Winter here was a bust. Two snowfalls, neither amounting to much of anything. Goo got to use her brand-new sled only twice, and the only snowman she was able to build was no taller than her shin. Though she and Chris had a blast, the dry, brown winter has left me in desperate need of a vacation.

Still, our trip to Cedar Point isn’t for another few months, and money is tight. So we went to the zoo instead. Perhaps surrounding ourselves in exotic animals–despite the sixty degree temps–would jolt us back to life.

I brought along my Pentax K1000 and my Nikon D5300. At first I thought I only brought my 55-200mm and my deconstructed 50mm for freelensing, but when I was digging around in my bag by the zebras I discovered I also had my 35mm lens and the pinhole lens Chris made me. Goo brought along her Instax.

Usually when I go to the zoo or someplace similar, I start out telling myself I’m going to leave my lens attached and just take nice, simple photos. But this time I figured I would be freelensing the entire time. I was wrong.

Every time I tried to play with the 50mm, I’d wind up wanting to get closer, and would re-attach the 55-200mm. I love the powdery look it gives, and zooming right up to the animals and seeing their patterns up close was exciting. I forgot how chilly it was, that it was yet another cloudy day. I just took picture after picture, and slowly came back to life.

I also left the camera on monochrome–except for when we were in the butterfly house–because I wanted to focus on those patterns, and the contrasts the animals gave their surroundings. I purposefully underexposed so that the whites would really pop. I also made sure my shutter speed stayed at 1/250 or higher so that the animals would be sharp and not blurry in their movement.

Goo was in a hurry to see one thing after the other, and to ride the train, so my fingers had to be quick. Those who tell you to sit there and really *think* about what you’re going to shoot has obviously never been to the zoo with a four-year-old.

But after spending a few hours on monochrome, I’d really begun to see the world differently. I didn’t see penguins, I saw a play of light and shadow as they huddled together. I didn’t see birds on a perch, I saw shapes and lines. Shooting quick, while still paying attention, became easier.

Not to mention jellyfish look super cool in black and white.

One of the last animals we saw was a tiny little owl. I didn’t see him at first, until someone else pointed him out. He was quietly resting atop his tree, beneath the light. I snapped a few pictures of him without much thought. I was tired and Goo was grouchy and we were all looking forward to Outback.

Then, I noticed the lines of his cage and realized they could play a role. I’m sure he was content and warm on his perch beneath the light. I’m sure the animals at our zoo are very happy. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that they’re still in enclosures, and that this little guy can’t fly off whenever he pleases.

Using the light, the lines, and spot metering, I managed to pull all that together into a shot.

I realize now that perhaps it was a subconscious thing to put this image together the way I did. Because, if I’m being honest, I feel a lot like that owl. Epilepsy has prevented me from being able to drive in two years, and the drab and lifeless winter gave me a cabin fever I can’t seem to shake. I don’t have the luxury of being able to drive somewhere to get a change of scenery during the day. And I love my home, and the environment I live in, but it can sometimes feel like a cage.

The owl photo seemed to be a “level up” for me (you artists/creators know what I’m talking about). I snapped a picture and suddenly I knew more about myself and the world. I’ve been seeing things differently. I’ve been paying even more attention to the environment around my subject, and whether or not they can both play a role.

And I also learned that we don’t have to force ourselves to create a style or to “tell a story.” I’ve been so worried that I’m not creative or clever enough to compose images that have meaning or value. But seeing these images, I realize that these things will come naturally if I just let myself be. If I stop worrying about what others might think, or whether or not a picture I’m taking is too simple or too cliche or too boring.

All I have to do is be honest with myself, with what I like to shoot, and what think is important to photograph. Most importantly, I have to be honest with how I feel. Stifling my emotions will sap my creativity, but if I just accept my own happiness/depression/anxiety/etc., then the world through the viewfinder will take on a whole new look. Like magic. It’s like magic!

Goo had a ton of fun at the zoo and is still talking about it and asking to go again. Soon, I tell her, and I mean it. Now that it’s spring, I can’t wait to spend every minute of every weekend outdoors. I’m looking forward to long hikes, spelunking, maybe even some camping trips, and I think I’m going to be bringing my 55-200mm with me to document it all.

All images © Lina Forrester

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