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Double Exposed

Zookeepers and the animals they love

What’s the animal you feel most deeply inside? The one you connect with, love, relate to, share traits with?

For National Zookeeper Week 2021, we asked our assistant curators that very same question. Then our incredible staff photographer Katie Cotterill took portraits of both keeper AND animal, superimposing them in her camera as a double-exposure shot. The results are magic.

(Curious about how she did it? Scroll to the bottom to find out.)

Sheriden, Rocky Shores, with Blizzard the polar bear
double exposed shot of keeper and polar bear
“I chose Blizzard because we work really well together. He and I get along extremely well; we have a good relationship. I’m constantly in awe of his ability to learn, and I’m grateful he allows me to work with him so closely.” – Sheriden


Marc, Aquariums, with Buddy the sheephead and kelp
double exposed shot of keeper and fish
“My first aquarist job was on Catalina Island where there are plenty of sheephead. I lived there for 10 years and fell in love with them, so they’re special to me.” – Marc


Erin, Asian Forest Sanctuary, with Kazu the tapir
double exposed shot of keeper and tapir
“I started my career at PDZA right before Kazu was born in 2019. He was the first Malayan tapir born here at zoo, and the first I have worked with in my career. He’s taught me so much about this incredible species, I will cherish my time with him.” – Erin


Shannon, Elephant Barn, with Suki the Asian elephant
double exposed shot of keeper and elephant
“Suki and I met over 25 years ago and she has had my heart since then. Every day I hear her rumble to me, I am reminded what a lucky person I am.” – Shannon


Maureen, Wild Wonders Outdoor Theater, with Tahoma the bald eagle



double exposed shot of keeper and eagle
“Tahoma was one of the first ambassador animals at Point Defiance Zoo, and I have worked with her for over 20 years. She’s really special.” – Maureen


Donovan, Kids’ Zone, with the Kids’ Zone team and Snap the dwarf goat
double exposed shot of keeper and team
“It takes a team to take care of over 30 species in KZ. Each keeper plays an important part in providing optimal care and great guest experiences. In another year, I would have chosen just a goat for this photo, but the pandemic has brought us close. I’m lucky to lead an exceptional team of keepers who push me to do better each day, and I’m forever grateful. Teamwork makes everything possible.” – Donovan



Double-exposure shots are tricky. They have to be planned, but can’t really be edited – this isn’t a Photoshop trick. Katie explains the magic:

“You can do these a couple of different ways, though not on all cameras. I use a Nikon D850 DSLR camera, selecting “Image Overlay” in the Retouch menu. Within the camera, I choose the first RAW photo, then the one to be superimposed. I can balance the transparency ratio – which image is more prominent, or if they’re equal. Afterwards I only computer-edit for color correction, and maybe crop a little.

“The trick is lining up the two shots so they work with each other. First, the contrast: On the first image (the keeper portrait), the bright parts will cover up the images in the second shot (the animal image). So I shot all the portraits against a blank sky background. (One of the few times our white-gray Pacific Northwest sky is useful! If the sky is too blue, it’s harder to find that exposure balance.) Then you need to contrast the subjects – the white polar bear was perfect against Sheriden’s blue cap, for instance.

“Next you have to line up the position of the images within the frame, so the subject of the second shot (the animal) goes on the darker part of the first shot. Animals are so unpredictable, so I used Image Overlay rather than Multiple Exposure, as it would let me select from other photos. Then I tried different image combinations to see what worked best. Some were difficult, like an owl that made the keeper’s skin look feathery. We ended up choosing another animal. Others were complicated but rewarding, like Donovan, who chose her whole animal care team (as well as some goats) to show how important they were to her.

“Finally, there’s the artistry part. I wanted a photo that captured how these keepers felt about their animals, that deep connection. I loved the way Marc’s image turned out, the kelp and sheephead fish swimming almost abstractly across his face. And I chose a real background – sky and scenery – instead of a studio one, because I liked the realness of it, the imperfection of a treeline at the bottom of some of the frames.

“I’m really proud of these photos. This is the first time I’ve tried this technique, and some took a long time to get right. But I’m happy with them, and would do it again.” – Katie Cotterill