7 Tips for Photographing at the Zoo

7 Tips for Photographing at the Zoo

Zoos … love ’em or hate ’em?

I think it depends on the zoo. I much prefer open range zoos where the animals have tons of space to roam around and live almost as they would in the wild. I can’t stand to see animals in cages especially when they pace back and forth in frustration. But zoos do play an essential role in conservation and education.

When it comes to photographing at the zoo it’s easy to get distracted by the sheer joy of seeing the animals and forget everything we have learned about photography. Try to remember that all the rules of good composition still apply such as balance, the rule of thirds and, most importantly, no cluttered (or unnatural looking) backgrounds.

Here are some tips for your next zoo visit:

1. Choose the right zoo

The type of zoo you choose makes all the difference to your photography (and to the animals). Zoos with large open areas for the animals to roam tend to make better photographs because the images look more natural when you cannot see any fences.

Giraffes by Anne McKinnell

Giraffes at The Living Desert, Palm Springs, California.

2. Wait for a special moment

When the animals are right there in front of you don’t just snap away because you can. When you have this opportunity to be so close to them try to be patient and wait for a special moment to make a unique image.

Baby Elephant by Anne McKinnell

Baby Elephant at the San Diego Safari Park, California.

3. Dealing with fences and rails

Tufted Capuchin by Anne McKinnell

Tufted Capuchin at the San Diego Zoo, California.

If you are at the kind of zoo with fences, you can use a wide aperture to reduce the depth of field which should make any fences out-of-focus.

This is easier to achieve if there is greater distance between the animal and the fence.

It is also easier to make the fence disappear if it does not have direct light on it. Find a portion of the fence that is in the shade if it is in front of or behind your subject.

When I made this image of a monkey there was netting both between me and the monkey and behind the monkey. With a 400mm lens at f/5.6 only the monkey is in focus.

4. When to go

If it’s a hot day the animals will often be in the shade where they are more difficult to photograph. Try to go as soon as the zoo opens in the morning when it’s cooler and the animals are more active. You will find fewer people and more animals in the morning.

Overcast days are great for the zoo! Just keep the sky out of your image and enjoy the soft light with no harsh shadows.

If it is a bright sunny day you can use a polarizing filter to remove glare from the animal’s skin or fur.

5. Don’t forget the butterfly zoo

Butterfly by Anne McKinnell.

Butterfly at Butterfly Gardens, Victoria, British Columbia.

One of my favourite types of zoo is a butterfly zoo.

One thing to remember about a butterfly zoo is that they are very hot inside. If you live in a cold country like I do and you visit in winter remember that your lens will need to make the transition to the warmer climate. When your lens is exposed to the warm humid air condensation will form and it might take awhile for it to go away.

One way to deal with this is to go in the restroom and put your lens under the warm air from the hand dryer for awhile to warm it up before you go inside.

Another option is to put your camera and lens in a ziplock bag before you enter and then let it acclimate inside the bag. It will take about 20 minutes before you will be able to take your camera out of the bag without condensation appearing. I prefer the hand dryer method!

Butterfly zoos tend to have beautiful light and often there are more than just butterflies. At Butterfly Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia, there are a number of birds as well and the light does wonders for the colour of the flamingos.

Caribbean Flamingo by Anne McKinnell

Caribbean Flamingo at Butterfly Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia.

6. Equipment

Baby Bear by Anne McKinnell

Baby Bear at Bear Country, Rapid City, South Dakota.

You probably won’t need a huge lens because you can usually get fairly close to the animals in a zoo. I find most of my zoo images have a focal length between 100mm and 300mm.

As far as a tripod goes, I think this is one occasion when it’s perfectly okay leave your tripod at home.

The animals are moving so you are going to need a fast shutter speed anyway. Use at least 1/500 second shutter speed and image stabilization.

When I go to a zoo I usually take my camera with only one lens and a polarizing filter. That’s it! It makes it much easier to move around to get the right angle and you’ll have less to carry on a long hot day.

7. Focus

Snow Leopard Kitten by Anne McKinnell.

Snow Leopard Kitten at Westcoast Game Park, Bandon, Oregon.

Always focus on the eyes.

When you are using a shallow depth of field to remove background distractions part of your animal may be out-of-focus too.

That’s okay as long as the eyes are in focus.

In this image I made of a snow leopard kitten, with a 300mm lens and an aperture of f/5.6, only the nose and eyes are sharp.

Zoos provide both opportunities and challenges for photographers. I hope these tips help you make better images during your next zoo visit.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Anne McKinnell is a photographer, writer and nomad. She lives in an RV and travels around North America photographing beautiful places and writing about travel, photography, and how changing your life is not as scary as it seems. You can read about her adventures on her blog and be sure to check out her free photography eBooks.

Some Older Comments

  • Rob Bixby March 16, 2013 09:48 pm

    To expand on Jerry's comment. Look for the animals reacting to the people too. The link below makes me think the lioness is trying to decide "Hmmm, snack pack, or full meal".


  • JERRY SCHNEIR March 16, 2013 04:43 pm

    One thing you for got, taking pictures of the people as they view the animals. Kids tend to be great subjects at the zoo. With a bit of careful placement you can often get the kid and the animal they are imitating in the same frame

  • andrea March 6, 2013 01:11 am

    Another thing to remember is that many lenses have a minimum focusing distance switch ~ use this to keep your camera from trying to focus on the fence, rather than the animal you're shooting.

  • Tasha March 5, 2013 10:29 pm

    Great tipps, I love shooting at the zoo. If you like have a look at my polar bears, hippos, and penguins from the zoo in Hanover.

  • Anne McKinnell March 4, 2013 05:11 am

    Hi Hagit,
    To create the shallow depth of field you need for this kind of effect use as wide an aperture as you can. Set your aperture to f/4 or f/5.6 or as low as number as your lens will allow (low number = larger aperture opening). To get the focus just right, I like to set my auto focus to "spot focus" instead of having many focus points. You might need to check in your camera manual to see how to do that on your camera. I like to have the spot focus in the centre of the frame. Then what I do is focus on the animal's eye by holding the shutter half way down then, while holding the shutter half way down, recompose the image. I hope that helps!

  • Hagit March 3, 2013 01:21 pm

    Great article, thank you! Can you advise on how you get that focus on the animal's eyes, in terms of the camera setting? I love that effect, but I always get the whole object focused with the background blurry, rather than just the eyes, and I'm never sure how to achieve the effect in the leopard picture. Thanks!

  • Anne McKinnell March 3, 2013 03:50 am

    Thank you all for your kind comments. I'm glad you found the article helpful!

    @Valerie Yes I remember all the donkeys and goats just wandering around with the people. The Bandon Game Park is a great place.

    @Regan You cannot sell images you make at a zoo for commercial purposes. But you can use them for editorial purposes as I have done in this article.

    @Edgar Overcast days are also great for photographing close-ups or anything that doesn't include the sky. I particularly like photographing flowers on days when there are no shadows.

    @Preshi Tip #3 is all about photographing through cages. Use a wide aperture, make sure there is distance between the animal and the cage, and no direct light on the cage. If you are using a telephoto lens as in tip #6 and a wide aperture you should not see the cage in your images.

    @Mervin I personally don't find tripods are helpful at the zoo because you will always need a fast shutter speed for photographing animals unless they are completely still (which they never are). Also I have never been in a zoo that allows flash. Maybe they are out there and I haven't been to those ones. I just increase the ISO so I can get the shutter speed and aperture I need.

  • Umaramanath March 2, 2013 07:54 pm

    simple and informative, thanks

  • Rob B March 2, 2013 05:01 pm

    Preshi, the easiest way to shoot through cages is, manual focus, open the aperture as wide as possible, and use a fairly long zoom. This will narrow down you depth of field and allow you to eliminate the cage/fence. Going back to tip #7, focus on the eyes.

  • Guigphotography March 2, 2013 07:13 am

    The zoo is definitely one of my favourite haunts with the camera. The tip about patience is so valuable!

  • amir paz March 2, 2013 02:28 am

    nice post

    i love going to the zoo, its a half hour drive, i try to make pictures look as natural as much as possibe

    as if they were shot in the wild:


    or i try to make interesting close up portraits:



    the last one was shot through a glass window


  • Mervin McDougall March 2, 2013 12:41 am

    Zoos are always a wonderful, challenging experience. It is one thing to deal with animals which are accessible in open pens outside. But, I also find it challenging to shoot inside in areas where flash are not allowed.

    For example, I have had a wonderful time shooting animals like ocelots, sand cats or fennec foxes. I still have not gotten the image I want but I still pursue the opportunity to get that shot. Those are the times, I have found that tripods are a must because no matter how wide you can open your aperture, it will never be wide enough for these artificial habitats.

  • Preshi March 1, 2013 11:22 pm

    Nice article. Appreciate more if there were tips to photograph through the cage

  • DP Upadhyay March 1, 2013 09:23 pm

    Very good, useful and practial tips. Thank you.

  • Amy March 1, 2013 05:56 pm

    I love photographing animals! Anything I don't have to pose is awesome :D Here are some pictures I took recently at the San Antonio Zoo


  • KQureshi March 1, 2013 04:39 pm

    Your tips are very good. I'll keep in mind next time I'll visit Islamabad or Lahore zoo.


  • Scott Ebright March 1, 2013 03:29 pm

    Let me embellish on Rob's comment about putting your lens hood right on the glass. I use rubber lens hoods when I am at the zoo shooting through glass. Their main benefit is flexibility. Rarely do animals stand right in front of you so with a rubber hood, you can tilt the camera toward your subject and place the rubber tight against the glass, knocking out any reflection

  • Jaffer Bhimji March 1, 2013 11:55 am

    Some great tips here for zoo photography with nice examples of images - thank you!

  • Rob Bixby March 1, 2013 11:06 am

    By using a longer lens and wide open aperture, you eliminate a lot of fencing or smudges on glass. When shooting through glass, try to put the lens hood against the glass, or make sure you shade the glass in front of the lens to avoid glare. Another advantage of shooting when the zoo first opens is the lack of noise. If nobody else is around, and you make a sound, the animals are more likely to react to you. After it gets busy, they tune it all out and you have to rely more on luck to get that eye contact.

  • pingpaul March 1, 2013 09:05 am

    For the 300 mm, it seems easier to use a monopod. It can double as a walking stick as you plod the paths.

  • Jeff E Jensen March 1, 2013 08:35 am

    Some great tips, I can't wait to get back to the zoo this summer. While visiting Washington DC last summer, I had the opportunity to visit the butterfly exhibit at the Museum of Natural History. Absolutely amazing!


  • David Colton March 1, 2013 06:56 am

    Wonderful article. Thanks. We'll be visiting Toronto in May. One of it's many draws for us is the Toronto Zoo, the largest zoo (number of species) in the world.

  • Richard Crowe March 1, 2013 04:54 am

    The lens that you use depends on the environment in which the animals are housed. I find that a tele zoom lens from 70-200mm on a crop camera, perhaps with the addition of a tele extender is a good choice for many zoo enclosures. I use a monopod because it is easy for me to carry the camera and long lens over ny shoulder with the monopod. A 100-400mm on a full frame camera would also be good.

    Having a long focal length will often allow me to keep the evidence of the enclosure out of view. As mentioned, a long focal length will allow shooting through bars or mesh enclosures with no obvious sign of the mesh or bars. I don't usually do this however.

    Shooting trough Plexiglass windows can be problematic beause of color balance and reflections. I always whoot in raw and try to get my lens hood (I always shoot with a hood) right next to the glass to avoid reflections.

    Additionally fill-flash will often open up shadows but, ensure that the flash is not detrimental to the animals. Never use flash when shooting through Plexiglass or through bars or mesh cages.

    Visiting zoos on weekdays will be better for shooting beause of fewer zoo visitors.

    Don't try to cover the entire zoo. It is better, IMO, to have fewer good shots, which you have waited for, than to have a collection of snapshots.

    You "can" do zoo photography while taking your kiddies just as you "can" boil ice cubes to make a cup of tea. It's just not an efficient way of brewing tea or getting zoo pictures.

  • desi Traveler March 1, 2013 03:55 am

    Very useful tips...need to try some of them.

  • Datta Ambekar March 1, 2013 03:20 am

    Thanks sir
    Very useful

  • Kevin February 28, 2013 02:37 pm

    Just waiting for that perfect moment makes all the difference.

  • Edgar Arias February 28, 2013 12:32 pm

    I found tip #4 very useful as I usually dismiss overcast days for shooting outside...Great Article!

  • Scottc February 28, 2013 09:16 am

    These are great tips, I think #5 is very overlooked!


  • Regan February 28, 2013 05:11 am

    Good information for all. In the USA, check the fine print on your tickets if you're planning to use your pix for anything but personal enjoyment. For example, as a condition of entry at the San Diego Zoo, any photos you post online can be used by the SD Zoo Society in their publications, and you can't sell any photos of their facilities/animals without their prior permission. It's like attending a pro sports event. You can find conversation threads on this in Flickr and other photo sites.

  • John Davenport February 28, 2013 03:51 am

    Great article on zoo photography - I wish the zoos here in New England were open range and less crowded - the animals always look so sad here.

  • Martha February 28, 2013 03:32 am

    Thank you for this wonderfully informative article. The advice will come in handy the next time I visit the zoo. And the images you have posted are beautiful!

  • valerie February 28, 2013 03:22 am

    It was nice to see a photo from the West Coast Game Pak in Bandon, Oregon. I live about 20 miles from it and it has been a wonderful place to go for great animal photos. It is also one of the few places you can play with lions, tigers, snow leopards or whichever kittens they have at the time. There is actually a fenced off area which visitors can enter to be with the kittens under close supervision. Many of the non-dangerous species just wander the compound free with the guests. (Watch your step!) Another favorite in this part of the world is the Great Cats World Park near Cave Junction, Oregon. They have nearly every species of cat on display in one place! It is fantastic!

  • Barry E. Warren February 28, 2013 02:55 am

    Thanks for the tips on The Zoo. as soon as the weather gets better here in Pennsylvania I plan on going to the zoo.

  • Mridula February 28, 2013 02:48 am

    I so much identify with this post. I once had the opportunity to visit the Kuala Lumpur Bird Park and it was so easy to photograph birds. But I always had this nagging doubt if the birds were peaceful there. I think I know partially now as they had many open areas. Here is a post on them.


  • Marlo Casabar February 28, 2013 02:05 am

    Thanks for the great tips. My son and I just went to the Fort Worth Zoo last weekend. I agree with all of your wonderful comments. Here are a couple of dyptichs I made from the visit.


    My son in contrast with Rhino