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How to Take Great Zoo Photos

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How to Take Great Zoo Photos
© Liz Masoner licensed to About.com, Inc.
While very few people get the chance to go on Safari or stalk Kodiak bears in Alaska, most anyone can go to a zoo. Because of this zoo photography is very popular. The zoo is a wonderful location to take images of exotic animals without high costs and in relative safety. Zoo photography also affords photographers a chance to get very close to wild animals for close up photography without a lot of equipment. If you keep a few basic techniques in mind you can make your zoo photos shine.

  • What to Bring
    When packing your photography gear for a day at the zoo you should keep in mind that you will probably be doing a lot of walking. Carrying a lot of heavy gear will make your day more tiring than rewarding. Some zoos also disallow the use of items such as tripods in order to discourage photographers from monopolizing the best viewing stations for long periods of time.

    • Suggested Equipment
    • Camera with zoom capability (if using a SLR/DSLR a 300mm lens is preferable)
    • Flash (with tilt head if possible)
    • Extra Batteries
    • Plenty of Film/Memory Cards
    • Camera Bag with Shoulder Straps

    Please note that camera phones are NOT well-suited for zoo photography.

  • Etiquette
    There are rules of behavior to follow when taking photographs at a zoo. Your behavior does not affect only you. How you behave reflects directly on every other person with a camera. If you make life miserable for the other visitors, staff, and animals you affect the ability of other photographers to enjoy the zoo later on. If you are polite, friendly, and considerate you help to ensure that photography at zoos will remain permitted and perhaps be expanded.

    • Zoo-Specific Rules of Behavior
    • Follow ALL Zoo Rules
    • Do Not Block the View of Other Visitors
    • Do Not Block Walkways or Roads
    • Do Not Cross Safety Barriers
    • Do Not Tease, Torment, or Otherwise Harrass the Animals

  • Safety
    Yes, I mentioned safety rules in the "Zoo-Specific Rules of Behavior" just prior to this topic. It bears repeating and expanding upon. Zoo animals are NOT housepets. They are not trained and tamed cuddly plush toys. The lion licking the glass in front of your face is not being cute, it is trying to find out if you taste good. Zoo rules are there to protect the animals and you. Never ever cross safety barriers. This includes sticking your camera lens through and over fences. The fun at getting and ultra-close-up shot of an ostrich is over when that bird uses its large beak to peck the camera lens or worse.

    I have personally witnessed two attempted animal attacks at zoos. In both cases, the glass saved the visitors from death. The first attempted attack was by a tiger who hit the shatterproof glass so hard that it visibly bowed outward. The second attempted attack was by a polar bear. The bear got a running start and pounced at a boy. Here again, the only thing that saved the visitor was the glass.

    These were two attacks with happy endings only because the animals could not get through the glass. In areas with bar cages or fences, there is still the possibility of an animal making contact with a human, often with tragic results. For your safety, PLEASE pay attention to zoo safety precautions and rules. Never forget, even for a moment, that these animals are very dangerous. When a visitor follows the safety rules zoos are a wonderful and safe family environment. When the rules are broken people can get hurt and killed.
Backgrounds
The biggest challenge for photographers at zoos is to avoid fences or fake-looking backgrounds. While a painted mural of the African Savannah may add a nice visual in person, it can ruin a beautiful animal portrait. There are three main ways to avoid "zoo backgrounds."
  • Shallow Depth of Field
    Using a shallow depth of field blurs the background so that it is a pleasing palette of color instead of distinct shapes. This helps create the illusion that your background is plant life instead of fences or murals.
  • Angle
    By shooting from a low or high angle you can minimize the amount of background in your image. If you can shoot from a high angle (like from an elevated viewing platform), you can usually limit your background to real grass. If you crouch low to the ground and shoot looking up you can often reduce your background to real trees and sky instead of fences.
  • Cropping
    Tightly framed and cropped portraits of animals minimize the amount of man-made structures that might make their way into an image. If you are shooting digitally, it is simple to leave a little extra room in your composition for cropping later. If you are shooting film you will have to be very careful that your tight crop does not accidentally cut off parts of the animal you intended to capture.
  • Glass
    When shooting through glass you run the risk of nasty glare and reflections. This glare can come from natural light, indoor lighting, and flashes. To combat glass glare you must pay attention to your angles. Glare and reflections from natural light or indoor lighting are relatively simple to avoid. If you see it while looking at the glass, step to the side a little until the reflection/glare is gone. With flash glare there is slightly more involved. Your flash on your camera is so close to the lens that it creates massive glare when fired. To combat this you need a flash with a tilt head to change the angle of the light striking the glass. Another way to combat flash glare is to use a diffuser on your flash and turn your camera at an angle to the glass.

  • Timing
    When should you go to the zoo to get the best images? Zoos offer a wide variety of species and many have changing exhibits throughout the year. Each season of the year will offer different photographic opportunities. In the spring there are tons of baby animals, in the summer the reptiles and birds are very active, and in the winter the cold-climate animals are at their best. More important than the time of year you visit is the time of day. Check your local zoo's feeding schedule. Animals are often very active just before feeding time and take naps directly after eating. Morning light is also very good for adding a golden glow to your images.
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