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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:
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.
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).
July 13, 2013 03:42 pm
I like shooting at zoos they give me a wide variety of subjects to photograph over a small area. Exotic animals that I would never have the resources to capture otherwise can be captured there. AS you said the key element is time. Take your time and wait when you do the elements of your shots will go from a record or snapshot to something truly amazing. Great advise.
July 12, 2013 10:23 am
I went to a local zoo recently. This is my favorite shot in the bunch.[eimg url='http://th00.deviantart.net/fs71/PRE/i/2013/192/6/2/i_m_an_eagle____by_emileeself-d6cka92.jpg' title='i_m_an_eagle____by_emileeself-d6cka92.jpg']
March 18, 2013 11:49 pm
I like Zoos and whenever I go some place I try to go see the Zoo over there. I am trying to be a wildlife photographer and travel to Africa. Maybe do a Photo Safari whenever I get enough money... .
I have a question, do Zoos pay for photographs ? If so how do I go about becoming a wildlife photographer ?
March 9, 2013 04:48 am
Looks like Peter had a fatal encounter with a Llama :D The photos you took look great and I am sure that with your tips I may come close, I will be going to the Zoo with my nephews this weekend so I will post the results of my trip next week to see how well I did using your advice. Thanks!
December 11, 2012 02:41 am
I fell in love with the giraff!!!
March 6, 2012 11:29 pm
Great shots, not something I've ever been tempted to try....... untill now :)
January 17, 2012 12:02 pm
watch out for Llamas... they spit, and believe me, that green gloop does nothing for your camera..
January 8, 2012 04:56 pm
this is nice tips for wildlife and zoo
November 24, 2011 08:12 am
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November 8, 2011 01:07 am
You also can use the minimum focusing distance on better lenses to help with the cage issue. My Canon 70-200, 2.8 can be set to a minimim of 1.5 or 3 meters, and if you're standing close to the bars, you won't have to worry about the focus grabbing onto the closer elements. Much, much easier than manually focusing each shot!
November 5, 2011 01:22 pm
Great tips, Thanks Darren.
would like to share my shots at the zoo!
November 5, 2011 10:40 am
i love to use a tripod, BUT i find it to be a real handy cap at the zoo. Too many people and it gets in their way and people are not looking out for it and may knock it over. My answer is to use a higher iso and use a long lens. One other problem I have is that what ever I carry into the zoo gets twice a heavy by the end of the day. Pack only what you need or have a buddy who will carry all of your gear. One other idea is to rent a baby buggy.
A monopod will work.
November 4, 2011 04:26 am
Here are some of my zoo pics....
November 4, 2011 12:28 am
Thanks Friend,It's really helpful tips.............
I am also learnt the basic photography rules from Mr. Kishore Mamillapalli who is one of the leading wildlife photographers from South Africa. He used to say that “Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder”. If you like what you see on your camera screen, or through the viewfinder, you will like the photograph.
There are some basic photography rules for composition. Once you know these rules, you can use them, ignore them, or break them. Follow your gut, and you will end up with spectacular, sometimes breathtaking results. Kishore is really an astonishing wild life photographer and has a great eye for details........
November 2, 2011 10:20 pm
I participated in Scott Kelby's Worldwide Photowalk in October at the NC Zoo. My best tip is to arrive as soon as the zoo opens. That's when animals are fed and are likely to be active.
Here's my favorite shot from the day:
Here's a link to more shots from the day: http://www.flickr.com/photos/drdesigns/sets/72157627696057317/detail/
I can't wait to go back!
November 2, 2011 02:00 am
RE: Patience, I had to wait quite some time to get her to look up in the right light. Love this shot.
RE: Look for Humorous Situations, Attempted turtle love in the middle of the day, she said no.
November 1, 2011 05:28 am
I made some photos in Budakeszi Wildlife Park, Hungary this summer vith 18-55 kit lens.
October 31, 2011 09:01 pm
the giraffe picture is fab...
October 31, 2011 09:30 am
What about sun position? Zoos are rarely open during optimal sun-position hours.
October 31, 2011 02:28 am
Great tips indeed! Sometimes in the spring Zoos have Buttery Exhibits! We had one here in San Diego. For this, we brought a 100mm Macro and caught this beauty landing!
July 29, 2011 12:41 pm
Alex, what an amazing picture of that lizard. And the giraffe shot that starts this article off is so good.
I sometimes take trips to the zoo and grab a few shots. Not quite in that league though.
April 3, 2011 04:49 pm
70-200 is a must! Some of my pics here:
December 7, 2010 09:29 pm
Very nice tips! I enjoy looking at these adorable animal pictures :)
November 2, 2010 02:29 pm
Darren, thanks for all you do for our profession. I enjoy reading your blog and following your work, and I wish you the best in your continuing pursuits.
I just wanted to share one of my personal favorites with you (and others). I took this in the Desert Dome at our world-class Omaha Zoo. Several of the tips you mention above were also employed for this shot, including shooting at a right-angle to the glass, focusing on the eyes (or eye in this case), using an angle that includes natural elements, getting in close, getting low, eliminating reflections using a lens hood, wiping off the glass before shooting, and of course patience.
[eimg url='http://alexgac.smugmug.com/Other/Omaha-Zoo/Gac-20100313-6363/1058009511_WERAd-M-1.jpg' title='1058009511_WERAd-M-1.jpg']
July 29, 2010 05:45 am
Some photos taken during my recent zoo visit (Philadelphia Zoo) in summer. I used the tips from this article and that really helped a lot.
July 1, 2010 06:53 am
Great advice on shooting through cages.
[eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/scottmichaels/3164436494/' title='Pearl Spotted Owlet' url='http://farm2.static.flickr.com/1097/3164436494_65199e274c.jpg']
June 26, 2010 09:53 am
I concur on the use of polarizing filters with glass. It does work well on reflections. Unfortunately, it's not real practical in aquariams or reptile houses with little light, although because of the darkness reflection is normally less of an issue anyways. Remember to turn your flash off or you'll get nothing but the flash in the picture. i think everyone does that once:) Speaking of aquiriums and reptile houses, you really need to bump your ISO way up to get decent shots. You might be surprised at how little the graininess shows up in those circumstances. Still, I try to take it no further then 800. I also use my fastest lens set wide open. Monopods are handy here as well because it's usually too crowded and cramped to set up a tripod. They usually like to keep this exhibits moving along. You can usually keep it on through the whole exhibit without it hindering your movement. I'll slide up one section and put the top with the camera over one shoulder while walking.
February 11, 2010 03:24 am
Hey there, came across your site. Quite an interesting article you got there.
My friends and I just started a blog on watching free movies and tv shows online. Keep up the good work :)
December 8, 2009 08:58 am
I'm going to the Chicago zoo in March so I'm hoping these tips will be of some use. Hopefully my Nikon D60 won't let me down!
If anyone can provide me with some additional tips, or perhaps some enclosures I need to hit if you've been to the Chicago zoo, I'd really appreciate it. :)
November 19, 2009 06:54 am
I carry a small bottle of window cleaner watered down wth a bit of water, and a cloth in my camera bag at all times. I've used it so many times at the zoo, I'm surprised they haven't come up to me and hired me on the spot to wash all the glass!!!
It is really worth the troublle to get clean shots through the glass.
I also find the best times at the zoo is early morning - as soon as the zoo opens.
November 16, 2009 08:47 pm
I went to Newquey Zoo Cornwall a little while ago with my ganddaughter and took some photos as I am only just new to this thought it be good time to try and improve my photography. I have posted them on my website.
November 15, 2009 08:48 am
Sometimes, the animals do pose:
November 14, 2009 06:23 am
Darren, thank you for such a great site. Loads of great info and above all, the way you make it so easy to read and follow. I have been teaching photography for a couple of years and have directed some of my students your way when they have had problems understanding technical descriptions etc.
Asmita, I have a D300 Nikon and my lenses are a short 17-70mm, a macro 105mm and a 70-300 mm zoom. The zoom is great for getting shots in zoos and when i'm out and about in the woods. When I need really close up texture shots of animals or I can get close to smaller beaties then the macro lens comes into its own. Hope this helps.
November 14, 2009 04:15 am
I love shooting at the zoo. We go to the North Carolina zoo several times each year. It has a very nice, natural setting with huge exhibits for animals. Here are a few of my favorite shots from our trip last month:
The rest: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jzunc/sets/72157622542255631/detail/
I also really like the setup at the Miami zoo, where they hide a deep moat around most exhibits so that they can use low fences instead of cages or plexiglass even for more aggressive animals. It allows you to get much closer to the animal.
One problem I run into at the zoo is the frequent need to switch lenses as you go from a large exhibit where the animals are far away to a smaller exhibit where the animal is just a few feet from you. I use a 70-300 zoom lens and the 18-55 kit lens and find myself switching back and forth a lot. What would be a good happy medium between those?
November 13, 2009 04:21 pm
Hello I am asmita from india now iam having nikon D3000 DSLR with 18-55 lems and 10megapexsel camera So i want to buy new lens for wlid life photography plz help me wihich lens should i buy.
November 13, 2009 04:33 am
I love the zoo, at least the animals don't pose when you take a picture.
[img]http://joulupukki.nl/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/b1.jpg[/img] a pictures where I didn't dare to go real close...I used my zoom lens here.
[img]http://joulupukki.nl/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/DSCF6543.JPG[/img] an example of a picture through the bars. this was taken at a "zoo" where to hold badly kept birds and birds people try to smuggle. this was the best looking, most of them are without feathers etc.
November 13, 2009 02:43 am
Where do you get these photos from? I'm interesting in knowing if I can submit my flickr or something so my photos could be used if appropriate :-)
November 13, 2009 02:38 am
Dublin zoo, in Ireland, is currently going through a revamp and the new enclosures are more spacious and lend to a more natural environment for the animal. This allows for some photos of the animals acting a little more natural. I suppose the best advice for shooting animals, whether in captivity or not, is to try and connect with them in the shot....using most, if not all of the tips above, generally helps with this!!
Here's some of my favorite shots from a recent trip to Dublin zoo in Ireland:
November 13, 2009 02:33 am
I live one block from the San Diego Zoo. Since it is in my backyard so to speak I have spent years taking zoo photographs. This article is one of the best summaries on zoo photography I have ever read.
November 11, 2009 08:14 am
Couple of shots this past weekend:
Oh, and I love the turtles ArkyMark :)
November 11, 2009 05:25 am
A zoo is an excellent place to practice wildlife photography in a controlled environment, and most people have one within a short drive of their home. Thanks for an extremely useful and timely article Darren.
November 11, 2009 01:06 am
I have found these Zoo photos in the photo encyclopedia very inspiring too: http://www.fotopedia.com/en/Zoo
November 10, 2009 07:29 am
Great article and some very great pictures posted in the discussion. I do not live close to a zoo but I will have to keep these in mind the next time I go to the zoo with camera in hand!
November 10, 2009 02:38 am
One of my favorite zoo animals.
November 10, 2009 02:06 am
There is an interesting debate on zoos in Tokyo spurred by a photo post of Ueno Zoo going on here:
For me, I just could not got to a zoo for photography. I'd rather never develop wildlife shooting skills than have to do it by going to a zoo. Fortunately, but not coincidentally, I live in Florida so wildlife abounds anyway.
I know many photographers say a tiger photo is a tiger photo, but to me it being shot in the wild makes all the difference.
November 8, 2009 09:46 pm
Go early. There are less people and animals are usually more active ind the morning or in the evening. Also look out for feeding time.
November 7, 2009 10:23 pm
Sorry to post twice, but thanks for the compliments on the Turtle photo. (And that Lion touch-up is great!) I agree that tight cropping helps a lot - and together with the compressed-space of long lenses can make very dynamic shots.
And I agree that it doesn't hurt to ask! When you go into the Little Rock Zoo they inform you of what's going on over the next few hours - like what animals are scheduled to be fed and exactly when and where that will be. A long time ago I was alone with my camera in a nursery area of the zoo, and a woman who was bottle-feeding a baby black bear saw me on the other side of the glass - then brought the cub out into the public area and said she thought I'd like to see it and take a photo up-close. (In that case I didn't even have to ask.)
But the LR Zoo is also good about having as many "cage-less" exhibits as possible and most of the animals can be observed in very natural settings.
One last shot - my other favorite that I took just a few minutes after the one of the turtles...
November 7, 2009 08:48 pm
With a bit of work and some cropping, even zoo pictures don't have to look like ones :)
November 7, 2009 09:41 am
ArkyMark, the turtles are beautifully photographed!
November 7, 2009 08:49 am
I'm not fond of zoos, but I've managed an occasional good photo there:
November 7, 2009 08:45 am
I am fortunate to live in the same town as the state zoo. It is also a natural habitat zoo and rated in the top five zoos of the US. I love going to the NC Zoo and taking photos of the animals. I often find that the plant life is also very photogenic. Check out a few of my photos on Flickr.
November 7, 2009 06:25 am
I had not been to the zoo in Little Rock, AR (closest to me) in almost 30 years when I went in late September - but it had always been a favorite spot when I was shooting film in my teens.
Turtles like this are all over the place in Arkansas - but ironically enough I took this shot of some who live at the zoo, and it's become one of my all-time favorites.
October 20, 2009 11:40 pm
i love animals :)
September 30, 2009 06:21 am
Do you really think so? Maybe you are right but I have my doubts.
December 3, 2008 08:32 pm
this has helped as i'm going to the zoo this weekend for my photography project
October 11, 2008 12:32 pm
I'm really shocked that no one has mentioned a circular polarizer, with reflections off the glass "cages" and water in aquatic exhibits, not to mention brightening effects on the sky for outdoor shots, having a cir polarizer in your bag when you're at the zoo is a huge benefit.
Just remember, you're losing light to it so even more important to have your tri-pod handy.
July 16, 2008 12:33 am
Some good tips for zoo visits. I try and catch my wildlife in the wild. Check out some of my pictures. (http://coloradodeer.com/)
April 22, 2008 03:44 pm
Some photos I took in Kuala Lumpur's Bird park.. I have trouble shooting the birds through the cages :( But luckily I still have some good shots
March 5, 2008 06:24 am
While not at a zoo, these are a few shots I took at a wildlife preserve outside of Omaha, NE. My favorite is the pelican shot:
November 28, 2007 07:40 am
Here are a couple of shots I took over the summer.
November 28, 2007 05:04 am
I've always found that talking to keepers is a good thing. Not only you'll learn lots of interesting things, but you'll also be able to ask them for a favour. Such as being allowed IN the cage. I got a photo from a tiger baby that way, while it was within the keepers' room for weighing.
November 24, 2007 03:15 am
Find out in advance the sleep and feed times. If it's a very hot day go very early in the morning or late evening. Most animals will tuck themselves away if it's too hot. Watch out for spray from elephant washing sessions too!!!
November 22, 2007 07:41 pm
Cages are the absolute pits, in more senses than one, but there are animals of interest that will not usually be behind bars. Zebra and tortoise usually only need a low fence so you can snap creatures like that quite easily. But, watch out for emu, they are behind double-strength chickenwire for a reason (they bite)
November 22, 2007 09:58 am
Having a long lens is good for shooting through cages. I used a 135 f2 wide open sometimes to completely remove annoying cages and undesirable backgrounds.
November 22, 2007 07:58 am
I love to capture the look on my children's faces when we are at the Zoo. We are fortunate to have two large zoos in our area and we visit them often.
November 22, 2007 05:57 am
I had been thinking of doing this. Thanks for all the tips. I'm sure they will come in handy. I've got to get to the zoo now.
November 22, 2007 05:21 am
Shooting through cages - can't do it without manual focus (usually) :]
November 22, 2007 03:08 am
I visit my local zoo, not because I like to see animals in captivity, and often in enclosures that rob them of their dignity, but because it's a good place to hone skills.
My zoo doesn't have a huge variety, but I keep returning to hopefully capture an even better shot.
November 22, 2007 02:25 am
I have another tip: If you're living near a zoo, try to avoid the popular times (weekends, holidays, etc.) - the animals are much calmer when there are few people around.
November 22, 2007 12:34 am
Interesting you did not mention backgrounds. I always find backgrounds to be a major problem in zoo photography.
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