The Western North Carolina Nature Center, located at 75 Gashes Creek Road in Asheville, NC provides a unique adventure where guests of all ages can discover and learn about animals and plants native to the Southern Appalachian region.
The Nature Center features over 60 species of animals including river otters, black bear, red wolves, and cougars, each with its own habitat area. Most of the large areas the animals have to roam are enclosed by chain link fences, but most also have information stations with dual pane glass for unobstructed, up close viewing. (For more information on the WNC Nature Center, please visit their web site: http://wncnaturecenter.com)
The glass, of course, creates a challenge for photographers wishing to capture these beautiful animals in their natural habitat. No matter the time of day, dual pane glass creates reflections that can ruin an otherwise great photo. Additionally, the glass is continually smudged and dirtied by the hands of children wanting to get as close as possible. There are solutions that enable the good photographer to capture excellent images, however.
EQUIPMENT: Along with your camera, I suggest both a 50mm equivalent lens and a zoom lens. The animals are sometimes a distance away and the zoom enables you to get better photos. When they are close to the glass, which is not frequent but does occur, a normal lens is better.
To help cut the glare, a circular polarizing filter can help a lot. This does slow the shutter speed a bit, so unless it is a bright day, action shots are a bit more challenging. I also use a UV haze filter.
A tripod is not necessary, but can be very helpful in lower light conditions. It brings one disadvantage that I will note in more detail below.
I strongly suggest that you also bring a lint-free cloth (or two) and a small bottle of glass cleaner. While cleaning the inside of the glass is not possible, the outside can be cleared of smudges and debris.
SHOOTING THE PHOTOS: First, find the best spot for unobstructed views of the animals and then clean the glass. Next, adjust the polarizing filter to reduce the glare as much as possible. I have found the best way to shoot photos of animals at the Nature Center through the dual paned glass is to remove the lens hood and place the filtered lens directly against the glass. This isn't always possible as the animals are certainly not directly in front of you all the time. But when possible, this reduces the glare almost completely.
A tripod will preclude you from placing the lens directly against the glass window. If you do not have a stabilizer and do not have a steady hand, a tripod can still work. The best way to make it work is to bring extra equipment: a large shade and stand to block the sun and/or light from causing reflections. To me, this is too much to carry, so I never use a tripod. But it is an option for the dedicated photographer.
When I take my photos, I usually use auto-focus and initially set my camera at AV with the appropriate f-stop. Using f/2.8 is my favorite when focusing on a single animal but I will set it up to f/8.0 depending on the situation. I use this AV setting for one or two photos to see what the camera give for the auto-shutter speed and then I shoot entirely manual, adjusting the shutter speed for maximum quality. I have found that the auto settings are often too bright when shooting through glass, so I increase the shutter speed. Your experience may differ, so experiment!
The photos here are ones I took recently at the WNC Nature Center using these techniques. Happy shooting!