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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.

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Anne McKinnell
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.

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