Wildlife photographers are a dedicated bunch. They spend money to travel to exotic places, brave miserable conditions, deal with whatever light conditions are present at the time and then sometimes don’t even see the animals they came to photograph. Pandas in China, tigers in India, lions on the Serengeti, polar bears in the frozen Yukon or maybe gorillas in the Congo. You could spend a lifetime photographing wild animals in their native lands.
Or, you could take a cue from Simon and Garfunkel –
“Someone told me it’s all happening at the Zoo”
– “At the Zoo” – Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel
I’ll grant you, photographing a lion in the zoo doesn’t have the same thrill as being on safari. If you have the time and the money to do such things, by all means, go for it. For many of us though, the zoo offers a chance to photograph animals we’d never see otherwise and, using the tips we’re about to cover, you can still make some very nice images. You don’t have to tell your friends where you took them, right?
In the bush, the challenges of photographing wildlife are likely finding the animal you’re seeking and, depending on the species, perhaps trying not to get eaten. At the zoo, there are cages, glass or at least barriers designed to separate you and the creatures. Safer, yes, but also a little frustrating when you’re trying to make a nice photo.
Let’s look at some workarounds for zoo photography.
Zoos are getting better at designing structures so that the animals aren’t always behind bars or chainlink fences, but sometimes you will still have to deal with this. If the animal is up close to the fence, you might have no choice but to include it in the shot.
But, if you can wait until the beast moves further away from the barrier, this trick can work. Get close to the fence if you can, then use a wide aperture. Zoom into and focus on the animal. You may find that the limited depth of field pretty much renders the fence as a blur, barely showing up at all. Often you can clean up what remains of the fence or bars when editing.
Sometimes the barrier between you and the animal will be glass. You’ll have to deal with grime, scratches, and reflections. Carry a cloth in your bag when you go to the zoo and clean a spot on the glass where you’ll be shooting. Get as close to the glass as you can, again with a wide aperture to help blur any scratches. If reflections are a problem, consider throwing a jacket or cloth over your head or perhaps just the camera to help eliminate them. Later in editing, the dehaze tool can be your friend with photos made through glass.
Many times I’m glad there’s some distance between the animal I’m photographing and I. (The Komodo dragon was a scary guy for sure!). The difficulty becomes making the animal in your photo more than just a speck in the shot.
You’ll have even more difficulty with this if you’re visiting a wild animal park where instead of the animals being in smaller cages or enclosures, they roam a wide area, and you drive through the park on a tour bus. There’s only one solution here – longer telephoto lenses.
More about lenses in a bit, just know that to get those nice portrait shots, you’re often going to need some bigger glass.
Though you’ll be photographing animals at the zoo, you’d prefer to have your images look like they were taken in the wild. Your story about photographing zebra on the Serengeti plains will fall apart if there’s an obvious chainlink fence in the background. So, a couple of possible options here:
- Fill the frame with the animal, including as little of the background as possible in the shot.
- Zoom in and use a wide aperture so the background blurs.
- Consider your vantage point when composing your shot. Could you move a little to put natural vegetation, rocks, or something not manmade in the background to better simulate the animals’ natural habitat?
A photo of a lion just standing there might be okay, but a shot of a lion roaring…that’s the one you’d like. Images that capture animal behavior are the prize winners. The difference is waiting for the moment. Waiting, waiting, and perhaps waiting some more.
Perhaps you’re not up to being another Dian Fossey living with the mountain gorillas so you can get that unique photo.
Or there’s Guido Sterkendries, who spends weeks in the stifling heat of the Brazilian rainforest on a perch in the treetops to photograph poison dart frogs.
But, rather than just taking the minute or so the average zoo visitor views each exhibit, you might have to wait, watch, and be ready when the animal does something interesting. Also, watch for animal interactions and make photos that tell a story.
Set up, be ready, and perhaps have continuous mode and servo-focus activated. Then, when it happens and the subject does that intriguing behavior, fire off a burst of shots to guarantee you’ve got that one really great shot.
After all, would you rather go home with a boring photo of every animal in the zoo or just one superb shot of one animal engaging in some really interesting behavior?
When to go
Sometimes you get to a particular animal exhibit at the zoo and the animal is nowhere to be seen. Or maybe he’s over in the corner, zonked out and sleeping – hardly a great photo subject.
Often the trick is to go early in the morning or late in the afternoon when it’s cooler, and the animals are apt to be more active.
Photographers are also quite familiar with the “golden hour.” Not only will the light be better during these times, but the animal’s up, about, and ready for their closeup. Feeding time can also provide some action.
If you can, talk with the zookeepers to find out the best time to come, especially if you have your sights set on shots of particular animals. They will be a great source of information.
Sometimes the action at the zoo can be on the other side of the cages, the antics of people reacting to or aping for the animals. Keep an eye out for these kinds of behaviors too. Sometimes people are the funniest animals.