If you’re looking to increase your zoo photography skills, the following tips below will definitely put you on the right track.
Why would you want a zoo photography?
The first question you should answer when it comes to zoo photography is probably why would I want to shoot at the zoo? Zoo photographers are quite controversial; some see it as a great opportunity to photograph animals they wouldn’t otherwise be able to see up close, while others see it as “cheating.”
Many animal photo contests prohibit zoo photos, and submitting an image of an animal photographed in captivity as if it had been shot in the wild is in fact cheating.
But when it comes to personal work, zoos are of course an excellent opportunity to photograph animals that you would otherwise never see, let alone up close.
I also suspect that the reason many photographers cringe at the very idea of zoo photography is that they’ve seen it go wrong too many times. Capturing good zoo photos is a very different kind of challenge than shooting wildlife.
Zoo animals wait patiently (of course they can’t leave either…) and are willing subjects. Creating the image is about
dealing with the environment and isolating the animals from their not-so-natural environment.
Tips To Note About Zoo Photography
1. Choose a nice zoo
When it comes to animal photography, not all zoos are created equal. The types of animals can differ from zoo to zoo, but more importantly, the type of habitats the animals live in vary considerably.
To obtain natural-looking animal photos, safari parks are the most ideal. The disadvantage is that you usually drive
through with a large group of people at the same time. As a result, both the positions under which you can shoot and the time you can spend on them are not really under control.
More and more zoos are designed with open living spaces, where the enclosure is surrounded by lower walls so that you do not have to deal with bars and/or nets in front of your lens.
The disadvantage of this type of housing is that you often look down on the animal enclosure below. Because of this you only have a top view of the animals, which is quite limited and not the most flattering.
Enclosures surrounded by glass can provide close-up and fairly unobstructed views of animals, although reflections and glare can present some challenges. You can shoot through bars if you work with an open aperture (small number).
The type of housing the animals live in is important. Some zoos don’t build enclosures that look little like cages, but instead provide a beautiful, natural habitat for the animals to live in.
The better and more natural the habitat the animals live in, the better your chances of shooting natural looking wildlife
2. Come at the right time
Right after the zoo opens, the light is at its best and the animals are active, as they have just come out of their night
quarters. Moreover, you do not have to worry about the number of visitors. Of course, unlike most landscape photography, you are limited by opening and closing times.
If you find yourself stuck, shoot in the sun directly to the shady spots. In shelters with good tree cover, overhead light will not be so much of a problem.
Keep in mind that bright sunlight reflecting off bars and fencing makes it nearly impossible to shoot through.
Cloudy days are actually best to visit a zoo. With heavy clouds you no longer have to deal with hard, high-contrast light, and the crowds are often much less.
On cloudy days, reflections in, for example, glass walls also decrease. And you often have the advantage that the
temperatures are lower and in most cases animals are most active when it cools down.
Use a telephoto lens. This allows you to get closer to the animals. You really don’t need expensive equipment to take good zoo photos.
In general, the animals don’t move super fast and are in enclosures that are often designed for optimal visibility. That’s why you don’t need the same focal lengths as when shooting on the African Savannah.
However, long focal lengths and an open aperture (low number) offer a very clear advantage in zoo photography. These two options allow you to shoot with a shallow depth of field.
4. Pay attention to the background and foreground
Getting the subject right in the picture is of course the most important. But if there are fences in the background, the photo won’t be as beautiful as it should be. It also distracts you from the main subject; the animal. Its also better to take a picture of an animal in an almost looking natural environment instead of fences around it.
If the bars on the animals bother you, know that you can shoot through the bars. Place your lens hood against the bars so you don’t damage your lens, and take the largest possible aperture opening (small number). With this, the bar won’t be obvious in the picture.
It is important to note here that the animal should be far enough back in the room. When you have focused on the animal, the fence will fall outside the focus area. The smaller the depth of field, the shorter the distance between the animal and the fence will be so that the fence or bars do not come into sharp focus.
If the animal rests right against the front of the cage, this won’t work at all, of course, but I usually manage to get rid of wire mesh/bars or other fencing.
Finally, it’s also important to pay close attention to your shooting angle or perspective to get natural-looking photos of the zoo. Most animal shelters offer a variety of viewing positions.
Often a slightly changed position (eg a little more to the side) makes the difference between a good/natural photo and a photo that radiates ‘animal in captivity’. Shifting your position up or down can also make a big difference.
You can often photograph the animal with grass or sky as a background instead of a fence. This is another reason why using a zoom can be an advantage.
And sometimes tight cropping is really the only way to keep the photo from appearing to be obviously taken in a zoo.
5. Low depth of field
Use a low aperture number (open aperture) to get a blurred background. This makes the animal stand out well in the photo.
When the background becomes blurred, you can nicely hide a possibly less than realistic animal enclosure. Shallow depth of field is also important because it allows you to photograph an animal straight through the fence or enclosure.
When an animal is surrounded by screens, nets or bars, use your longest lens and widest aperture and focus on the animal. If the fencing is far enough out of the camera’s focus zone, it becomes “invisible” in your image.
Both the focal length and the aperture of your lens affect the depth of field.
The longer the focal length and the wider the aperture, the smaller the depth of field (you can consult an online depth-
of-field calculator to get an idea of how focal length, aperture, and background distance affect depth of field).
The smaller your depth of field, the greater the chance that you can keep the space out of focus while the animal is sharp.
6. Feeding time
Check the times when animals are fed in advance. At those moments the best action photos are up for grabs.
Another thing to consider is what kind of ‘behind the scenes’ tours and experiences your zoo might offer. This is often possible at an additional cost.
The experience and a direct encounter, plus photography opportunity with the animal of your choice often outweighs the extra costs. A side note is that there is sometimes a ban on photos that are used for commercial purposes.
7. Observe behavior, record movement
Take a look around before you start taking pictures. Take a good look at the area of the animal standing there. Look for the best place to stand for a photo. Study the behavior and wait for movement.
Animals also tend to be more active when the weather is a bit cooler. Halfway through the day on a sunny 30-degree summer day, you would probably only get images of animals sleeping in the sun. On a cloudy day they will be much more active.
Warmer winter days are also great for photographing active animals. It is then much more likely that animals display interesting activities and/or behavior, which is of course fun to photograph.
If you’re new to zoo photography, just getting a good portrait of an animal can be a challenge. Trying to find animals that are in good light, with a good angle available to photograph them which eliminates any indication that they are in a cage. In addition to also finding a way to photograph them through bars, screens, glass or other obstacles is already a lot of work. But once you’ve mastered the animal portrait photography skills, it’s time to start taking photos that accurately reflect the animal’s behavior.
Animal behavior is not limited to movement (although movement is already beautiful), but also includes proper head tilt, body position or wings, anything that makes an image more than just a close-up of an animal’s face.
Birds of prey and bird shows can be a good place to start recording behavior. The secret to recording animal behavior is patience. Find the animal that is well positioned (in terms of light and perspective capabilities) in a way that works for a good photo and wait patiently for the moment.
8. Don’t Flash
Never flash through a window. Doing so disturb the animals and your flash light does not reach your subject anyway, because it shatters on the window pane.
Many animal enclosures are enclosed in glass, allowing you to see the animal from a natural position up close. The downside of glass objects is that shooting through glass may be more difficult than it seems at first glance.
If the glass is particularly thick or dirty, your camera may have difficulty focusing via auto-focus and you may need to manually focus on the animal. Using the long focal length and large aperture mentioned earlier can also cause dirty glasses to become blurry.
But the biggest challenge of shooting through a glass is that it introduces reflections. You can use a polarizing filter to reduce these reflections. If you are going to shoot through glass, wear plain, dark clothing .
A dark T-shirt absorbs light instead of reflecting it back onto the glass in front of you and also significantly reduces
reflections and glare.
You can’t control what everyone wears, but if you wait for the girl in the hot pink t-shirt to pass by, your dark clothes won’t introduce new sparkles and reflections into your images. These tips for shooting through glass also work well in aquariums.
Own experiences and/or tips
Whatever your subject, style or choice of equipment, it’s always fun and educational to visit your local zoo and see if you can come home with some beautiful and unique photos this summer.
What do you think? Would you like to have a zoo photography session? Or the zoo is a place you would want to avoid as a photographer? Lets know in the comment section.