to photograph what you're interested in and what you're good at. If you don't like reptiles, then don't photograph them. If you cannot figure out how to get good photos through glass, maybe you should try photographing across moats. I've had trouble with both of these things in the past, but I finally figured out what I like and what I'm okay at. And another thing is to always take a lot of photos! You don't have to keep them all, but the more you take, the higher chance you have of getting a good one! Honestly though, there are so many better photographers out there , many of whom I've learned from.

ZT: Which is the best (or your favorite) zoo, exhibit, or animal to take pictures of?

Nick: I always prefer outdoor exhibits, mainly because I suck at dealing with indoor lighting. I suppose by favorite are the large primate exhibits, such as baboons or great apes. They are always active and doing something, they are large and easy to follow, and they don't get up in the trees like other primates. I also love to photograph birds as well, as they are my favorite animals. They are also very active, and the number of species found in any zoo is outstanding. But I also like large carnivores and ungulates! I suppose I'm an opportunistic photographer, taking photos of anything hoping they might turn out good.

ZT: Of course I have to ask, what is your favorite zoo that you've been to?

Nick: I suppose my favorite would be the Saint Louis Zoo. It has standards in both exhibitry and education that I haven't seen matched anywhere else. They have a fantastic collection with many rare and interesting species, as well as a plethora of world-class exhibits.

I also like the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, best known for its massive immersion exhibit and nearly unrivaled collection. I feel that it is the extreme ups and downs that make it second to Saint Louis.

Sedgwick County in Wichita and Brookfield in Chicago are both outstanding too. Sedgwick County relies on its lack of poor exhibits and Brookfield relies on their collection and huge number of exhibits.

I also love Kansas City with their outstanding Africa exhibit, Lincoln Park and their Great Ape Complex, Cheyenne Mountain's giraffe exhibit, National Zoo's Asia Trail, and Philadelphia's great cat complex.

Honestly, with a few roadside exceptions, I love all zoos, and though some may rank higher than others, they are all still wonderful places.

ZT: I certainly agree with you there about loving all zoos. Thanks again for taking the time to answer our questions!