I recently took a trip to the zoo to do a test on a camera that I was reviewing and thought I’d share a few tips that I put into practice along the way.
Zoos are great locations to practice photography as they present us both with a great variety of subjects (both animals and the people watching them) but also with some real challenges. Some of the things you’ll need to overcome in getting great shots at a zoo include:
- Distance – the space between photographer and animal
- Moving Subjects – animals rarely stay in the one place for long
- Tricky Lighting – foliage and indoor/outdoor shooting can prove to be challenging
- Cages and Glass – while many zoos are improving in how they contain their animals and are giving them more natural surroundings the challenge of photographing them without the distractions of reflections off glass or grim looking bars both in the foreground and background add to the ‘fun’ of zoo photography
Zoo Photography Gear
What camera and gear will you need to get good photos at a zoo?
The answer to this question will vary a little from photographer to photographer depending upon their style, the type of shots that they want to take and the type of zoo that they’re visiting – however, a long zoom lens will almost always be handy to have attached to your camera.
Camera/Lenses – This means you’ll either need a DSLR with an attachable longer focal length prime lens or telephoto lens (something with an upper length of 200-300mm would probably be handy) or a point and shoot camera with a super zoom lens (probably a 10-12x Optical Zoom).
Also consider taking a macro lens if you’re lucky enough to have one. At our zoo we have a number of enclosures where they are handy (a butterfly enclosure for example).
Tripod – Also consider a tripod or monopod (depending upon the weather and how light it is, you’ll probably find that in some animal enclosures you’ll need to use slower shutter speeds which mean you’ll need the extra stability).
Lens Hood – the combination of shooting outdoors, having limited angles to shoot from (which means sometimes you’ll need to shoot into the sun) and that at times you’ll be shooting through glass means that a lens hood might be handy to have. I actually left mine in the car and as it was a bright day my images suffered considerably as a result.
Zoo Photography Tips
1. Points of Interest – Before you start photographing an animal ask yourself ‘what is it about this animal that interests me?’ What has drawn you to photograph it above other animals around you? Does it have great colour, is it in a humorous pose, is it about it’s expression, is it something about it’s surroundings? The reason to ask these questions is that they help you to identify potential points of interest for your image (something that will take your shot to the next level) and will help you to determine how to approach the shot.
2. Get in Close – as with many styles of photography, if you’re able to get close to your subject you create a feeling of intimacy with it and are able to capture details that you’d not otherwise have been able to see. Of course with animals in cages this is a challenge and getting close will almost always need to be done using a longer focal length (you can of course help a little by shooting for as close as you can get – without breaking any zoo rules). Tightly cropping the animal’s face or body helps you get shot with a real impact but also helps eliminate any distracting elements in the photo.
3. Focus on the Eyes – the eyes are the ‘window to the soul’ in portrait photography and a similar thing is true when shooting animals. Get the eyes in focus and in a prominent position in your shot and you’ll help create a more personal connection between your subject and the viewer of your image.
4. Get down Low - photographing an animal down at their level is another way of creating a sense of closeness and intimacy with your subject. This might mean you need to get down on your knees (and get a little dirty or look a little silly) but it will give your shots punch.
5. Eliminating Reflections – shooting through glass is a real challenge and something to avoid if you can. If you can’t get around it get in close to the glass, give it a wipe with a cloth (or your sleeve) to get rid of finger prints, find a spot that is less scratched than other parts, use a lens hood and/or your hand to try to eliminate any reflections and attempt to shoot at right angles to the glass. If you can’t eliminate reflections you might also like to try to work with them. Take a few steps back and incorporate the reflections of those watching the animals into the shot (hard – but if you get it right it could make for a great shot).
6. Shooting through Cages – there’s nothing worse than trying to shoot through the wire or bars of a cage. On occasions you’ll be able to find a wider opening (look for the bigger gaps around gates) but when you have to shoot through cages get up as close as you can to them, use a longer focal length, choose a wider aperture and wait for the animal to move back from the cage. In many instances when you do this you’ll not even notice the distraction of the cage at all. But what if you are using a point and shoot with no control over aperture? Try switching to portrait mode which is a mode that uses a wide aperture and should narrow your depth of field.
7. Shoot People – speaking of people – they also make a great subject when at the zoo. Don’t just focus on the animals but look for the wonderful reactions of those around you as they react to the animals (they can sometimes be more animated than the animals as they mimic them).
8. Look for Humorous Situations - animals do the funniest things. Keep your camera up to your eye for that moment when the monkey points at you, the giraffe picks it’s nose with it’s tongue (sorry – they do do it) or when the Emu pokes its head through the cage to steal something out of someone’s bag.
9. Treat Animals as Moving Subjects – to overcome the problem of your subjects always being on the move consider shooting with a fast shutter speed. You might like to switch to shutter priority mode at a fast shutter speed or let your camera do the work by shooting in ‘Sports’ mode. You can also help with this by shooting in continuous shooting mode so that when your subject is on the move you capture a burst of shots quickly one after the other.
10. Plan your day - I’m a fairly spontaneous kind of person but when it comes to photography have learned that it’s worth thinking ahead. When you get to the zoo get yourself a map and work out which animals will be on your hit list. Also note any feeding times that are publicised (these can make for some action shots). You might also like to find a zoo keeper to ask them what times certain animals are more active. Another good strategy is to head to the gift shop of the zoo and take a quick look at their postcards and picture books that might give you a little inspiration and a few ideas on good shooting angles for different animals.
11. Patience – occasionally you’ll stumble upon an animal in the perfect pose for a shot when you first see it – but in many cases you’ll need to wait for it. Once you’ve picked the animals you want to capture give yourself extended periods of time to camp out at their enclosures. This way you’ll hopefully see them in a variety of positions and with different expressions. This is what often takes your zoo shots to the next level.
12. Think About Context – the beauty of zoo photography is that you get relatively close to animals (something that is obviously difficult in the wild). The challenge is that the environment is not a natural one and that on many occasions there will be distracting elements in the background or foreground. Where possible try to shoot from angles where ‘natural’ looking elements are included (vegetation etc) – but where there are distractions you might like to try using wide apertures (small numbers) which narrow depth of field and throw foreground and backgrounds out of focus. Also try cropping with focal length (or later at home with photoshop).