After a long winter, Spring has arrived and the annual bird migration will soon be underway. Not into birds? Go to the zoo!
Some may consider Zoos prisons for animals and wildlife photographers say it’s cheating. However, photographing animals at the Zoo can also be challenging and rewarding, and a great way to practice your skills.
Here are 11 tips to make your average zoo photos awesome.
The biggest challenge of getting better photos of Zoo animals is dealing with barriers. Many of the animals you encounter will be behind a fence, glass, or some other type of enclosure that will partially obstruct your shot. There are a few things you can do to get around this.
1. Get your lens close to, or directly onto, the fence.
If you’re using a phone or point-and-shoot camera, zoom in so that the fence is no longer noticable. The animal should be far enough away but close enough to get a clear shot. Basically, the closer you are to the fence, the less noticable the fence will be.
2. Camera settings: Use a large aperture (low number) setting on your lens.
By doing so, the light will wrap around fence, greatly diminishing it’s existence in your photo. Your subject should be in the middle section of the enclosure, not right up against the fence.
Be sure to use continuous shutter or burst mode, depending on your camera. This will allow you to take a series of photos at once, instead of snapping away one photo at a time. Especially if the animal is moving or doing something interesting, multiple frames will get you better chances for a good shot.
South African Penguin with 400mm lens
Penguin is a little closer, softer background
Penguin closeup with clean background
3. Use a long lens or zoom lens.
A long telephoto lens, such as a 400mm lens and low aperature will be able to “cut” out much of the fence and focus on the animal. Again, the best scenario will be when your subject is in the middle of the enclosure, not up close to a fence.
4. Look for a shady spot.
By doing so, any distracting reflections or glare from a metal fence will dissapear. You make need to increase your ISO – make sure it’s not too high in order to avoid excessive noise.
5. Pay attention to backgrounds and other distracting elements.
The animal may have a large metal water bowl or food tray – not exactly the look you want in your photo, unless the animal is doing something funny or interesting. Depending on the enclosure, be sure not to include signs, bright spots or other people. Using a large aperture will help get a blurry background.
Average shot of a tagged goose in an enclosure next to it’s water bowl
Closeup shot of the Egyptian Goose with blurred out pond in background.
6. Bring a walking stick or monopod.
This will help stabilize your shot, especially if you intend to record video or use a very long focal length. Many zoos do not allow tripods because they take up a lot of room and could be a safety concern to someone not paying attention – imagine that! Little kids may run into them over sheer excitement and you may inadvertently trip them with your tripod – whoops!
Another tip is to balance your lens or camera on a fence post or railing for extra support.
Bald Eagle in center of enclosure shot through fence – some remnants of fence appear in background.
Barred Owl up against wall shot through fence – would be better if it was also near center of enclosure.
Other tips to elevate your photos from the average to awesome:
7. Plan to arrive early.
Many animals are more active in the morning, during feeding time or anticipating what the day may bring. Lighting conditions are also more favorable in the morning by eliminating harsh sunlight.
Generally speaking, most people begin to arrive by mid-morning, especially when they have kids in tow. Some zoos may even offer special early morning viewing before they open to the public, usually for an additional fee.
8. Check for events.
If there is a special viewing of an animal on exhibit, get there early to get a good seat closeup to the action without too many obstructions.
9. Be patient.
When you approach an exhibit, the animal be appear to be resting but something may cause it to change it’s behavior soon after. The animal may get up, yawn, stretch, eat, roar, jump or stand to attention. It may just pick up it’s head and open it’s eyes. Anticipate these behaviors and improve your chances of getting a keeper.
Approaching the River Otter with eyes closed, enjoying the sun. OK, but not that exciting. Let’s see if anything changes…
Less than a minute later, he steps up and takes a giant yawn. With continuous shutter, got his paws lifting too. Very cute!
10. Check for good angles.
The sunlight, shade, distracting elements, background, distance and angles are all factors to consider. Ideally, the animal will be around the center of the exhibit at eye level in order to cut through the fence and harsh sunlight. You may need to change your position by getting down lower or perhaps moving further away or holding your camera higher for the right angle..
Afternoon light in fall. Tiger in middle of enclosure, shot through fence. Waited a few minutes to hear and see a very load ROAR!
11. Be aware of photo policies.
Most people just want to capture some good photos of zoo animals. However, if you plan to sell any of these images, be aware! Zoos own the rights to their animals – this is their property.
They will need to sign a property release form in order to allow you to use the photos commercially. There is usually a fee associated with the release. Think of it as photographing private property and getting it published on a magazine cover – you can get sued if you do not have the proper release forms.
Check the Zoo’s website FAQ’s, photo policies, Rules, or speak to the Public Relations office. A little hassle upfront will save you down the line!
It can be fun and rewarding to photograph animals at the Zoo. Get there early, use a wide aperature, get close to the fence and use a zoom lens for your best chances of getting keeper photos of Zoo animals.
What’s your favorite tip? Let us know in the comments below!