Zoo photography tips

Photographing animals in their natural habitat, either in your own country or overseas is a wonderful experience, but it’s not something we’re always able to do – especially when the species is more exotic, writes Andrew James. 

I realise that zoos aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s also important to remember that in many cases they are doing vital breeding work that is literally helping to save or at least maintain, the viability of species that are endangered in the wild.

We have some excellent zoo photographers in the Foto-Buzz fold, and I doff my cap to those of you who consistently get great results of captive animals because it’s not easy! In fact, getting successful zoo shots takes real patience and some solid technique. But if it’s been a while since you visited a zoo and think maybe that it would be a good day out with your camera, here are my top tips for making a successful day of it.

The adult elephants provided an excellent backdrop for the calf by hiding the surrounding fence.

1 If you are new to a specific zoo, take a walk around first and leave the camera in your bag. This is simply to get a sense of what the opportunities are, which animals are active, and where the best enclosures are. If you turn up and spend half the day shooting the first few enclosures you come across, you might well be missing out on better shots somewhere else.

2 Patience really is a virtue. Just because the tigers are snoozing in the shade of a warm and sunny Summer morning, it doesn’t mean they’ll stay asleep – although Sod’s Law dictates they might! While I’m advocating getting a feel for your surroundings in tip 1, I also suggest you don’t rush from place to place but spend a bit of time observing and waiting for animals to be active. Checking out any potential feeding times can also help.

All was quiet in this wolf enclosure – until feeding time! Even then it took a while for the action to kick off and I nearly missed this interaction.

3 As a rule you’re going to need a telephoto lens. I’m not saying there are NEVER opportunities for wider focal lengths but let’s be honest, they’re not going to let you in the lion enclosure, therefore you will be shooting at a distance. Plus of course, a telephoto’s narrow field-of-view is going to be a big help when it comes to isolating the subject from unwanted elements, such as fences. Depending on the zoo and the species, focal lengths from 200mm upwards are the order of the day. The faster the lens, the better too. If your lens opens up to f/4 or better still, f/2.8, there may be some creative shallow aperture you can do that will also help to further isolate your subject.

4 Don’t switch off! If you are at an enclosure and nothing appears to be happening, it’s easy to switch your brain off, but if your sole purpose of visiting the zoo is to get great shots, then stay alert. Stop checking your Instagram account for new likes and don’t keep posing for selfies with a sleeping lion in the background. Watch and keep your camera to hand because things can change in an instant. A big part of wildlife photography is anticipation. It’s not what’s happening now that matters, it’s what might happen next. Are you ready for it?

A simple shot of a Cossacks fox, but to get it I waited until this one moved into the most natural area of the enclosure.

5 Camera settings. Keep it simple is my motto here. Shoot in Aperture-priority, select an aperture for the situation and see what shutter speed you get. Remember, if you’re doing fairly static portraits then it’s okay to have a slower shutter speed but if your subject then moves and does something unpredictable, you’ll need a faster one. This is when ramping up ISO is going to give you a better shutter speed. I’ll usually shoot at ISO 800 as a minimum, even on a sunny day. Always try to have a faster shutter speed than you need – in case of the unexpected! In terms of focusing – it has to be Continuous AF and as a rule, for really accurate focusing then a single Active AF is all you are going to need. Your central point will be the fastest so that a good one to use. It’ll force you into a central composition but it’s easy to crop afterwards. Of course, I’d also advocate moving your AF points around too, so you have to crop less. The aperture choice is somewhat dependent on what you’re shooting and what’s in the background, as well as whether you are shooting through fencing. If you are shooting through fencing, then get the front of the lens as close as you can and shoot at f/4 or f/5.6 to minimise its effect on the image. Make sure the main part of the front of the lens is in the open part of the mesh too.

6 I’ve often read suggestions to try and make the shots of your zoo images look ‘wild’. To date, I don’t think I have ever properly achieved this aim, but I do think I’ve managed to get shots that look natural. By this I mean, the framing avoids obvious manmade, zoo-like structures. I’m not trying to get shots that look as if the animal is in the wild, I just want them to look okay. There are several tricks you can employ for this. Firstly, obviously a tighter crop is always going to help but isn’t always desirable. Even within an enclosure there will be good areas and bad areas. Use your lens to hunt around for the good backdrops that look better and avoid fences. If your animal gets close to that zone, get the camera to your eye. Another option is to ‘shoot through’ other vegetation. It’s not always possible but when it is, it can hide a multitude of sins.

A tree on my side of the enclosure gave me a perfect opportunity to frame this lowland gorilla with out-of-focus vegetation for a natural look.
Sheltering behind the shrubs in its enclosure, there was just one line of sight for this shot. Can you guess what it is?

Finally, always keep your eye out for something different. While it is hard to create photography that’s a bit different from what everyone with a long lens is shooting, sometimes an opportunity will strike. When you get it, make sure you take advantage.

Published in Camera Skills
  1. Now there’s a thought – not been to a zoo for ages and I need something different for my photo a day project.
    No idea what your mystery animal is, Wolf or brown bear?

  2. Having been to a zoo today, it’s worth remembering that white balance can be an issue. It particularly arises for animals like tortoises or snakes under warm lights. I almost wished I’d taken a grey card with me.
    And getting down to eye level with the animal when looking through glass means you’re at the same level as a young child’s greasy fingerprints!

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