Today we’re going to look at eight useful tips for photographing animals at the zoo. The first question we need to answer when it comes to zoo photography is probably “why would I want to photograph at the zoo?” Zoo photography tends to be fairly controversial among photographers. Some see it as a great opportunity to photograph animals they wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to see up close, while others consider it “cheating”. Many wildlife photography contests do ban zoo photographs, and passing off an image of an animal shot in captivity as an image taken in the wild is in fact cheating. But when it comes to personal work, zoos are a great opportunity to photograph animals you wouldn’t otherwise have access to.
I also suspect that the reason many photographers cringe at the idea of zoo photographs is that we’ve seen it done badly too many times. Capturing good zoo images is a different sort of challenge than photographing animals in the wild. Zoo animals are waiting and willing subjects, creating the image is about dealing with the surroundings and isolating the animals from their not-so-natural habitat.
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Choose the Right Zoo
I have three animal-loving kids, and any time we travel to a new city they want to check out the zoo. After visiting dozens of zoos over the years, it is very obvious that when it comes to photography, all zoos are not created equal. The types of animals can vary from zoo too zoo, but more importantly the types of habitats the animals live in vary significantly.
Safari-type zoo exhibits are the easiest to type to get natural looking animal photos. The downside is that you usually ride through the exhibit with a large group. Because of this both the shooting position and the time spent looking at the animals are not under your control.
More and more, zoos are designed with open exhibit types, where the enclosure is surrounded by lower walls and you don’t have bars and/or netting to contend with. The downside to this exhibit type is that they often (but not always) rely on elevation to help contain the animals. The enclosure sits lower than the viewing area, so the walls are waist high but the animal enclosure sits down below. This leaves you with an unobstructed but top down only view of the animals.
Zoo exhibits surrounded by glass may offer close up and fairly unobstructed animal views, although reflections and glare present their own challenges. We will look at how to deal with those challenges in a minute. Exhibits surrounded by bars may seem like a problem, but if the bars are widely spaced, you can likely shoot between them without much trouble.
My least favorite exhibit types to photograph are those surrounded by fencing, mesh, or narrow bars. While a fully fenced exhibit like this presents some serious challenges to photographers, it doesn’t mean that getting a good image is impossible. We will look at how to deal with this enclosure type later in the article.
The enclosure type matters significantly but so does the type of exhibit the animals live in. Many zoos create exhibits that bear little resemblance to cages, and instead provide a beautiful, natural habitat for the animals to live in. The better and more natural the habitat the animal lives in the more likely you are to be able to get a natural looking photograph of the animal.
Another thing to look into is what types of behind the scenes tours and experiences your zoo offers. Often available for an extra charge, you may find the experience worth the cost for a close encounter with an animal you want the opportunity to photograph. Also as a side note, while most zoos expect and encourage photography, there are often rules that prohibit (or require special permission for) images that are to be used for commercial purposes.
Use a Long Focal Length, and a Wide Aperture
You don’t need fancy (i.e. expensive) equipment to get good zoo images. As a general rule the animals are not moving super quickly and they are contained in an enclosure which is designed for optimum viewing. Because of this, you don’t need the same focal lengths you would need if you were photographing on the African Savanah. However, long focal lengths and wide apertures provide a very distinct advantage in zoo photography. They allow us to photograph with a narrow depth of field.
Shallow depth of field allows you to blur the background, possibly hiding a less than realistic animal enclosure. Shallow depth of field is also important in that it allows you to photograph an animal right through the fence or enclosure that is surrounding it. When an animal is surrounded by fencing, netting, or bars use your longest lens and your widest aperture and focus on the animal. If the fencing falls far enough out of the cameras zone of focus it will become “invisible” in your image.
Both the focal length and the aperture of your lens will affect the depth of field. The longer the focal length and the wider the aperture the shallower the depth of field. (You can check out an online depth of field calculator to get an idea of how focal length, aperture, and background distance affect depth of field). The more shallow your depth of field, the more likely you are to be able to keep the enclosure out of focus while the animal is in focus.
It’s important that the animal is far enough back in the enclosure that when you are focused on the animal the fence can fall outside of that focus area. The more shallow the depth of field, the less distance you need between the animal and the fence in order for the fence to be out of focus. If the animal is resting right up against the front of the cage, this won’t work at all, but I’m always surprised at how often I can photograph an animal through the cage without it being a problem.
As a side note, you may find that you need to manually focus your lens on the animal, as the cage in front can often confuse the cameras autofocus system.
Watch Your Background: Control Your Shooting Angle
The easiest (and most obvious) way to get good, natural looking zoo images is to control your shooting angle. Although it’s rare to have a full 360 degree view of an animal enclosure, most exhibits offer a variety of viewing positions and sometimes shifting to the side or changing positions just slightly can mean the difference between a good image and a photograph that screams “caged animal”. Shifting your shooting position up or down can make a big difference as well. Often you can photograph the animal with either grass or sky as the background rather than fence. This is another reason that using a zoom lens can be an advantage, sometimes the only way to keep the image from obviously appearing to be photographed in a zoo is to crop in tight on the animal.
Use a Polarizing Filter
Many zoo exhibits are enclosed in glass, allowing you to see the animal up close from a natural position. The downside to glass fronted exhibits is that shooting through glass may be tougher than it first appears. If the glass is especially thick or dirty your camera might have trouble autofocusing and you may need to manually focus on the animal. Using the long focal length and wide aperture we mentioned before can also help render dirty glass out of focus. But the biggest challenge glass presents by far, is that it introduces the possibility of glare and reflections.
You can use a polarizing filter to help cut down on unwanted reflections. Also, if you are going to be photographing through glass, wear plain, dark clothes. A dark t-shirt will absorb light, rather than reflecting it back onto the glass in front of you and significantly reduce reflections and glare. You can’t control what everyone else is wearing, but if you wait for the kid in the bright red t-shirt to walk by, your darker clothes won’t be introducing new glare and reflections into your images. These tips for photographing through glass work well at aquariums as well.
Consider the Time of Day (and the Weather) Carefully
Like most outdoor photography, photographing earlier and late in the day can lead to more pleasant light. Of course, unlike most landscape photography, you are limited by opening and closing hours. If you find yourself stuck photographing in direct sun head for the shady areas. In exhibits with good tree cover the overhead light won’t be as much of a problem. One thing to note is that bright sunlight reflecting off of bars and fencing can make them very difficult to photograph through.
Overcast days are some of the best to visit the zoo. With heavy cloud cover, not only will you not be dealing with harsh, high-contrast light, but crowds are often lighter as well. Cloudy overcast days often have the advantage of bringing cooler temperatures and in most cases animals are most active when the temperatures cool down.
Look for Gesture
When you start out photographing zoo animals, just getting a good portrait of an animal is enough of a challenge. Trying to find animals that are positioned in good light, with an available angle to photograph them that eliminates any indication that they are in a cage, and finding a way to photograph them through bars, fencing, glass, or other obstacles is a lot of work! But once you get down the animal “portrait” images, it’s time to start working on getting images with good gesture. Gesture isn’t limited to movement (although movement is great), it also includes the right head tilt, the positioning of the body, or the wings, anything that makes an image more than just a close up shot of an animal’s face. Free flying bird exhibits can be a good place to start capturing gesture. The secret to gesture is patience. Find the animal that is positioned in a way that works for a good photograph and wait.
Animals tend to be more active when the weather is a little cooler. Mid-day on a sunny, 90 degree sunny day and you will probably only get images of animals sleeping in the sun. But pick an overcast day when the temperature is in the 70s and the animals will all be much more active. Warmer winter days are also good for photographing active animals. The occasional 50 degree day in the middle of a 30 degree winter will have everyone out enjoying the (relative) warmth. And active animals are much more likely to provide interesting activity and gesture for you to photograph.
The easiest way to come home with good animal photographs is to be flexible with which animals you intend to photograph. You will likely walk past a monkey playing adorably, which would make a perfect image if it wasn’t positioned right up against the bars of its cage. The lion will be sleeping half in sunlight, half in shadow with the harsh light and extreme dynamic range ruining an otherwise good shot. The elephant would be perfect if it wasn’t for that bright red fence in the background. And the penguins are active as they play in front of fake rocks and a brightly painted mural.
Eventually, though, you’ll find the animals where everything lines up to make a great image. But if you arrived determined to get the perfect shot of the elephant (or the monkey, or the lion, or the penguins) that day you’re going to leave disappointed. In most zoos there are some enclosures that will just never lend themselves to a good zoo photograph. If it is an animal you really want to photograph you might be better off trying another zoo. Every zoo will have enclosures that are harder to get a good photograph in than others. If that’s the case, and it’s an animal you desperately want to photograph, you can choose to be patient and wait until all of the elements line up to make a great image.
In most cases though, the best way to approach zoo photography is to remain flexible. Make your goal to come home with a few good animal photographs rather than to dictate which animals. If you remain flexible you will find, with practice, that you are able to quickly walk by the animals that just won’t make good photographs that day, instead spending your time on the enclosures where all of the elements line up to make a good image.
Think Beyond the Animals
So far in this article I have assumed that the goal of photographing in a zoo is to get good, natural looking animal images. But this isn’t the only way to photograph a zoo. Zoos are filled with interesting people, and turning your camera on the observers may make for interesting and unique images. Maybe instead of photographing animals in a way that makes them appear “wild” you want to photograph the story of their captivity. Many zoos have interesting plants and foliage, or interesting objects and exhibits that make for good photographs. And photographing detail shots, textures, or abstract images (of the animals, or otherwise) would be an interesting self-assignment while photographing at a zoo.
I went a year where I challenged myself to photograph at zoos using only the Fuji x100 series camera, with its built in 23mm lens. This is pretty much the opposite of how I would normally approach zoo photography, but it forced me to look past the images I would normally make, the ones that required a telephoto lens, and to find completely different, unique images.
Whatever your subject, or style, or equipment choices, I encourage you to check out your local zoo and see if you can come home with some beautiful and unique photographs this summer. What do you think? Is the zoo somewhere you enjoy photographing, or is it somewhere you generally avoid as too cliché? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!