It may not seem like it, but zoos are great locations for photos. They present photographers with a huge variety of subjects (including plenty of animals and the people watching them).
That said, zoo photography isn’t without its challenges. If you want great shots at the zoo, you’ll need to overcome:
- Distance – Access to the animals is often very limited.
- Moving subjects – Animals rarely stay in one place for long!
- Tricky lighting – Indoor lighting, foliage, and enclosure roofs can cause problems.
- Cages and glass – Many zoos are improving how they contain their animals, but it’s still tough to shoot through cage materials and end up with a natural-looking result.
In this article, I explain how to handle each of these difficulties. I also share plenty of additional tips and tricks; that way, the next time you head to the zoo, you’ll be ready to capture pro-level photos of wildlife, birds, and even visitors.
Let’s get started.
1. Bring the right gear
To get great zoo photos, you’ll need to make careful gear choices. You won’t generally have the opportunity to get up close and personal with the animals, so a smartphone equipped with a standard wide-angle lens isn’t going to cut it.
Of course, your specific gear should depend on you and your preferences – do you want to capture more environmental shots, full-body shots, or even headshots? – but here are a few recommendations:
First, bring a DSLR or a mirrorless camera with decent autofocus capabilities. Animals tend to move around a lot, and it helps if you can track them from location to location. If your camera does a good job handling high-ISO levels, that’s even better.
You’ll also want to bring a longer prime or zoom lens. I’d recommend carrying a lens that extends to at least 200-300mm (bearing in mind sensor crop factors). A kit zoom, such as a 55-200mm unit, will work well, or you can take a more expensive 70-200mm f/4 or f/2.8 lens. That way, you’ll be able to capture detailed shots of the animals no matter their distance.
And if you have a macro lens, bring it along! It can be handy in a number of enclosures (such as a butterfly house).
Pro tip: Make sure you use your lens’s hood. It’ll help reduce or eliminate flare if you’re shooting into the sun, and it can also cut down on reflections when photographing through glass.
2. Include a key point of interest
Most beginners, upon arriving at the zoo, start snapping away – but if you spend time really thinking about your composition, you’ll get much better results. In particular, make sure to include a single clear point of interest, the thing that the viewer should focus on above all else.
So before you start photographing an animal, ask yourself: What is it about this creature that interests me? What drew me to this animal? Does it have great color? Is it in a humorous pose? Does it have interesting surroundings?
Then use the information to help you compose the shot. Make your point of focus the centerpiece of the composition, and try to eliminate all other areas that might detract from the scene.
3. Get in close
The closer you can get to your subject, the more emotional, intimate, and beautiful your final photos will turn out. You’ll also be able to capture more detail, which is generally a good thing!
So whenever you get the opportunity, move in close. With animals in cages, this can be a challenge, and you’ll generally need to zoom with your lens rather than your feet. But do try to get as physically close to the animals as possible – without breaking any zoo rules, of course! – and use your lens’s longer focal lengths to create a tight composition around the animal’s body or even face.
Also, take advantage of situations where you can get physically close to the animals. Some zoos, for instance, have open-air aviaries, which offer all sorts of opportunities for stunning close-up bird photos.
4. Focus on the eyes
This zoo photography tip is a quick one, but it’s absolutely critical:
Make sure your camera consistently focuses on the subject’s eyes.
The eyes are, as they say, the window to the soul. If the eyes are sharp, then nailing sharpness throughout the rest of the frame becomes much less important – but if the eyes are soft, then the whole image is (generally) ruined.
So do what you can to get the eyes in focus. If your camera offers Animal Eye AF, test it out and see how well it works. Otherwise, carefully position your camera’s AF point right over the animal’s eyes.
That way, you’ll create a far more personal connection between the subject and the viewer!
5. Get down low
The more intimacy you can include in your images, the better – and a great way to create a sense of intimacy and closeness is to get down on your subject’s level.
If you’re photographing a giraffe or a camel, you can shoot from a standing height, of course. But if you’re capturing penguins, wolves, or small monkeys, you’ll want to get down on your knees or even lie flat against the ground.
Pay attention to the people around you – you don’t want to create a traffic hazard! – but don’t be afraid to look a little silly or even get dirty. Getting down low may not feel too comfortable, but it’ll give your shots punch!
6. Work to eliminate reflections
Shooting through glass is a real challenge, and if you can avoid it, you definitely should.
However, shooting zoo subjects without glass can be tough sometimes (and even impossible), so it’s important to know how to manage reflections when the need arises.
First, get as close to the glass as you can. The closer you get, the more the reflections will disappear. Try pushing the lens hood right up against the glass pane; if that’s not an option, cover the area between the lens and the glass with your hand (or even a jacket).
Also, photograph in areas that are less scratched and dirty. Give the glass a quick wipe with a cloth (assuming it’s permitted).
Finally, if you can’t eliminate reflections, try to work with them. Take a few steps back and incorporate the reflections into the shot. Yes, it can be tough to get this right, but when done well, it can make for some amazing images!
7. Work to eliminate cage metal
There’s nothing worse than trying to shoot through the wire or bars of a cage. Unless you take a careful approach, the metal will show up and your images will lose any sense of authenticity.
So what do you do?
First, whenever possible, avoid cages completely or try to find a wider opening to shoot through (such as larger gaps around gates).
But if you can’t avoid the metal, get as close as you can, position your lens so it’s shooting through an opening, use a longer focal length, and wait until the animal moves back away from the cage.
Then, if you use a wide aperture (such as f/2.8 or f/4), the cage will blur away, and it often won’t be visible in the final image!
8. Photograph the people
Yes, zoos are technically all about animals. But if you want to create some unique photos, capture people, too!
For instance, you can capture babies interacting with animals through the glass, folks with their faces pressed up against the exhibit windows, and much more! Look for the interesting reactions people have as they view the animals, then snap away with your camera.
This is often a good strategy when you’re faced with huge bars or dirty glass. You might not be able to capture a sharp shot of the animal on its own, but if you take a step back, you can include both the animal and some people in the same composition.
9. Look for humorous situations
Animals do the funniest things. So spend some time carefully watching the enclosures with your camera to your eye.
Then, when the monkey points at you, the giraffe picks its nose with its tongue, or when an emu pokes its head through the cage to steal something out of someone’s bag, you can hit that shutter button and secure a memorable image!
(You might also consider setting your camera to its burst mode. It’ll give you the best chance of nailing a split-second moment.)
10. Keep your shutter speed high
Animals can move quickly, leading to image blur – unless you keep your shutter speed fast enough.
I’d recommend using a shutter speed of at least 1/250s when dealing with slow-moving animals, and you should boost this to 1/500s, 1/1000s, or even higher as you encounter action. (Small birds flying through the air, for instance, often require shutter speeds of 1/2000s and beyond.)
It often helps to switch to Shutter Priority mode, which will let you select your desired shutter speed while your camera chooses a reasonable aperture for a good exposure. You can also shoot in Aperture Priority, but you’ll need to widen your aperture or boost your ISO until your camera chooses the shutter speed you want.
11. Plan your day
I’m a fairly spontaneous person, but when it comes to zoo photography, I’ve learned that it’s worth thinking ahead.
As soon as you arrive, make sure you grab a map and identify the animals you wish to add to your shot list. (You can also do this in advance if you want to save time.) Make note of any publicized feeding times, which can make for great action shots. And if it’s an option, ask a zoo keeper when your favorite animals are more active.
Another good strategy is to head to the gift shop and take a quick look at the postcards and picture books. These can offer a little inspiration and a few handy zoo photography ideas, which are always useful to have.
12. Be patient
When photographing at zoos, you’ll occasionally stumble upon animals in the perfect pose…
…but more often than not, you’ll need to spend time waiting for the money shot.
So once you pick out the animals you want to photograph, give yourself plenty of time to camp out at their enclosures. If waiting frustrates you, take a deep breath, and tell yourself that it’s worth sticking around for a good image.
With enough patience, you’ll see the animals in a variety of positions and with different expressions. And you’ll often get the chance to capture interesting behavior and poses, which can really take your zoo photos to the next level.
13. Think about the context
One of the best things about zoo photography is that you can get relatively close to the animals, which is obviously difficult to do in the wild.
A key challenge, however, is that the environment isn’t natural. On many occasions, enclosures will include fake rocks and trees, and you’ll often end up with distracting artificial elements in the backgrounds and foregrounds (e.g., fences).
So whenever possible, try to adjust your angle until natural-looking elements are included, such as grass, trees, and flowers.
And whenever distractions do present themselves, try using wide apertures (such as f/2.8 or f/4) to narrow the depth of field and throw the foregrounds and backgrounds out of focus.
You can also try zooming in to avoid distractions – or, if that isn’t an option, cropping later when editing.
Zoo photography tips: final words
Well, there you have it:
13 tips to help you capture amazing zoo photos! Just do what you can to eliminate reflections and cage metal, make sure you focus on the animals’ eyes, carefully choose your compositions, and – above all – be patient. You’re bound to come away with some fantastic shots.
What animals do you plan to photograph on your next zoo visit? Which of these tips will you use? Share your thoughts in the comments below!